Cory Doctorow: Improving Book Publicity in the 21st Century

I’m not complaining when I say that YA book-tours are a death march. I relish the chance to go on the road, and I’m profoundly grateful to my publisher, Tor, for sending me out with my books – in February, I hit 23 cities in 25 days with my novel Homeland, and in most cities, I did multiple school presentations as well as press stops and then a public event, usually in the evening. All this is rather tiring, but it’s the exhaustion that comes from a job well done. Harder to deal with – for me, at least – is explaining to friends that while I’m coming to their hometowns for a visit, it’s a flying visit, skipping over the city’s surface like a spinning stone, lucky to come to rest long enough for a sit-down meal, let alone a proper round of socializing.

But a few lucky times, I was able to score a few free minutes for a meal or a conversation with friends, and the number-one-champion frequently-asked-question they asked me was, ‘‘How is the book doing?’’

The honest answer to this is, ‘‘We’ll know in two to six months.’’ I mean, yes, Homeland was on the NYT bestseller list for four weeks, on the Indiebound bestseller list for three, and still carries a satisfyingly high Amazon salesrank, but none of this tells you anything particularly useful. Indiebound and BookSense tell publishers a bit about where books are selling, but compared to Internet businesses, publishers are almost entirely in the dark about their books. Even e-book reporting is frustratingly opaque: e-book retailers know which sites refer customers to their purchase pages, know those readers’ demographics and other purchases, understand which search terms direct the most traffic, and which subset of those terms generates the most sales. Publishers get little to none of this data. If I was negotiating with Amazon, Apple, Google, and Kobo, my top request would be realtime access to anonymized aggregate data from these services.

So publishing has a long way to go on the retail side. But there’s also lots that can be done before the books ever go on sale, in the world of sales, marketing, and PR to make things more efficient and streamlined.

I am in a curious position because I’m a writer, a publisher, a reviewer, and a bookseller, so I get hit up for blurbs, for sales, for reviews, and for books, by various publishers all over the world. Many of these publishers are separate divisions of the same company, but one thing that is abundantly clear is that none of the different departments are coordinating with one another. Most contemporary sales, marketing, and PR organizations outside of publishing use some kind of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software to coordinate their activities. Fundamentally, these are just databases that record all the different interactions that the company has with the people with whom it does business.

With a simple CRM system, a publisher’s various departments could record:

which books each reviewer has reviewed,
which books each reviewer was sent but did not review,
which reviewers’ stuff has been useful enough to pull for a quote on the cover of a book,
which people have been approached to blurb a book,
which reviewers review which categories of books.

But also, for each book and author:

who reviewed that book or author,
who was sent a copy of the author’s book and didn’t review it,
who blurbed that author’s books.

Right now, this stuff all lives in separate word-processing files and spreadsheets in different departments’ hands, which results in all sorts of bizarre occurrences that I see firsthand.

There’s the trilogy whose first volume I blurbed, and whose first two volumes I glowingly reviewed – and I sold a ton of each. The publisher didn’t send me book three for review, even though it had a quote of mine on the front cover, the back cover, and the jacket-flap. They didn’t even tell me it was out – by the time I saw it in a store, it had been out for a month, and my review showed up weeks after the book’s publicity push was over.

I know how that happened: the cover quotes came from editorial and were sent to marketing, which had them in a word-processing document. When PR brainstormed people to send review copies to, they forgot to include me, so it fell through the cracks.

There’s the graphic novel series, now in up to something like 17 volumes. I’ve given every book a positive review, and all the new volumes have quotes from me on the cover. I never get review copies of this one – I don’t even get a notice from the PR department when a new volume is out. But the same PR department has sent me something like nine volumes of another series, none of which I’ve ever reviewed. If I don’t review book one, that means I either didn’t like it, or didn’t even bother with it because it looked so unpromising. Having skipped book one, you can be certain I won’t review book two. This same publisher sends me mountains of single-issue comics, even though I’ve never reviewed one of those.

There are publishers who send me everything, mountains of books, none of them remotely appropriate to me.

All of this breaks my heart. I get literally 100 times more review material than I could possibly read, and almost all of it ends up at my local literacy charity, which is nice for them, but a terrible waste for the publishers. After all, I live in the UK, and almost all of these publishers are in the USA, and the postage is ruinous. Many of these books are grotesquely expensive Advance Review Copies, which are produced in very short runs that editorial and marketing have to fight like hell to get budgets allocated to. What’s more, I have to pay for a PO Box to store all this stuff, and taxis just to haul it all around. This system benefits no one.

Don’t get me wrong. I love getting great books to review. But the geek in me cringes as the sheer unsystematic chaos of it all. Even though there are publishers who are very selective, whose PR people seem to have a gift for knowing what sort of thing I’m likely to review, that should be the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. A comparatively tiny investment in a CRM system would tie together the efforts of editorial, marketing, sales and publicity so that people who should get books really get them, and people who will just throw the book into the reject pile don’t get them.

But whenever I talk to publishing people about this, it seems like no one is bothering to build what amounts to a structured system for keeping track of what works and what doesn’t – who to send what to, in other words.

And don’t get me started on electronic advance reading copies (eARCs). I once had lunch with a Big 5 publicity person who said, ‘‘We’ve figured out our company eARC strategy.’’

Aha! I thought. Now we’re talking – I bet the whole thing is database-driven, sending out laser-targeted multiformat e-books to reviewers and buyers via their Dropboxes, Instapapers, and e-mail.

But no: ‘‘We’re going to send out DRMed PDFs.’’


eARCs are the next frontier of indiscriminate review-copy spamming. A golden opportunity to refine PR, marketing, and sales with highly selective, targeted pitching will, instead, almost certainly turn into a pointless exercise in flooding reviewers’ inboxes with badly behaved, crippled DRM files. On the other hand, DRMed eARCs will help me with my winnowing task: when you’ve got 100 times more books than you can read (and with eARCs, that will quickly balloon into a one-thousandfold surplus), one way to whittle down the pile to manageable size is to simply delete all the DRM-locked files.

If I was in charge of this, I’d buy a bunch of CRM licenses across the business and give everyone a crash-course in producing cheap, xerographic ARCs in the manner of Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Teresa produces ARCs on demand for her writers by laying up their books as two-column, 11-point type on a vertical 8.5″ x 11″ sheet, double-sided, with a 1″ gutter on the left side. You can put 100,000 words into about 50 pages this way, and all it takes to bind it is a couple of staples up the left side. These can be produced on demand for cheap and mailed in standard business envelopes. Investing in these two, simple measures would do more to improve the sales, marketing, and publicity of major publishers than a thousand harebrained DRM eARC schemes.

Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.

From the May 2013 issue of Locus Magazine

4 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow: Improving Book Publicity in the 21st Century

  • May 3, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Oh my god. THIS, THIS THIS THIS THIS. It’s so hard trying to figure out how to get books, let alone getting books you want, let alone expressing to people that I’m not going to start reviewing in the middle of a series!

    I wish this existed so, so much. And I’m just a freelancer.

  • May 3, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    I work at the tail end of the book publishing-promoting grind: a public library that hosts book tour events. I am constantly amazed at the apparently lack of coordination from many (big!) publishing houses. They’ll put an author out on tour, but they don’t provide the hosting venues with anything to work with as far as preparing for or promoting those book tour stops. I need an ARC so I can create a complementary event theme. I need a high resolution book jacket and a proper author heatshot for publicity. Some basic text for my press release would be super. In a dream I once had, the publicist coordinated with me so we could combine forces for local media relations.There are better results and lower costs to be had if they can just get it together.

  • May 5, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Great idea, but don’t hold your breath.. I work at a local non-profit. You think I can find a google docs membership/mailing list template that works? Name address, etc, membership expiration, print to mailing labels, entry/edit query screen.. HAH! You would think… G-docs is the only way I can get around mac/pc/legacy hardware issues and multi-user issues, and don’t say open office or variants – there’s a well known glitch in the way.. So… If we can’t even keep mailing lists…. Your publsher already has the saftware.. it runs on OS9 and can’t be migrated, but it DOES print the %%%*%*& mailing labels!

  • May 6, 2013 at 7:22 am

    Are you imagining that publicity lists are carefully curated documents and publishers have a structured institutional memory? No, publicity will take suggestions from editors and, through them, authors, but generally mailing lists are ossified documents created by some intern years ago from Bacon’s and whatnot. And records of most publicity and marketing contacts disappear when a publicist or editor leaves. As for DRM’d PDFs here is an actual exchange in a sales meeting I attended a few years ago:

    B&N rep: My buyer loves the Nook. It makes his life so much easier. So when he wanted a copy of [the book under discussion], the editor emailed him a PDF that day and he read it immediately. And he loved it. (Smiles all around.)

    Digital coordinator: Did the PDF have DRM on it?

    Rep: No.

    DC: Well, we have to be very careful about whom we send PDFs to in order to prevent piracy.

    And there you have it: Even the buyer who could literally make or break the book in the trade channel, who requested it, who was pleased and thus probably more inclined to order big because the publisher got him a PDF asap, is suspect. A potential pirate.


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