One of the things my father, Leonard Shatzkin, taught me when I was first learning about book publishing a half-century ago was that “all publishing houses are started with an editorial inspiration”. What he meant by that is that what motivated somebody to start a book publisher was an idea about what to publish. That might be somebody who just believed in their own taste; it might be something like Bennett Cerf’s idea of a “Modern Library” of compendia organized by author; it might even be Sir Allen Lane’s insight that the public wanted cheaper paperback books. But Dad’s point was that publishing entrepreneurs were motivated by the ideas for books, not by a better idea for production efficiency or marketing or sales innovation.
In fact, those other functions were just requirements to enable somebody to pursue their vision or their passion and their fortune through their judgment about what content or presentation form would gain commercial success.
My father’s seminal insight was that sales coverage really mattered. When he recommended, on the basis of careful analysis of the sales attributable to rep efforts, that Doubleday build a 35-rep force in 1955, publishers normally had fewer than a dozen “men” (as they were, and were called, back then) in the field. The quantum leap in relative sales coverage that Doubleday gained by such a dramatic sales force expansion established them as a power in publishing for decades to come.
Over the first couple of decades of my time in the business — the 1960s and 1970s — the sales department grew in importance and influence. It became clear that the tools for the sales department — primarily the catalog, the book’s jacket, and a summary of sales points and endorsements that might be on a “title information sheet” that the sales reps used — were critical factors in a book’s success.
There was only very rarely a “marketing” department back then. There was a “publicity” function, aimed primarily at getting book reviews. There was often a “sales promotion” function, which prepared materials for sales reps, like catalogs. There might be an art department, which did the jackets. And there was probably an “advertising manager”, responsible for the very limited advertising budget spent by the house. Management of coop advertising, the ads usually placed locally by retail accounts that were partly supported by the publishers, was another function managed differently in different houses.
But the idea that all of this, and more, might be pulled together as something called “marketing” — which, depending on one’s point of view, was either also in charge of sales or alternatively, viewed as a function that existed in support of sales — didn’t really arise until the 1980s. Before that, the power of the editors was tempered a bit by the opinions and needs of the sales department, but marketing was a support function, not a driver.
In the past decade, things have really changed.
While it is probably still true that picking the “right books” is the single most critical set of decisions influencing the success of publishers, it is increasingly true that a house’s ability to get those books depends on their ability to market them. As the distribution network for print shrinks, the ebook distribution network tends to rely on pull at least as much as on push. The retailers of ebooks want every book they can get in their store — there is no “cost” of inventory like there is with physical — so the initiative to connect between publisher and retailer comes from both directions now. That means the large sales force as a differentiator in distribution clout is not nearly as powerful as it was. Being able to market books better is what a house increasingly finds itself compelled to claim it can do.
In the past, the large sales force and the core elements that they worked with — catalog, jacket, and consolidated and summarized title information — were how a house delivered sales to an author. Today the distinctions among houses on that basis are relatively trivial. But new techniques — managing the opportunities through social networks, using Google and other online ads, keeping books and authors optimized for search through the right metadata, expanding audiences through the analysis of the psychographics, demographics, and behavior of known fans and connections — are still evolving.
Not only are they not all “learned” yet, the environment in which digital marketing operates is still changing daily. What worked two years ago might not work now. What works now might not work a year from now. Facebook hardly mattered five years ago; Twitter hardly mattered two years ago. Pinterest matters for some books now but not for most. Publishers using their own proprietary databases of consumer names with ever-increasing knowledge of how to influence each individual in them are still rare but that will probably become a universal requirement.
So marketing has largely usurped the sales function. It will probably before long usurp the editorial function too.
Fifty years ago, editors just picked the books and the sales department had to sell them. Thirty years ago, editors picked the books, but checked in with the sales departments about what they thought about them first. Ten years from now, marketing departments (or the marketing “function”) will be telling editors that the audiences the house can touch need or want a book on this subject or filling that need. Osprey and some other vertical publishers are already anticipating this notion by making editorial decisions in consultation with their online audiences.
Publishing houses went from being editorially-driven in my father’s prime to sales-driven in mine. Those that didn’t make that transition, expanding their sales forces and learning to reach more accounts with their books than their competitors, fell by the wayside. The new transition is to being marketing-driven. Those that develop marketing excellence will be the survivors as book publishing transitions more fully into the digital age