Rolling Funnels into Buckets

Publishing consultant Michael Shatzkin notes that literary agents and big publishers aren't doing enough to help authors develop their digital platforms.
A major difference between book publishing today and book publishing 25 years ago is the practical power of the author brand in marketing. Multi-book authors can not only build their own followings in ways that can be usefully exploited, they now have an unprecedented capability to help each other.
Of course, they can do that best if they’re “organized” in some way. But both of the most obvious potential organizers who deal with many authors — the publishers and the agents — have commercial and structural impediments to being as helpful as they could be, or as authors need them to be, at either of the new needs: helping authors be better marketers of themselves or getting them to act in a coordinated way to help each other.
Building an individual author’s digital marketing footprint is an important component of career development. And, in fact, the foundation of the author’s “brand” footprint has strong influence on the success of the title marketing publishers would see as their principal objective.
But the publisher has a book-by-book relationship, not an assured ongoing relationship, with authors so investing for a longer-term gain is not structurally encouraged. And agents live with pretty strict ethics rules limiting their compensation to a share of the author contracts they negotiate, so they also have a structural impediment against investing money and time in the author’s general welfare beyond getting the best possible deal they can for every book they represent.
Big publishers have another impediment to helping authors exchange platform-building ideas. As Shatzkin explains in the same post, big New York publishers fear authors cooperating to pursue their best interests much like big business feared the introduction of labor unions.
Once they are capable at a basic level, being organized into mutually supportive groups, where they use their audience reach to help each other, is an idea that makes sense for authors. No author can “monopolize” a reader’s time. Most authors struggle to write as much as one book a year. Most of their readers need lots of authors to feed their reading habit. So even the most directly “competitive” authors can happily “share” their audiences. And readers would inherently “trust” a reading recommendation from an author they like.
But organizing authors to help each other in this way is also touchy for both agents and publishers. For agents, there are two obvious problems. One is that the best marketing partners for any particular author might be represented by a different agency. That makes things complicated. But the other is that the agent’s “job” is to get an author deals. Getting authors engaged in a perhaps-complex marketing consortium requires another level of understanding and persuasion that agents could rightly see as a distraction to what pays the bills: developing proposals and getting offers from publishers. From a publisher’s perspective, organizing the house’s writers and having them communicate directly is a bit like asking big-company management to organize the union. There might be good arguments to do it but for many it would provoke a visceral negative reaction.
Shatzkin is right that authors can't monopolize readers. For one thing, novels aren't really bound volumes made from wood pulp or even strings of ones and zeroes. They're made of intangible ideas. The laws of supply and demand don't apply.

But "Most authors struggle to write as much as one book a year"? No. Most Big Five publishing contracts limit authors to writing one book per year. Shatzkin should get wise to what writers can do when the shackles are off and they're free to write at pulp speed!

What is Shatzkin's solution to the (traditionally published) author's digital brand-building dilemma? It just so happens that he's founded a company to address that concern. Here's their pitch:
What OptiQly does is unique and McCarthy explained it. “We are looking at ecommerce product detail pages and funnel signals that indicate what is happening in relation to those pages. And we’re scoring that funnel against dozens of signals and rolling them into meaningful buckets of insights and activities. What is unique is what we score — the title and author. It will undoubtedly remind people of other SaaS tools that employ “scores”. In fact it already has! After all, it is SaaS with scoring. But that scoring is aimed at the things that matter to authors, agents, publishers, and others in the industry.”

Rolling funnels into meaningful buckets of insights and activities. Next-level concepts like this are why traditional publishing experts will remain employed and relevant long after the flash in the pan indie publishing fad has gone the way of the passenger pigeon.
In addition, publishers went through a scary period a few years ago (with the fear from that time at least temporarily in abeyance) when it seemed that digital-first publishing would give big authors the capability to reach their audiences and make their money without a publisher’s help.
It might be hard for you kids to remember back that far, but the scare that Shatzkin is talking about really did happen. For a minute there, it looked like there might've been a slim chance that trad publishing would go into decline as indie authors ate their lunch.

Lucky for them, the Big Five's notorious flexibility and awareness of the zeitgeist helped them find the solution: badger Amazon to let big publishers charge prohibitively high prices for eBooks; then misreport the dropoff in their own digital sales as a slowing of the eBook market as a whole.

Of course it's ridiculous to even consider that big authors might be able to reach audiences on their own. It's not as if guys like Nick Cole can walk away from, say, Harper Collins and earn vastly more going indie.

The Big Five want to protect their dying paper monopoly. They don't want to help authors build their digital platforms because they are inextricably invested in analog, and they don't want authors talking to each other because then authors would find out a) how draconian most of their book deals are and b) how much more their publishing house's anointed darlings get in money, contractual leeway, and marketing support.

Indie publishing is no cakewalk, though. Not only do indie authors have to write books (and many more than one per year), we take on all the responsibilities of a publisher. Our success relies on building relationships with our readers, and we absolutely cannot survive without you.

So, thanks for reading. If you like the content here, please check out my highly praised, award-winning, and self-published Soul Cycle series. Already read the books? Consider leaving a review on Amazon. It's impossible to overstate how vital honest reviews are to an author's success.

Happy Space Opera Week!

Brian Niemeier - The Soul Cycle



  1. Brian

    Thanks very much for commenting on the link I sent you.
    So while indie publishing is tough do you think that a co-op type of publishing company will become 1 way for authors to build their brands and backlist?
    I see a wide variety of organizing writers and readers.and that'she very exciting


    1. You're welcome.

      Ultimately, the only two parties that are essential to the author-reader relationship are the author and the reader. Amazon has made agents and other middlemen obsolete. Indie and small publishers are where the growth is. If you categorize a co-op publishing house as a small publisher, it could be viable.

  2. Brian

    That was my thought about publishing co-ops as small businesses. I'myself wondering if publishing is experiencing what the breweries in Canada went through in the late 80? Notably that we'll see a lot of 'craft' publishers who satisfy a very small market but with time become popular and expand without necessarily getting bigger.

    I dee this in Spain where a lot of micropublishers (i.el 2-4 people) publish stuff that simply would fit in with the big publisher (which is Planeta) the Catalans are on the forefront.
    The micropublishers ecology seems to be doing fine and many interesting booka have been published