Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sales and Marketing: The last frontier in the independent vs. traditional publishing turf war?

by A.M. Khalifa, thriller author

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AM Khalifa on Google +

[Note from Jodie: We're pleased to welcome a new member to CFC: A.M. Khalifa, my client and friend, is a talented, world-traveled author whose riveting international thriller, Terminal Rage, was published in August. Take it away, A.M.!]

I recently spent five days attending the single most important annual event for the publishing world, the Frankfurt Bookfair. The 5-day affair is an immersion in anything and everything to do with the business of books and reading, providing rare insight into where the industry is, and where it’s heading.

Frankfurt Bookfair: The public is still interested in reading

Publishers, printers, digital chain suppliers, agents, and logistics companies convene every year in Frankfurt to flex their muscles as well as make the big deals. Here is my impression on where the industry stands in terms of the rise of independent publishing vs. traditional. 

Books are going to be around for a long time

The most reassuring impression I had is that reading is alive and well. Concerns about the interest in books declining as a result of diminishing attention spans and competition from online media are by-and-large exaggerated. The fair was initially limited to trade visitors, but once it opened up to the public I felt a deep hunger and intense interest in books and authors. The handful of successful writers who showed up were hounded like movie stars.

This is good news if you happen to be a writer. Our craft is still highly in demand. Keep writing, even if the route between you and your future readers seems obstructed by the business side of the industry. It's only a matter of time before even that is democratized.

The final stage of the book revolution is coming

The revolution that's rocking the publishing world is still in its infancy - its real seismic effects are yet to be felt. And it may take a while. The publishing industry feels ominously similar to the music world ten years ago. The big players in Frankfurt seemed tentatively nervous of what is about to come. Gone is the resolute hubris of say, five years ago. Because there are intruders at the gates. Not posing any huge danger for now. But catapulting tiny fire balls at the fortress, patiently making small but effective dents. Microscopic gains that will one day add up.

Advances in technology have resulted in the explosion of electronic books and high-quality print on demand solutions, as well as somewhat reliable distribution networks. This has lowered the entry bar dramatically. Producing a professional book and making it available for sale is no longer a difficult or prohibitively expensive pursuit. 

But herein is the inherent contradiction of self-publishing that is both comforting and worrying for mainstream publishers.

Because anybody can do it, the emphasis on quality has never been higher. That’s the good news for traditional publishers because they can play up how their infrastructure filters out all the duds, and makes sure readers get only the quality material.

The ‘bad’ news however is that even though there is a lot of sub-standard material being churned up, truly amazing works can also slip through the cracks. And once enough excellent writers establish themselves outside the realm of traditional publishing, mainstream readers will start paying attention and look with a more serious intent at indie authors to discover the next great read.

The main juggernaut of the business has now been cornered to the last remaining strongholds of the big publishers: sales and marketing. As most self-published writers know all too well, even if you’ve just written the most ground-breaking novel of all time, if you can’t get it reviewed, and if you can’t get on the airwaves to promote it, and if you can’t get it stocked in all the brick-and-mortar book stores, and if you can’t flood the market with huge print runs, then it doesn't seem worth the effort. And that’s what big publishers are holding on to for dear life: Access to the public and the ability to shape their tastes and needs using unlimited resources.

So where will the revolution come from, one might ask? From a third-party.

Just like Amazon's CreateSpace and Lightning Source democratized the production process for printed books, sooner or later some smart entrepreneur will figure out a business model to provide effective sales and marketing services to independent and small publishers. Not the con artists who currently prey on inexperienced authors like vanity publishers or self-proclaimed literary consultants. But legitimate players. Of course if mainstream publishers can heed the cautionary tales of the music industry, they would be rushing as we speak to plan for the future and make sure they’re providing these services ahead of the competition. But who knows if they will.

In the future, instead of the big five, there will be thousands, even millions of smaller publishing cells, being serviced by professional and effective enabling vendors. Me, you, and others like us. Not just on the production side, but before that at the editorial level, and after that at the sales, marketing and distribution points. Social media will be a part of that menu, not as a main course or even as a side dish, as the prognosticators would like us to think. But more like a condiment.

Readers: Are you looking more to indie writers for quality fiction?

And fellow writers: other than sales and marketing, what other advantages do you feel mainstream publishing has over independent publishing?

And speaking of quality control and competing with traditional publishing, see Jodie Renner's related article on The Kill Zone yesterday: Indie Authors - Should You Revise & Republish Some of Your Earlier Books?

A.M. Khalifa, author of international thrillers, writes exhilarating, contemporary stories pulsating with life and unforgettable characters. His debut novel, Terminal Rage, is a layered thrill ride that moves seamlessly from inside a nerve-wracking hostage situation to far-flung locations across the world, challenging readers to stay ahead of its unpredictable plot.

Sign up to Khalifa's newsletter to stay up to date with his activities and posts. You can also follow him on Twitter or like him on Facebook.


  1. Great to see you here, A.M.!

    From what I've heard, even mainstream publishers limit the sale and marketing they do for most of their authors.I look forward to the day when I can hire, at a reasonable expense, someone to handle my sales and marketing. Hawking my own books has never felt right.

    It's a great time to be a writer and a reader!

  2. Welcome to the Collective, A.M.!

  3. Welcome to CFC, Aymen! I look forward to your future posts. I've noticed quite a few successful traditionally published authors now publishing independently on the side, likely to have more control and a higher percentage on their royalties. And since they've already got their name, they don't have to work as hard as the rest of us to get noticed!

  4. Thanks for a thoughtful post! We're glad to have you on board. But I would argue that the revolution—or more aptly, the evolution—is well under way, supported mainly by Amazon's KDP platform for writers, but started by digital technology that has threatened all print publishers, not just books.

    And I'm also skeptical about the idea of bookstores as showrooms, where readers discovers new books. It's true for a small percentage of readers, but most people quit driving across town or across the county, to buy books long ago. We all shop online for everything else, so why not books too? Print on demand doesn't need a bookstore or terminal. And those Espresso machines are expensive and limited, but if anyone will make them work as promised, it will be Amazon. And you won't need to leave home to get that German-language classic you want.

    You're right about sales and marketing; it remains the challenge for all authors and publishers. But now that we're all connected online, it's cheaper and easier than ever. The issues are time allocated and reach. I'd love to see what marketing services come into play soon. Most writers don't really want that job.

  5. Regardless of the genre, I hold several views here to heart.
    1) Every author must reach their audience to be read. There might not be a 'war' in play to keep indies out, but pricing does wonders in any strategic decision.
    2) Quality control is better in some trad. published works, but one might argue indie work flies free (leaving more space for originality).

    I compare the current trends to the early/mid romantic period literary movement (18th century, not the genre). Many different authors had access to publication and audience, but few remain in popular knowledge. We'll see what happens with genre, advertising, medium and editing. Perhaps some day a lit. crit. class will hold up an amazing piece of fiction from the early 20-teens and say, "Can you believe it wasn't appreciated in the author's time simply because of this horrendous cover?" Or maybe that same manuscript will be forgotten in a data vault until a computer parses it for us in seventy-five years to help prove someone's historical sociology thesis.

  6. Welcome to our group, A.M. It's great to have you!

    My motto is, and always has been, that unstable ground is the most fertile for positive and upward growth. This is a crazy, exciting and, at times, a frustrating period in the publishing industry, but I believe that once all the dust settles, we will see the cream rise to the top and more stability.

  7. Completely agree that Sales and Marketing are TradPub's biggest draws over Indies, but also there is the matter of "back office" support. Cover design and editing/proofing are areas Indies can find help with, but often at a steep price and with uneven quality. True, I often find typos in TradPub books, but not as many as with an Indie.


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