Publishing and Marketing 01: Publisher Communication

About 2 weeks ago, I asked readers if they would be interested in some sort of a semi-regular column on the blog, the core topic being publishing & marketing. The response on the blog itself was rather lukewarm, to be honest, but I did have some good, albeit short, conversations with people over Twitter and Facebook about this.

The whole idea for the column sprung out of the “disaster” earlier this month when it was revealed that Random House’ eBook-only imprint, Hydra, was contracting new authors on the conditions that there would be no advance payments (which disqualifies the imprint from being considered a publishable market according to the rules, regulations and guidelines of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s organisation), and that they wanted complete rights over the work in question, irrespective of medium/format. Their payment structure was also dubious, frontloading almost all the costs of publishing the author’s work on the author himself/herself. Such costs include editing, covers, marketing, and so on, from what I understand. John Scalzi has done two in-depth posts on the subject here and here.

online-relationships-300x189Given the amount of information out there already on this particular subject, the furor over which has caused Hydra to revise some of its terms and offer authors better payment plans after a VERY stern letter from the SFWA, I am not going to cover this for now. All I can say is that if you are looking to get published by such eBook-only imprints, and I stress eBook-only, then you damn well make sure that you do not sign away your rights for foreign translations, audiobooks, print, and so on. Other people have already said it best: make sure to get some legal opinion and at least ask around when you get that contract. Make sure that you are informed about what you should and should not be doing.

Anyhow. Moving on.

For this first installment in this column series, I wanted to talk about publisher communication. Communication is a funny thing. We all define it quite differently and it means different things for different people. The specific area I want to cover today is how publisher communication works with marketing in the context of keeping readers and reviewers (they need not be mutually exclusive) informed and keeping a positive dialogue open. So here we go!

Ever since I started reviewing books, first for fun and then as a dedicated hobby, I’ve been exposed to a whole host of information that is out there. These things have already existed and none of them are new, its just that my awareness of them has increased, and given the nature of the internet and social media, I’ve become much more sensitive to it all.

As a book blogger with more than 200 reviews to my name and roughly 15 months of direct interaction with various publishers and reviewers, I believe I’ve reached a point where I can start to offer some informed opinion on the state of the industry, and talk about things that other people are not. Whether they ignore it, or take it all for granted, or just don’t care, its all irrelevant.

We all realise that, first, the internet changed the industry forever by connecting people from across the globe and through geographical divides. The rise of eBooks and book bloggers, paired with the meteoric rise of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, has changed the landscape even further. And then there is self-publishing thrown in to the mix, which has just made everything even more complicated than before.

So how does marketing and communication fit in?

The most vital thing for any publisher, the way I see it, is that they need to keep their readers informed of changes in their policies. These changes include contracts signed with new authors, reprints of older publications, convention appearances, author signings, yearly publishing schedules, authorial success in awards lists, and so on. These things overlap for an audience that also includes a substantial amount of reviewers in the reader base. After all, every reviewer is a reader and a fan.

Reviewers are often concerned with what upcoming titles are going to be released 1-4 months down the line and how soon they can get their advanced reader copies, or ARCs for short. Quite a few publishers also send out eARCs, which are just electronic versions of the former. They are beneficial when shipping costs can be high (a concept I am more than familiar with since I depend a lot on this format, living as I do halfway across the world from all major US/UK publishers) or when budgets are just tight. Sometimes its even down to just a simple preference of convenience. If there are issues with the copy, then it is far easier to resend an electronic copy than a physical one.

I talked very briefly about the relationship between the reviewers on one side and authors/publishers on the other side last in an editorial for The Founding Fields – “From Reviewers To Authors“.

In terms of communication with reviewers, I would say that the best job has been done by the marketing people at Angry Robot Books and Solaris Books, two of UK’s leading SFF publishers.

In the case of the former, I say “best job” because for a number of months AR had a really cool initiative in place – The Angry Robot Army. Essentially, you could sign up to join and you could then get access to eARCs of their upcoming releases and some other cool stuff like logos and banners and what not. For a time, you could even put in a request for physical ARCs, and also request anything from their catalogue if you reviewed one of their books. That was some great times and I definitely got to read some great books from both sources. AR let go of the initiative last year and went ahead in a full-on partnership with NetGalley, the premier global source of eARCs for reviewers, librarians and so on.

ARB_LOGOWhat is important here is that they kept up a constant stream of communication with reviewers. They informed when they made the change, they informed of the progress of the partnership, and, most of all, they continue to inform when new eARCs go up on NetGalley. They also continue to ask reviewers to send in requests for physical ARCs, and invite them to spread the word about the company and its titles. Frankly, the people at Angry Robot deserve a huge shout-out for all the great work they do.

The relationship between The Founding Fields and Angry Robot has grown immeasurably in the last 15 months, and it keeps getting stronger. As I said in that editorial from last year, the relationships between reviewers, authors, and publishers is one of mutual respect and trust. And we do have that type of a relationship with them. Any publisher knows that when they send out a book to reviewers it is all a gamble: the reviewer may or may not like the book, and the resulting review will reflect that. Angry Robot trusts us to offer our honest opinions and share our thoughts on their books. In the weekly roundups on the Angry Robot blog, our reviews, guest posts, etc are often quoted and shared.

Through this relationship with Angry Robot, The Founding Fields has been given access to exclusive cover reveals for some really exciting novels, and as of this moment, we are hosting a giveaway for Emma Newman’s first Split Worlds novel, Between Two Thorns. I highly encourage you to participate. It is our first book giveaway IIRC and it is open till the 1st April, so there is ample time for you to join in. [Shameless promotion: I hosted Emma Newman on the blog a few days ago as part of my Names: A New Perspective guest post series and I have also reviewed the book.]

In the case of Solaris Books, there is a lot of similarities between them and Angry Robot in their interactions with reviewers. I get regular emails from Solaris marketing about new author contracts, ARC availability and other news. Solaris marketing has offered me numerous opportunities in the last year, and I’m quite thankful for all the help in that time. My one regret with them is that I have not been able to get around to all the books they’ve sent me, and is something I need to work on for this year. This also makes me realise that I need to finally get around to writing up my official review policy, more so since I now finally have my own page on The Founding Fields.

solaris-books-logoIn short, just as with Angry Robot, Solaris has a great open-ended policy of interaction with reviewers, which is a pretty important thing. Additionally, their regular emails make it really easy to stay current on the latest Solaris news, which is great. I always know which books I want to read, which books to get excited about, what’s the latest hot stuff, and so on.

Interacting with both publishers via email and Twitter has also been a rewarding experience. Responses are always prompt, something I’m really grateful for as I’ve gone through some extremely frustrating experiences with other publishers. I realise that publishers always get more emails from readers/reviewers they can handle in any given week, but surely someone at the offices of the powers-that-be can respond to emails after 2-3 months? This is a pretty big issue I have with reviewer-publisher interaction and it always makes me sad when I hear about something like from other reviewers or go through it myself.

And that brings me to the flipside of what I’ve talked about so far. My experiences with Angry Robot and Solaris have been as perfect as I can imagine, and I am looking forward to keeping these experiences positive.

It so happens however, that sometimes there are negative experiences as well. I’ve definitely had my fair share of them.

In mid-February last year, I got cocky and I sent out emails to about a dozen publishers, requesting review copies of their books. I stress the word cocky. Here I was, barely 20 or so reviews under my belt, and I was already dreaming about moving into the big leagues. The responses I got deflated THAT balloon faster than you can facepalm at me. The reason is that I got a positive response from only TWO publishers, in a reasonable time frame of one month. Two other major publishers responded by telling me that they could not ship physical books all the way to Dubai, and that was that. The rest, I never heard from. Still haven’t in fact!

Pyr_logoI built a pretty good relationship with one of the publishers in question, Pyr Books, who were quite tolerant of my amateurish antics and offered me digital review copies upon request. I was ecstatic. I have yet to read a bad book from them, and that fact makes the relationship all the more better, if I do say so myself. As with Angry Robot and Solaris, my email communication with them has been great, and they’ve been supportive of my reviews as well, sharing them on social media and the like. That’s all one can really ask for.

Now to get back to the negative experiences. As I said, a lot of publishers I sent that email to, never responded. No return communication at all. This really, really frustrated me. I wondered why it was. Maybe because I was still a very small name in the book blogger arena? Was the image projected by The Founding Fields too limiting for them (since Commissar Ploss started it out as a GW/BL fan-site)? Was it something my email with the wording? I’ll be honest, I agonised over this quite a bit in those days. Eventually, I just gave up after my second or third try with some of them, the ones I thought I had had a really good chance with.

It was a rather disappointing moment of my “budding career as a reviewer”. Its moments like these make you feel really down. For instance, through some friends, I tracked down the marketing person responsible for Del Rey’s books, and I emailed said person, but never got a response despite referrals.

Then came NetGalley, and some of my frustrations vanished in smoke, since the site gave me unprecedented access to these very publishers, and I actually did have a good shot with them through this new avenue. There were some rough starts early on, but things picked up quite significantly. I’m happy to say that currently I have auto-approvals for titles from some of these publishers, and the feeling is great.

For those of you who know my reviewing record and my interests, you will no doubt see that I have not yet talked about Black Library in all of this. After all, a great majority of my reviews have been for their novels (and other formats), so it is significant if I neglect to talk about them at all. There is a particular reason for all of this.

As I have said before in various places, my very first proper review was for Sarah Cawkwell’s debut, The Gildar Rift. It also so happens that this was the first review in the wild of the book, as best as I can tell. After I had reviewed a few of their books, I asked my fellow TFF reviewers about getting ARCs of the books, and they put me in touch with BL marketing, who said yes and told me to expect my first batch soon. Things were pretty good for the most part all last year, in as much as me getting the books on time, relatively speaking.

BlackLibraryLogo4However, things were sorely lacking in terms of communication. Thing is, in those early days as a reviewer, I would email the publishers when I did a review of the book, and for the most part I would get a polite thank you in response. Which is all good and fine since there is at least some recognition that the review has been done. I never really got anything of the sort with Black Library (I can count the number of instances on one finger). Eventually, I stopped sending them the links. I didn’t see any point to it.

Things got unexpectedly complicated when, for some inexplicable reason, BL marketing stopped linking to any of the reviews of their publications on The Founding Fields. This stretched on for months, and we never got a response as to why. Another very frustrating experience in 2012. Things like this, they don’t inspire confidence as a reviewer. I would see that other reviewers and review markets would get that sort of recognition, but nothing for anybody at The Founding Fields. I’ll point out that I tried my best to get an answer, more so than I would have with any other publisher.

My reasoning was something like this: I am a moderator for a Black Library fan forum, and am (I would like to think) good friends with a lot of the authors and editors, having interviewed several of them in the last 2 years and keeping up a constant line of communication with them. I do realise that none of this entitles me to anything, and that is not what I am asking for either, but it is still a surprise when something like this happens. I definitely got the feeling that we were being ignored for some reason. Briefly, I even wondered if my negative-ish review for the audio drama Throne of Lies by Aaron Dembski-Bowden might have anything to do with it.

To give in to my ego a little bit: BL marketing is quite happy with linking to 200-300 word reviews, which essentially say that “this sucks” or “this is great, buy it”, rather than the (much) longer ones that I do, or even ones that my fellow TFF reviewers do.

Things took a downturn once more in the fourth quarter of the year when my ARCs got delayed for roughly 3 months. Books that I should have gotten in late September/early October did not arrive till about early December. Once again, I set out to inquire why the books had been delayed. And once again, I did not get any satisfactory answers. When reviewers for other blogs, even my fellow TFF reviewers, were getting their books, I was at a loss to fathom as to why I was not. Twice in the time period from early October to late November I was told that the books had been dispatched, and I got nothing. Then, when I did get the books in December, the shipping sticker on them had a mid-September date. I was, honestly, shocked.

It was a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment for me.

In spite of myself, I did not bother to get any explanation for this. I kept mum and proceeded as if nothing had happened. But, my enthusiasm for BL had taken a significant hit with this incident.

And then came the new year, and I got a new round of ARCs, with a big surprise in store. The reviewing policy had changed at BL towers and now they would only offer two books a month to reviewers, books they considered to be their leading titles. Frankly, this is a very bonkers policy. Every other publisher I interact with, whether directly through email or via NetGalley, offers a full range of titles for review purposes, whether for print or digital. From experience with other reviewers I know that pretty much all the SFF publishers in UK/US send out a full range of print titles for review purposes. BL’s change of policy did not make any sense in that context.

To add, the lead-in titles would not include any hardcovers, which was another Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment. I don’t think they are going to be providing any physical audio drama CDs anymore either. My January release package included a softcover new release for Warhammer Fantasy and the softcover REPRINT of a Warhammer 40,000 novel released at least a year ago in hardcover. My February release package included softcovers for two new Warhammer 40,000 releases.

Let me contextualise all of that. I do not have a problem with reprints, and such a status has little meaning to me personally. What the distinction here was that a new novel in the series had just been released alongside that softcover reprint. Aren’t readers excited about new books? Those are the ones they look forward to the most right? It seemed reviewers would be getting the short end of the stick here in this case. The Commissar Ciaphas Cain series is not to my tastes really, being a little too comical/humorous than what I expect of the setting, but the new book was something I’d been eyeing for a while and was in two minds about.

Anyhow, this was not that big a deal. But when considering the February releases, I was very surprised. Ben Counter recently got back into writing for BL with some great short stories and novellas, and Van Horstmann is his first novel for the Warhammer Fantasy setting. I was definitely looking forward to this one, especially since it was on my “51 Most Anticipated Releases of 2013“. But, BL decided that instead of promoting this novel from an author they themselves say is one of their most popular ones, they promote the second novel in a series that started last year. I am sure Andy Chambers is a great writer. I’ve only read two of his Dark Eldar short stories and nothing else. I know of him only as a games designer/codex writer for Games Workshop. My contention here is that they missed a rather huge opportunity to get reviewers and through them, readers, invested in a returning author. And to clarify, I read Van Horstmann, after buying it, and have already reviewed it as well.

There is a severe lack of communication here between BL and reviewers. The most prominent issue here is that reviewers were not offered a chance to request specific titles, given the restriction. I am saddled with two books I have zero interest in, when I could have requested others that I did want to read. And the change in policy was communicated as a physical letter in the release package, rather than over email to give some advance warning.

As it so happens, some of my fellow reviewers have not even gotten these four books! Lack of communication once again!

Finally, my BL woes came to a head last month. You all know that I was hosting an eBook giveaway after the success of my February reading poll. The way I was handling that was, to put it mildly, uninformed and irresponsible, and it is no surprise that they asked me to stop offering their books. However, this is not what I have a complaint against since the fault was all mine, and I’m providing this info as a sort of context as to what might have contributed to the following.

In the first week of February, the news broke all of a sudden that GW was, through Amazon, forcing an indie self-published author to stop selling her book (things were a lot more complicated than that simple statement however, and it was Amazon’s decision to take the book off the digital shelves). The book in question is titled Spots the Space Marine, and GW’s case was that the book infringed on their trademark for Space Marine and that customers would confuse GW’s Space Marines with M. C. A. Hogarth’s Space Marine. There was a very big furor in the publishing industry and several big-name authors spoke out against it. I saw the early things unfold on Twitter and I happened to retweet the statements on the topic from three separate authors. Less than, five minutes later and BAM, I got an email from BL marketing that I was being taken off their reviewer lists because they could not support anyone who could not support them.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!!!

Just like that. No chance to retract the retweets, nothing (which are like 99% harmless in and of themselves, barring a swear word in one of them). Just, done. I offered no commentary on the issue at the time other than sharing those three tweets. That was it.

Given the time-frame involved, I can’t help but think that this was all one big knee-jerk reaction. I even wondered if my highly negative review of Dan Abnett’s latest novel Pariah in January might have had something to do with this as well. The reason I say that is because currently Dan Abnett is one of BL’s top-tier authors (might as well be in a class of his own), and Pariah is the first in a trilogy that is a sequel to two previous trilogies that are near-classics in Warhammer 40,000 and have been bestsellers. I don’t know. At that time, I was grasping at straws. Maybe I still am.

I’ve been a very huge supporter of Black Library in the last two years, to the extent that I’ve had derogatory comments directed at my in various places because of how much “white-knighting” I do for them, most especially over their limited edition novellas range, for reasons entirely different from this one mess.

As a reviewer, some of my most frustrating moments have borne out of the lack of communication with BL. The same goes as an avid reader, but that is something I will get into another time.

*****

Reviewers, in the main, appreciate good communication with and from publishers. You could even say that it is our lifeblood. If we are not kept up to date on new releases, then we can’t promote them further on. If new releases are not promoted to US properly, then we can’t do the same at our end, and that’s when we have to deal with some unpleasant stuff.

Reviewers exist to share their passions for what they enjoy. Reviewing for me is a hobby, as it is for hundreds out there. We don’t see one penny out of it, other than the free books where their availability as such applies.

The main thing that Reviewers want from authors and publishers is support, and that support cannot exist if there is no communication. If there is no communication, then the relationship goes downhill. Even though I’m increasingly reviewing books for several publishers other than Black Library, Angry Robot and Solaris, I don’t actually communicate directly with them. One, because communication previously has been tough to establish, and two, because it is not that important to me at the moment.

In general, I interact with authors far more than I do with publishers, and that’s perfectly fine with me. With the other publishers, my interaction with them is limited to an occasional email about something, or book requests on NetGalley, or tweeting/facebooking my reviews, guest posts, interviews, etc. The authors are just as much a part of the publisher as anything else, so I’m happy with the round-about relationship and communication.

*****

As a first installment in the series, this post has gone on for quite a bit, so I’m going to give the topic a rest for now. There is obviously a lot to talk about as far as publisher communication is concerned, so I will get to the other things in a later post.

Do keep in mind however that this will be a semi-regular column for the blog. Currently, I’m thinking once a month, so let’s see how that works out, and what kind of response the blog gets.

Any and all opinions I offer in this column are my own.

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Posted on March 25, 2013, in Editorial, Publishing & Marketing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Still can’t believe BL did that to you.

    Like

  2. I’ve never had dealings with BL. What is starting to boggle my mind, though, is just how many book blogs there are out there. I know not everyone on Netgalley is a book blogger, perhaps around half, but I remember them saying they have over 40K users. Even if only a fraction of those people are interested in SFF titles and actively blogging, that gives you an idea of the scope of this part of the blogosphere.

    That’s why it doesn’t surprise me at all when publishers fail to communicate, or if they pick and choose who they will deal with.

    Like

    • My thinking is that if a publisher has established a relationship with a blogger/site, then they should actively and constantly take steps to maintain that, outside of the question about negative reviews, because then that serves little purpose.

      But yeah, there is a new blogger out there every day!

      Like

  1. Pingback: Monthly Report – March 2013 | Angels of Retribution

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