Penelope Trunk’s Problems With Book Publishing

by alexwalborn

As I was perusing the bookshelves of the world wide web, I came across a very interesting woman. Author and blogger Penelope Trunk’s blog post on the problems with the publishing’s marketing strategies, and the rules of play for the industry in an online world, galvanized her readers.

One of her more recent books, The New American Dream: A Blueprint for a New Path to Success, came out July of last year. Her experience with PR for this book was not a positive one. 

Trunk said, “I sold this same book, two years ago, (2010) to a mainstream publisher, and they sucked. I am going to go into extreme detail about how much they sucked, so I’m not going to tell you the name of the publisher because I got a lot of money from them. I’m just going to tell you that the mainstream publisher is huge, and if you have any respect left for print publishing, you respect this publisher. But you will not at the end of this post.”

In her post she goes on to explain that the publisher paid her advance in full. Three months before the publication date, the PR department called her up to ‘coordinate their efforts’. “But really they just gave me a list of what I was going to do to publicize the book. I asked them what they were going to do. They did not have a written plan, or any list, and when I pushed one of the people on this first call to give me examples of what the publishers would do to promote my book, she said “newsgroups”.


[nooz-groop, nyooz‐] noun

a discussion group on a specific topic that is maintained on a computer network, especially the Internet:cooking newsgroups.

Trunk said, “You mean like newsgroups from the early 90s? Who is part of newsgroups anymore?”

At the next phone call, she told them she would be happy publicize her book on her blog, because she knew she could sell tons of copies that way. They said they were planning to use LinkedIn to publicize. When Trunk asked why, they said they were going to “build buzz” on their fan page.

Trunk went ballistic. “There is no publishing industry fan page that is good enough to sell books. No one goes to fan pages for publishers because publishers are not household names. The authors are. That’s how publishing works.”

Sadly, she couldn’t have been more right. Marketing online requires that you have a brand name and a following, and the book industry doesn’t build its own brand; the author IS his/her own brand.

Hilariously, Trunk then scheduled a phone call with her editor’s boss’s boss. She told him his business was online marketing and his team had no idea how to do it, and he should hire HER!

He told her, “With all due respect [“which,” wrote Trunk in her post, “I find, is always a euphemism for I hate your guts,”] we have been profitable every year that I’ve run this division and I don’t think we have a problem.”

Then he told her he really needed her to work well together with the marketing and publicity team. That team flew Penelope Trunk to their office to have a meeting. 

I want to recount some of the interesting things she learned (and recorded in a rather facetious way) in that meeting:

Print publishers have no idea who is buying their books

More than 85% of books sales are online, mostly at Amazon. It used to be that a print publisher could look at the data about which stores are selling a book and which are not, and then they’d have a good handle on who is buying the book; but Amazon tells the publishers nothing about that, so the publishers have no idea who is buying their books.

Print publishers have no idea how to market online

The old ways that publishers promote books, like TV spots and back-of-book blurbs, are over. They don’t sell books in an online world. Those offline marketing tactics have no accountability, whereas online marketing is a metrics game. Print publishers haven’t learned how to run a grassroots, metrics-based publicity campaign online. They cannot tell which of their online efforts works and which doesn’t, because they can’t track sales. They don’t know how many people they reach.

The profit margins in mainstream publishing are so low they are almost nonexistent

It takes a print publisher about a year to publish a book, after it is written. It’s unclear what the publishers are doing during this time.

 Then Trunk did six months of research to learn about the future of the publishing industry.

Here are the new rules for book publishing:

1. Self-published books are the new business card. It’s a way to remember someone and also know what’s interesting about them.

2. Nonfiction writers write books to get something else: speaking gigs, consulting gigs, a steady flow of job offers. Books are good for a lot of things, but direct sales from a book are rarely a way to support a life.

3. Book sales are about community. If you have a community of people who listen to you via blog posts, then you have a community of people who will be interested to know how you put a bigger idea together in a book.

4. Book sales are about search engine marketing. The only markets that exist on the internet are search items. If no one searches for xyz, no one will land on a page that sells xyz. You can only sell what people are looking for.

5. The only reason to have a print book is to be in Barnes&Noble. You can achieve just about every goal you might have for book publishing by publishing it electronically. An electronic book serves a lot of purposes: you can talk about bigger ideas than a blog post allows for. You give people an easy way to know you for your ideas. You can create a secondary revenue stream for yourself. A print book is mostly about vanity. It’s about being able to go into Barnes&Noble, when you are there for the magazines and the free wifi, and stroke your ego by holding your own book.

So there you have it; a very extensive and interesting complaint from author Penelope Trunk, along with how she will go about publishing her books in the future.