Publishing Polyfill #1: Managers

MCMSaturday, April 17, 2021

In my last post, I outlined the state of the publishing industry and the unfortunate gaps that have arisen in all areas and levels therein. One thing that seems consistent across all types of author is the need to be seen — not in terms of ego, but on a practical/promotional level. You can't sell books unless you've got traction, and unfortunately most authors aren't social creatives on the level needed to make this work.

I've said before (but maybe not in a blog post) that the gap in the publishing ecosystem is invested marketers. Yes, you can hire a publicist or a virtual assistant to promote your work, but that dynamic tends to be a one-sided arrangement: efforts are made, results are middling, but invoices flow all the same. In that scenario — whether you're a midlist author or a KDPer — the author is the customer, which usually ends up with a huge debt with nothing to show for it. It's the old predatory self-pub companies in a new shell.

(This is not to say that all publicists are evil — many are swimming against the tide and doing their best. But the fact remains that they get paid no matter the outcome, which puts authors at a disadvantage in a market where they're already highly likely to drown.)

What's needed are publicists — meaning people with the social skills and social media know-how to create actual buzz — who aren't just chasing their next billable hour. We need publicists who have something at stake, and something to gain: if they represent a client who has a crap month, they have a crap month, too. If their client tops the charts for six weeks in a row and lands a huge payday, they have a huge payday, too. The harder they work to promote their client, the greater the odds that they'll get rich off the effort.

We basically need managers.

I mean managers in the entertainment industry sense: they're like agents, except they are a bit more function-focused. Agents tend to view your career as a reputational concept, where managers are nuts-and-boltsing you to stardom. Or, put another way: managers take an assortment of tools and build you a career, either by opening doors, or making doors where none existed before.

Yes, there are managers like this for authors already, but they generally only work with marquee names (or up-and-comers) and are far too few in number to make a difference. We need to increase the odds that the diamonds in the rough get found, which means adding more managers into the rough itself.

Let's imagine a new kind of manager, someone who has as much "right" to their career as the authors they'll represent. An independent operator whose sole focus is promoting their authors and boosting their sales. They would need to handle, at a minimum, the following elements:

  1. Market Research. Good authors write what they want; smart authors write for the market; brilliant authors now how to tune "what they want" for the market. Managers need to know what's hot, what's not, and how to focus on the gaps effectively.

  2. Packaging. This is a catch-all to describe editing, cover design and file formatting. The manager themselves wouldn't do this, but would ensure standards are being met, because there's no better way to kill a good book than with bad production values.

  3. Publicity. Most authors are terrible at self-promotion — not because they can't produce content, but because they don't know how or what to do. A manager would have to devise a strategy and either handle its execution, outsource it, or make it easy for authors to play along.

  4. Audience Relations. Once you get readers, you need to keep them at all costs — but that's not easy when you're feverishly writing your next book. Managers need to keep the dialogue going, to create incentives for the audience to stick around.

Notice how I didn't mention "negotiating film rights or international market deals"? It's because these managers aren't agents: they are functional, not ethereal. Whether you're a midlist author being told to promote your own work, or an absolute newbie trying to break in, a manager should get you where you need to be — and benefit from your rise.

How would it work, on a practical level? I imagine managers would have two distinct career phases: one, where they're scrappy and new and hunting for the Next Big Thing. In that phase, they've probably got the skills or the contacts to launch a great new author, and are trolling KDP and wattpad for the perfect candidate. A lot of their efforts will be stitched together from disparate services, but they'll work hard to succeed because it puts food on their table, too.

After they get a few hits under their belt, the second phase will likely involve prospective clients coming to them for assistance. This has a bit of a gatekeeper-y vibe to it, so I'm less excited about it, but ultimately it's a purer kind of gatekeeping, because authors will be seeking out a concrete benefit, rather than the key to a door that shouldn't be locked in the first place. (ahem. grr. cough cough.)

If one of the objectives of the Ameri-Protestant-capitalist system is that hard work should be rewarded with riches, the key to achieving that goal needs to be to build a framework that allows newbies to rise through the ranks — not just once or twice, but as a repeatable pattern. It's no good if the elder statesmen got rich climbing a ladder, but then pulls it up to keep others from following. The next generation of writers need the next generation of managers, which means the tools need to exist to make that possible.


Just like Smashwords, wattpad and KDP help writers overcome the obstacles that kept them out of publishing in the past, there need to be tools and services in place to make promotion as seamless for would-be managers as selling a novella is for authors. Some of these already exist, and some only exist in expensive "for professionals only" products — but if we want to revolutionize publishing for real, we need to define these needs, build these tools, and smooth out the adoption process.

Which will happen next time, because I need a nap.

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