Getting the manuscripts and turning them into books was always the fun part. Persuading people to buy them is tough.

Chris McVeigh at @4fifty1 has a rant, entitled This is not a love song. He quotes a publishing marketing director who “was frustrated because she felt like she was consistently letting down the authors under her care. The sheer relentless weight of books coming through the pipeline had all but overwhelmed her and her staff some time ago — and from where she was standing things were only getting worse. We just don’t have the time to do anything properly, we’re just ticking boxes.”

But unfortunately boxes do need to be ticked: it may be boring but messages need to be sent to the relevant mailing lists, influencers need to be alerted, and review copies need to be sent to appropriate review media. These publications will insist on wanting to make up their own minds about whether or not they’ll send the book on to someone who might actually read it and review it. It’s a lot about horses and water and drinking — you can do all sorts of social media stuff but you can’t reach down the wires and force the punters to buy. At the end of the day, all a publisher can really do is let people know that this book exists, ensure it’s out there in places where they might find it, and keep their fingers crossed. I suspect most readers are fairly adept at discounting publishers’ claims of excellence: what makes the book sell is something else. Where the idea comes from that this is a book I need to buy varies wildly, but is summed up as “word-of-mouth”. You hear about the book, and having heard about it you think it sounds like something you might buy. Eventually maybe it ends up as something you have bought.

This Publishing Perspectives piece asks whether we can replicate “word-of-mouth” by using the Internet. “Every marketing expert loves — and wants — business through word-of-mouth, but nobody has figured out the perfect way to automate and digitalize this vital tool.” Well, of course, if you run a business aimed at automating “word-of-mouth” clearly you’ll think of it as a tool. However I fear word-of-mouth is not a “tool” representing a means to an end — it is the end itself. What marketing aims to create is word-of-mouth. The assumption, and the probability, is that that talk will indeed translate into sales — but what the publisher’s marketers are trying to gin up is not directly the sale, but the awareness which will provoke people out there into thinking “I might should buy that book”. Clearly, I guess, the more eyeballs you can hit with the fact, the more effective the distribution of that fact may be.

Mike Shatzkin claims Open Road’s automated online marketing operation is unique. OK, maybe it is unique, but is it working? Hard to tell from the outside — probably from the inside too when all’s said and done. We don’t see Open Road at the top of bestseller lists all the time, but how can we judge whether Open Road books are not in fact selling better than they would have done without this digital marketing help? They probably are, but not even Open Road can know for certain. These are not scientific experiments which can be rerun: so we just stumble along and tick all those boxes.

Here David Gaughran gives the self-publisher advice on how to do email marketing. At the coalface too, from Inside Higher Education, Joanne W. Golann lets us know what an author can do to publicize their own academic book. I am always tempted to insist that there’s a platonic perfect number out there which represents the sales number of any given book. In most cases in academic publishing this is a fairly low number and letting millions more know about is almost a waste of time. No amount of TikTok activity and word-of-mouthing is going to provoke anyone to buy Leucocyte Typing VII I fear — unless they were going to buy it anyway. Still getting the word out to fifty more buyers for such a book is a more rewarding feeling than trying to alert millions.