10 Ways the Big Publishers Control Book Hype

Think you chose that book you’re reading?

Do you ever feel like a particular book is everywhere? Sometimes it seems everyone is reading that one book. And now you have to read it too. Because otherwise you’re missing out or being left behind. But is everyone really reading it? Or has the hype been artificially created?

Here’s how to tell if you’re falling for created book hype. And some suggestions for what you can do about it.

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1 – Paid Review Services

Think the reviews you see on websites like Amazon are from people who bought the book? Think again. Many of the initial reviews for books that seem to be really popular came from book review services, not purchasers. Book review services are online companies that provide free ebooks to people in exchange for reviews. What could be wrong with that? Well, those services are free to the reader but costly to the publisher or author.

The biggest service, Netgalley, is very expensive and beyond the budget of most authors. The big publishers are the main users of that review service. So their books get the most reviews.

Advertising is only effective once a book has a certain number of reviews. Paid review services allow traditionally-published books to be successfully advertised sooner than indie books. People like shiny new things so once a book is past a certain age, advertising becomes less effective. Some books will never sell well simply because they didn’t get enough reviews post-launch. While others, with the same rating, sell like hot cakes.

Book bloggers usually review for free. Book tours (where a different person reviews the book every day over several weeks) are costly. As a result, most of the books you see over and over again on blogs and social media are traditionally-published.

There are opportunities for indie authors to get reviews too. Amazon has free book days for authors whose books are in the Kindle Unlimited subscription service. These can be promoted via email services like Freebooksy which are free to the reader but costly to the author. Goodreads also offers a paid giveaway service that indie authors can use. But unlike review service users, people who download or win a free book have no commitment to review. You may think it’s just good manners to review a book you received for free. But you’d be surprised how many people forget to do this.

It’s about quantity not quality in the world of book reviews. Lots of reviews equals lots of sales.

A book with lots of reviews isn’t necessarily better than a book with fewer reviews. It may have just had more money spent on buying reviews.  

If you are a regular reviewer, you could consider using a smaller paid review service such as Booksprout which has more affordable options for authors. This means you are more likely to see indie books as well as traditionally-published books.

If you download a free book, particularly if you found out about it via a promotional site’s email service, remember it’s only free for you. It costs the author money to give their book away so please be kind and leave a review.

2 – The Media

Big publishers can afford to send free books to every newspaper, magazine, radio and TV show that might possibly mention them. Small presses can’t do this.

National newspapers are biased against self-published books. Even if they receive a free book, they are very unlikely to include it. The big publishers know this, and exploit it by flooding the press with traditionally-published books.

Journalists may not have read a book before reviewing it. They sometimes just copy information from the press release. 

TV and radio appearances are often organised through professional publicists or media managers working for publishers. Interview questions are usually based on information received from the publisher, although some interviewers have set questions. It isn’t impossible for indie authors to get on TV and radio shows but it is very difficult.

The one exception in the media arena is local print. Local newspapers and magazines often feature books available in their area. These will include high street chains that offer traditionally-published books. But also books from nearby independent bookstores.

If you are using national media to find books, please bear in mind you are only seeing a selection of traditionally-published books. They have not been hand-picked. They have not all been read by the editor. In some cases, you are reading the publisher’s own words. Unless it actually says it is a review, I suggest viewing it as an ad.

On TV and radio, unless the interviewer says they have read the book, you can probably assume they haven’t.

Please do read the book features in local publications. You may find some books you wouldn’t see in any other media.

3 – Publishing Imprints

Looking at the different logos on your books, it might seem that they are all from different publishers. But big publishers are split into divisions known as imprints. The publishing information page near the front of the book will tell you which publisher owns that particular imprint.

You might think you’ve found a book from an up and coming publisher. But actually it’s the same one you’ve already read 50 books from.

Most of the books you see in stores are from the same few publishers. In the UK, high street bookstore chains don’t even sell indie books online. If you want something different, you may have to shop somewhere different.

The world’s biggest bookseller is a good place to start. Amazon sells a huge number of indie books. To find out if a book is independently published, just check the publisher listed on the product page.

4 – Bestseller Lists

Compilers of newspaper bestseller lists say they are made up of all books sold across multiple platforms. This is the media’s way of excluding self-published authors, many of whom only sell on Amazon (which includes Kindle).

The only self-published books on the bestseller lists are by authors who have at least one other book that is traditionally-published. How does this happen? Publishers sign an author for one particular book or series. They won’t necessarily be interested in the next one. And once an author has grown a significant following, they may feel they don’t need a publisher anymore. So some authors are both traditionally-published and self-published.

Finding a self-published book on a bestseller list does not mean the person who compiled the list was unbiased.

Take the bestseller lists with a pinch of salt. 

If you want to know what’s really selling, check Amazon’s rankings. Or search for the particular types of books or subjects you are interested in, instead of reading what everyone else is supposedly reading.

5 – Sponsorship

This form of advertising has reached even the most self-publishing friendly bookstore – Kindle. Sponsored spots on Kindle are only available to publishers, not authors. This excludes indie books from ever getting the top slot.

If you like the look of a book, then by all means go ahead and download it. But please understand the book Kindle is suggesting might not be popular or relevant to you. It might be promoted because someone paid for it to be promoted.

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6 – Social Media Reach

Traditionally-published books are promoted on publishers’ social media accounts, reaching huge numbers of readers. Indie authors have to build their own audiences.

Well-known social media influencers charge to post about products. They only promote the books they get paid to promote. They don’t have to read them to get paid.

It’s always a good idea to check if someone has read a book before accepting their recommendation. Or follow micro-influencers on Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok, with smaller accounts. If they can tell you what they liked and what they didn’t like about a book, you know they’ve read it.

7 – Books with Endorsements

These are the quotes on the front cover, back cover, and online product page. They are often written by people who haven’t read the book. This includes other authors signed with the same publisher. And journalists who have a relationship with the publisher.

Have you ever seen a book with the exact same quote from more than one endorser? The publisher usually filters these out but sometimes one gets through. This happens when the publisher has provided generic quotes for people who didn’t have time to read the book. And for those who didn’t even want to read the book.

I strongly recommend ignoring endorsement quotes. If you think this sounds extreme, try reading the endorsements for the last few books you expected to love but didn’t love. Do you agree with them?

8 – Books in Bookstores

The situation with bookstores varies from country to country. The following is accurate for the UK.

ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) are expensive – and only available in batches of 10. This is fine for publishers who need book numbers for lots of books but it’s a barrier for indie authors. 

Indie authors use an ISBN from their publishing platform. This can’t be used in physical bookstores. The cost of a separate ISBN makes trying to get a book stocked in high street bookstores beyond the budget of most indie authors.

For those who can afford ISBNs, it may be possible to get their book in one store, as individual store managers have some discretion over what they stock. But bookstore chains are reliant on the industry distributor. And the distributor doesn’t work with self-publishing platforms. So even if a high street chain wanted to, it would be very difficult to stock indie books across all their stores.

A trip to a high street bookstore is great fun but please don’t let it be the only way you buy your books. Indie bookstores offer different books, and online booksellers have a much larger range.

9 – Books in Libraries

Did you know libraries don’t get their books from the same suppliers as shops? There are specific distributors that provide books to libraries. Generally, only books available through those distributors are purchased by libraries. 

There are publishing services that allow indie authors to distribute to libraries. But using them makes their book ineligible for the KDP Select program through Amazon. In other words, using this promotional opportunity cuts off other promotional opportunities. 

If you do find an indie book in a library, it was probably donated by the author.

Amazon’s self-publishing platform, KDP, has an ‘expanded distribution’ service which can be used by libraries. But it is not yet one of the main distributors libraries use. And books have to be priced over a certain amount to be eligible for expanded distribution, which makes them harder to sell.

To check if a book is self-published, look for a publisher’s name or logo on the cover, or on the publishing information page near the front of the book. If there isn’t one, it’s self-published. If you do find a self-published book at the library, please give it a try. And if you like it, tell your friends about it too! 

This may seem counterintuitive but some readers use libraries to find authors they like. Then they buy other books by those authors. So this can make a real difference.

10 – Books in Supermarkets

Supermarkets are a growing sector of book retailers. Why shop for books separately when you can pick one up with your groceries? By this point, you can probably guess the answer. Supermarkets only stock books from one or two publishers. Again, there are distribution challenges so this is not necessarily by choice.

There are some great books available in supermarkets. But if you are able to take the time to shop for books separately, you will find a much larger range elsewhere.

What Does All This Hype Do?

These tactics encourage you to choose the books that publishers want you to read by:-

  • Influencing public perception of what’s hot in the book market
  • Creating artificial trends
  • Increasing visibility of traditionally-published authors
  • Making books that publishers have invested in look more popular than they really are
  • Perpetuating the bias against indie authors in the media
  • Limiting visibility of indie books in stores, libraries, and supermarkets
  • Reducing competition between publishers and self-publishing platforms

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting these outcomes are all intentional. A publisher’s goal is to sell more books. But the big publishers are essentially the gatekeepers of the book industry. For many authors, spending years trying to get the right agent, who can access a big publisher, may be the only way to succeed. It’s certainly the only way to get unfettered access to the marketplace and unrestricted visibility for their books.

Understanding that much of the hype around books is not organic but paid for, can help you make more informed reading choices. By avoiding created hype, you can find a wider range of books and also help more authors get some much needed visibility.

How do you feel about the hype big publishers create for their books?

Enjoyed this post?

You might also like The Next Small Thing which offers ideas for finding a great indie book.

Why not check out my travel mystery series on Amazon. Or follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Goodreads or Bookbub.

This post is based on my experience as an indie author considering traditional publishing. The information given here is based on the UK book market. Some issues are global, others (for example ISBN costs and retailers’ online ranges) vary from country to country. Mentions of businesses are given as examples only and are not endorsements.

10 thoughts on “10 Ways the Big Publishers Control Book Hype

  1. Lots of useful information here, but very biased towards Kindle ebooks, and also misleading in a couple of cases. For example: ‘To check if a book is self-published, look for a publisher’s name or logo on the cover, or on the publishing information page near the front of the book. If there isn’t one, it’s self-published.’
    Wrong. Many self-published authors do so under their own publishing house, for precisely the reason you suggest – to appear to have solid backing and not be a ‘fly-by-night self-published author’! For a sole trader (which is what an author is anyway), there are no tax implications to having a publishing ‘company’. It’s just a trading name.
    Also: ISBNs are available in larger batches too, which are a bargain. If I’d realised when I started that I would have over twenty titles by now, all in at least three editions, i.e. 60+ ISBNs, I’d have invested in the 100 batch at the start. And an independent ISBN is worth paying for, if you want to look more professional.
    If you avoid Kindle’s exclusivity you can get on the library buyers list with Smashwords. I sell more on Apple ibooks than Amazon anyway 🙂
    But I always love inside information about the book world, thanks!

    Like

    1. I’m glad you found some of the info useful. I used Kindle as an example because it is the largest self-publishing platform. My post is aimed at readers but the additional info you have given may be useful to any other authors reading this. I am aware that some authors have their own publishing houses. This makes them small press-published indie authors, rather than self-published authors. These are not easy for readers to identify by looking at their books. But they can easily identify self-published books by the absence of a logo or publisher name.

      Like

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