An Inside Look at How the Publishing Industry Promotes Books

This week I attended BookExpo America (BEA) in New York City, a trade show for the publishing industry. It is here that publishers, distributors, licensors, booksellers, librarians, and many others come together to do business.

Because publishing is a business.

Usually, there are yearly recaps of the show, and people try to determine “trends” or the “state of the industry,” but what really drives the show is this: people who want more exposure for their books, and more revenue in the process.

Is that cutthroat? Nope. These folks GENUINELY LOVE BOOKS. And perhaps that is the distinction between just being a casual reader who loves books, and being in the publishing business — the people at BEA are tending to that business.

In walking the show floor this year, I was thinking about the elephant in the room that some writers either don’t know about, or don’t want to know about: that to write is one thing (it is the first thing); but to sell, is another thing entirely.

We like to think that a good book sells itself. Looking around at the enormous show floor at BEA, I had to consider otherwise.

BEA 2015

For a writer, if they want their book to find an audience, to ignore the sales process is to ignore how books have found readers for generations.

Last week, I shared a list that Emma Dryden of drydnbooks shared with me on the number of people who touch a book within a traditional publishing process. It had more than 40 roles listed, far more than many people know about.

As I journeyed through BEA this week, I considered: what are all of the sales tactics being used to sell books here? A partial list:

  1. I have to start with this one: the first great sales tactic to sell a book is to indeed write a great book!
  2. Location (the Javits Center in NYC is flashy and expensive)
  3. Booths and booth design (you see lots of different strategies here)
  4. Free books, including advanced copies of highly anticipated books that won’t be published for months.
  5. Costumes (yes, there were people in costumes promoting books)
  6. Autographs from authors
  7. Celebrities
  8. Swag: free stuff
  9. Posters & banners (some 30 feet tall)
  10. Panels, sessions, concurrent events. In some of these situations authors become teachers, but in all the person on the stage is facing their fear of public speaking. My gut is that 99% of them would classify themselves, to some degree, as an introvert.
  11. Buzz panels — where certain books are pitched more fervently than others.
  12. Contests and awards (some are simple contests within a booth, but others are juried awards)
  13. In-person meetings (loads of these, with some huge portions of the show floor segmented off for these)
  14. Sales material, sales pitches, demos, etc.
  15. Social media (promoting hashtags, etc.)
  16. Parties (lots of these in the evening, it’s not uncommon for someone to try to pop into multiple parties on a single night.)
  17. Free alcohol (yes, they actually roll out these mobile bars onto the show floor at the end of some days)
  18. Free food, such as promotional cupcakes with book covers on them.
  19. Lots of messaging, links, business cards, and other ways to follow up after the show.
  20. Singing (yes, I’m serious)
  21. Nonverbal communication, such as smiling, body posture, and other cues
  22. Nice clothes. There I said it: we all had to tuck in our shirts for this event.

One huge thing worth noting: many of these are age-old sales tactics, as relevant in 1975 or 1925 as they are today. If BEA as an event eventually disappears, these same tactics will remain — just in a different guise.

I’m preparing to launch two courses about how to create proactive marketing plans for launching a book and gaining readership, and yet I often hear from authors who tell me things like:

“________ doesn’t work anymore to sell books.”


“Why do I have to do that, shouldn’t I just write?”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: yes, writing is the first thing, and if you want to just write, I am 100% supportive of that. Go, write.

But I also speak to a lot of writers who struggle to connect their book with an audience, and are frustrated by that. And when I look around at BEA, and see how the industry sells books within itself, I see a huge effort at every level. To be clear: this is not just sales people selling to other salespeople, the show floor is filled with authors, editors, librarians, and people from every facet of the industry.

You will see authors and editors feverishly pitching books.

I bumped into a panel that included Gay Talese and John Guare.

Gay Talese and John Guare at BEA 2015

What on earth is Gay Talese doing here? He is 83 years old, does not have a new book coming out, and clearly doesn’t need promotion for his career. He’s a luminary.

John Guare is 77, and it just felt striking to me to listen to these men reflect on a new book to be published by an old friend (now deceased), Oscar Hijuelos.

Gay made a very clear and passionate pitch for the book, and even ended with saying…“that’s called promotion.”

Gay Talese at BEA 2015

Too often, I think modern day writers assume that in earlier eras, writers didn’t have to worry about marketing books. But listening to this panel, it is clear: they were very comfortable marketing books. This is nothing new.

Let’s take a look at the show:

Okay, I have to start with this: I met Brené Brown!!! We chatted, and she called me a midwife for authors.
Brene Brown and Dan Blank

Enormous banners in the glass atrium:
BEA 2015

What is so interesting is that the Wimpy Kid series is a runaway success. Yet, the publisher still feels that a 30 foot tall banner is needed:

The woman on in the center is protecting advanced reader copies… there is a long line waiting to grab them:

They couldn’t open these boxes fast enough, advanced copies of City on Fire:

A lot of attendees bring an empty suitcase, and then spend the show filling it up with free books they receive:

Autographing area, with Bernadette Peters signing on the left:

Julianne Moore signing:

Dr. Ruth signing:

Costumed character:

An author in costume:

Cupcakes being readied to be given away:


Private meeting area for Macmillan:

Private meeting area for Penguin Random House:

American Booksellers Association Indie Bookseller lounge:

A panel featuring a writer and illustrator for some of Marvel’s new Star Wars comics:


The Penguin truck:

Lev Grossman signing and new book:

Jami Attenberg signing and new book:


Free foam shields for a Rick Riordan giveaway:

There was so much more that I didn’t capture in photos.

So how does this translate to authors, and not just trade shows — what are the lessons that an individual author can take from this? Well, let’s look at one book I was able to get, an advanced copy of City on Fire. From what I hear, this book is highly anticipated:


Starting to read it on the train ride home, I noticed this inside the back flap:
City on Fire

The book won’t be out until November, but there are already blurbs when you open the book, and a long list of major promotion that the publisher is planning. Yes, the author seems to be pretty intimately involved in much of this.

All of this is not meant to overwhelm, because as I mentioned earlier, this is about the love of books and authors. I suppose I am reflecting on all of this for two reasons:

  1. How profoundly fortunate I feel to work with writers and those who support them.
  2. That yes, this is work to ensure books make their way into readers’ hands; and that this is work to be embraced.

If you are a writer trying to share your work with readers… which aspects of this fill you with the most fear; which with the most ambition?