Viral Loop Chronicles Part 1: Forget Everything You've Heard About Book Publishing

This article, from Adam Penenberg, originally appeared on Fast Company on 10/22/09.

Forget everything you’ve heard about book publishing.

For instance, recently at a party to celebrate the publication of my latest book, a number of people asked, "Is your publisher sending you on a tour to promote your book?"

Dicl;dsCKWDfce9qdck. Sorry, I was laughing so hard recounting this story that I hit my head on my keyboard.

These friends/colleagues/acquaintances/random people I met were inquiring about Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves. It tells the stories of the fastest growing companies in history–Skype, Hotmail, eBay, PayPal, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and many more, all of which grew virally. By amassing such huge numbers of users without spending a dime on marketing, they were able to create multimillion and in some cases billion-dollar businesses practically overnight. They did it by creating a product that its users spread for them. In other words, to use it, they had to spread it. Never before in human history has it been possible to create this much wealth, this fast, and starting with so little. I’d like to think Viral Loop is partially inspirational. If they can create billion-dollar companies from scratch, why can’t you? (Read an excerpt here and here.)

Most people have a vision of publishing that ceased to exist years ago: writers of yore traipsing bookstore to bookstore across America to offer readings and scrawl inscriptions to the handful of strangers who bothered to show up. It sounds so quaint. Alas, today’s publishers have little patience for such low-yield marketing efforts. Building a writer’s career isn’t part of the equation. It’s all about the bottom line. If legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, who patiently guided some of our nation’s greatest writers (Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe) were alive today, he’d probably be working in public relations.

Publishers don’t pump serious marketing money into a book unless they know it’s a hit, even after coughing up a six-figure advance. They don’t commit to ad budgets in contract negotiations and are loath to spend a dime on authors’ Web sites, travel, or any other expenses. That’s because so few of the books they publish actually "earn out," that is, sell enough copies so that the author’s advance is covered by his or her sales. A book that sells enough copies to justify an author’s advance is about as common as a kind or thoughtful anonymous comment on Gawker.

Read the rest of the article, and continue to follow the series, on Fast Company.