If you’ve been in the traditional publishing arena the last five years, you’ve witnessed major houses merging to share resources (and shave those pesky overhead costs), while other publishers have closed their doors completely. Small presses have flown in faster than buzzards in a zombie apocalypse, and hordes of authors have flocked to Amazon to gamble on self-publishing.

Those who remain in the traditional publishing show (those of us sticking with our NY publishers) know that the odds of our book becoming a breakout success are slim. Marketing departments at every major publishing house have felt that cinch around their waists as budgets are cut, and yet they’re taxed with getting just as many books noticed with less money. Publicists are already overworked, and since authors have to fight harder to land a book deal, our expectations of those publicists are inflated. And yet deep down, we know the deal, don’t we? If you attend any book event and get more than two authors in a room together, at least one of them will ask the dreaded question “So, how’s your book doing?”

If I happen to be in this hypothetical group of three, I can feel myself tensing.

A) Because I don’t want this same question launched my way. If I say my book is winning at life, I look like an asshole. If I say it’s bombing, I look like a chump.

B) I’m waiting for at least one person to answer with the following rehearsed line, “It’s tanking. But then the publisher isn’t doing crap to promote it, so it’s not like it had a chance.”

Look, I get it. Back in the day *waves old lady cane* publishers supposedly paid for everyone’s consumer ads, and book tours, and prime bookstore placement, and expensive champagne for authors to mainline any time they needed an ego boost. But we know the drill now. Only a few select authors get giant marketing budgets. Usually because those authors worked damn hard on their novels, or have an extraordinary amount of talent, or have already proven their work sells well, or were lucky enough to debut with a commercial idea at the exact right time.

The rest of us get what remains: Humble budgets, a hard-working publicist (even if you don’t see exactly what they’re doing for your book, trust me, they are doing all day, every day), and an editor who is praying for your book to score much-needed word of mouth because, Lord, they love your story more than their own hopeful, beating hearts.

Look, I’m not saying it’s easy to swallow that publishers buy books without a ton of marketing cash to put behind them, but you knew this when you signed that contract, yeah? What they did do was put an editorial team behind your book, and give it a solid cover, and get reviews from places that help sell books. They formatted your book, created galleys, and got it into as many hands as possible. They took it to conferences, and conventions, and sent catalogs to teachers and librarians. They ran ads for all their books in all kinds of places (not for your book alone, but I promise your book got a mention in some of these ads).

My point is not to shame authors who blame their publishers for poor sales, but to simply make the point that getting a small marketing budget is the norm now, not the exception. You’re not the redheaded stepchild at your publisher. We all are. So, it’s time to stop casting blame, and focus on what we can do.

We can write a better book. We can take marketing into our own hands. We can realize that we were lucky as hell to get a contract at all in this digital, so-many-other-things-a-reader-could-be-doing age, and we can know that for most authors, it’s all about the long game.

Market each book as best you can.

Make each book better written than your last.

Know that it takes time (and many books) to build a large readership.

Expect your first book to “bomb,” and the second, and the third. And keep on writing anyway because you love the process, and you love your editor, and you love your publisher who works miracles with little cash to get your book noticed, and know that if you keep trucking along (and focusing on the small successes each book brings over its predecessor), that one day you may be an author at the top who maybe, just maybe, doesn’t have to fight quite as hard anymore.

But then again, where’s the fun in publishing without the dirt under our nails, am I right? 🙂