What follows is a post from the Wyrdsmith's blog, commenting on an essay by Michael Stackpole:
Stackpole begins by talking about how little the New York publishing houses do for most of the books they publish. This is true. It's also nothing new. I had four SF novels published by New York houses between 1986 and 1993. What did the houses do for me? They copy edited the books, not always well; they printed them; they put covers on, usually with bad art; and they sold the books to bookstores, especially the chains. My books might have gotten a modest ad in Locus
. That, so far as I know, was it; and that was 20+ years ago.
At the time I was furious at the lack of marketing. Now I think of it as par for the course; and it is not nothing. The New York houses do produce books that look like science fiction, which is important for reaching a science fiction audience. Much of their cover art is not good, though it has gotten better, due to the use of photography and computer graphics. (You no longer need to worry about artists who can't draw hands or do a three-quarters view of the human figure.) However, the blurbs and the cover copy are often pretty good. According to my editor of 20+ years ago, it's the covers and word of mouth that sell most books. Not reviews and not ads. The art grabs attention, and then -- I suspect -- the cover copy finishes the job of selling. If one is lucky, there is also word of mouth.
The New York houses get their books into bookstores, especially the chains. I check every time I go to my favorite Barnes & Noble and always find books by Kelly, Lyda and Doug.
All of this matters, even though we wish our publishers would do more.
Stackpole goes on to argue for self-publishing; and there are times when self-publishing may be a good idea, especially now, when you can produce e-books and sell them via Kindle and Nook. But the problem remains marketing.
The current system filters and channels. First if all, publishing houses do not publish just anything, though it sometimes seems they do. People who (in theory) know about books make decisions. Work that looks unsellable is not bought. The art and marketing departments decide how to package the book; and the sales team pitches the book to book store buyers. This is not a trivial task. The buyers can refuse to buy. I had a book pulled from production back in the 1980s, because the chain buyers did not like the (marvelous) cover.
Then the book store shelves the book in a section devoted to SF. In most cases, the section is of limited size and mostly contains recent books from New York houses, though some books and authors remain in stock, because they keep selling. When books first come out, they go onto the new release shelves, where they are more visible and have less competition.
I pick books by going to the new release shelves on a regular basis and looking first for authors I know and then for books with covers that look interesting. And I am influenced by word of mouth and (in some cases) reviews.
So even the minimal job a New York house does gets your book to a place where potential readers are likely to see it.
I have no idea what happens, if you self-publish an e-book. How do readers find it, among all the books on Amazon, Kindle and Nook? If they know your name and can spell it, they will find you. But what if you're an unknown author?