Richard Herley, in his first post on Teleread, is discussing why savvy literary agents will have new opportunities in the e-publishing market. It’s a fantastic post and you should read it and think about what he says.

However, one little aside he made caught my eye:

Let me digress a little. The reason that hardback houses hold such sway in the publishing world is that they largely control—or did control—the entry to the market. Of course, they also promote the books they publish, but, as any publisher will privately admit, even a big promotion budget is wasted on a third-rate book. Books succeed only if readers like them. Once readers know of its existence, a book is promoted principally by word of mouth.

One of the things I’m often telling emerging writers is to moderate their expectations of how many marketing dollars are invested by publishers in their books. New authors often have unrealistic ideas about how much promotional support they will receive, especially for a debut. They have visions of national publicity tours, signings, launches, displays and printed collateral. In reality, it’s more likely to be distribution of review copies, some targeted media releases and inclusion in the catalogue. Don’t get me wrong – done well, a thoughtful publicity campaign will yield just as much exposure for far smaller spend than a lavish marketing program.

But Richard’s observation has me wondering whether, secretly, one of the reasons publishers don’t bother to spend much on the marketing of (most) books is, not that they don’t have budget for it, but that they know it doesn’t really matter. In the end, reviews, interviews and ads don’t really prompt people to buy books and read them. People do. Friends and peers do. Social networks do.

Of course, if that were the case, I’d expect to see more effort (in Australia) in doing the things that might impact on word of mouth, rather than traditional above the line publicity and advertising? I’d expect to see every publisher pooling their marketing spend into building vibrant online communities. Some are – I think the social media components of HarperCollins Voyager Online have attract a really strong, if small, community. I guess I’m surprised not to see more of it, in a whole range of genres.