Who is Philip Roth?

There are more than 100,000 published authors in the US. Most of them have publishing houses (and at least a tenuous connection to a publicist). What a great marketing problem. The long tail of authors meets the long tail of public interest. How do they intersect?

This is a challenge to authors. Since I know a lot of them (and since many I don’t know read this blog) I thought I’d do it here.

Authors like to read.

They also like to write.

Authors hate to promote themselves. And lots of authors don’t like the web so much, at least when it comes to promotion. It’s not like traveling to an independent bookstore and having tea with the owner while you sign books, or being interviewed for the book section of the Times. Your favorite author probably doesn’t have a blog, probably doesn’t spend all her time online.

So, instead of a significant web presence that’s author-driven, we end up with publishers building their own promo sites (this one has just 40 (!) authors and cost a fortune to build) or we get publishers insisting that all their authors build MySpace pages (just last week, in fact).

There are a few problems with this publisher-first approach. The first is that few readers know which authors are published by which publishers, so there’s no way they’re going to visit a particular site. The second is that authors aren’t going to spend the time to build (and maintain) fancy pages. The third is that because publishers have (legal/sales) trouble picking one bookseller over another, it’s really hard to close the sale and sell the book.

I think at the heart of this is the declining value of silos.

Publishers, like many organizations, want to control the conversation, want to own the web page, want to be sure that people come to them, as opposed to going where people are. The irony here is that bookstores are precisely the opposite of this. There’s no Knopf bookstore, no Random House store. Bookstores, unlike the current conception of car dealers, work best when they are agnostic about what’s for sale.

Authors are brands. Some are billion-dollar brands, some are tiny ones. The web is custom made for authors, but so far, it’s largely going unused.

Which brings us to Squidwho. Since we launched it a month ago, people have added more than 7,000 biographies. And most of them, alas, aren’t authors. We’ve got movie stars and politicians and yes, JK Rowling. I wish I had been surprised and had discovered scores of my fellow authors there, but alas, no.

Books aren’t the universal medium they used to be, but the industry still ought to be selling more books than we are today. I’m afraid that publishers and authors have embraced a broken system, even though there are tools out there ready to help.

When I set out to build my page on Philip Roth, I discovered some very cool interviews, videos and entries about him. But no one had pulled it all together. No one made it easy to figure out what to buy and why. Forgive me for promoting my own project, but Squidwho just feels right to me. Useful and profitable and easy.

So, here’s the challenge. If you’re an editor, an agent, a publisher, an author or a fan, go build a page about an author you like. Or yourself. The worst thing that will happen is you’ll sell a ton of books and raise some money for charity.