I wish more agents pressed for marketing commitments than high advances.
You can follow the correspondence to see people have come down with valid arguments on either side of the issue. But I want to go ahead and point out some things we haven't talked about here yet.
I've done some soul-searching about practicing (as an author) what I preach (as an editor). Say, hypothetically, I were in the future to write a book and get a book deal. Honestly, if I were suddenly to be offered a huge book advance for my debut novel, would I turn it down? Umm. Turn down money? [Frantically checks credit card bills, etc, searches soul further, etc.] Probably not. I wouldn't turn it down. Ok. But let's revise the scenario a little. Say I get two offers, one of which is for a larger advance, the other of which is for a smaller advance but includes a marketing commitment. Now here I would think very, very seriously. After all, I don't want this to be the last book I write--I want it published well, to lay the groundwork for a brilliant future career.
So let's talk about this very sticky area of book marketing, and how you as an author can strategize with your agent to try to capitalize both on your publisher's abilities to come through and on your own (ostensibly limited) resources. There are ways! By "marketing," I mean specifically where money can be spent on your book to make it go as far as possible. I don't mean publicity, which is a different thing; publicity is free, but marketing often leads to publicity.
(Caveat: I'm assuming, going into this, that you are a dynamic and dedicated author, meaning you're willing to commit time and energy to marketing yourself. I don't mean you have to quit your job to do this or anything, but I do mean you have to throw yourself in. Please be one of those authors; they're my favorite.)
First, nothing, no amount of money or luck, guarantees publicity. Remember that Jesus, despite his professed connections to The Big Guy, didn't really get publicized until he was hundred of years dead. However, money and luck both make it much more likely that publicity will happen.
To cover their bases, publishers allocate a marketing budget for each title. In order not to go bankrupt, this budget is usually 5% of billing, meaning the company plans to spend 5% of the dollar value of what they anticipate shipping of that particular book. (The net worth is more than 5%, often much more, depending on the percentage of returns on a book, but that's a whole other story.)
Now it's generally agreed that the one thing that is far, far more important than anything else in the world in selling a book is that said book be present and available in bookstores. Bookstores cleverly figured this out awhile back, and now charge for the privilege of increased bookstore presence. This is called co-op. See the stacks of books on the "new fiction" table? Or the pretty Mother's Day endcap display on your local bookstore's aisle? All that placement is paid for by the publisher, and we compete for the honor of paying for those slots. There are so many books that want to be co-oped that vendors get to pick and choose.
Co-op costs an arm and a leg--on average, a dollar a copy. If you do some quick math, you'll see that co-op basically eats up the entire marketing budget for any given book. Yeah, unfortunate.
What publishers tend to do is "borrow" marketing budget from the books that aren't anticipated to "need" it, meaning books that won't score co-op. What YOU want is for your book to be one of the borrowers, not the borrowed from.
What this also means is the belt has already been tightened for marketing, and we haven't even started yet (although phew! at least we're available in bookstores). What is traditionally thought of as marketing--that is, ads, etc--are just way, way too expensive for book publishers. There are some exceptions, but generally, in the real world, ads are not even worth talking about. So let's think creatively.
I hope people don't get angry when I say an author advance helps the willing author commit to publicity on their own. Of course, you worked hard on your book and deserve to get paid for it. But a little investment back into the book on your part might make it have longer legs and make you more money in the long run. Nora Roberts, who one might say has a knack for making money in publishing, recommends authors recommit 1/10 their advance to their own marketing efforts. I like her number, although I'll say it varies on your specific scenario and the amount of your advance. But that's a good starting place.
What this means is that there are ways you, the author, can allocate money of your own to help the book as much as possible. But there are also ways that a little money spent by your publisher can go a long way. So do have your agent get on the phone with the publisher and ask for a marketing and publicity call with the entire team. Be forthright about what you're willing to put in, and also, be ballsy about asking for some reciprocal commitments. Squeaky wheel, etc. Knock, and the door shall, etc. You'd be surprised.
A couple specific ideas for opening up the conversation.
The Internets!! Does it sell books? It's hard to say. It certainly makes or breaks your presence as an author, although as of yet only about 5% of book sales happen online. In the meantime, it's still crucial to be accessible on the internet so people (and reviewers) can find information about you, follow your news, look up events if you have them, etc. (Preaching to the choir here--is there anyone reading this, ahem, blog who thinks the internet doesn't matter?!)
A little dinero down to make sure your web presence is accessible, pleasant, and fresh is worthwhile. This does not have to be much dinero at all, but probably even the cheapest routes are going to involve a couple hundred bucks changing hands (unless you're an HTML wizkid yourself). Alas, this one's on you. Your publisher is probably not going to offer to pay for your website, and if they do, they're going to want to put it under their own domain name so they can control content, which frankly isn't as much fun for you or your fans.
But for marketing online, your publisher also has a number of options for complementing your presense, ranging from very cheap to rather costly. For amounts of around a grand a piece, there are book club servers like bookreporter.com, which helps target book clubs around the country by providing newsletters, reviews, and reader guides to make books more accessible. There are also industry-targeted newsletters that essentially act as internet coop, and author write-ups that are distributed to indie booksellers around the country. These are internet options that might contribute to mainstream store placement.
The book tour! So about that old adage that the author tour is basically useless--it's totally, perfectly true. It's also totally, perfectly untrue. You just have to do it right.
First, as an author, you hopefully have a community (you've joined facebook already, right? that will really help you figure out where, geographically, your friends are). You should "tour" the places that would automatically love to have you no matter what--your local bookstore, library, and/or school, or the place where you grew up and where your parents/aunts/neighbors have 15 zillion friends who want to come pinch your cheek cuz you've done such a good job and gone and gotten your book published, wooja wooja. Don't underestimate the power of proud relatives/neighbors. They should be mobilized. Should your publisher pay to fly you there? No. That's a waste of money that would be better spent elsewhere. But they sure as heck can help you coordinate your next family visit, or your next vacation to wherever, to see if they can't hook you up with an event that's relevant or will sell books. You can't always score an event, but if your publisher realizes you're not asking them to shell out to take you somewhere, you'll be surprised at how many strings they can suddenly pull.
To be noted about events: you must (must must must must must must) be prepared for the possibility that not a single person will show up. That's why it's best to plan events in places where you have at least a modest fan base, or some kind of occasion at which to speak on whatever your topic is. If you accept that going in, any actual book sales will be gravy. Also, reinforcing community participation makes you beloved, and don't underestimate how powerful grassrootsism and communityism can be. So converse with your publist about this.
Also, it's nice to remember that book tours need not involve your entire corporeal self. You may also astroproject your spirit! Or just your voice, for example. Your publisher can choose to cough up for a radio satellite tour--which doesn't involve travel and silly hotel and air expenses, but there is a small chunk of change--usually about three thousand dollars--associated with booking these events. Radio is rather a big expenditure, especially since it may lead to zero book sales, but this is often a commitment worth fighting for. The reason? Tape. Tape of a teensy radio show--you in an awesome interview--might inspire bigger radio shows to pick you up, and heck, maybe that will lead to TV or other media commitments. And not that it necessarily makes sense, but... TV sells books. Yes it does.
I suppose I've written enough for today. But I wanted to get the conversation started. May we all journey together toward better and more cooperative publishing.