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Re-inventing Book Marketing

• Dave Weich, founder of Sheepscot Creative and former director of marketing and development for Powell’s Books, argues that in today’s publishing environment, book marketing remains something of a “crapshoot.”

• Weich argues the opportunities go well beyond the general trade consumer.

Editorial by Dave Weich

In the next ten years, book marketing will radically reinvent itself. Nowhere will the shifts be more profound than in the add-on services that authors and publishers provide.

A bookseller friend of mine is fond of saying that you can depend on people to buy a book for three — and only three — reasons: to make money, to lose weight, and to find happiness. Any book in the store, unless it promises (however dubiously) one of those outcomes, is a crapshoot.

Which section of his store do you figure turns the most inventory? Self help? Business? Health? No, no, and no. By a wide margin, measured in units or dollars, it’s literature.

Of course the bookseller knows, as a category, he can also count on his customers to seek out stories, whether for pleasure, escape, or enlightenment. Trouble is, if you’re an author (or anyone responsible for getting a particular author’s work into readers’ hands), there’s a staggering amount of competition. My friend’s Lit section tops his sales reports, true, but in large part that’s because it constitutes the bulk of his inventory: thousands of similarly packaged products, all priced in the same ballpark and marketed more or less the same.

If authors and publishers are going to assert any real control over the choices readers make, that needs to change. And it will.

When a bestselling fiction writer visited Powell’s 72,000-square-foot flagship store in Portland, Oregon for the first time (was it Ann Patchett? So many authors expressed similar sentiments over the years that my memory can’t be trusted), she stopped in her tracks upon approaching the fiction aisles and murmured, “How will anyone ever find my book among all these? And even if they find it, why would they choose it?”

Here’s why, more often than not: Because they’ve read something that the author wrote previously and enjoy the way he or she tells stories, or because a trusted source has convinced them that they will.

Which leaves marketers groping for the ever elusive word-of-mouth.

Two months ago, I flew to Albuquerque, drove to a trailhead in the Gila Wilderness and backpacked five miles to meet an author in his cabin at the top of a mountain. This summer marked Philip Connors’s tenth as a fire lookout there. His book, Fire Season, foregrounds his personal experience on the rich history of the land he oversees, the first in the world to be protected by a government from the incursion of industrial machines. Ecco will publish it in April 2011.

Phil and I spent two days and nights together at the lookout, talking about his book, taking in the landscape, filming and recording. His black Lab, Alice, made excellent company. July sunsets turned the sky the color of raspberries. I came home with more than seven hours of material and a host of ideas to help the book reach target audiences.

This endeavor won’t surprise folks who know me from Powell’s, where I created a film series called Out of the Book. With a pair of music video pros, we made 40-minute features that screened in more than seventy American cities. Ian McEwan preferred not to tour when Nan Talese published On Chesil Beach, but readers from Miami to Missoula heard him — and watched him — on the Dorset coast, the setting of his novel.

A tragic car accident cut short David Halberstam’s life mere days after he’d submitted the final manuscript of The Coldest Winter; but in theaters, libraries, and bookstores across the country, his friends and subjects (Joan Didion, Bob Woodward, and Korean War veterans among them) introduced the book in his stead, helped along on screen by archival footage and original music.

In the years since, production costs have continued to plummet. Effective, affordable distribution models are beginning to flourish. The opportunity for publishers is vast — not only with film, and not exclusively with retail consumers. The educational market, for example, holds a world of potential: course adoption kits that serve video, as well as other multimedia, straight to students and teachers; authors lecturing classes in real-time on Skype. Already, enterprising writers have been addressing book clubs for years. Our parents’ concept of book and reader is dead. Long live the book.

The media is abuzz with ebook forecasts. Platform wars dominate the conversation: Kindle, iPad, Nook, Sony, Kobo. But the battle for market share won’t end anytime soon, nor will paper books disappear. In the future, as today, most titles won’t promise readers to help make money, lose weight, or find happiness — but people will go on reading them, any which way they choose.

Word-of-mouth will always drive book sales, but empowered authors and publishers won’t stand by idly in the hope that it comes. They’ll leverage emerging tools to deliver more value, create new revenue channels, and set themselves apart from the pack. A more fulsome — and gratifying — engagement awaits.

DISCUSS: How Much Money Have You Spent on Book Marketing?

Dave Weich is the founder of Sheepscot Creative, whose mission is to foster engaging, profitable communication among businesses, colleagues, consumers, and fans. From 1998-2009, he worked at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, where he served as director of marketing and development.

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  1. Charlie Boswell
    Posted September 16, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    wonderful article, but, alas, I inadvertently clicked thumbs down instead of thumbs up. can you correct the vote total to +6?

  2. Posted September 16, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Dave. I think your points are well taken, and they are backed up by a small survey I now have running about general consumers’ relationship to books. (http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/T8VYRWR)

    One relevant question I ask has to do with what kinds of marketing and information are influencing book decisions.

    The number one influencer: “I’ve enjoyed the author’s previous books” with 68.4% of the 431 respondents calling it a “Major Influence”.

    Here’s how the rest shook out:

    Books my friends or family have recommended (56.7%)

    Book reviews in magazines/newspapers (38.3%)
    Browsing in bookstores (37.1%)
    Award-winning books (33.9%)

    Books on the Bestseller Lists (32.2%)

    Publisher websites (72.3%)
    Author websites (63.3%)
    Advertisements (57.8%)
    Social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, Goodreads, etc.) (54.0%)
    Book and reader blogs (50.7%)
    Book-oriented websites with reviews, interviews, etc. (38.7%)
    In-store displays (37.3%)
    Online book seller websites (Amazon.com, BN.com, Borders.com) (34.5%)
    Browsing in libraries (25.7%)


    As you will have noticed the majority of “traditional marketing efforts” are falling into that last category, which I think speaks volumes about how many dollars are going down the drain in the effort to connect with consumers.

    Now, this survey is something I just have ticking over, so it’s not run by a big polling company or balanced to the census or anything, but it does correspond pretty closely to the typical demographics of who buys books–73.5% female versus 26.5% male, and a nice range of ages with the center of the curve in the 36-45 age range.

    I think the results are pretty valid, and they reinforce what those of us with any retail experience know: one-to-one connection, either real or virtual, is what drives interest in a book. One to one connection between author and reader, between recommender and reader, between reader and story.

    In a funny way it’s not just about the story in the book, but the story behind the book. People (readers, buyers, store employees, bloggers, reviewers) will remember a personal encounter with an Author next time that author’s book comes around and they need to take a look.

    As the industry continues to evolve, it’s worth paying attention not only to the technological innovation which so consumes us right now, but also communication innovation as the whole landscape between authors and readers flattens out. It’s not just about readers getting easier access via the wonder of the web, but about the emergence of a newly empowered authorship that will have to get up to speed on planning and administering their own marketing strategy in a Web 3.0 environment.

    I think we’ll see some brand new book-specific platforms emerging that will allow authors and readers to connect directly that are largely free from the control-issues that happen in a retail or advertising context, and that are genuinely about discovery and conversation.

    And along with those platforms will come plenty of opportunities. When people ask me what I think the hottest jobs will be in the future publishing model I say: smart innovative Editors conversant in XHTML, Independent Publicists who can work with Authors on building their own comprehensive long-term campaigns, and people giving Web 3.0 Business Classes for Authors. Those three groups will never want for a paycheck.

    Sounds like you are well on your way to the front of the pack in that area. Bravo and thanks again for your ideas. I think you are right on the mark.

  3. Posted September 16, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I agree with what the changes will be in terms of finding the markets for new books. Certainly the experience of the Itinerant Book Show has taught me that people love to be in a serious conversation about books, new books, books they have never heard of by authors recommended to them by someone they are beginning to trust. So, a traveling distributor building relationships has become a viable way to sell books.

    Second I have discovered in my own community where we have no bookstores that a reading series can foster a great deal of community involvement. Bringing in new authors, authors from the community, authors in settings they rarely appear in, all of this is making for a new kind of book community right in my own area.

    The next step is to have more people involved in this type of interaction on a consistent basis. This is what lots of people who would like to create a literary hub in their own communities can do. It will take publishing to its next level.

  4. Posted September 17, 2010 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    Wow Dave, this is a great article! Would it be to naive to summarize this as making sure that you get the story behind the story out there?

    There are going to be just too many alternatives. Like the author referred to: “How will anyone ever find my book among all these? And even if they find it, why would they choose it?” Providing a response to those questions, is job number one for any publisher or author.

  5. Posted September 17, 2010 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your comments Kristen. I think they dove-tail in with the articles main points. Together they should clear up any confusion about how to market a book in the big bad scary future of publishing.

    For the latest news about the Tools of Change for publishing conference, please join us in the Linked In group: http://linkd.in/a4RLw7

  6. Cyndi Ramirez
    Posted September 17, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Terrific insight on the book market! Thanks and definite thumbs up!

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