• 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.
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.