Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Behind book promotion

Aline’s post yesterday brought my mind around to something I’ve been wanting to mention for a long time and never seem to remember in time for my weekly posting. (Perhaps I should keep notes!)

There is a real reality that publishers face and that all writers should face: with promotional dollars always being in limited supply, the money is going to be plopped down on the books the publishers know (to the best of their ability) will sell well. There is simply no other way promotion makes sense.

Let’s say a publisher decides to be really altruistic and put an equal amount of money down for every one of their books during a particular season. Unless they happen to have the next Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, the average publisher is going to go out of business in fairly short order. To remain viable, they have to plunk down their dollars on the known winners in order to squeeze out the maximum sales and keep their bottom lines in the black. With this model in place, they will tell you (assuming they’re forthcoming) that this is the only way they can afford to carry the works of mid-list authors.

I had this said to me in one situation, and I know others to whom it was also said. It does make it a bit hard to swallow, but looked at objectively from the boss’ office, wouldn’t you do the same thing if it were your decision to make? I know I would.

As for all the multiple formats, current creative marketing thinking in the publishing world is that (as Charlotte correctly points out in her comment to Aline’s post) each version of a book sells to a different market. You also have to know that a casebound book and a trade paperback have only the difference of wrapper between them; the guts are the identical. Mass market paperbacks require different formatting, and electronic versions, too, are different. The wildcard that has arisen in the past few years is that now print-on-demand capabilities means that books can be cranked out economically in smaller amounts, so publishers are less likely to be caught with warehouses full of a version that didn’t really sell. Also with templates, software and a good design team, books can be typeset quickly and easily into all these different formats, a major expense in years past.

But the basis of Aline’s post still remains: how can publishers promote books effectively given the constant lack of funds for this purpose? Here we get into voodoo marketing. I work a lot (as far as graphic design goes) in the magazine circulation end of things. These marketers have to be smart. They do constant studies in how effectively their marketing dollars are being spent. Guess what a successful direct mail marketing campaign response rate is? Two per cent (0.02) return. You read that correctly. If only 2 in 200 recipients of their marketing effort respond, they’re high-fiving each other in the circulation office. Even after many years in the biz, that still boogles my mind.

I suspect that book promotion dollars go out with a similar rate of return. The thing the book publishing industry doesn’t do is to build in some sort of tracking mechanism to find out which marketing approaches provide the most sales return per dollar spent. I believe this is a critical failure in their marketing.

And that is something I’ll never understand, and provides the ultimate reason book marketing is so fraught with danger: they don’t really know what works and why. It may be that it’s impossible to know, but until they effectively track their sales efforts the way the magazine industry does constantly, book marketing will remain hit or miss.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Recently, I was on panel and the moderator asked "who is your audience?" Everyone gave intelligent answers but me. I looked, well, sort of stupid and said I didn't know. Come Spring had a huge following of old, old men who loved the farming details. A student at a Kansas community college wrote a paper about the book. She recently told me everyone in Jordan loves me. Why? She went on to get her PhD and teaches in the English department there. My book is on her required reading list.

I'm always surprised when someone likes my book. I didn't expect that. Marketing is so unpredictable. Just ask the Republican party.