A Modest Proposal for Book Marketing

Mike ShatzkinBy Mike Shatzkin, Conference Chair, Digital Book World

It’s a pre-holiday week and a busy one following a busy one last week. So time for blogging is limited and, besides, all you readers have presents to wrap.

But there is one subject to ruminate on just a little bit that came up repeatedly during last week’s business. Constance Sayre of Market Partners and I are doing a joint exploration of ebook royalty rates for a presentation at the Digital Book World conference in January. We created a survey to allow agents to tell us anonymously what kind of deals they were striking and we got about 130 responses. (Market Partners’ newsletter, Publishing Trends, has a report in their current issue, released today, on what the agents said and the full data will be released for our attendees at Digital Book World on January 26.) We decided to balance our presentation by giving publishers an opportunity to give their side of the story, also anonymously (except, since we interviewed them, we know who they are. The agents, having responded online and in privacy, can’t be tied back to their answers. Connie and I are good at keeping confidences.)

We spoke to seven CEOs last week, a couple of whom were joined by colleagues who actually do the contract negotiating. What they told us about ebook contracts is what we’ll talk about at Digital Book World.

But just about all of them made an ancillary point and that’s our subject today. The point they made is that the main task ahead of them in the next few years is to completely reinvent book marketing. There was clear acknowledgment across the board of something that has concerned us for some time: that inevitably declining retail shelf space means a commensurate decline in critical merchandising capability.

Changes are definitely occurring. The big publishers are undeniably SEO-conscious, investing real effort thinking about what search terms apply to each book they publish. They’re all experimenting with Facebook and Twitter and other social networking sites as well. Various community-building tools, including the very ambitious Copia platform that launched a few weeks ago and the John Ingram-funded start-up Rethink Books and its new Social Book capability, are now being tried out. The established ebook vendors, notably Kobo and Kindle (on my radar screen; I’m sure Nook and Google too), are building social capabilities into their platforms. And the established book discussion networks like Goodreads and LibraryThing are continuing to add participants, books, metadata, and conversation that constitute raw material for marketing the next book from any publisher.

There are two questions big publishers need to be asking about all of this. One is “does it scale?” The other is “does it adequately replace the stack on the front table of a highly-trafficked bookstore as a way to generate attention for a new publication?”

If marketing efforts don’t scale, then a newcomer or a smaller press isn’t handicapped competing against a major. And if the new techniques don’t compensate for the lost front table spaces, then publishers are going to need something more. And effort that doesn’t scale takes time, which costs money. Publishing margins have never been robust enough to allow publishers to increase the percentage of revenue allocated to marketing and remain profitable.

Of course, book retailers share in the difficulty. As much as publishers have depended on retailers to sort the books out into sections and featured areas and to bring the customers into contact with them, the retailers have depended on the publishers to make the public aware that a book exists.

This is a big problem with many aspects to it and this is supposed to be a relatively short pre-holiday post, so I want to drop just two conceptual thoughts on it: one a principle and one a suggestion.

The principle is that “investment marketing” must replace “expensed marketing”. “Expensed marketing” is what publishers have always done: promotion for a single title that has no lasting payoff or value. That’s an ad in the paper or online, a press release that gets picked up and run immediately and has no value next week, or a free copy of the book that might result in a review of that book or, most of the time, result in nothing at all. (Thank goodness that, at least, those review copies can be far less costly to distribute in digital form and for that it is worth mentioning another relatively new service called NetGalley that facilitates distribution of electronic copies for promotional purposes.)

What I’d call “investment marketing” is an effort that yields a result of ongoing value: a batch of email addresses that can be pinged at no cost to promote a future book or a relationship with a web site or a blogger that adds to the promotional arsenal available in the future. This concept is particulary important on the social marketing side, which is labor-intensive.

I was glad to have the concept validated in a conversation with a leading digital marketer that we recruited as a speaker for Digital Book World. She agreed that in order for digital campaigns to make sense, they should be on behalf of a block of books — by an author or on a subject — rather than pushing one title.

This is a sea change for publishers who have always marketed one title at a time. It is particularly important to implement as the distinction between backlist and frontlist for promotion — which was always partly rooted in the reality that backlist might not be available at retail months or years after its initial publication — makes less and less sense.

The suggestion is to attack the search and discovery problem, the browsing problem, the serendipity problem, the substitute for the stack of books problem. Or, maybe we’re better off envisioning this as the “replacing the marketing clout of the book clubs” problem.

Introducing a simple concept: the book shopping or book marketing app.

I would happily pay a subscription fee to somebody who would put into app or ebook form a periodically curated catalog of recently published books on baseball history. I want to see the title, author, precis, table of contents, sample material, publisher selling copy of all kinds, and reviews. I don’t care if the purchase is “in app” or if I can click my way to the landing page for the book at my favorite ebook retailer (and I’m easy: I have four of them!)

I am sure regular fans of romance, sci-fi, historical fiction, business books, popular science, and many other subjects share the same frustrations I do with shopping for ebooks now. Any search you do returns more dirt than diamonds, more chaff than wheat, more noise than signal and, for the subjects nearest and dearest to me, far more books I have either already read or already rejected than that are new and of interest. It would be ever so much easier to have all this information presented in an app or an ebook that I could peruse at my leisure, online or off, and which would have proper navigation rather than a constant struggle with pointless links and back buttons.

I think we’ll see publishers and retailers delivering this, or something like it, before the end of 2011.

This post was originally published at Idealog.com and has been reprinted here with Mr. Shatzkin’s permission.

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Mike Shatzkin is the Founder & CEO of The Idea Logical Company and of BaseballLibrary.com, and is the Conference Chair for Digital Book World. He has four decades of experience as a published writer and working in all aspects of the publishing industry – writing, editing, agenting, selling, marketing, and managing production. He is well known for providing insight into the knottiest questions of the industry, old and new, in a career that began with a summer job on the sales floor of the brand new paperback department of Brentano’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue in 1962.

3 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal for Book Marketing

  1. Robert

    I already use several apps to help curate books for me and I believe many others use them too.

    I use these apps to identify new books I haven’t heard of and provide me with recommendations and reviews for those I have. For sorting the wheat from the chaff there is nothing better or more unbiased.

    The apps are called Facebook and Twitter. They’re both free.

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