Publishers Make Poor Poker Players

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

PokerWhen I was young, I had an eccentric, poker-playing uncle. At family reunions, he loved to show me how to play five-card draw, which introduced me to the concept of betting and bluffing. He’d deal out the cards, ask me to make a mock wager with fake chips, and then tell me to decide whether to fold or go all-in. As an 11-year old, my poker-playing skills weren’t well-honed. So, invariably, I’d fall for my uncle’s bluff by folding too early, turning over our cards, only to find out that I had held the winning hand. My uncle would joyously rake the jackpot into his pile and cackle at me, “You sure left a lot of money on the table, kid!” To this day, I can remember the frustration that I felt knowing I had held the winning hand but still lost the game.

If my uncle were alive today, I think he’d make a similar observation about the publishing industry. He’d say that publishers are leaving millions of dollars on the table each year, because their marketing tends to fold too early. In other words, you can’t afford to let your marketing copy fold when skeptical shoppers call your books’ bluff. When people browse your titles, your marketing copy has to overcome their skepticism and convince them that the book is worth buying. You have to speak the readers’ language and capture their interest. If they call your bluff and your marketing folds, then you lose book sales.

What do I mean by weak marketing that folds too early? It’s using promotional language that fails to answer the readers’ biggest book-buying question, which is “What’s in it for me?” All readers, regardless of age, gender, or socio-economic status buy books based on self-interest. Consequently, people do not buy books solely based on topic, plot, or genre descriptions, because those issues don’t really explain what’s in it for them.

For example, you and I don’t buy clothes based on the fabric that’s listed on the label. Have you ever bought a shirt or a suit just because the tag listed cotton or polyester? No, you buy clothing because it makes you look good or feels comfortable. It’s the result offered, not the elements listed, that persuade us to purchase something.

Likewise, readers buy books based on self-interest, such as whether a title will provide them with answers to a problem, inspiration to overcome challenges, secret glimpses of the forbidden, or hours of enjoyable entertainment. People shop for books primarily using a “What’s in it for me?” mentality, such as:

  • I want a better marriage or less stress (non-fiction).
  • I want to be entertained for hours (fiction).
  • I want a sneak peek into someone else’s life (biographies, memoirs, etc.).

However, when I look at how most publishers market their books, they seem to miss this important point. That’s because you rarely see promotional language that actually tells the reader what’s in it for them. Instead, most books are marketed using boring, generic text that merely describes the book’s topic, plot, or genre.

For instance, I recently examined the marketing copy for 30 books that were on the current New York Times bestseller lists. Out of those 30 titles, less than 8 offered marketing copy that sufficiently told the reader what was in it for them. That means over 70% of the titles listed never mentioned how the book would improve the reader’s life. They listed bland promo copy that confused the reader, rather than clarified the benefit.

Why would I analyze the marketing copy for successful New York Times bestsellers? Because those titles indicate a publisher’s overall marketing focus for two reasons. First, if a publisher isn’t focused on maximizing the sales of its bestsellers, then it will rarely focus on maximizing its lesser-known titles. Second, improving the marketing language for bestselling titles represents the biggest growth opportunity for publishers. A small improvement could quickly generate significant sales increases.

For instance, let’s be conservative and assume that improving the marketing language for a publisher’s top 10 titles would increase sales by a small amount, such as 7,500 copies each. Multiply those additional sales of 7,500 additional copies by 10 titles, and you get 75,000 additional books sold. Multiply 75,000 by a deeply discounted price to the retail trade of $6.50 per book. How much extra money does the publisher make? Over $500,000! That’s a lot of money. How would your company benefit from an extra $500,000 in revenue?

Here’s the best part. There’s almost no cost involved to obtain this money. Publishers are already creating marketing copy for all of their books. They’re already distributing this information to the trade. Publishers simply need to make an internal adjustment with their editorial and marketing personnel to write copy that answers the reader’s question, “What’s in it for me?”

If making an additional $500,000 isn’t compelling enough, here’s another reason why improving a book’s marketing language is so important. Everyone agrees that the future of publishing is going digital. Ebook sales will continue to grow as brick-and-mortar retailers continue to struggle. These realities change the future of how books will be marketed. Consider these questions:

  • How do you market books to people who don’t go into bookstores to discover or buy books?
  • How do you get attention for your titles when online retailers offer millions of books at once?
  • How do you market books in a world where retailers are losing influence and the reader has more control and choice than ever?

The digital revolution warrants a revolution in a publisher’s marketing strategy. Instead of selling to readers primarily through retailers, publishers must engage in a direct-to-consumer marketing approach. But, in order to succeed in direct-to-consumer sales, you must speak their language. Can you guess what that language might be? A direct-to-consumer marketing approach requires that you directly explain to consumers what’s in it for them. Publishers can thrive in a direct-to-consumer environment if they clearly explain the results that their books offer.

For example, here’s what can happen when an author and publisher switch from selling books to selling results. Recently, I worked with an author named Lysa TerKeurst who had published 13 books that struggled to sell more than 50,000 copies each. Lysa and her publisher began to think that she was incapable of selling books at a higher level. So, they hired me to help market her 14th book entitled Made to Crave.

As I consulted with Lysa and her publisher, I taught them how to transition from merely describing her book’s content to describing the results her book offered. At every turn, we focused on answering the readers’ question, “What’s in it for me?” We highlighted the results on the book’s back cover. We featured numerous success stories on the book’s website. We utilized a direct-to-consumer marketing approach with free resources and word-of-mouth tools that made it easy for Lysa’s readers to tell their friends. What were the results of these changes? 

  • Made to Crave sold over 225,000 copies in its first 9 months.
  • The book made the New York Times paperback advice bestseller list for over 25 weeks.
  • The publisher’s initial sales projections were surpassed by more than $1.2 million!

This incredible success wasn’t due to landing any major TV interviews, using social media, or creating a larger author platform. In fact, the author’s platform was the same size as her previous books. Instead, the difference was that the author and publisher stopped selling the book’s content and started selling the results that the book offered.

The good news is that any publisher can apply this same principle to their books. It’s applying common sense, which doesn’t cost you anything. Consider that most changes in publishing today require a significant capital expense or a major company restructure.

However, this change must happen from the top down in order to be effective. Make the decision at the executive level of your publishing company to adjust your marketing language. The leaders must initiate a results-based focus, because junior editors and marketing staff can’t change anything if it’s not deemed a priority by the executive team. Try this exercise to see where your publishing house stands on this issue:

  • Look at your top 10 bestselling books. Does the marketing copy for each of those titles describe clear results for the reader? If not, you’re losing too many sales unnecessarily.
  • Examine your company’s website. Would online visitors be able to name at least three clear results that your publishing house offers to readers?
  • Do your top author brands communicate results for the reader? Or, does the marketing language present a self-focused fixation on personality or boring book descriptions?

If your publishing house is struggling in these areas, start by redefining the function of your company from a publisher of books to a provider of results. Then, take active steps to train your editorial and marketing staff to identify the results of every book published. If you take these steps, here what’s in it for you. Your publishing house will be able to:

  • Capture more readers with less effort.
  • Increase word-of-mouth at a faster rate.
  • Maintain higher prices, because price is less of an issue when people focus on the results.
  • Sell more books and generate more profitability.

Publishing houses are constantly looking for ways to grow without having to completely overhaul the organization. Making simple improvements to overall marketing language can generate over $500,000 – at almost no extra cost.

The next time a reader calls your book’s bluff, you can know you’re holding the winning hand because you can answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” Stop selling books and start selling results. Then, both you and the reader will be able to shout “Jackpot!”

Poker image via Shutterstock

Expert Publishing Blog
Rob Eagar

About Rob Eagar

Rob Eagar is the founder of WildFire Marketing, a consulting practice that helps authors and publishers sell more books and spread their message like wildfire. He has consulted with numerous publishers and worked with over 400 authors, including several New York Times bestsellers. Rob is the author of Sell Your Book Like Wildfire, which is considered the new bible of book marketing. For more information, visit:

5 thoughts on “Publishers Make Poor Poker Players

  1. Seeley James

    I saw this on PassiveVoice but only excerpts. I’m glad I came to your site to see the whole thing, you have some great points here. But the indies aren’t helping the argument much by going the other way. With 30 years of sales and marketing under my belt, I see very few authors getting it right. My blog “5 FREE Tips on Book Promotion” addresses social media abuse and other issues for both sides. There is a way to do this right and keep people happy.

    Peace, Seeley

  2. Mona Karel

    Caught in the chasm between traditional publishers and the self published, the new small presses could benefit greatly from this advice. Some very good books go unread due to weak or incomplete promotion. And a lot of authors spend writing time and energy on failed promotion.

    1. Rob Eagar

      Thanks, Mona. I agree that small presses need to focus even more on telling readers the potential results that their books offer. In a crowded marketplace, capturing the reader’s attention quickly is all that more important.




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