Marketing: Finding and Selling to Non-Book Book Audiences

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

Peter McCarthy has more than 15 years experience in book marketing and is programming our upcoming marketing conference in in New York on September 26. Learn more about the conference here

Sometimes, when you’re trying to find an audience for a book, you’re not looking in all the best places. Let me explain.

Flashback: it’s around 2000 and I’m sitting in a freezing cold conference room in, probably, Boca Raton. I’m in the audience as no “new media” or “digital” folks were possibly going to be seated at the dais. Plus, at the time, geek marketers were all central – corporate and this was the imprints’ time to shine. Sales conference. Old school style.

I’m flashing back with great clarity on a phrase I heard repeatedly. Really, really repeatedly. That phrase was: “…will appeal to fans of…” As in  “…will appeal to fans of John Grisham…” or …will appeal to fans of Nora Roberts…” or  “…will appeal to fans of Malcolm Gladwell…” and so on. These phrases uttered by editors, marketers, and salespersons were based on the “comps” – the titles deemed comparable to this new publication we were spending thousands of person-hours considering. Typically, the comps were aspirational, based on content with a little bit of sales history sprinkled in, and often used to justify aggressive spending on the book’s acquisition. Many of the insinuations of comparability would have been more honestly phrased as  “…will appeal to 2% of fans of John Grisham if we’re lucky…” but hope springs eternal…

Of course, this was smart publishing in a sense – acquiring books that would tap into some existing zeitgeist or at least looking to a potentially viable consumer audience – even if it was a guess intended to “get” B&N to take more copies in the belief that the had another Nora Roberts on their hands. Some type of reader who had proven him or herself highly willing to engage with, say, legal thrillers, paranormal romance, “think” books based on graduate school studies and fascinating anecdotes, or the like. IT was fairly smart and definitely interesting, but it was bound to be small. After all the comp’ing, even if to Harry Potter (which strained credulity completely….every time), the “get out” number would be tiny. Say, 25,000 copies (this was back when eBooks accounted for .0000001% of sales or so). The comps were a slice of a slice of a very small percentage of the population who read in an obvious manner. Small, smaller, smallest. Even when aspirational…

But there was one type of comp I loved then and love even more now; the non-book comp. As in “…will appeal to fans of Star Wars…” or “…will appeal to fans of The Sopranos” or “…Six Feet Under…” or “….The Walking Dead…” or “…Post Punk Bands…” or “…the Tea Party…” or…you get it. Fervent crowds which are very large, consist of readers (check Pew – most Americans read) and can be sliced and diced  to target within the group without losing the key aspect of this comp’ing: the ability to hop on an existing wave that is far larger than the book could ever make on its own – due to budget, the “penetration” of any single title into the zeitgeist circa the 21st century, books’ waning place in popular culture (why I don’t buy at all but that’s another post!) and so on. Basically putting a book in front of a highly viable reader who otherwise would not know about the book.

The comp’ing concept, especially when applied to non-books used to excite me but, ultimately, back then it fell flat. Despite our best efforts to connect George Saunders to fans of David Lynch or the like, we typically failed. The reason for this was our inability to identify, reach, and engage those “adjacent” fans efficiently. We would have needed to buy a lot of media in a lot places – competing against other companies doing to the same thing who had far deeper pockets than us – to reach them all, or enough of them to either a make a difference or b) know that it was actually a bad comp!

But data (yup, data again) changes everything. A recent study showed that 30% of marketers reported that one of the chief benefits of a data-driven marketing approach was the ability to “deliver the next-best option to customers based on real-time and historic data.” Comps! Based on data!

In today’s world a few hundred dollars’ worth of Facebook advertising (intended strictly as inexpensive market research) will tell you whether you’ve got a non-book comp on your hands that is worth chasing. Typically we nail the book-to-book comps. In fact, we nail most marketing when speaking to heavy readers. We over-do it because it is what we know. We can put the next book in their hands if they just set down a book. But it’s like being at a political fundraiser – everyone knows the lingua franca. There just happen to be only so many of those people. Try testing the next book you comp, if appropriate at all, to “The Walking Dead” (or a fairly appropriate larger comp, though don’t over think it — you’ll be surprised at what comps) by actually running ads (an A, B, and C version that draw different reasons for consumer satisfaction based on the comparison) in Facebook (not another platform – Facebook) that target fans of “The Walking Dead” and closely related topics (~25M in the U.S.), and see if the Walking Dead folks like what you’ve got on offer. And, if so, which Walking Dad fans like it the most? For which reason (A, B or C version doing better?). When are they mostly likely to demonstrate their affinity by clicking or converting or liking? And so on. Narrow it down to the perfect-sized wave within the wave. Maybe the older Walking Dead fans who use iPads and live in Cities. Bigger but no so big you’re lost at sea.

With a real non-book comp in hand, creativity can be unleashed. How to reach super fans? How about casual viewers? Is there a trend of searches beginning at the opening of a season? The close? Do consumers want or need other media to fill the gaps between episodes or seasons? What do they look to? When do the seasons hit Netflix? Amazon instant? Both? One or the other? Audiences, audiences. Times to market. Messaging, creative. The opportunities open up based on a little comp research.

Books are books but they are also containers of ideas, worlds, beliefs, philosophies, attitudes, world-views, etc. As such, they “comp” to life. Busting them out of the “book” pond and into the ocean used to be difficult, scary, and, really, undoable save for some “no brainers.” Not so, now. Again, not every time. But more often than not.

One last thing; it is, in my experience, only slightly easier to do this with nonfiction than fiction. I understand that defies common sense. But, that’s how I’ve found it.

Peter McCarthy has more than 15 years experience in book marketing and is programming our upcoming marketing conference in in New York on September 26. Learn more about the conference here