Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Memo to Publishers: "Ads DO Sell Books"

Last night an anonymous poster offered a detailed & intriguing rebuttal to the conventional publishing boilerplate wisdom that "ads don't sell books." Further (if I'm reading this correctly), this poster is in the rather unique position of seeing this from all three sides: as an editor, as an agent and, most recently, as a published author.

I'm ENORMOUSLY grateful for this posting--indeed, before I post your comments, I'd like to ask, in the interest of being as precise as possible: would you do us all the enormous favor of providing more details? You mention eight printings; it would be enormously useful to know more--let's discuss this offline. Please email me at madmaxperkins@hotmail.com. I guarantee your anonymity.

"To say that ads don't sell books is a ridiculously counterintuitive and ultimately nihilistic assertion. It is to assert that the entire edifice that capitalism is built on has no form or substance. It is, speaking plainly, wrong. If ads don't sell books, then book catalog pages don't persuade booksellers to carry books. If ads don't sell books, sales conference presentations do not persuade reps to push a book more aggressively. Indeed, if ads don't sell books, information has no influence over consumer behavior. When I worked at at a top New York commercial house, we told authors "Ads don't sell books" to assuage hard feelings that their budgets had been cut. As an agent, I see it from the other side of the fence. But my best data comes from a foray onto my clients' side of the fence. When my own book was published -- a work of history published not long ago by [an imprint of a major New York publisher]-- the publisher aggressively advertised the book -- Wall Street Journal, NYTBR, elsewhere. Though I had no name to trade on, the book smoked through eight printings. We had few reviews. No majors. The only broad exposure it got, beyond a BookTV appearance, were those ads. Obviously what happened was something mysterious, magical, and beyond the ken of what too many publishers claim to understand: newspaper reader sees ad; newspaper reader reads ad; newspaper reader says to self, "Looks like an interesting book; would like to read book"; newspaper reader buys book. What is so inscrutable, unlikely, or mysterious about the above scenario? Why shoulds its underlying dynamic not be the rule? The burden of persuasion, it seems to me, should lie with the promulgators of the pseudoscience that ads don't sell books.That's anecdotal evidence, so here's a counterbalancing sweeping generalization: Book editors -- who as a class are not widely acclaimed for their facility with the engines of commerce, hence their career avocation -- claim that ads don't sell books because they cannot reliably predict the extent to which any given ad will sell any given book. That's fair to say. But it's far from the more sweeping assertion that we are frequently asked to accept as conventional wisdom, if not an entirely settled question."


M.J. said...

Thank God someone else besides me is starting to talk about this! Thank you who ever you are. I wrote in Sarah Weinman's blog two weeks ago just what you said - publishers saying that ads don't seel books is a fake apology for cutting budgets.

Whoever you are, wanna open a publishing company?

M.J.Rose - www.mjrose.com

Anonymous said...

I hate to defend publishers (really I do) but there are some truly basic reasons why basic advertising and publishing don't often mix.

A book isn't a brand. It's one product which will appeal to a relatively narrow band of readers. If you look at major manufacturers with differentiated products (flooring, bedding, etc), they don't advertise the Congoleum Ultima pattern #546. They advertise Congoleum (or possibly Ultima), but never #546. Publishers don't have the luxury of casting a wide net and doing brand advertising - I don't buy a "Penguin" book. Rather, I buy the book I want.

Anyone whom has been in advertising can tell you that the most difficult product to advertise is a product like a book, BECAUSE 90% of the work is identifying that book's target audience.

If I were a publisher, I'd be tempted to advertise a history book in the NYTBR and Wall Street Journal, too: A. it's nonfiction and B. it's history - 2 topics that I'm certain appeal to more of those readers than the average population.

By the same token, I don't think you could sell more copies of "Beevis and Butthead Go To Jail" by advertising in those same places.

So publishing requires BETTER than average advertising to be successful, and also more people dedicated to it than the average industry (to isolate the proper target audiences). Most publishers simply don't have the personnel to advertise in the way they'd need to if they wished to be consistently successful.

Anonymous said...

An interesting, and quite valid post. To be clear, however, I don't know that this person has proven a causal link between the advertising and the robust sales (and we all know 8 printings, fabulous as it sounds, could mean as few as 16,000 copies in toto--or ten times that amount). As Max says, more details would help.

In my long career I've written/produced all manner of books--almost none were reviewed or advertised; some sold, some didn't. The point is, this is a complex set of interactions, and the business as a whole often errs in drawing simplistic conclusions based on inadequate/unscientific data.

Whenever I discuss ads with the people who pay for them at publishing companies, the sophisticated ones are quick to say that ads do in fact increase sales. The problem, in their eyes, is that the amount of the increase (particularly as measured by ads in local/regional markets) doesn't justify the cost, at least in traditional advertising vehicles.

Which stands to reasoning; books for the most part are a niche-market product--trying to use mass-marketing techniques is bound to be inefficient in most cases.

There is, most likely, a big gulf between ads that make involved parties feel good (the splashy major national publication ads, that aim widely, cost a lot, and likely miss) and the ads that sell books (like, say, the massive online campaign for South Beath Diet).

Harper's Jane Friedman for one recently gave an indication that a big company may be clued into the real advertising/marketing bargains in today's world, from niche cable channels to web sites. New and old media are presenting us with all kinds of measurable, more affordable, and conceivably more cost effective advertising and marketing opportunities--they have for years really--and publishers ought to be able to develop mastery in certain subject/book-type areas here.

That could give us a chance to actually develop methods that are proven to work and be cost effective, and could help to develop mailing lists, campaign techniques, and the like that get amortized over many books.

Ultimately, that's how we're going to find that "ads can sell books" on a productive bottom-line basis.

Anonymous said...

Like M.J., I'm a refugee from Adworld, and have sold millions-worth of major brands with my creative work. I think the notion that a major depressant for book advertising is lack of efficiency has to be correct--getting a decent return on $$ invested must be a real dice roll because a book is not a mass market product--although an author, i.e. King or Grisham, can be a national BRAND, and for them ads should work. It may be that promotion is a more effective approach for books than advertising--I'm intrigued by Douglas Clegg's notion of giving away e-versions of books on the Internet which, apparently, has worked for him.
Ray Rhamey, Flogging the Quill

lingua said...

A public relations veteran told me that ads are effective if there have been important endorsements. For instance, if the New York Times has given a book a good review, then a positive quote from that review can be put in an ad to increase sales. That's when ads work, at least according to the "conventional wisdom."

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Ads aren't a "one size fits all" proposition. To dismiss advertising as an effective tool because historical nonfiction appeals more to readers of the NYT than other subjects is ludicrous. Advertising in LOCUS or online with the SciFi.com website would be a wise investment for a targeted audience for SF writings. Rolling Stone would be an excellent market to reach the target audience for a book on rock music. The Food Channel would be a viable outlet for promoting culinary publications.

Simply throwing money into advertising with no plan or understanding of advertising is foolish, yes. But I don't think that's what authors have been asking for. And I don't think publishers are listening.

Anonymous said...

I'm an agent, and, so, naturally it is expected that I think publishers should advertise all my books heavily. Not so. I'm not an expert on the ad business generally, but my general sense -- and it's a sense, not a firm principle -- is that if the publisher is willing to commit to repeated ads in multiple locations (which increases the number and likelihood of repeated "impressions," as they say in ad-speak), then it's worthwhile. But single ads, to make authors and agents feel good, are a horrible waste of money that amount to ego-stroking for all involved. Wouldn't that money be better spent on nearly anything? More ARCs, more mailings to booksellers, a creative web campaign that actually nurtures an audience?

Though I hate to see any one particular author of mine getting the shaft in this regard, I'd rather see publishers make smart decisions about which pony to back with major ad budgets -- and hopefully thereby make money that they can then spend downstream generating more creative promotional and marketing plans for a larger percentage of their authors as a result of being more successful overall. The agent/editor/author poster's experience strikes me as being exactly one in which the publisher made the smart decision to back a book they could sell by spending heavily on ads, while your average well-reviewed first novel might not be as smart a play for the same publisher. Let's remember not to generalize from specific experiences -- ads neither work nor don't thanks to one individual experience -- and let's also hope that Jane Friedman and HarperCollins are serious when they talk about exploiting new opportunities in advertising and promotion. Because we don't do everything we can for our books, even if blindly overadvertising everything isn't, in my view, one of the answers.

Michael said...

If a publisher doesn't know enough about who's gonna buy a book that a range of efficient niche ad buys aren't obvious to them from the get-go, they probably shouldn't publish the book at all. That it so often appears to be a question of "an ad in the WSJ/NYTBR or nothing"--the old way, or no way--is yet more evidence that most publishing companies are more focused on their needs and habits than those of their customers. And we're surprised when they don't make much money?

"Ads don't sell books"? Look around you; ads sell EVERYTHING. If somebody can sell you a razor that requires batteries (now there's an improvement!) they can sell you a book. What other industry so fetishizes its own discomfort with commerce? For a commercial enterprise, this ambivalence is a real problem.

But rather than addressing the problem--defining your target audience as clearly as possible, meeting them where they already are, with a high-quality product it wants--publishing has become more and more reliant on the media that DO do that, to create their brands for them. As long as publishers remain unconfident--passive--secondary in this way, publishing will continue to lose "mind-share" in our culture. Publishers have to use every tool in the box to sell books, not just the old not-so-reliable ones. And they have to believe that books can be a mass-taste, we just haven't figured out the mechanism yet. How many episodes of a TV show would you watch if you had to pay $34.95 for each one? And how many people would go see a movie if you didn't advertise it? Ads may not sell books as well as they sell candy bars--but the real problem is elsewhere. Until we solve that, intelligent, targeted advertising can only help.

Soniah Kamal said...

Ads selling books...perhaps if they were toothpaste or shower gel or deo, i.e. necessities. Readers buy books if the subject matter interests them. I don't think I'd go running to buy or borrow just coz I see an advert, no matter how big, no matter how sexed up. The role of adverts in the book business in my very humble opinion (I'm just an author- who listens to me)is CALL ATTENTION to themselves: I might not read XXX but I might mention it to someone who reads stuff like that just because now I know about it. This is how I've found out about a lot of books myself. Adverts increase word of mouth and that, if it gets into the right ears, can sell a book. Any book.

Anonymous said...

Unless you are looking at a $50,000 ad budgets (which is well beyond what most P&Ls throw off) your ads are going to be lost.

Someone above mentioned South Beach Online- waterfront media throws boatloads of money at that promotion because they are earning their bread from subscriptions. That campaign isn’t cheap -- it probably cost MORE than the print campaign the author’s referring to above -- but they have figured out the ROI for every dollar they spend. It is a very clever infomercial.

Niche ads work if you find the niche, but finding them has hidden costs. The name of the game for sales is impressions. An ad that runs on a single Sunday might as well have never happed. Unless it was brilliant. There’s always room for that.


Anonymous said...

This was sent to me directly by e-mail; I'm taking the liberty of posting it--hope the author doesn't mind.--MMPAs an editor at a major house, it's been my experience that ads can sell books IF the ads are part of a campaign that generates repeat impressions. This was obviously the case with the "aggressive" campaign for the book by Anonymous. Too often, however, this is not the case, with books getting one splashy vanity ad or a bunch of tiny ads tossed into a variety of alternative weekly because they are cheap. In these cases, the ads make no impact, they are just part of the ad noise in a paper, and, therefore, they just waste money that might be better spent elsewhere.

I would be interested in hearing the results of ads placed in PW Daily and various blogs. These seem smarter venues for ads because they are targeted to specific audiences, people visit their favorite sites continuously (generating repeat impressions on their own), and the ads are relatively cheap.

And to take the conversation in a slightly different direction, does anyone see the point in sending books and galleys out to hundreds of newspapers around the country when it's likely only a couple of reviews, if th

Anonymous said...

This was sent to me directly by e-mail; I'm taking the liberty of posting it--hope the author doesn't mind.--MMPAs an editor at a major house, it's been my experience that ads can sell books IF the ads are part of a campaign that generates repeat impressions. This was obviously the case with the "aggressive" campaign for the book by Anonymous. Too often, however, this is not the case, with books getting one splashy vanity ad or a bunch of tiny ads tossed into a variety of alternative weekly because they are cheap. In these cases, the ads make no impact, they are just part of the ad noise in a paper, and, therefore, they just waste money that might be better spent elsewhere.

I would be interested in hearing the results of ads placed in PW Daily and various blogs. These seem smarter venues for ads because they are targeted to specific audiences, people visit their favorite sites continuously (generating repeat impressions on their own), and the ads are relatively cheap.

And to take the conversation in a slightly different direction, does anyone see the point in sending books and galleys out to hundreds of newspapers around the country when it's likely only a couple of reviews, if that, will result from the expense? What's a better way to get reviews?

Anonymous said...

Blog advertising is very close to print - you need impressions – I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the CTR on weblogs, but they aren’t driving direct sales – as any blogger with an Amazon associates token can tell you. The word of mouth they generate is another story – I think the jury is still out on it.


Beverly said...

A lot of publishing people seem to assume that ads have to be for individual books, and because the interest in any particular book is not going to be as wide as the interest in a general brand name like Nike or Coke, then they are a waste of money.

But why don't publishers focus on advertising their imprints, using groups of books with common themes or common subject matter? Isn't that what imprints are for? An imprint for mainstream works, an imprint for romance, an imprint for mystery, etc?

Why aren't books (like romance, perhaps) advertised in bulk in magazines like Cosmo or EW? Obviously, ads work in those magazines or all the companies wouldn't keep buying ads there. I think it is safe to say that people who read magazines are readers, and that a number of those readers read books. Why not a full page ad focusing on new books under a chick lit imprint in a magazine like Cosmo?

Why such a narrow view of ads in the publishing industry? People say ads don't sell books, but they usually mean an ad for one particular title in the NYT doesn't sell books. Well, yeah, they're probably right. But most other companies don't just focus on one medium for ads. They use different mediums for different products, based on what suits that product. Where do publishers get their marketing people? It seems like they just take people from some other part of publishing, and just throw them into marketing, because they don't do any of the things other companies do.

Anonymous said...

Ads sell books.

Just not enough books to pay for the ads.

Seth Godin

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PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."