Marketers Don’t Need to Read the Books They Market

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Keeping it simple for the consumer is incredibly dire.

–Bob Iger

I can envision the comments already. Or at least the perplexed emails and phone calls from peers. What!?

Four things up front that are critical to my perspective: 1) I am referring to direct-to-consumer marketers and 2) I am assuming they have been briefed in short form on the editorial aspects of the book via a Title Information sheet and 3) this is a suggested approach – I’m not saying it will work for everyone and 4) I believe that in a digital world publishers need a way to scale their efforts to produce more – not fewer – titles.

Here’s my reasoning.

The consumer has not read the book. To put one’s mind in the consumer’s mind – to truly empathize with his or her purchase-making decision – it is beneficial for a marketer to understand the book on their level. The creative publishing process that has preceded the consumer marketing supplies the tools marketers need to do this, including packaging, quotes from other authors, reviews, author photos and bios, descriptive copy, comparable titles (in the retail space) and the like. And, often, the consumer marketer has been involved in much of this process and is steeped in the book landscape in general and thus knows about positioning a given title.

I believe it makes sense to peruse perhaps a chapter, in the way a consumer might – online or off – to get a sense of the writer’s style and the book’s content to ensure the marketing isn’t disingenuous or off base. But, in my mind, that’s about it for reading the book.

What the marketer is looking for is the hook – what to put in a Facebook ad, a Google ad, a blog post, the meta-data. What portions of marketing collateral will get the consumer to go from unaware of the book – or potentially interested – to an engaged purchaser? That’s generally found in the material that has already been created in the publishing process – rarely though, in my opinion, is it in the book itself. In fact, knowing too much can make it difficult to distill the message down. Nuance is tough to convey in B2C marketing.

In my mind, the most effective part of the consumer marketing cycle comes next – reacting to the flow of data coming back on what’s working and what’s not. This is where the true marketing gold lies. Less planning, more reacting in real time.

Obviously there are exceptions depending on the specific campaign. But, for this marketer, nope; I don’t read the books unless it is absolutely necessary to get a campaign right. I’m not going to refer to any specific campaigns but, for me, this process has tended to work out well.

All of this this may sound crass and please know that I love books and read voraciously. I just try not to confuse my love of books with my job of pitching them to consumers, and this is a part of pitching that I’ve found effective.

I welcome comments. Fire away. I’ll respond.

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  1. says

    Okay, I understand this is intended to stir the pot, to provoke conversation. You got me.

    The overall question strikes me as one of data vs. intimacy with the “product,” to use that dreadful term. Which of these is more relevant with direct marketing and how does this differ from marketing that involves an intermediary who then markets the book direct? Is that right? In any case, I definitely agree with you that “in a digital world publishers need a way to scale their efforts.” I’d argue this is the #1 challenge facing anybody who wants to be compensated for having their books read.

    I’m afraid that’s where we part paths. When we marketing direct, I would argue that we need to know the appeal of the book to its audience more intimately than when we’re marketing via an intermediary. (N.B. I not saying you need to know the book intimately; you need to know the customer and what they value more intimately.)

    I appreciate that you can always test different “calls to action,” click-throughs, landing page metrics–all that jazz (which I love, too), but if you don’t begin with a pretty intimate understand of what the prospective consumer values, I’d be afraid you’ll loose whatever benefits the data gains you. That’s part of the reason why I think niche marketing is the best way to go. The closer you are to the consumer, the more intimately you know what they value; I have a feeling that’s what you’ll need if you’re trying to scale efforts in support of more books in a growing sea of books. But, I’m also guessing all this varies a lot by genre. Of course, this is just opinion. I’m not sure either of us knows.

    Maybe we could stage a book marketing bake off?

    • says

      Thanks, Peter. I love this comment and could not agree with it more.

      “When we marketing direct, I would argue that we need to know the appeal of the book to its audience more intimately than when we’re marketing via an intermediary.”

      I totally missed that angle.

      Also, I agree with niches. Big time. They afford you a built-in understanding of the end consumer.

      For me, this practice came from a notion I have that the appeal — at point of purchase decision — boils down to the “image of the book” and the “consumer aspiration” to be a part of what that book “means.” Perhaps this is best expressed as a distilled version of an intimate understanding of the book, which would require actually reading the book. For me, it was always more of an understanding of what aspects of the marketing pieces would best produce the aspiration. I often found it more difficult to produce that when I knew the book too well. I’d find my message getting tangled and too subtle.

      I’m not sure I know the right answers but I find it a fascinating topic as publishers endeavor to have direct relationships with consumers. Thanks so much for commenting.

      • says

        “Intimately knowing the appeal of a book to it’s audience” is pretty much the most important aspect of getting it positioned effectively, but I don’t necessarily agree that paying more attention to the book is the best way to increase that sense. Rather, it probably means you should be studying the audience and their needs (either through niche marketing or the study of user data). This is even more true when you are marketing a book that you yourself are not part of the audience of.

        The “consumer aspiration” thing you were mentioning is interesting. Right now I’m reading a book called “emotional design” that deals with the role that emotions and perceptions have with regards to our relationships with designed things, and I think that it’s framework is an interesting way to think about this as well.

        Basically it divides perception into 3 levels: Visceral (First Impressions, Emotions, beauty); Behavioral (Utility, Practicality, Efficiency); and Reflective (Social, Cultural, Depth, Artistic Meaning, etc). High art is designed to appeal to reflective sensibilities often at the expense of the visceral, and pop songs are geared towards visceral enjoyment at the expense of reflective depth.

        In that context, I think your “consumer aspiration” concept really appeals to the audience in a social, reflective way. The other two are much more pedestrian, but just as likely motivators of actual sales – this book will keep me entertained on this flight (behavioral), this book jacket is pretty (visceral), etc. Marketing’s job is to get the product noticed and to set positive expectations for what the user’s experience will be like, and I tend to think in order to not be misleading that a book’s marketing should reflect the way that it is supposed to appeal to the reader: If it’s a book of landscape photos or an action/romance novel, the marketing should place an emphasis on the visceral appeal; If it’s a book on woodworking or “10 ways to lose 10 pounds of thigh fat”, the focus should be on the utility it will bring to the reader. Then there’s something like the twilight series, where it initially had a primarily sensationary appeal, but then gained the secondary social appeal of “all of my friends are reading it and talking about it”, which maybe required a combined approach?

        • says

          Thanks, Drew. Great comment.

          Man, studying the audience and their needs is an excellent point and a total oversight on my part. Critical.

          As for your point on perception, what an excellent framework for this topic! Breaking down how people — in this case potential consumers — perceive objects cuts right to the chase. Emphasizing the Visceral, Behavioral, or Reflective aspects of a given title is exactly what marketing needs to do to, as you put it so nicely, get the “product noticed and to set positive expectations for what the user’s experience will be like.” I completely agree with the framework and the sensibility of aligning, in my crass terms, the pitch with the actuality.

          The marketer’s dream is starting with one portion of the framework and having it blend into the others, a la Twilight. That said, trying to express more than one aspect from the outset can likely result in a confusing message (I’d be curious what your book says on that). This is definitely where I’m coming from: get the angle (desired consumer perception) and then message it clearly and compellingly.

          And then react to whether it’s working or not, which goes to your point of truly understanding the audience.

          Thanks again for reading and commenting. You’ve really got me thinking.

          • says

            Well, I think the book’s take on those 3 levels in terms of design is that you should try to have as much of all 3 as possible – it’s a measure of appeal so really you can’t have too much. Books themselves will have all 3 in varying levels, but effective marketing needs to figure out which is being done most successfully (or uniquely), and whittle this down into one focused message that strategically will get the most attention. Also, I think while the messaging is focused on one idea, the marketing materials themselves can be considered miniature designed objects with all 3 levels considered. Just because you’re marketing a gallery showing of ugly intellectual paintings, could that mean that your flyers should be designed in the same way? It would at least set up the expectation properly.

  2. says

    No, the customer has not read the book — but holding yourself equal to them in that respect instead of using the advantage sitting right there in your hands sets a low standard. What you describe sounds like a great way to hold the status quo, but it’s hardly a pathway to success in an industry that demands novelty and innovation.

    As a film blogger, I routinely help promote movies that I haven’t seen. Basically, I’m promoting the promotional materials, which are generated by a marketing team — one which I certainly hope HAS seen the movie. The integrity of my own (secondhand) perspective sort of depends on it.

    In the current system, releasing the full content directly to the press that far in advance isn’t an option for all sorts of reasons, but I rather wish it were. Different people and publications would champion different works, taking a personal interest in helping the public understand what each release has to offer. Obviously that would make most marketing efforts redundant at best, and it would certainly make it harder to massage the consequences of a publisher releasing a bad or irrelevant product.

    I can’t think of many excuses to not have read the project one is responsible for marketing. Maybe insane workloads make it impossible to read *everything*, but I’d still like to know that people understand what they’re working on. When a marketing campaign gets it wrong, it damages the credibility of the entire system, adding meaningless static to an already noisy arena. And the casualties are artists, writers, and thinkers who unfortunately depend on the marketing to reach their audience (and who can now depend on their publishers for less support than ever before).

    In my online editorial experience, I’ve observed that if you just work on the hook, people wind up swallowing the hook itself and often spit out the bait in the process. In a sense, what you really end up promoting is a certain style of media presentation, and people’s momentary enthusiasm for that does not mean they have connected with your product.

    Anyhow, just a few thoughts.

    • says

      Thank you so much, Tom, for your thoughtful response. There is so much in it with which I actually agree.

      One of my caveats was that this will not work for every campaign and you put it perfectly when you used the words “novelty” and “innovation.” Certain campaigns are just that and require a deep understanding of the content itself. I do believe the web is moving in a direction that will force these campaigns to become the norm, which is changing everything (and potentially inhibit the scale at which publishers can market, which is why I love vertical sites like Word & Film).

      I was definitely thinking primarily of more standard campaigns, which need to be repeatable and done at high volume. I was also assuming that the prep work that precedes the consumer marketing was done by folks who had read the title in question and knew it intimately enough to ensure that the marketing would be right.

      My main line of thinking, though, is that empathy with the consumer is critical. I’m not a professional writer so sometimes my “through line” isn’t is clear as I want it to be, but that is the thrust I was going for. Too often, I’ve found, marketing gets very personal to the marketer, which can result in great passion and a great campaign…

      But, in my experience, I have a much easier time relying on having that empathy with the consumer trying to cut through the noise. When I can truly see it through their eyes, as they are seeing it when deciding “do I want this?”

      You may be quite right that many will swallow the hook but spit the bait but I happen to feel I’ve got a better chance if I see the hook and worm like a fish, as opposed to the fisherman.

      Just my opinion and just what has worked for me. I love your viewpoint and, honestly, don’t disagree. I just see them as two different approaches.

      As a side note, I am familiar with your film writing and admire it very much. I really appreciate your taking the time to comment.

  3. says

    Speaking from the writer side of things, this exemplifies why I’m in process of moving from legacy/traditional/commercial publishing (after 30 commercial books) to self-publishing. Many marketers believe that they know what a book is because they were able to put it into one of their procedural slots, based on looking over a chapter or two or getting an editor to agree with them (editors, of course, have lost out bigtime in publisher politics in the last decade, so it’s fairly easy to buffalo them into agreeing that this book fits a slot the marketer wants to use). This works well enough for publishers who have short time horizons and who need good (or at least defensible) sales numbers next quarter.

    It’s a disaster for any writer who produces anything other than “content”, i.e. anything that stretches into new territory at all. Entirely apart from he marketing functions as directions on how to read the book (if there’s a spaceship on the cover and the first 100 pages is set in contemporary suburbia, expect it to be science fiction; if there’s a bloody knife, expect horror and be looking for clues to who the dangerous person is; certain kinds of very design-y covers imply “Read As If You Were In English Class And Take Seriously.” If all ads and positioning imply that it’s a postapocalyptic adventure but in fact it’s a technothriller that ends in an apocalypse — as happened to one of my titles — technothriller readers will miss it and postapocalyptic readers will complain bitterly that it took forever to get started) and so forth. And marketing people don’t just “figure out what it is” — they’ve usually got something they want it to be (something they know how to market).

    So the “read a chapter and a few sentences we made the editor write down, and if they don’t fit what we want, make them write some other ones down” approach produces the essence of poor positioning: the book isn’t pitched to people who will enjoy it and it’s pitched at many people who won’t. That doesn’t really matter from the standpoint of first quarter sales, as the people buying the gazpacho are responding not to what it tastes like but to the label on the box that says “chili” — but five years down the road, it’s death to the author’s career, because the chili lovers were disgusted by this cold uncooked stuff and the gazpacho lovers never knew it was there.

    • says

      whoops, how did “Entirely apart from the sales function, marketing functions” become “Entirely apart from he marketing functions” ?
      Sorry, no edit function provided.

  4. says

    I want to thank you very much for your comment, John. I was very much hoping to hear from a writer. My thoughts are definitely from my own experience and process. I decided to extrapolate from that and go ahead and risk suggesting that all marketers need not read the books. It worked for me. I always looked for trends in the potential audiences and sought a fit. That said, it probably doesn’t work for many, if not most, and I know (and have heard from!) many the marketer who believes it is absolutely critical to their process to read the book. So, I’m probably an outlier here.

    I found that editors enjoyed tremendous respect at the houses for which I worked and I trusted them fully. Their advocacy and emphasis of a particular aspect of a title was nearly always key to a title’s marketing, including my approach. At least that was my experience. When I started many moons ago, Sales seemed to rule (but those were the brick and mortar-dominant days). Anyway, one of my assumptions is that the editor, the jacket designer, and all the creative folks who’ve come before me — the consumer marketer — have done their jobs and that I can trust them on how to position the title. That’s when I look for that aspect of the creative that will best position it within the context given me.

    Your experience with your technothriller that ends in an apocalypse is extremely interesting. I would have loved to work on it. I would have likely tried an untraditional campaign for the title, somehow trying to get at the nuance and appeal to the right audience(s). Tricky but likely doable. As I suggested, some campaigns just can’t be “traditional” and require special handling. In your case, I probably would have read the title, to make sure I got it absolutely right.

    I certainly always had the author’s best interests in mind. What I was seeking was to ferret out and maximize their audience. Basically, I just spent my effort looking outward to try to find it, trusting that I was equipped with what I needed to find the fit.

    As for going out on your own to self-publish, I commend you. Obviously, I’m sort of traditional publisher-oriented (though I have worked with a self-published author). Clearly more and more authors are going this route and I always like to see them succeed. Often, they turn out to be superb marketers. I wish you great success. Thank you again for reading the post and commenting so thoughtfully. I appreciate it greatly. (And sorry about the “no edit” function — working on fixing that now).

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