Are Publishers Missing a Trick with Consumer-Centric Marketing?

Online Marketing

We’re aware of very few marketing campaigns in the publishing industry, but we’re all too familiar with big brands like Apple and Coca Cola dominating our media platforms and capturing or imaginations. So maybe it’s time for publishers to take a leaf out of the big brands’ books, so they can sell more copies of their own.

What are publishers doing wrong? Ask the pros

Source: Wikimedia

Many industry professionals would agree when I say publishers’ marketing skills need a little work. In his article for The Idea Logical Company, Mike Shatzkin discusses the idea that ‘publishing entrepreneurs were [when publishing houses started] motivated by the ideas for books, not by a better idea for production efficiency or marketing or sales innovation.’ Unfortunately, this attitude appears to have stuck with many publishers. According to The Bookseller, publishers had almost no relationship whatsoever with their readers when it all started. It claims ‘the entire supply chain of the publishing industry was set up around a premise that essentially ignored the end user’. After the rise of the digital era and, subsequently the birth of online bookselling, we changed the way we shopped, and the way we read. This article claims that ‘for the first time in almost 200 years, publishers had the opportunity to deal directly with their customers. Sadly, it was an opportunity that few grasped until very recently’. This failure to keep up with the times could partially explain why printed book sales have fallen over £150m in five years  and eBook sales have dropped 2.4% in 2015 for the first time since the digital age began.

What does the future look like?

Digital marketing firm Chadwick Canon shared its predictions about the direction of the book industry at the start of 2016. It claimed there would be a small rise in the sale of print, but a decline in the sale of eBooks, which is exactly what happened. It also predicted an increase in book marketing. A spokesperson for the firm wrote:

Publishing has tended to lag in marketing innovation, but more and more, we’re seeing it catch up as publishers and authors use strategic content creation and distribution to grow their fan bases and win buyers. In 2016, we’ll see this trend hit publishing hard, with the majority of successful authors, agents, and publishers tapping into the power of content.’

To ensure the survival of the book, we can only hope the firm’s predictions come true. Another change Chadwick Canon is foreseeing is that publishers will invest more in digital marketing. While publishers have always forked out thousands to external PR teams, word has it that may change. Canon says this needs to happen, as ‘the trends of our information culture necessitate the change. People consume media differently, with social platforms and short-form, app-based media (think blogs, BuzzFeed lists, etc.) trumping once big-time TV and traditional radio and news sites.’

When talking about the changes in the publishing industry now compared to 50 years ago, Mike Shatzkin wrote:

‘Those that didn’t make that transition [from editorially driven publishing houses to sales driven ones], expanding their sales forces and learning to reach more accounts with their books than their competitors, fell by the wayside. The new transition is to being marketing-driven. Those that develop marketing excellence will be the survivors as book publishing transitions more fully into the digital age.’

What’s going wrong?

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Most publishers are given little to no advertising budget for each book, which puts them at a disadvantage in a world where consumers are overwhelmed by ads. But there are plenty of marketing strategies publishers can adopt which are completely free, the most obvious one being social media marketing.

Another difficulty the industry faces is how tough it is to measure book sales. Author of How to Market Books says it’s difficult enough to measure the number of books published, ‘…trying to establish how many books are published in other specific territories is a logistical (and political) nightmare…In short, there are no available numbers.’ If the number of books published is hard to access, it must be doubly hard to measure sales.

‘The Big 5’ vs independent publishers

In terms of marketing, the larger publishers often need to work less to gain more profit. Simply having their logo stamped on a book means a reader may consider it to be more worth their time and money than a book with an unfamiliar logo. This isn’t the case with small publishing houses, who are sometimes more likely to take risks on books they feel hold artistic merit. An article in the Writer’s Digest quotes Press 53 publisher, Kevin Morgan: ‘With a small press, there is no 90-day window to make your book a bestseller. We continue to market and support our books and authors years after the book is released. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.’

Book agent Chip MacGregor claims ‘a small publisher may not have any sort of marketing budget for most books’ and that utilising social media and other free forms of publicity is often the best route to take.

Who gets it right?


Source: Public Domain Pictures

Author of The Global Brand Nigel Hollis speculates Apple’s success:

‘Apple advertising stands in direct contrast to many of its competitors…Instead of focusing on how people interact with technology, those companies [Blackberry, Samsung and Nokia] focus on features and specifications. The first ads for the iPad did not focus on the product features, like memory, or speed, or slimness. Instead they portrayed someone relaxing on their sofa using the product. The ads didn’t tell us what the product was. They told us how we would use it, accessing news and entertainment whenever and wherever we want.’

Its ads highlight just how intuitive the products are. Hollis also claims that ‘the superlative product experience comes from an unusual combination of human and technical understanding…’, a claim anyone who has used an Apple product will know to be true.

The food industry

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Brands like Coca-Cola are experts in marketing, which is part of what makes the company so successful. According to The Wall Street Journal, the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign, which involved replacing the classic logo with ‘popular names among teens and Millennials’, created a huge buzz on social media. So much so, the campaign generated over 125,000 posts (particularly on Instagram) over the course of a month. Not only this, but 96% of consumer responses were either ‘positive or neutral’.

Author as a brand

So campaigns are one option, but what else could publishers be doing? Another feature of Coca-Cola is that it emphasises brand over product. In her article for Smartling, Warkentin explains that ‘Coke doesn’t sell a drink in a bottle, it sells “happiness” in a bottle.’ In a similar way that Apple does, Coke sells the lifestyle the product promotes – a lifestyle of ‘happiness’, ‘sharing’ and ‘friendship’ that is universally desired.

Forbes contributor, David Vinjamuri reiterates the importance of branding in publishing, and claims that ‘the popular perception of a book itself is colored by the strength of the author’s brand. When we view [the] bestseller list, part of what we’re seeing is a brand ranking.’

Fauzia Burke works to promote authors online, and she’s come up with a strategy that helps them build a strong online brand: ‘Design + Engagement + Visibility = Success’. She claims authors need strong visual branding in the form of a good website and an active social media presence – something her clients claim publishers don’t always help with. In terms of engagement, Burke suggests creating a relationship with readers through appropriate forms of social media. Her clients have said this relationship building pays off further down the line. Visibility is publicity, which is something publishers often spend a lot of time and money on. Burke suggests visibility plans should be in place six months before the book is published in order to create buzz and excitement leading up to its release.

Consumer-centric marketing – a potential solution

Different books have different target readers, so being aware of the audience is vital when choosing a marketing strategy. For example, a huge social media campaign is unlikely to succeed for books like Erik H. Erikson’s Vital Involvement in Old Age or Alan Titchmarsh’s How to Garden: Greenhouse Gardening.

So, demographics need to be considered before publicising a book, but that doesn’t mean certain books are unmarketable – quite the opposite.

In his article for The Bookseller, Chris McVeigh talks about his time working with large data sets and the patterns that emerge from analysing them. Many companies are hiring experts to look into their consumers’ browsing habits, which not only makes their next moves easier to predict, it allows companies to market their products more effectively.

Source: Static Pixels

“The most important lesson publishers are learning is that they can’t bring the mountain to Muhammad. Publishers need to be where their consumers are.”

In Adobe’s marketing website CMO, an expert mentions three key data sets marketers can’t afford to ignore. The first is ‘location data’ which allows marketers to target the right consumers based on proximity to their target locations. The second is ‘purchase data’. This data set is easily accessible to marketers through the brand or retailer. The third, and arguably most effective data set is ‘census block data’. With this, marketers use age, gender, race and net worth to determine who they market the product to and where they are.

The most important lesson publishers are learning is that they can’t bring the mountain to Muhammad. Publishers need to be where their consumers are. They need to get to know each one of them, find out what they’re interested in and figure out a way to make them buy their books. This can all be done using today’s advanced technology, which the book industry could be utilising, not loathing.


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