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.


What Happens when you try to make an author out of a social media socialite?

Can celebrities famous for their lives online successfully transition over to the print industry?

Over the past fifteen years there has been a huge shift in what it means to be a celebrity; rather than being known for their craft, career or talent, a select few have been celebrated for their lavish lifestyles. Even more recently, many of them have chosen to write a book. But how does one successfully transition over to the print industry when you’re only known for your extremely active social media accounts?

In the past couple of years, there’s been a lot of discussion on what will happen to the book industry as digital starts to take over. But surely, it’s also important to see how those who have their career online make the transition over to print. Two examples of this are Zoella and Kim Kardashian, both extremely successful within in the bounds of their respective target audiences, released books within six months of each other, Girl Online (November 2014) and SELFISH (May 2015). Despite having the same job, in regards to their brand and product, they both took extremely different routes. Zoella rebranded herself as an author and wrote a fiction novel and Kim Kardashian put her brand into a photobook. These decisions undeniably affected the response they received from their target market and critics.

A Girl who started Online

Known almost exclusively by her online name, Zoella, Zoe Sugg has spent the last seven years cultivating an online brand empire. She has successful maintained long term partnerships with some of the biggest businesses on the British high street, such as Superdrug and WHSmith. In 2014 her brand grew expediently with the release of her debut fiction novel, Girl Online.


In the first week of its publication, The Bookseller announced Sugg had successfully “sold 78,109 copies….– more than JK Rowling, Dan Brown or EL James achieved with their first books”. One of the most prominent reasons behind these incredible figures is Suggs dedicated fan base of around 35.1 million across all her online platforms. But how did she manage to transfer the majority her online viewers to read a physical book? To answer this, you must ask: who will be buying the book? The parents. In a world where it’s becoming progressively harder to control what the young and impressionable look at, parents want to know that, if their child is going to be on be online, that they have a role model who will influence them in a positive way. This is exactly what the Zoella brand achieves and most distinctively so in her novel which preaches the importance of online safety.

Zoella Girl Online book signing at Waterstones Bluewater, Britain - 26 Nov 2014
©Glamour Magazine

Ever since the start of her career, Sugg has successfully created a persona (also known as her brand) that is uncanny to the everyday young teenager. Her channel is fixated on subjects and interests of a young girl growing up. She has triumphantly retained the same character that she had nine years ago, despite coming up to her late twenties. This causes her viewers to have a stronger connection between who they think she is and they also feel like they are growing up with her. With such a strong connection, it meant that Penguin could almost guarantee a strong reception to her book, despite nearly all her of her previous brand deals being executed exclusively online.

When entering an industry such as book publishing it’s crucial you build a positive reputation of yourself. But there is one aspect of her novel that caused Zoella to potentially lose the respect of her industry peers and more importantly, potential customers, and this was by hiring a ghost-writer.

When Sugg labeled herself as an author rather than a Youtuber writing a memoir, it suggested she wanted to branch out from her online presence. Yet expanding her audience is something that the Zoella brand may have been unsuccessful in. For an online brand, it is one thing to maintain the trust between the product and a regular customer but a whole different challenge to create a new relationship with a potential customer. When Girl Online was published, critics speculated whether she had hired a ghost writer. It was in December of that same year that a representative from Penguin announced “to be…accurate…Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own.” (Flood, Hannah 2014). It was from then on, that Sugg received a huge amount of criticism from websites such as the Independent. Reporters theorised the damage it would cause her brand which was built on being an honest and hardworking individual. It may also be the reason on why she hasn’t attempted to write a novel different from series she’s already created. Instead she’s only focused on developing the Girl Online Franchise.

It’s hard to criticise such an immensely triumphant franchise and whilst she did successfully integrate having a life online into a fiction novel, Zoella is proof that if you are going to try and stray from being a known only online and transverse to one of the most prestigious industries you must be honest with your audience. Stay clear of branding yourself as something that you fundamentally are not.

A SELFISH business venture

Unlike Zoe Sugg, Kim Kardashian West did the complete opposite. Instead of rebranding herself into an author she put her brand into a book. Published by the self-declared “most beautiful book shop in New York” Rizzoli, SELFISH is a 448-page book, which is literally filled with hundreds of seen and unseen ‘selfies’.

Copyright: Rizzoli

The Kardashian brand have a reputation for making items that have huge demand with limited availability (as can be seen in the Kylie lipstick range), by doing this they ride on the prospect that their products becomes more prestigious, one for the elitist. So, ideally if you combined a book, an authoritative and respected commodity, with a brand, known for producing desirable items, surely it would sell out almost immediately. This could have been one of the arguments behind Kardashian West’s concept. Her regular customer is most likely not interest in reading a book, yet there was a clear attempt to get past this. Her brand also doesn’t run on customer trust unlike Zoella. Kardashian West’s image is about decadence, luxury and self-exposure, so how do you guarantee physical sales? By marketing her product as a coffee table book and doing a pre-release, the photobook had to potential to gain recognition from those who don’t follow her online whilst still catering for her current fans. As stated by MENDO a coffee table book is a beautiful item which has the ability to pull in all different types of people, “from business men to art students”.


Unfortunately, what could have been an extremely successful concept, in reality, did not come through. In April of 2015 Kardashian West had a limited-edition presale comprising of 500 signed copies of her upcoming book. Despite the hefty price tag of $60 the customer response from this looked extremely positive with a sell out in less than a minute. Although, after this, sales dropped and only achieved 32,000 in first three weeks, a tiny number in comparison to what Sugg had achieved six months prior. Considering Kardashian West’s following is nearly five times (165.5 million) larger than Sugg’s, her book’s failure was extremely surprising. One would have assumed, with such a large audience, her book would be an instant success.

Kim’s attempt at making an autobiography through pictures, whilst seems like a perfect concept for a lifestyle socialite, lacks anything intriguing. Most importantly, why would her fans pay $10 for content they’ve already seen for free and this is what the sales figures seem to reflect. This may be the crucial reason behind the books hesitant beginning, Kim Kardashian West’s life is already plastered all over the internet. Any promoting that she would have attempted to do, such as her infamous ‘when you have nothing to wear’ naked selfie, most likely blended into the rest of her social presence.

kimk©Instagram: Kim Kardashian West

SELFISH is arguably the opposite to what can be learned from Zoella’s novel. It shows us that if you are a socialite famous, for being famous, you must work extremely hard to distinguish your celebrity memoir from what your fans already know about you. Because she didn’t re-brand her as an author customers lacked interest. As previously argued by her critics why would fans pay out $10 for something they’ve already seen for free. A problem we’ve seen widespread across the internet with multiple industries.

The Aftermath

Despite the ghost writing controversy, she encountered along the way, Zoe Sugg has continued to promote her sequels, Girl Online: On Tour, which have gone on to be extremely successful. Kim Kardashian remastered her book (October 2016) but is not promoting nearly as much, rather she focusing on her other business ventures. Possibly reflecting her personal views on the success of her book.

SELFISH and Girl Online both beg the question is it possible to create a successful book off of just your social media presence and lifestyle brand. Both Sugg and Kardashian West are extremely affluent from a result of what they’ve achieved digitally. Yet by looking at the response they received, in either criticism or sales, it’s crucial to know that if you do make the move from digital to print you must prove that what you have to offer is worth its weight in gold. It must have substance to survive the print industry and be profitable, and this is what Zoe Sugg got right in her transition. Books demand respect, time and deep consideration, they are not just a regular brand deal.

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