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Category: marketing

Should books have ads?

Recently there has been an increase in calls for the inclusion of ads in printed books (this “On the Media” report, for example, touches on the idea). There’s a degree of desperation in this — supposedly it would help to address the difficulties of making publishing profitable. Alongside these calls has been the inevitable hand wringing about sullying the sanctity of the book by adding a smudge of commerce. Not that the publishing industry doesn’t have dirty laundry, but it’s felt unseemly to display it publicly.

I say there’s nothing wrong with putting ads in books, and if publishers can really make money this way they should go right ahead. It’s been done before — pick up any mass market paperback from the 50s. The real problem lies on the other side of the equation — the advertiser’s side. Most books produce very small numbers compared to other media. At North Point Press we once had a book make the New York Times Bestseller List when it had only 30,000 copies in print. An ad in a book will get far fewer views or listens than one on television, radio, the internet, magazines, or even the endangered daily paper. Moreover, books today have a short shelf life in stores. Yes, they do have a long life in libraries, used bookstores, thrift stores, and home shelves, but few advertisers are looking to pay big bucks for stale downmarket exposure years from the point of purchase. In fact, the ability of books to endure for decades (or centuries) is more of a minus than a plus, since out-of-date ads only confuse current campaigns.

In general, print media advertising is more about brand exposure and awareness than direct selling. This requires a level of market saturation that would be difficult to achieve through book advertisements. Face it: the virgin pages that publishing people are agonizing over sacrificing on the altar of commerce are just not that desirable. The valuable parts of a book for an advertiser would be the front cover, spine, and back cover, because these don’t require opening the book and could get some store hits from book browsers. For many books these are also the only areas that are full color. But to advertise in these areas would probably kill sales pretty effectively in all but a few market segments.

There may be some niche markets where advertising could work. For example, in a book about whitewater canoeing a discount code for canoes and canoeing supplies might generate some modest sales. Travel guidebooks and other regional publications could get local ads. But in general the reason that books don’t currently have a lot of ads, while magazines and newspapers do, has nothing to do with the purity of book publishers compared to magazine and newspaper publishers and everything to do with the relative value of the book as an advertising medium.


groucho marx book blurb

BLURB: A brief noise that embarrasses everyone.
Tom’s Glossary of Book Publishing Terms

A curious aspect of book publishing is that publishers have never quite figured out what the best way is to sell books. Not only is the industry cursed with a byzantine distribution system, but publishers routinely repeat the stale promotional techniques of past decades without thinking too hard about whether they are actually effective.

Take the case of blurbs. Publishers chase after blurbs for the back covers of their books mainly because everyone else is doing it, and a blurb-free cover will therefore look like some kind of failure. But do people really put any weight into blurbs? My guess is that they usually don’t, but occasionally a blurb will hit the right note, excite someone’s curiosity, and help make a sale. But does this happen more often than would be the case if the back cover real estate were put to other uses?

Part of the reason readers distrust blurbs is that they know instinctively that they are the product of a process that at its worst is corrupt and deceitful. Consider the letter that Stephen J. Dubner (co-author of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything) received from a book’s editor, containing this amusing passage:

If you find [redacted] and [redacted]’s ideas as compelling and inspiring as we do, a quote from you that we could print on the jacket would make a world of difference. I would be happy to help craft a quote if you prefer. My contact info is below.

When an editor goes looking for an author to put his name underneath a quote written by the editor or others at the publishing house you know the blurb system is broken.

Still, some blurbs do rise above the mediocrity of the genre. My favorite is this one about the Argentine writer Julio Cortazar, from Pablo Neruda:

Anyone who doesn’t read Cortazar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder . . . and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair.

Blog tours for book marketing

If I was still doing trade book publishing I would recommend to my authors that they try blog touring. Conventional book tours have their place, especially for developing bookstore relations and to some degree local media, but a virtual tour via blogs would certainly reach a much larger audience. The return from that audience would be less than from a conventional tour on a percentage basis but probably not as an absolute number, and the cost is minimal.

It does require putting in some time, however. It might be worth hiring and assistant or a professional consultant. M. J. Rose at Buzz, Balls, and Hype offers sensible suggestions. As in any kind of book work, market research is the most important element. The author embarking on such a tour must spend some time researching blogs for sympathetic content and getting to know their authors. Then: “Offer to come and guest blog. Or to do a Q&A. Or to give an except.” That’s sound advice.

The origins of virtual book tours
New York Times on virtual book tours

10 Questions: Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director, Small Press Distribution / CLMP

jeffrey lependorf Ten Questions is an occasional feature in which folks involved in some aspect of publishing kindly oblige my interrogative impulses. Today I’m talking with Jeffrey Lependorf, who serves as executive director of two three different nonprofits, Small Press Distribution, based in Berkeley, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, based in New York City, and the Literary Ventures Fund, a new foundation, also based in NYC, supporting literary works through philanthropic investment. The questions focus on Small Press Distribution, so just to mix things up a bit, let’s have a look at a brief bio of Jeffrey from the press release announcing his hire at CLMP:

Lependorf has a long history working in the field of literary arts. From 1996-1998, he served as the Development Director of the Poetry Society of America. There he played an instrumental role in the national expansion of the Poetry in Motion program, which brings poems to subways and buses. More recently, Lependorf worked as Development Director for Creative Capital, an innovative foundation providing direct grants to experimental artists working in a variety of disciplines. He has also served as a consultant to a number of CLMP member publishers, including The Hudson Review, African Voices, and Open City, helping them secure foundation grants and develop individual donor campaigns.

For a longer and more current bio, including information on his work as a composer, check out jeffreylependorf.googlepages.com.

Okay, on to the questions and answers.

1. I was a member of the board of SPD about 15 years ago. My impression is that the organization has grown considerably since that time. If that is true, to what do you attribute the growth? Do you foresee continued growth, and if so would this become problematic at some point?

SPD has indeed experienced tremendous growth in recent years. In terms of how many books we represent and how many we sell that is; our staff has stayed the same size. Not only do we add approximately 1,000 new titles a year, but we also continue to reach larger and larger audiences of readers. Some of this growth reflects the growth of the community of independent literary press publishers that we serve. Some of this may be attributed to new technologies that allow anyone with a laptop and some good design and editorial savvy to put out a beautiful book. Similarly, many publishers are learning that though they may lack the marketing dollars of their larger commercial counterparts, viral marketing through the internet and often closer relationships with their writers allows them the possibility of reaching readers sometimes even more effectively. I think the explosion of MFA programs has certainly had something to do with more manuscripts finding their way to publishers as well. On the SPD side, much of our effectiveness comes from our ability to provide better data to our largest customers: booksellers. As we have been providing better and better data, our sales to some of the largest booksellers has increased dramatically, including our sales to libraries. At the same time, we always work to deepen our relationships with independent booksellers—particularly those that specialize in the types of books our catalogue best represents—and by doing so we’re able to sell more books with fewer returns.

I’m delighted to report that SPD has recently received major funding from The Irvine Foundation for a significant upgrade of our data systems. This will allow, for example, a potential bookbuyer to seek out books by California authors, or to see reviews of books. This should lead to an even greater growth in sales as well. That said, we do have physical limitations for the number books that can fit in our warehouse. At present, natural attrition (either from publishers who cease to publish or who move to larger commercial distribution) has allowed us the ability to represent the presses who should be with SPD. I suspect that in a longer view of the future, as more presses take advantage of constantly improving print-on-demand technology, that the nature of what the SPD Catalogue covers may change. I think that we’ll always have beautifully books printed in small runs, but perhaps in the future SPD will also offer books to be printed on demand as well, or deliver them in formats not yet imaginable. Regardless, we will continue to change with the times and we look forward to what the future has to offer.

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Dutch Type

Publisher 010 Uitgeverij has made what I think is probably a smart decision to put their 2004 title Dutch Type by Jan Middendorp in Google Book Search. Of course we have seen public domain books in GBS for some time (by the way, it is absurd for Google to claim any proprietary rights at all on those titles just because they scanned them), but recently more publishers have been moving toward allowing their copyrighted materials into the program as a strategy for book marketing and promotion.

dutch type: cover

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Ghost signs


I love ghost signs. I’ve been meaning to take some pictures in SF. Now I find (via Book of Joe) that Sam Roberts has an entire blog devoted to them.

Netflix model for books

BookSwim is attempting to replicate the netflix model for the book world. They’re offering a service where you pay a monthly fee and receive and return books without the obligation to purchase. No late fees.

I think this is a questionable plan. People are used to renting movies — renting books would require developing a new behavior. The turnaround on DVDs is much faster for most people, so that the value to the consumer of a subscription is greater. Perhaps most importantly, books are a lot heavier than dvds, so the postage costs will be much higher. Plus, books show wear after repeated shipping and reading (just ask publishers who see their margins eaten up by hurts and returns). That’s probably why plans start at $20/month. It would take a lot of overdue fines to make that cheaper than the library.

via literary lotus

Giving It Away

Tim O’Reilly has posted some observations on whether allowing free downloads of books hurts or helps their sales. This is a question that is difficult to resolve empirically. O’Reilly allowed free downloads of their title Asterisk: The Future of Telephony, by Leif Madsen, Jared Smith, and Jim Van Meggelen. 180,000 copies were downloaded and about 19,000 print copies were sold. It’s hard to be sure how to evaluate this but O’Reilly concludes that, at least, the downloads didn’t hurt sales, and he is probably in the best position to know.

Related News Item: Jonathan Lethem advocates relaxing copyright.

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