Marketing to readers • 12 December 2011 • The SnowBlog
Marketing to readers
Back when Snowbooks first began, we realised something a little bit counter-intuitive: it was far more important to sell our books to retailers than to sell them to readers. If we could get Waterstones to put one of our titles on a shelf at the front of each store then the readers would see it and many would take an interest - we didn't need to reach out to readers directly (which was good news because we struggled to find a way to do that). Now I'll admit that when a book gets *really* famous - or when the plan is for it to *become* really famous - then a different approach is required. But we've never been in a financial position to say, "We'll have a big launch, then let's put a couple of hundred thousand quid into bus stop and tube ads, and then follow up with some TV spots." When your marketing budget is measured in hundreds not thousands of pounds - and when you can't afford to have nine flops because the tenth will pay it all back - you have to put your money and effort into whatever comes closest to guaranteeing results. And the only affordable way we had of getting the attention of large numbers of readers - that's to say, not a couple of hundred, but many thousands - was to get a good placement in store in a major chain.
Annoyingly the major chains are now dwindling. Borders is gone and WHSmiths on the high street looks like a badly-managed stockroom - at least the ones near me do. You'd have to set fire to a book to have it stand out. WHSmiths Travel have great locations for catching the reader's eye, but we've found their internal processes to be so disastrous that there's no commercial point doing business with them. And of course the independents are not a single bloc with which one can arrange a promotion (much in the same way that cats are not a single organisation). Favourable reviews in the major press seem to reap rewards for some publishers and some titles, but they have had little benefit for us and many we have spoken to. So what does that leave when it comes to catching the attention of readers? I think we're all gradually having to look beyond the traditional 'broadcast' approach to marketing - you know, that whole mass-market, one-to-many, megaphone of marketing that really took off in the 1950s and peaked sometime late in the last century. The old approach assumes that your target audience all congregate somewhere or pay attention to something, and that 'something' or 'somewhere' is how you reach them. You put an ad in their favourite magazine or a commercial before their favourite film. In effect, you try to piggy-back on something they already care about. That whole approach reaches its most blatant and undesirable pinnacle in online pop-up ads which literally insert themselves between the reader and the article they are trying to read. I'm not intending to imply that 'broadcast' marketing must be annoying, I'm simply saying that pop-ups demonstrate the idea most clearly: go where your target audience are and then try to attract their attention.
So where do readers congregate, as book chains wane? I think increasingly readers will talk to each other about books, and naturally many of them will do that online.
Which raises another point about 'broadcast' marketing: it assumes you can buy 'air time' or 'ad space' where your consumers congregate. That's not always the case - and it certainly won't be in the future when we're trying to join in a conversation that a community is already having.
I can see publishers needing to get very much better at supporting reader communities. And note, I don't mean co-opting them or 'farming' them (which is to say attempting to grow them artificially for commercial reasons); I mean supporting real, spontaneous reader communities in such a transparent and guileless way that readers don't smell a rat.
We've all seen what it looks like when a big company tries to get reader debate going - but on the company's terms, on the company's website, surrounded by company ads and special offers, in order to 'discuss' (and ideally praise) the company's own books, all mediated by the company's administrators. I think what we've seen much less of is publishers turning up to pre-existing communities the way you'd turn up to a neighbourhood party, bringing the equivalent of homemade potato salad and a couple of bottles of wine.
Some time soon I think publishers will need to gear up to supporting reader communities with no thought of managing them or unduly influencing them. We will need to supply information, encourage - but not direct - discussion and even be prepared to listen rather than speak. The publishing industry has many decades of talking behind it, but I can't help feel it is a novice when it comes to listening. We decide what is published and then we tell you why you should read it. There will be room in the future for publishers who ask readers what they would like more of and then go away to find it for them. Then they return and ask how well they have done. I think it will require a humility that I don't currently associate with publishing and a diluting - or at least a compromising of - editorial control. If you like you could see it as a form of egalitarianism in which the publisher no longer address the readership as the expert or the leader.
I don't see that humility, that ceding of control and that spirit of equality with the reader coming easily to our industry. And while I think it's necessary, I don't think it will save us. But I think it will allow a number of us to survive well into a new era, at which point other possible metamorphoses will have hopefully occurred to us so that we can hop onto the next stepping stone that the evolving world of books offers us.