100 Great Advertisements: My Nerdy Rediscovery

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The books that make us aren’t all prize winning novels. In fact, when prompted by a friend to do a “7 day book challenge” I found myself including 100 Great Advertisements.

This chunky hardback from 1978 had been on my mind for a while, actually, and I’d been in the process of tracking down a copy, even enlisting help from kindly people at industry bodies the IPA and HAT.

Why, though? Well, because as a somewhat nerdy teen I regularly browsed a copy which belonged to my then-stepmother; a Planning Director for Saatchi & Saatchi, then Grey and others.

What was the appeal?

Partly the pleasure of decoding, I think. There are plenty of familiar brands, products and concepts in this selection of ads by nine industry grandees, but there are also cultural puzzles there, if you’re not quite the right generation for the book. What exactly was the Peace Corps, where was Orbach’s and what happened in Biafra? I enjoyed trying to figure out stuff like that when I was a kid.

Mainly though, it’s just a collection of really clever work. And it was the writing that really got me. Looking back, this is quite coherent with my career, which has included plenty of marketing  (indeed I quote some of these ads when I coach publishers on pitching).

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The best work of all is the legendary ad-feud between Avis and Hertz:

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Not only is this superb advertising, it’s also very well analysed by David Abbott. Indeed the short essays accompanying each piece are what elevates the book above a mere anthology. I get the sense of a very confident, very smart group of advertising people who knew they were somewhat in competition with one another and in any case weren’t about to contribute anything other than their pithiest text to a book about how to write great ads.

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Having recently rediscovered the book and pored over it, feeling the same nostalgic rush I get from an old Tintin book; that of an image or phrase so familiar as to be almost mentally and emotionally embedded, I was delighted to find a few gems I had missed as a kid. One of them, from Barry Day’s introduction, I enjoyed quoting in a publisher workshop on cover briefing. It’s a superbly crisp description of how advertising works, which applies perfectly to book covers too:

IMG_9883“Conveying the unknown in terms of the known”. Love that.

The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit – Long term road test

The Flavour Thesaurus

In 2013 I had not one but two never-opened copies of The Flavour Thesaurus on my bookshelf, courtesy of ex-colleagues from the publisher, Bloomsbury. My reactions to the book could have been summarised as: “lovely package; dig those plum coloured page-ends and oh my god what an offputtingly academic concept; I wonder if I can re-gift …” In fact I think I did give one away.

The other, thankfully, I kept. But for at least two more years, I still didn’t read it. Even when I became the Designated Weeknight Cook in our house, I didn’t read it. I was an un-confident cook, reliant on methodically following explicit recipes. Jamie – yes; Hugh – yes; Sarah (Raven) – hell yes. Segnit? Too scary.

Banana omelettes broke the spell (do your own egg joke). My son, ten years old at the time, wanted something eggy for breakfast but vetoed all the usual options. I went in search of something unusual and found:

Make a 3-egg folded omelette as you would ordinarily, except add 1 tbsp caster sugar and a pinch of salt as you beat the eggs. Fry in butter and then fill with a small banana, mashed or sliced as thin as pennies, before folding.

Not only was this an instant hit with the boy, but it gave me a tiny thrill to have learned a new food in two – TWO! – elegant sentences. How grown up. How pleasingly unlike the suddenly rather Janet-and-John-feeling instruction manuals I’d been using.

I was surprised to find actual, practical recipes in The Flavour Thesaurus. I thought it was going to be all musings on combinations and science. And, to be sure, it does have some science, and some musing. What chemical compound makes x smell like y etc.

I was even more surprised at how witty it is. Written in quite the opposite of the dry, technical style I’d ignorantly imagined, in fact. Niki Segnit writes twinkling prose.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was just how encouraging it is. This book sweeps you along in a wave of delight at tasty possibilities, and the ways in which food can be relished and explored. Not in an nerdy, lab-coat way, nor in an elite, connosieur-y way, but in an everyday, unfussy, sometimes quite greedy way. And I bloody love that.

Having dipped in to the Thesaurus regularly, and found it useful when I had a random ingredient to deploy, I eventually decided to read it thoroughly. So, over the course of about a year I read an entry or two … while taking a calm moment, shall we say. Any recipe I fancied making, I marked in pencil, then added to my Righteous Recipe Repertoire.

Particular favourite discoveries include socca (a chickpea pancake you can make in the oven then rip into pieces to go with tapenade – Rosemary & Onion p319) and a beautiful cauliflower, date and walnut coleslaw, reverse engineered from a dish the author ate in a cafe (Cauliflour & Walnut, p124). And there are dozens more that are now firm favourites in our house.

I won’t list them all, but I will try to convey the many ways in which this book is transcendently brilliant, with my top ten Flavour Thesaurus quotes:

Freshly grated nutmeg puts the ohh into aubergines. There should be a global chain selling paper cones of nutmeggy fried aubergine slices. (Oh-bergineTM. I’m rich!).

Aubergine & Nutmeg, p82

On the subject of guacamole, some say that leaving the avocado stone in will prevent discolouration. My view is that if the guacamole’s around long enough to find out, you’re not making it right.

Avocado & Lime p199

But doesn’t a strawberry dipped in chocolate just look like a fruit wearing big knickers?

Chocolate & Strawberry, p18

According to Elizabeth David, aubergines and cheese are a less than ideal combination. If you’ve ever wrapped a soft stole of chargrilled aubergine around the quivering white shoulders of delicate mozzarella, you may beg to differ.

Aubergine & Soft cheese, p82

I could never remember: angels on horseback? Devils on horseback? Pigs at the beach? Swine before pearls?

Oysters & Bacon, p150

(pecans and walnuts are nearly always interchangeable, although pecans are sweeter, less bitter and easier to slide under doors).

Walnut & Anise, p234

Just as a good fish soup should have a slightly disturbing oceanic depth, so a proper wild mushroom soup should live up to its name: a wolf in soup’s clothing.

Potato & Mushroom p91

Cooked asparagus spears are lovely dipped in soft-boiled eggs, especially if you follow Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s tip of slicing the tops off and then adding a little butter and a few drops of cider vinegar to each yolk for a hollandaise-like effect.

Egg & Asparagus, p132

Dill is complex, demanding and opinionated. Think Velma in Scooby-Doo (basil is Daphne).

Dill p189

Lastly, there’s one of my husband’s signature dishes, the Dalston Dinner, akin to a fish supper but with the added advantage that you don’t need to leave the pub to eat it. Simply empty a packet of salted peanuts into a bag of salt and vinegar crisps, clench the bag shut and shake. Mysteriously more delicious than it should be. Good with lager.

Potato & Peanut p92

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did I ever tell you I used to be …

It’s a year on from the death of my dear friend Dan Oliver. Capturing his singular character in a blog post is quite beyond me, and it’s not really my place even to try. So instead I thought I’d just relate something that conveys some of his spirit and says much about what he leaves behind.

Dan’s humour repertoire was broad. It was strong on wordplay (he roundly ignored the old hack at the BBC’s Three Rules of Comedy: “No puns, no puns … no fucking puns, Danny”) and featured many personal catchphrases, deployed with glee. Our university evenings were often punctuated by surprising utterances from an apparently otherwise comatose Dan, who’d lift his head off the sofa just long enough to croak “I’ll fight anyone for a quid!” or the equally implausible “I’m in charge”.

As a close friend rightly observed at his funeral, this slightly absurdist sensibility fitted him perfectly for parenthood. He would delight his four children with claims about his … career, prior to their arrival, with the preamble “did I ever tell you I used to be …”

In the days between his death and funeral, the kids listed some of these roles. Highlights included:

A scarecrow

A bison

Lord Voldemort

A battleship captain

A crow

A unicorn

Jesus

An eagle

Pope

One Sunday before Christmas last year, they brought that list over, and we had a craft session round the dining table.

Each of the kids made a sketch of their favourite alter ego of their dad’s, then gouged it into lino, which we printed.

Their mum then had the tricky task of combining the four images – all of animals, interestingly – into a Christmas card. I think it turned out beautifully.

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Bonus feature: I usually do a Christmas card – also a lino print – based on something significant from our family’s year, like an object we liked on holiday or whatever. This year, at my wife’s suggestion, the card celebrated Dan by way of reference to the poem he had me read at his funeral. The beautiful Japanese Maple by Clive James.

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Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see

So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls

On that small tree

And saturates your brick back garden walls,

So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends

This glistening illuminates the air.

It never ends.

Whenever the rain comes it will be there,

Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that. That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colours will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

A year on, I miss Dan very much. What cheers me is the way his four beautiful, talented, unique and just downright appealing children are growing as people; they have personality to spare, and are gloriously true to themselves. And their mother, in addition to keeping all their lives going with heroic energy and resilience, nurtures their characters in a way which I’m sure would make Dan feel proud, as it always used to.

Totes Amazing

This is adapted from a presentation I gave at the Bookseller’s Marketing and Publicity Conference 2016. It’s about “trade marketing” in publishing …

 

It is a rule, in publishing, that any marketing brainstorm, if it goes on long enough, will end up with someone saying “ooh, shall we do a nice tote bag?” It is our default setting. Hands up who doesn’t have a bag of bags, like this, at home?

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Not that we shouldn’t make bags sometimes. They can be very effective. This point was made to me by Lucy Fisher of Sheen Bookshop, the other day. She unleashed this remarkable statement …

I’m going to use the word ‘gusset’ here…

… before going on to explain that the durable construction of the Vintage 25th anniversary bag had impressed her particularly. So she’s used it a lot. And therefore it’s been very visible in the Sheen … ah … ‘hood. An excellent result for Vintage.

So I’m not against tote bags, per se. I’m actually making, believe it or not, a wider point.

Which is: we publishers spend a lot of money on trade marketing – marketing to retailers –  and I think we get stuck in certain habits. Habits like making bags and mailing proofs and other material. But does any of it work? And if so, which bits? And is that changing?

Before we look at those questions, let’s remind ourselves why we do trade marketing. It’s because, try as we might, we can’t sell enough books ourselves, so we need retailers’ help.

A point concisely made, by Jessica Killingley of Hodder:

Nothing sells books like a bookseller

Stephen Page recently blogged for The Bookseller about how we should embrace the symbiotic relationship between publisher and bookseller. I tend to agree.

Let’s also quickly remind ourselves what trade marketing actually consists of. What is it that we’re making and doing?

Things with text: samplers, blads, presenters.

Other physical stuff – tote bags of course, mugs, pens, mousemats, cupcakes, booze, keyrings. As Chris White at Waterstones calls it: gubbins.

Email newsletters, social media activity, advertising in trade press, conferences, roadshows, dinners and drinks.

We pay for all this stuff, to persuade retailers that our books are worth pushing.

So. Does any of it work? Let’s consider the gubbins first – the physical material. I called a senior book buyer at a leading retailer and asked them “how much of the stuff that comes through the post to you from publishers  goes straight in the recycling?” They said:

Almost all of it.

So that was a bit of a buzz kill.

But they did admit that some things made an impression.

Really, really good proofs, for example. They said that design and production of proofs was absolutely key, because an original, interesting, desirable proof demonstrated conviction and differentiated the book. It wasn’t a total surprise to hear that, but the certainty with which it was expressed was quite striking.

That conversation reminded me of a time, many many years ago when I was at Bloomsbury, and we thought we’d invented a really clever thing when we wrapped up proofs of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in brown paper and string and sealed them with wax and a special stamp. Looking back, I’m sure that wasn’t in the least bit original and  it’s probably worked for centuries. Chaucer probably wrapped up superproofs of The Canterbury Tales, in an effort to mobilyse ye key influencers. But for Strange and Norrell it went down a treat. People could tell we knew it was a special book.

Nowadays, publishers get even more value from visually striking proofs, because people share photos of them online, so social media multiplies the impact of the work. Fancy proofs cost loads, but it seems clear that they work.

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What else does?

I asked Lucy Fisher and also Roz de la Hay, from Main Street Trading (and new prez of the BA) “what persuades you?”

Small … and personalised

They both agreed that stuff which was relevant to them and relatively undemanding stood a chance. They felt pressured and annoyed by large mailings of stuff that wasn’t tailored to them. It’s homework they don’t need.

Packs of printouts and documents and leaflets and letters… even nicely written letters from editors don’t always get read.

Something that’s part of a story

This was an interesting observation. Lucy mentioned the package she received for Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, published by Sceptre. She’d already been told by her rep that the book was inspired by the author’s grandparents’ experiences in the war, so when this evacuee’s suitcase, with pics of them, and rations, turned up, it became part of a story being told about the book.

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Psychologically, this is very potent, I think. When I do coaching sessions for publishers about how to pitch books, we talk a lot about not telling the story OF the book but telling a story ABOUT the book.

If you ask most publishers about their most successful campaigns, particularly for novels, they’ll say “we started talking about it x months ago and just kept on talking about it.” Good campaigns are often long campaigns; a long campaign allows you to develop a story about your book, increasing anticipation by adding layers of new information and material – more visuals, more stuff about the author, and so on.

Moving on from gubbins, into other areas, both Lucy and Roz agreed that meeting an author almost always helps you sell their book, and makes you want to sell their book. Unless, of course, they’re a dick. Which the vast majority are not. We know this, but we might not know it quite enough. Lucy mentioned a bookseller at Waterstones Chiswick who met Marian Keyes many years back and found her so charming he pledged to stock every single one of her books as long as he drew breath. And he has kept to his word. And that’s money in the bank.

Conferences and roadshows also got a good write up from all the booksellers I spoke to, because they helped make books memorable for them. They are places for publishers to carry on the stories they’re telling about their books.. And they facilitate personal relationships with publishers, marketers, publicists and authors.

Authors, in fact, are key to trade marketing. Seemingly becoming more so. I’d say that an author personally visiting one hundred bookshops is actually a form of  trade marketing. And it certainly works, as Penguin and Emma Healey have demonstrated with Elizabeth is Missing. And this concerted focus on authors deliberately forging relationships with booksellers is a very significant trend,. Again, it’s amplified online, but the personal connections are themselves vital.

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At the head office level of trade marketing, there’s been movement towards very bespoke, very integrated work on key publications. I was struck by how effective m’colleagues at Profile had been at enlisting Waterstones to adopt SPQR by Mary Beard. Their sales and marketing team managed to build a lot of momentum by plotting with Wats head office and with individual shops about the book, over a period of months. Co-creating launch plans with them, and then reporting back those plans to other parts of the chain, always communicating, treating it as a shared mission …

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With the big key accounts, bespoke campaigns are becoming ever more significant. There’s a lot of advertising and digital content ostensibly created for consumers, but actually part of the package for the retailer, to meet their needs.

And this bespokery even extends to the product itself. Special editions aren’t just an afterthought any more, they’re an integral part of a big campaign. We’ve seen this most strikingly with the multiple customer-specific editions of Gone Girl, which bring a channel-marketing focus to the actual product.

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So, that gives us some idea of what works in the way of physical marketing (gubbins) building of personal relationships and custom campaigns with the key accounts.

How about digital stuff?  emails and social media … do those things work?

I think there are some excellent examples of publishers using email and particularly social media to influence their trade allies.

This work tends to be almost completely invisible externally, for obvious reasons. Hodder & Stoughton’s communications channel for Waterstones staff is called @Hodderesque and it has a private twitter feed, that only Waterstones staff are allowed to follow.

Why Twitter?

Twitter is non-invasive – Nicole Charge, @Hodderesque

(which makes it sound like they chose Twitter in favour of colonoscopies, but you get the point.) In contrast with those bulky mailings I mentioned earlier, Twitter is not homework. And, because it’s run by very keen and friendly book lovers (in the sales department, actually, not marketing), who genuinely like chatting with booksellers about books, it’s effortlessly authentic and natural. And because it’s not public, the booksellers feel safe to say what they like and be honest. They request proofs and then genuinely hand sell the ones they love.. This has yielded a lot of sales for books with no marketing budget. Unlike fancy proofs, social media work like this is free in budget terms, Though it does take up a lot of staff time.

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HarperCollins started a similar scheme – Harper Insider – around the same time. Ben Hurd told me it was important to them to engage booksellers’ interest first before they start trying to demand stuff from them. Permission marketing, in other words.

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There’s a give and take of time and attention which is about as far as you can get from a mailshot. It has generated very customer-focused, useful material

Seuss

 

And their principal focus isn’t on individual books, it’s on relationships with booksellers.

We only do things that progress a relationship – Ben Hurd, HarperCollins

That’s a brisk trot through what seems to work, in physical, personal and digital versions of trade marketing. Four trends have emerged, I think.

1) Visual

Very simple. If something is cool, pictures of it get shared online. Hence #Bookpost. I can’t see why this dynamic wouldn’t continue to grow in importance.

It means that producing original, fabulous, high concept proofs and material is better value than ever, because social media acts as a “force multiplier” as they say in the military. And, as we saw earlier, this work demonstrates confidence and commitment very persuasively.

2) Bespoke

Publishers seem to be doing ever more to meet the individual needs of their trade customers. Ads, digital assets, “co developed” product.

And this trend might actually point the way to a future even more exaggerated, where publishers have senior staff who aren’t sales people or marketing people, or publicists, but who get to command all those resources in the service of the retail channel. Call them Channel Directors. I know it’s a crushingly corporate idea, but there’s a logical case for it. Because these relationships are so important for our business.

That goes directly against what we all wish we could do – sell directly to the public – but if you asked me which was the more likely future; powerful Channel Directors or half our sales being direct-to-consumer … I’d say the former.

3) Sustained

Sustain

 

Don’t get the reference? Then you’re too young and I despise you.

Short promotional windows don’t define the sales effort anywhere near as much as they used to. With Amazon’s dominance and Waterstones being less overtly promotional, the sales profile of a book is flatter. The game now is about involving retailers in the story about the book, and keeping them engaged, well after publication. Some huge recent bestsellers have very much been defined by how the publisher has worked with the retailers to keep them going. The Girl on The Train, for instance.

4) Personal

Finally, People buy from people, we know that. And as The Wonderful Jo Carpenter from Orion reminds us:

The one thing that hasn’t changed over the ten million years we’ve been selling books … is that personal recommendation works

We might quibble with her timescale. Although I do love the thought of amoebas in the primordial ooze chatting about the new Maggie O’Farrell.

Perhaps Emma Healey visiting 100 bookshops, and Hodderesque and Harper Insider and others promoting books one tweet, one jiffy bag at a time, show that while nothing beats word of mouth, the version of word of mouth we can actually do, that we’re good at initiating … is publisher to retailer and author to retailer.

But it’s got to be done right. Communicate with the right people, in the right tone. Indiscriminate mailings and generic publishing “passion” are no substitute. And by the way, the retailers i spoke to gave particularly short shrift to the blanket passion pitch saying something like “I loved this so much I missed my bus stop”. Which is, in fact, on the banned list:

 

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This is a personal campaign of mine. Feel free to contribute.

Perhaps we can push that thought about recommendation further. One could say, if one were being a bit pretentious, which one often is, that recommendation is the animating dynamic of our entire industry and indeed our reading culture.

It’s quite easy to promote music, tv and movies using a quick taster of the thing itself – we can absorb a song on the radio or a trailer really quickly. It’s not so easy with books. They die without verbal recommendation. You need to have people saying “you’ve got to read this” … and then explaining why.

If we do manage to articulate really good pitches, when we’re trying to market a book to our retail allies,  using all the tools we’ve discussed, perhaps we not only persuade them, but also equip them with persuasive language which they can then use, to their customers, the readers. We’re almost setting up memes of recommendation …

So, though a lot of trade marketing is done by habit, and wastefully, the good stuff works.  And it might be more influential than we give it credit for, when it’s done consciously and cleverly, and it may even be growing in importance.

In a world where marketing to consumers is such a pitilessly hard task, perhaps trade marketing is actually our secret weapon.

Thank you.

Pedalling

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Francesco Moser knew how to pedal. optimizedcyclingsolutions.com

 

Some people find contentment planting one training shoe repeatedly in front of the other. Others get their jollies thrashing through chilly waves. I can’t see running or swimming as anything other than a chore but put me within leg-reach of a pair of pedals, any pair of pedals, and I’m happy.

 

Ideally those pedals would be the ones on my road bike on a sunny Saturday morning but really anything is better than nothing. I get a perfectly decent hit from the heavy old fixed I ride to work, a spin bike at the gym … frankly even a pedalo will get my calves twitching under the right circumstances (those being: any circumstances)

 

Why? Partly because pedalling is something I can do at least half well. I spent 38 years of my life being incapable of sport, then I found one I could do. Being able to push a crank powerfully is therefore deeply satisfying.

 

But mainly I like to pedal because it just feels right to me. It reminds me of what the great Northamptonshire and England cricketer Frank Tyson wrote, about reveling in “the glad animal action” of fast bowling; deriving satisfaction from the physical deed itself, irrespective of its result.

 

On a good day, a pedalling rhythm can become almost self-hypnotising and the smoothness of your movements – or souplesse, as the French say – is almost soothing; drawing you towards the pedal-nirvana of the veloupte (decades of cycling heritage will produce some fine vocabulary).

 

Even on a bad day, you have the harsher joy of forcing out the pace when it hurts. Cyclists are supposed to like suffering and to some degree most of us do. Again, show me sand dunes to run through or a kettlebell to carry and I will quail. But give me a hill to ride up and the thought of stopping just because it hurts won’t even occur to me. I might slow down when the lactate becomes indistinguishable from lava … but the pain is part of the point, so I won’t stop.

 

The capacity of bike pedalling to complement one’s mood is truly marvellous. The frown brought on by a taxing day of work won’t last long on the bike. When I used to work in an office, I’d typically pull away from the kerb at the end of the day, on my shabby commuter, with my rather hefty backpack and find an immediate pang of quiet delight and relief as I flowed down the road. I usually started steady and contemplative and often stayed that way; the sense of self-determination that comes from moving deliberately through London’s streets, claiming a space on the road, is strong and worth enjoying. Or I might have needed the catharsis of a rampage down the embankment blue-route, drafting riders on better, lighter bikes (bastards) when I can. Either way, the person that arrived at home was calmer, more open and more alive than the person who left the office.

 

Perhaps this all amounts to a bike-specific version of mindfulness. I’m aware of my body’s movements without really thinking about them; noticing the turn, the speed, the flow …

 

Of course there’s pedalling and there’s pedalling. Having spent far too long cluelessly trying to push my cadence up over a hundred because that’s what the pros do, I was delighted at a friend’s suggestion that, particularly on a long ride, the smart thing is to vary your stroke on the hills, so different bits of you get tired while other bits recover.

 

So now when out on the country roads I take the climbs in sets of three. First one is a Froome (I know, I wish, literally). Lots of revs, not much gear. It usually feels smooth and controlled. I might stick my elbows out and stare at my headset for added authenticity.

 

The second one is in homage to Francesco Moser who strengthened his legs by tackling hills in as high a gear as he could grind at around sixty rpm without getting out of the saddle. All the stress is on your thighs. It’s a slow motion churn.

 

And the third one is a Pantani. Albeit not quite because I don’t hold the drops, but it’s an all-body out-of-saddle attack. Like a fighter pilot lighting the afterburners, standing on the pedals is an energy-inefficient way to boost power, but it does bring much needed relief to the legs. And of course it’s a whole different pedalling experience. balletic if you’re in form, more like bike-wrestling if you’re not. But still pedalling…

 

The athletic benefits of ringing the changes, like crop rotation for your body, probably make it worth doing but the conceptual benefit is greater still. You get to pay your very own humble tribute to your cycling heroes and meditate on the sensations produced by your approximation of their distinctive pedaling styles.
Pedalling can be carefree, absorbing, absent-minded, painful (in a good way), painful (in a bad way) fluid or tortuous, but it never fails to make me feel lucky and, ultimately, happy.

Reader Experience Part Two: Stop Publishing by Habit

In the first part of this post, I looked at the many elements that make up a reader’s experience of a book, outside of the text itself; blurb, author biog, endmatter and more. I argued that they merit greater attention, to bring a genuinely reader-focused sensibility to the way we publish.

This concluding part focuses on the (many) practical challenges involved in carrying that out

Some elements of reader experience cost money, all cost time. Some might seem too small to be significant, but they’re not. They add up. Like Dave Brailsford’s marginal gains. (For those less cycling oriented than me, he’s in charge of Team Sky and used to be boss of the GB cycling team). “Aggregation of marginal gains” is Brailsford’s sexy catchphrase. He contends that there’s rarely one big bold silver bullet way of getting a winning advantage, but put together lots of little ones and then you win. A concept we publishers should adopt.

Sir David Brailsford – king of the “marginal gain”

What’s stopping us doing more of this polishing and perfecting of peripheral elements for more books? Two reasons:

First because, historically, we tend to struggle with properly seeing what we do from the reader’s perspective. Because, as many people have pointed out, we have two audiences;  the reader and the retailer. And the retailers pay more.

That leaves us angsting about how estranged we are from the ones who do the reading. We might do a bit of insight work but … that’s it. The readers are “a guilt” as an old boss of mine would have put it.

(By the way, since I mention insight, RX focus – if you’ll forgive the abbreviation – in no way has to be data driven. Though if we do ever get our hands on the data Kobo and Amazon hold on how people use our ebooks, that really will focus our minds.)

The second reason this is challenging: it cuts across our disciplines and departmental boundaries. Or it should if we’re doing it right. We should all contribute to making the books rewarding. Our departmental boundaries are still quite strong and well defended, give or take a few merged “communications departments” here and there. And adopting new concepts across them is tricky, as you’ll know if you’ve ever dealt with metadata or SEO.

And that trickiness occurs mainly because we do things by habit. Why? To get things done. In publishing, we’re busy. If there’s a tried and tested method for getting the book out of the door professionally, accurately, quickly, so you can get on with the next one, then you’re going to do it. I get why micro-bespokery is very hard to find time for.

But we do need renewed focus on giving readers what they find rewarding, what truly responds to the way they use, read and live with the products we make. Focus on the reader experience isn’t a techy, flash vision of the publishing future, its actually quite (sorry) artisanal. It isn’t necessarily data driven, though research would help validate it in many ways, and it’s paradoxically commercial by being uncommercial; it’s selling by giving a good experience rather than selling by selling.

Here’s a few handy questions to ask yourself about the books you’re publishing, which should reveal ways to perfect their reading experience.

  • “What will they say when they recommend this book?”
  • “What are they curious about as they read this book?”
  • “What are we inviting them to do once they’ve finished reading?”
  • “How will they feel about owning and displaying it?”
  • “Does every detail reward the reader?”

In the real world, can you do it? It’s challenging. As marketers, if you start interfering with the product, the books, you’ll piss your colleagues off. But my theory is that you’ll be doing your company a favour in the long run.

To be constructive, here’s a few ideas about how to spread Reader Experience thinking without making yourself unpopular.

  1. Arrange to visit a reading group with an editorial colleague. Ask the members lots of questions about how they read. Not just how they choose books, but how they read. They’ll surprise you. That will give both of you ideas.
  1. Propose a reader experience working group to pick a solid backlist author and see if you can improve their sales by 5% by improving every single bit of each of their books. This is a long term project, because backlist titles don’t reprint every day, but if you pick a solid performer then not only will the improvement be measurable, it’ll also be worth the time spent; that 5% will be a lot of money. And because you’re not messing with the new books critical path, you won’t be obstructing anyone’s workflow too badly.
  1. Ask for the cover brief circulation to include spine, back, flap and author photo, so they’re part of the positioning discussion from the start.
  1. Ask for the cover copy circulation to include any non standard forematter and endmatter and the author biog,  Is it just same old same old? Well … should it be?
  1. Buy your own ebooks. Be a mystery shopper. Notice every stage of the process of buying and reading. Is it satisfying?
  1. Use interns. Normally I hate it when people say “use interns” because they usually mean “hey, let’s get the kids to do the instantgrams”. In this case, send them a decent backlist title a couple of weeks before they start and say “read it and then talk me through your experience of it, literally cover to cover, leaving nothing out and taking nothing for granted”. They’ll have fresh eyes and they’ll surprise you.

I’m going to end on a controversial note and say that in most publishing companies, marketing people are disempowered and their ability to communicate with an audience is underused because it is all too often steered away from the product itself. The product itself is our best channel for communication with readers, so you need to get your hands on it. Ask the awkward questions. Cross the departmental boundaries. Have the row if you have to. Improve the reader experience. If I’m right, you’ll improve the sales. Good luck.

Reader Experience, Part One: This Book is Not (just) a Billboard

This post follows a presentation I gave at the 2015 Bookseller Marketing Conference. The audience was mostly – as you might imagine – publishing folks with a marketing background …

In my view, “Reader Experience” needs to be a thing. I’m using the phrase to describe the totality of of buying and owning and using a book. That’s something we publishers should focus on more, even though it involves challenging our habits and our traditional disciplines.

In practical terms, focus on reader experience seems straightforward; it’s just lots of choices about lots of publishing details. But improving those details consistently will, I believe, yield valuable results. And I think marketing people have a big part to play in this, even though it has to do with the product itself – the books – which marketers are usually shooed away from.

I’m using the abbreviation RX as a slightly pretentious nod to UX or “User Experience”. As we know, app and website developers obsess over UX, because a usable, enjoyable product is usually a successful one. They’re close enough to their users to see how vital the user experience is and they embrace that concept throughout their companies. We should learn from that.

Why? Because, as we all know, people recommending the books they enjoy is vital to sales and getting more vital all the time as the “pile it high”, retailer promotion-dominated sales model weakens. If a publisher can nudge that level of enjoyment up just a bit, it’ll help sales. So we shouldn’t always just be asking “how can we sell more?” but also “how can we help people enjoy the product more?”… because that in itself leads to more sales.

To some extent, this is stuff most of us already do when we are doing our best work; on the brand authors we’re focusing on; the big debut we’re doing everything for. When we’re being ambitious, together, about the whole package, not just doing our own bit of the job in our silos. And I’ll show some examples of that very shortly. The win is to make it an institutional habit, for the whole team.

Conventionally, the work of the publicist, cover designer, marketer (and please, not “marketeer” which just makes me think of The Muskerhounds*)  has its impact on how the reader hears about a book and first encounters it.

This is not us

*Since posting, I have been informed by m’learned friend Suzie Doore that the correct spelling is “Muskehounds”, darn it.

All the communication from those people is directed towards making the sale, but once the book is bought and the reader starts reading, all that switches off and they’re in this very pure, Roland Barthes state of focus on the text in isolation. Except that’s cobblers. In the real world, masses of apparently small details of design, production and copy carry on playing a part in your reader experience. You keep noticing them as you read and own the book. They are part of the book’s presence in your life.

Enough theory. Let’s look at some examples of reader experience; hits and misses. Some of them highlight usability and function, others relate more to enjoyment and satisfaction.

I’ll use this rough list of elements of the reader experience that are not the core text. The text’s edgelands, if you like.

  • Cover design
  • Author biog
  • Author photo
  • Forematter
  • Footnotes
  • Acknowledgements
  • Endpapers
  • Flaps
  • Spine
  • Endmatter
  • Blurb
  • Quotes

I’m not going to say that much about front cover design, because plenty of blogs, articles and indeed books are, quite rightly, devoted to it; I will, though, say that we should remember that people still look at the cover of their book after they’ve bought it, so it should ideally be designed to be integral to their enjoyment of it and not just a billboard for the book.

So we’ll start properly with the second item on the list: the author biog. Authors can feel quite strongly about these, not unreasonably, so you won’t always persuade them to try something different. But, can you make the case for a biog which adds to the reader’s experience of the book? … Perhaps it answers questions that a reader might have about who wrote this wonderful thing? We say authors are our brands, but “so and so lives in Hampstead with her two cats” isn’t doing much for your brand.

My two favourite examples are both funny ones and good enough that I actually remembered them word for word (for me, very rare). One is from an old cartoon book by Jacky Fleming:

“Abandoned by wolves at an early age, she was raised by feral intellectuals just down the road from Hampstead.”

The other is from Coraline by Neil Gaiman:

“Neil now lives near Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has somehow reached his forties and tends to always need a haircut.”

The reason they stick in my mind is that In both cases, I actually liked the author more having read their biog.

Oddly, one of my favourite books of recent years, with near faultless reader experience – H is for Hawk – has a slightly bland author bio,

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It just doesn’t match the tone of the book itself or tell you that much new. Purely as a reader, I think is a shame. I really want to know more about Helen McDonald. If you want me to champion this author, feed my curiosity.

Next on the list … Author photo. Again, emotionally charged for the authors themselves sometimes. But consider the message that image is conveying in the context of the whole package. And, by the way, If it’s important – which it is – is someone making sure it’s in the ebook? somewhere prominent?? I sought out a paperback of the Iceberg because I had read it in epub format and was keen to see what the author looked like.

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It seemed really important for such a personal book. And actually, in the paperback, the photo’s perfect.

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Not just a nice photo but a powerful one. It actually Improves the book.

Next: Forematter – a catch-all term covering some distinctly unloved booky real estate. What’s there for the reader? Well, this might be where you have your design credit for the cover. That’s admin to us publishers, generally. But as readers, I bet you have all had that experience of wondering “I wonder why they chose that picture”, or what that signifies, or where the idea comes from. As publishers, why don’t we say something about it, anticipating that moment of curiosity? Or, at least, as Pushkin books have done, make a fuss of the illustrator or designer and give the reader somewhere to go with their interest.

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Maps, family trees, character lists; most publishers do these things pretty well, as a rule. But not always across all editions. My reader experience of Bring Up the Bodies, for instance, was rather bizarre. I bought it on kindle, having read Wolf Hall in hardback. I got really frustrated that I wasn’t able to refer to a list of characters. The Wolf Hall hardback had one, so I couldn’t understand why this new book didn’t. I emailed customer services at HarperCollins to ask them if they’d send me a pdf of it. And they sweetly replied saying “the character list IS in the kindle edition, but the kindle edition defaults to starting you at page one of chapter one – you need to go to the main menu for the book to find it”. I felt like an idiot for not having checked. But then … why the hell would I check? Or anyone? That’s poor reader experience..

Briefly on footnotes: sometimes when you click on a footnote in an ebook you get taken right to the end of the text and stranded there, doomed to navigate back manually. Imagine how unsatisfactory that is when you’re reading a book (like David Foster Wallace’s essays) with literally scores of footnotes. Hatefully bad RX.

Acknowledgements – are they relevant? Well, sometimes they’re a vital part of the book. In H is for Hawk, you practically learn the ending in the acknowledgements. And it’s often really striking to have the author address you more or less directly. The editor probably has this under control, BUT a reader-aware marketing person might feel they could poke their nose in and make sure that significant acknowledgements are being given due prominence.

Endpapers; not just decoration. Endpapers can be used to add to the object, deepen the experience.  Does that sound far fetched? Randall by Jonathan Gibbs  has yellow endpapers. In fact it has Randall Yellow endpapers. The character in the novel – Randall – is an artist who brands his work in his own shade of yellow. So half way through the book you appreciate the significance of the endpapers and then you feel more attached to this fascinating, clever object – not just text.

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Flaps on paperbacks seem to be increasingly common and well used. They add a sense of quality and solidity. I personally always use them as bookmarks as I’m going – I’m sure I’m not alone in that –  so I notice what’s on the flap over and over and interact with it. The flaps are valuable book real estate, I would argue.

Spines move us on from the RX of an individual book into that of a series. How are we being invited to navigate through an author’s work?

Again, this is the sort of thing we tend to do well when we’re really trying. For our most important brand authors.

Take Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels; he didn’t write them chronologically, so HarperCollins put on each spine the date of the battle or campaign in which the book takes place. That’s handy for buying them and for displaying them at home and re-reading them.

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And in fact, though this is on the back, not the spine, their Patrick O’Brian covers show a similar level of focus on exactly how that author’s readers get their jollys. In this case it’s “collecting the set”, so they put a complete checklist of all his titles in pride of place. That’s not a hard sell, it’s responding to the actually borderline OCD needs of the reader. (I think I can say that, as an O’Brian fan myself.)

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Endmatter and other random bits. This is something I’ve spoken about before; quite often we feel we only have time for a rather mechanical approach: fill up some empty pages with ads for similar-ish books. Or maybe a generic plug for our website, saying something like “sign up for exclusive content across all these platforms”. Clearly there’s scope to be more ambitious.

What is worth putting in? Reading notes are out of vogue. And yet perhaps that’s because they became a bit one-size-fits-all. When Fourth Estate did their PS sections I found some of them indispensable – Half of a Yellow Sun had fascinating notes –  but a few felt like they’d been phoned in, to use the acting expression. Which is the hazard of a systematic approach.

I’d suggest asking yourself “when someone finishes the last sentence of this book, what’s the one question they’re going to have in their mind? What’s the thing they’re curious about, that they might google? How could we anticipate that curiosity and give them that thing?” You know when people talk about the vinyl revival and the joy of poring over sleevenotes? People do that with books too. Normal people. They just don’t talk about it that much. Give them something to pore over.

Check out Burial Rites for a great recent example.

The best children’s publishers have excelled at reader experience for ages. Here’s a tiny detail from the back of Usborne’s See Inside Your Body, explaining that the background pattern on each page of the book is an actual photograph taken through a microscope. It’s a good feature and it’s eminently worth drawing readers’ attention to. It’s evidence of a thoughtful, reader-aware approach.

 

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To be honest I could have saved myself the bother of typing all this and just gone with “look at the current Puffin editions of Roald Dahl’s books”. Every detail is attended to, everything is well judged. Rather than a dull biog we have a day in the life of Roald Dahl. Aspects of the characters, the language, the world, are featured but not laboured. His other books are laid out before us appealingly, not sellingly. Yes that is a word.

Dahl

Straying from endmatter to one other random element, here’s something that’s nearly fantastically useful. The Hare with Amber Eyes. A stunning book. I wanted more pictures than there are in the book. And there are more pictures on the belly band. But they’re tiny and they have no explanation. So they’re pointless. They might attract the reader; they do not serve the reader.

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Blurb I’m not going to dwell on – again, it’s a big topic on its own, but I will say that readers do mind if blurb and book don’t seem to correspond and they will say so. It will influence whether they recommend a book. There’s a danger of spoiling your word of mouth here.

Quotes on books. Here’s a classic example of something done by most publishers in a formulaic way; an upmarket quote then a tabloid one; Telegraph balanced by Guardian. Cover all bases, appeal to all readers. But are we thinking about how readers encounter those quotes over and over as they read the book, or are we only seeing them as a means of closing the sale?

Consider how you are guiding a reader with quotes. Remember what it’s like to read a reference to “A hilarious satire” on the back of a book you’re reading and hadn’t realised was supposed to be funny. Quotes and blurbs are expectation management as well as sales pitch.

So, that’s a canter through the main elements of Reader Experience, showing, I hope, how much scope there is for improvement in the trade publishing norm.

In part two of this piece, I cover the practical implications of this approach and the (big, scary) challenges that await us when we try to implement it in the real world.

 

V-Books of 2014; a Personal Choice

(This piece first appeared as a guest article on velominati.com)

The autobiography is a medium particularly well suited to the needs of the racing cyclist. What other platform affords such scope to settle scores, explain away failures, relive glories and bitch about bad luck at length and without danger of interruption?

In fact I’ve often wondered if one of the reasons sporting ghost-writers get paid so well is that, like beekeepers with stings, there’s a threshold to the amount of self-justification one person can hear before they simply go mental. It’s actually psychic danger money these guys are earning.

Cycling memoirs are a mixed bag at best, but we may as well get used to them: much as a wine enthusiast has to tolerate being given ever more superfluous corkscrews each Christmas, so a cycling fan will receive the latest biog of their country’s top pro, like it or not.

What follows is a personal selection of the three best cycling books of the year. But first, a roundup of some of the rest:

The Climb by Chris Froome is worthy but unmemorable, except for the early years in Kenya, which are startlingly pythony (and no, I don’t mean Pythonesque; he was really, really into pythons). At Speed is Mark Cavendish’s latest. He’s driven, he’s demanding, he’s a bit of a nightmare to live with … you know it already.

If the superstars’ books feature a lot of abandonments, crashes and moments of not-winning, the domestiques’ contain little else. So when you embark on the story of someone who has taken the cycling equivalent of the vows of the Black Watch and have all but renounced winning, for life … it can be a bit of a trudge, but a bracing and instructive one, if written well (see Domestique, Le Metier and Dog in a Hat).

Christophe Bassons didn’t set out to be a domestique, but his bloody-minded and almost masochistic stand against doping made anything else impossible, as he relates in A Clean Break. If you’ve never understood why it’s hard for a rider to resist doping, check out Bassons’ life on the road and the schoolyard bullying he endured day after day. It’s a worthy document of a heroic career, but you do find yourself muttering “Oh why can’t you just … win something, Christophe?”

And if you really want to wallow in failure, Lanterne Rouge is a well-researched and witty view from the (very) back of the pack.

V-Books of the Year

Rule #10 Award: Legends of the Tour by Jan Cleijne

Who knew cycling and bandes dessines were a match made in heaven? Jan Cleijne, clearly. You only need to see one panel of this superb graphic work to understand why: Eddy Merckx and The Man With the Hammer. This book thrillingly celebrates the myths of cycling in (super-)heroic comic book style. I handed this to my ten year old son, saying “You want to know why I like cycling? …”

As a concentrated lesson in cycling never getting easier, just faster, and in Looking Fantastic through every era, this is hard to top.

Rule #9 Award: Gironimo! by Tim Moore

“My genitals have now come back to life – and in some style, if I may say so.”

Don’t be put off by the “quirky” cover, which seems to place this book in the contrivance-heavy genre of “oddball travel memoir”. This is an exceptional and highly V-relevant book.

Even a straight history of the 1914 Giro – diabolical in its length and its conditions – would be worth reading. This book goes quite a bit further: Tim Moore builds a period bike – wooden rims, cork pads and all – then rides the fucker round the whole route, treating us to amusing tales of his own misfortunes and a parallel commentary of the ‘14 race. Moore is insightful, inspiring and very funny, whether dispensing hard-won road wisdom (“The touring cyclist’s core skill: being asleep when it’s raining”) or offering up his own misfortunes for our entertainment (“I dismounted like a dalek at a rodeo”). A classic.

Rule #71 Award: Faster by Michael Hutchinson

Michael Hutchinson, or Doctor Hutch, will be known to many for his journalism and also The Hour – the outstanding set text for all followers of the resurgent hour record competition.

Faster is a gloriously nerdy survey of all the things cyclists do to get faster. Hutchinson examines them all in turn with the twin objectives of a) evaluating their effectiveness and b) taking the piss out of them when appropriate. And it is always appropriate.

In his overwhelming obsession with the minutiae of cycling and matching refusal to take it too seriously, Doctor Hutch is one of us. Just quite a bit faster (blame his lungs, whose output numbers are apparently “in horse territory”).

When he’s not laughing at pros with their beet-pink urine and their hatstand physiques, he can be very profound on the central truths of the sport.

“Parts of an athlete’s life are hard, yes. But having the chance to devote yourself to something that’s both so extraordinary and so unnecessary means it’s also rather wonderful.”

Honourable mentions go to The Ride Journal and The Cycling Anthology, which have joined Rouleur as exceptional sources of contemporary cycling writing. The former is a non-profit and invites submissions from anyone. The latter is based in the established sports writing community but no less passionate for it, and always surprises and delights. Oh and I can’t not mention Ned Boulting’s 101 Damnations, for sheer charm.


Stop press: Bike Mechanic by Guy Andrews has just been delivered. It might be the best bike book ever.