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?
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.