Marketing Whatever You Have to Market: Product Opportunities and Issues

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March 2015
by Linda Carlson

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Marketing books is a challenge. But so is marketing almost everything else: merchandise or services; in business, government, or nonprofits. And the best ways to deal with the challenge are essentially the same no matter whether you’re marketing a print book, an e-book, an audiobook, an app, advice or assistance related to books, or something entirely outside the book business.

In every case, the old cliché about the world beating a path to your door when you design a better mousetrap (or write the best how-to guide to trapping mice) is a flat-out falsehood. And another maxim, “Right product, right time,” is only partially true. Nothing sells without a lot of hard work by someone, and usually success requires both initiative and perseverance as well as a lot of luck.

As you think about marketing your books, your sidelines, or yourself and your authors as speakers or consultants, I recommend brainstorming with the basic “four Ps” of marketing, as outlined long ago by business school professors:

  • Product: (defined to include service): What you’re selling, and even more important, what customers perceive they are buying
  • Price: Payment options and discounts, delivery charges, sales taxes, and any device or special effort necessary for using the product or service
  • Place: How your product or service is distributed to end users, which may involve several steps
  • Promotion: Every way you communicate to prospective customers, including via publicity, customer service, advertising, and direct sales

What follows looks at the how the first P—product—applies to book marketing.

Bring Out The Benefits

If you’re familiar with the concept of product characteristics versus product benefits, you know that what you’re selling is not always exactly what the customer wants to buy.

If you’re selling a how-to book, for instance, you might describe it as 250 pages of advice, examples, and illustrations. You might even say you’re selling skills. What your readers seek, however, is a solution to a problem or the answer to a question: how to fix a leak, toilet train a child, improve a résumé, eliminate debt.

If you’re publishing fiction, your customers may be looking for entertainment, intellectual stimulation—or the means to satisfy the reading requirements for American Literature 101.

The key to any kind of marketing is to identify the product characteristics and determine how those characteristics can be translated into benefits.

Like many other consumer products, books usually have several markets, especially when they’re sold through trade channels. Ideally, what your book offers a given market will be perceived by that market as better than currently available alternatives. Read that last sentence carefully. It’s not what you think (or even know) is better about your book that’s all important; it’s what your target audience believes is better about it.

Almost certainly, your competition includes products other than books. Book publishers are competing today against all sorts of other sources of information and entertainment, many of them online or downloadable either free or at very low prices. What you’re publishing may be more accurate, better written, more attractively presented or in other ways superior to what is already available—but that may not matter enough to your prospects.

Why should they spend $20, $10, even $5 on a book about fixing leaky pipes when an online search turns up millions (yes, millions) of articles and videos in a few seconds? And if they need advice specific to their faucet or pipe, they’ll probably get it from the salesperson at the hardware store.

As you evaluate every possible audience for a book, consider what each audience requires, and then go past that minimum to determine how to distinguish your title from the competition.

Children’s books can serve as an example. First, note that they, like most other products, are sold by category—board book, picture book, early reader, young adult, workbook, classroom text, and so on. Second, recognize that the content must use vocabulary appropriate for a category’s suggested age level. Just as designers don’t usually try to market little girls’ dresses made with Madonna-style bustiers and see-through skirts, an early reader should not include adult vocabulary and vulgarity. Instead, it needs to meet Lexile levels for primary and early elementary school students, and those levels need to be stated on the book cover and in promotional materials.

To sell to school librarians and teachers, children’s book content should also be aligned with the Common Core State Standards. And, just as important, it should have a teacher’s guide created by the author or the publisher that can be packaged with a book or sold separately. Another significant way to distinguish a book for the elementary school market is by getting an Accelerated Reader rating from Scholastic. All of these suggestions will increase the chances that the book will be reviewed by library and educational media and considered for purchase by libraries and schools.

An articulate author or illustrator will also help sell a children’s book through presentations, especially at schools, where books can often be presold. Although publishers may publicize the fact that authors and illustrators are available, the authors themselves usually contract with schools and handle those book sales. By inscribing the books they sell at these events, they distinguish the copies from those sold by retailers.

Publishers also can increase the audience for a title by identifying ways it benefits niche markets. For a children’s book, field testing might document value to the special needs market and thus prompt recommendations by advocacy groups. Or a book might be presented as complementing what a school supply catalog offers in, say, anti-bullying materials. A careful look at who the content can benefit might also lead to sales to target markets such as teacher in-service workshops, child sexual abuse prevention programs, or military base grief support groups.

The same strategies apply to all genres, subjects, and formats. Every title benefits from author interaction with readers, from bonuses such as book group discussion topics, and from advance reader feedback. Nonfiction often sells better when it includes indexes, end notes, glossaries, maps, and genealogy charts, and so does much historical fiction or fantasy. How-to and technical titles usually need detailed examples and cutaway or exploded illustrations. And how a book looks is a significant product characteristic, just like the appearance of an automobile, sweater, or cereal box. So consider not only cover design but also cover and text stock, interior design, and illustrations or photographs. Especially if you’re marketing to people with limited vocabulary or visual impairments, or if a book is intended as a premium, gift, or collectible, how it looks will affect how it’s perceived.

What’s packaged with the book also influences a prospective buyer’s perception of value.

Create Connections

Identifying what makes a book a keepsake is one of the strategies that has been successful for Ascend Books in Olathe, KS. “Most of our authors are sports celebrities and their autographs are very popular within their regional fan bases,” publisher Bob Snodgrass explains.

Those autographs are so popular that the leather-bound limited editions of such titles as Lombardi’s Left Side sell for $90—more than three times the price of the regular hardcover edition—when personally autographed by Green Bay Packers Hall of Famers Herb Adderley and Dave Robinson and their coauthor Royce Boyles. The promotional blurb asserts, “Each copy is truly one of a kind and will be a treasured display piece in your library or memorabilia collection,” and each comes with a walnut easel to facilitate display.

Ascend also does something that almost any publisher, regardless of budget, can do: Get authors out to meet fans. “Interaction with the authors is proving to be quite a plus for us,” Snodgrass says.

Connecting authors with fans can be inexpensive, thanks to Skype, webinars, conference calls, and even ordinary speakerphones. And an author doesn’t have to be a Hall of Famer to be a celebrity. In their own hometowns or the associations they belong to, your authors can also turn themselves into products, with presentations based on material in their books or on the writing or publishing process. These appearances can be a revenue source for authors who sell books and earn speaker fees at schools, libraries, continuing education courses, and professional associations. In the Northwest, for example, many people who audition for the Humanities Washington speakers bureau are authors; they’re paid $300 per hour-long talk and are reimbursed for travel expenses.

Like many other children’s book authors, Janan Cain is paid for her day-long presentations at schools, and each of her appearances is preceded by sales of her Parenting Press books that she autographed prior to her arrival.

Offer Evidence

Once publishers and authors have identified how they believe their titles will benefit certain audiences, it’s important to be able to document the book characteristics that create those benefits. This means data, and often reviews and testimonials (a.k.a. endorsements).

Effective documentation varies, depending on the book. For children’s books, the following resources can be helpful.

Lexile Framework for Reading

As lexile.com/analyzer explains, “Lexile Analyzer [is] a software program that evaluates the reading demand—or readability—of books, articles and other materials. [It] … measures the complexity of the text by breaking down the entire piece and studying its characteristics, such as sentence length and word frequency …” Use of the online analyzer is free. For more information visit scholastic.com/

Common Core State Standards

Very academic information is available at corestandards.org/ via the “Developers & Publishers” link at the bottom of the home page, but if you download the standards, you can easily create a simple matrix with standards for each relevant grade level on one axis and titles on the other, and then you can mark which titles meet which standards.

Accelerated Reader

Renaissance Learning (renaissance.com) evaluates children’s titles for readability and publishes quizzes that teachers often use to determine whether students have read a book. There are also tools to help teachers create quizzes for books not evaluated by the company.

For other titles, consider these sources of documentation and sales:

Hi/lo

Hi/lo books are those having adult-interest content and a reading level appropriate for grades 4–6, with Lexile levels of 700–1,000, according to the Ann Arbor (MI) Library District’s website. School Library Journal’s archived article, “Never a Dull Moment: The Action-Packed World of Hi/Lo Books,” notes that they are “especially intended for use with ESL and adult reading students.” The article also provides several guidelines for the vocabulary, plot structure, length, and design of titles intended for students with below-grade-level reading skills.

Large-Print Standards

The Library of Congress (loc.gov/nls/reference/circulars/ largeprint.html) describes print materials for the visually impaired as having a minimum size of 14-point type.

“Large-print materials are most commonly available in 16- to 18-point type. Large-print materials are easiest to Read if they are printed with heavy leading (spacing between the lines of print), wide margins, simple type, and non-glossy paper.” More detailed information on text design is available from the American Printing House for the Blind, aph.org/edresearch/lpguide.htm.

Professional Continuing Education Programs

Many professionals keep their credentials up to date by attending seminars, workshops, and classes and completing reading assignments, both print and online. Opportunities for publishers include having their titles specified as texts for such having their authors conduct sessions, and creating online continuing ed programs for courses at academic institutions and/or professional associations and publications.

Requirements for granting continuing education credits of any kind vary by industry. In-service workshops for classroom teachers, for example, usually must be conducted certificated teachers, with credits or clock hours recorded through a college. Programs and instructors for other professions are usually evaluated for certification, often with application fees that range from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

One source of information about them is the International Association for Continuing Education and Training, which lists “authorized providers” at iacet.org/ceus/locate-iacet ceu-provider. Nonprofit professional associations relevant to various categories also can provide leads. For example, the American Institute of Architects lists the providers of courses in such topics as design for aging, color theory, alternative careers, ethics, and financial management (see aia. learnflex.net/users/index.aspx).

Government agencies such as the California Bureau of Real Estate also list providers of programs on dozens of topics, including consumer protection, “problem soil,” earthquake preparedness, and working with seniors (see dre.ca.gov/publicasp/CEContinue.asp).


Product Line Extension in Publishing

Product line extension, also known as brand extension, is a marketing strategy especially common with packaged goods (Coca-Cola led to Diet Coke, and Tide detergent powder led to Tide Ultra, Tide Liquid, and Tide Pens). Book publishers’ line extensions are usually collectors’ editions, along with large print, paperback, hardcover, electronic, audio, and abridged versions. Today some titles also come in interactive versions, with links and pop-ups.

Other product line extensions in book publishing are created through licensing. A. A. Milne was a pioneer in this area, with toys like those that belonged to his son Christopher created to promote the Winnie the Pooh stories.

Sometimes a product leads to a book, rather than the other way around. In the 1920s, the movie star dog Rin-Tin-Tin became the hero of children’s books, and much later, the Sesame Street characters extended from television screen to videos, toys, and books. Today, even candies lead to books, as witness The M&M’s Brand Chocolate Candies Counting Board Book.

Some products and books are packaged together, like the BeForever American Girl dolls and books. Others are sold separately, as what book retailers usually call sidelines.

Dwight Knowlton at Carpe Viam! in Phoenix, who works with such auto racing greats as Stirling Moss to create books for kids about automotive history, sells T-shirts in adult and children’s sizes as well as posters and window decals. Like Bob Snodgrass at Ascend Books, he also appealed to the collectors’ market by selling limited editions—in his case, copies of The Little Red Racing Car that were autographed by Sir Stirling. Priced at $99 each, they sold for more than five times the cost of a regular copy.

Kimberly DesJardine of Healdsburg, CA, developed a plush toy brand extension using the main character in her children’s book Gabby the Green Grape. The toy can be sold as a sideline, and because DesJardine’s marketing strategy focuses on everything related to the primary industries of her northern California hometown—namely, wine and tourism—she has arranged to sell both her book and the toy in gift shops, bookstores, and wineries.

“Even though mine is a children’s book, wineries account for most of my sales because parents visiting are looking for something ‘locally inspired’ to take home to their kids,” DesJardine says. And to reach the kids who come along with their parents, she has found another market for the Gabby toy—an upscale hotel that provides “turndown” gifts for young guests. Her first sale to it was 50 toys, and she reports that “with each one they give the parents a flyer directing them to a local boutique adjacent to the hotel to buy the book.”


Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle. The author of two small-business marketing books, a case study on marketing services published by the Harvard Business School and Prentice-Hall, and a book of history, she spent four years on the Humanities Washington speakers bureau.

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