Marketing Whatever You Have to Market: Promotion Opportunities and Issues, Part 2

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August 2015
by Linda Carlson

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This is the fifth in the series of articles using the “four Ps” framework—product, price, place, and promotion—to explore ways publishers can get the word out about their products or services, and ways to consummate sales.

Coverage of the last P, promotion, which began in the July issue, was going to conclude in this one. But thanks to an extraordinary response from members with excellent examples of what has worked (and what hasn’t), one more article about promotion will be coming your way next month. That one will deal with the value of exhibits, promotion to bookstores, outdoor advertising, podcasts, and author appearances.

What follows examines the value of print media coverage, paid reviews and “native advertising,” giveaways and deep discounts, online ads, and public relations campaigns. Like other articles in this series, it focuses on promotional strategies and tactics that indie publishers have used very recently, and on whether they recommend using them.

Print Media Coverage

Getting media to pay attention is a challenge. There’s lots of competition for space and air time; pitches often have to be made months in advance of a book launch; and publishers usually have no control over when (or if) reviews and feature stories actually appear.

“Editors can be picky about what they’ll include,” Colin McGrate points out. The co-author of Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard from Mountaineers Books in Seattle, McGrate has been interviewed several times by Val Easton, a freelancer for the Seattle Times’ garden section and national gardening magazines.

Easton interviewed McGrate a year ago for the Spring 2015 issue of Garden Design magazine’s Pacific Northwest Q & A column, but the story described him only as co-owner of an edible landscape design service.

Today, few local magazines print book reviews; many metropolitan dailies print only syndicated reviews or reviews of books by well-known authors making local appearances; and many larger newspapers don’t review books available only in electronic format or perceived as self-published. Broadcast coverage is even harder to come by, especially with the relaxation of Federal Communications Commission requirements for “public service” that encouraged interviews with authors. But several IBPA members report that it’s relatively easy to get publicity via online stations and their podcasts, which we’ll discuss next month, and in small-town and suburban newspapers, especially if there’s a local tie-in.

“Go to smaller newspapers, those that serve the geographic area where you set your book,” advises Gloria T. August, who has struggled to get publicity in Boulder and Denver papers for her English Garden Talk Press and St. Bridged Vineyard Press imprints. Carew Papritzof King Northern Publishing in Rio Rico, AZ, echoes her recommendation.

Three other huge challenges face publishers seeking media publicity. One is the turnover among feature, entertainment, and news editors and producers, which makes it necessary to keep updating contact information. A second is the decline in newspaper readership. Nielsen Scarborough USA estimates that the percentage of people aged 25 to 34 who read a Sunday paper dropped from 50 to 25 percent between 2004 and 2014. Older people typically read more, but their readership has also dropped by about 25 percentage points. And although people of any age with college degrees are more likely to read a paper, their readership has declined to between 40 and 46 percent.

The third challenge is making publicity drive sales, or even finding out whether it did. IBPA members have had significant media coups in the past year or so, and some have generated so many sales that books were out of stock within days. The boating biography of the founders of Pardey Books and the South Dakota Historical Society Press’s annotated Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography are two examples of titles that were covered in major national and specialty media and then sold thousands of copies.

But both subjects have huge special-interest followings. Lin Pardey has been speaking and writing about life afloat for decades in books and in newsletter and magazine articles, and the Historical Society Press’s social media posts about the progress of the Ingalls Wilder title created pent-up demand for what appears to be a worldwide and never-ending thirst for Little House stories.

Reviews in publications such as Library Journal that have narrowly defined readership and a high percentage of book buyers often create sales spikes. Libraries preordered an estimated 400 copies of Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass by Annita Perez Sawyer from the Santa Fe Writers Project, immediately after a favorable LJ review was published this spring, publisher Andrew Gifford reports. The bonus: Unlike broadcast publicity and newspaper reviews, LJ reviews typically continue to generate sales for several months.

National print publicity for books on specialized topics can yield far lower bookstore sales. The University of Oklahoma Press biography of lumber baron A. C. Hammond, When Money Grew on Trees by Greg Gordon, was reviewed at length in the Wall Street Journal last year, but bookstore sales to date are less than 800. And while the OU Press bio of Calamity Jane by Richard W. Etulain got a boost from its Wall Street Journal review, its bookstore sales are still below 500.

This spring, when Chicago Review Press published The Assassin’s Assassin by Scott Martelle, about the man who shot John Wilkes Booth, the book got very positive reviews in such papers as the New York Post, Boston Globe, and Wall Street Journal. Soon, some 300 libraries had copies on their shelves. But bookstore sales were not affected; they peaked at 60 for the week after the WSJ story, the last major publicity.

Local print publicity, although sometimes relatively easy to obtain where the author lives or in areas significant in the book, can result in even fewer traceable sales. “It’s impossible to know how feature stories in the Marin Independent Journal and the Ross Valley Reporter translated into sales,” reports John Brooks of I Heart Casey Books in Fairfax, CA. He has seen “just a few unit sales” of his memoir The Girl Behind the Door that seem to relate to that coverage, and he notes that “it’s frustrating when you put a lot of effort into something that yields limited results.”

Sometimes an article by an author generates effective print publicity even if the article is not on the same topic as the book because the brief bio that appears at the end of the article promotes the book. Last May, for example, Paula Spencer Scott’s article “What Moms Really Want for Mother’s Day” for Parade magazine appeared in more than 700 Sunday newspapers. The bio described her interactive diary for Peter Pauper Press as “a great Mother’s Day gift”—and bookstore sales, per BookScan, increased by 83 percent for a one-week spike. (After that, sales dropped by more than 700, to the previous weekly rate.)

Paid Reviews

Given the challenges of getting print media publicity for books, some publishers decide to pay for brief synopses or reviews on websites and in publications through programs such as Publishers Weekly PW Select, Kirkus Indie, and ForeWord Reviews Clarion, which charge fees ranging from $149 to $575 per title.

These fees may guarantee you a review, but like the publicity that results from press releases, online media kits, and personal contacts with the media, reviews aren’t guaranteed to generate sales. D.A. Karr, a San Diego self-publisher who paid for reviews on PW Select and other sites, reports that “they didn’t do anything for actual sales.”

Veteran publisher Rudy Shur also vetoes “pay-for-play” reviews. Before he established Square One Publishers in 2000, he worked on thousands of titles for other publishers. Today, Square One has about 450 titles in print. “We have found that [paid for] reviews practically scream ‘self-published book’ to those in the trade,” Shur says. “We feel they result in a perception of a book as being something less than commercial.”

Advertorials

The traditional term for content created by a publication’s advertising department, the advertorial is now often called sponsored content or native advertising. Sometimes it is necessary to pay for such content; sometimes it is available free only to advertisers. Often the “sponsored content” about a firm is wrapped around its ad.

To explore having a book mentioned or an author interviewed via this advertising-editorial hybrid, check publications carefully. An advertorial section is usually topped with a line of small type such as, “Prepared by the Advertising Department” or “A special supplement of [publication name].” And bylines are often the names of the featured company’s publicist or public relations firm or of freelancers working for the ad department.

To find people to contact about advertorials, you can do an online search for the bylines you see or select people from those listed in advertorial sections’ mastheads. Another possibility: Have authors contact advertising managers about writing copy for future advertorials; ideally they will receive both small payments and brief bios that include the titles of their books and the publishers’ website URLs.

When readers can’t tell the difference between text prepared by the editorial or news staff of a publication and sponsored content in it, an advertorial may be as credible as other coverage. However, advertorial text may not be copyedited or fact-checked by professionals, and businesses sometimes have no chance to correct errors. And the effectiveness of advertorials can be limited, too: when the Sunday Seattle Times did an advertorial feature called “Rustic Cool” and included a two-sentence paragraph on the edible landscape design services of the Seattle Urban Farm Co. and the book by its owners, coauthor Colin McGrate said he noticed only a slight increase in immediate website inquiries, and there was no bump in bookstore sales.

Giveaways and Deep Discounts

Targeting niche audiences, especially those heavy on readers of e-books, companies such as BookBub and Ereader News Today distribute information about selected titles to the people who subscribe to their e-mail newsletters. Some such companies accept only a small percentage of the titles submitted and restrict how often a title can be included. To have a title selected, publishers usually must provide books free or agree to a steep discount and a price as low as 99 cents.

“BookBub was the best thing we ever did,” says Jay Nadeau of Bitingduck Press in Altadena, CA. “Our submitted title was rejected several times, but when it was accepted, it sold 2,000 copies within three days, and another 1,000 over the next week.”

Although some indie publishers consider BookBub expensive, Nadeau has no complaints: “We used one of the less-expensive genres,” he reports, and his expectations about the length of the sales spike were realistic; it lasted only a couple of weeks before sales returned to their earlier level.

BookBub has more subscribers and website visitors as measured by Alexa.com, but Phyllis Wheeler, co-founder at Castle Gate Press in St. Louis, MO, has used Ereader News Today, which promotes only e-books available on Amazon.com. Like many other such services, it does not report how many people have signed up to receive promotions.

Publishers who have used such services note that fees vary and recommend analyzing total costs carefully. Besides the required discount price on the book and the fee to the promotions company, there are the charges by Amazon and other online retailers for processing the sale or giveaway. Given all these factors, it’s probable that publishers will take a loss on each download.

On Goodreads, publishers and authors of published books have several promotional options. Authors can create a free profile page, and both authors and publishers can use the pay-per-click “self-serve” advertising program and the fee-based book launch option. The giveaway program requires physical products—print books, audiocassettes, or CDs. No downloadables are permitted; all shipping costs are the responsibility of the publisher, and the number of giveaways can be limited. (See goodreads.com/giveaway/new.)

These aren’t the only book review and author interview websites that involve paying fees. I was recently contacted by one that offers e-blasts and online publicity for fees as high as $1,500 per promotion and boasts about numbers of subscribers, Facebook friends, Google+ followers, and the like. A quick look at Alexa.com, which tracks website and blog visitors, shows that “friends” and “followers” don’t always equal unique visitors. Alexa statistics reveal that this company’s site ranks about 175,000th in the United States; by comparison, the US ranking for BookBub.com was better than 2,000th.

Some vendors who cannot document how their services affect sales resort to the “It’ll build your brand” claim. Maybe worth it, maybe not, say IBPA members, who point out that exposure does not always translate to sales, even with market leaders such as Amazon. “I got about 3,000 free downloads with a Kindle Direct Selection promotion,” John Brooks reports about a promotion of his memoir. “I doubt it did anything to push sales.”

Online Ads

Google, Bing, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, and countless other search engine and social media websites offer advertising, often on a pay-per-click basis. Some offer $50 to $200 worth of free advertising for a quick trial. Results from trials I’ve done for my own books and books by clients have been unimpressive. I did learn, though, that almost every click for every genre I tested came from a mobile device, which reinforces the importance of creating handheld-friendly websites.

IBPA members who commented for this story are similarly unenthusiastic about online ads. As Jay Nadeau said, “I wouldn’t recommend these at all.”

Devorah Fox, president of Mike Byrnes & Associates in Port Aransas, TX, reports, “When we hit 100 likes on our Facebook author page we received $50 in free Facebook advertising. We used it to advertise our book The Lost King with an ad that—per Facebook—could be seen by 22 million people and a Sponsored Story that targeted 940 users. There wasn’t a single click-through, and we can’t attribute a single sale to it.”

One issue with online ads is the lack of information about the audience. “We ran a small Facebook ad for a middle-grade novel when it was released on March 14. It did not impact sales at all,” says Christina Tarabochia, publisher at Ashberry Lane in Portland, OR. “This was a learning experience,” she adds. “Facebook is not effective for us for targeting kids or parents.”

In San Diego, D.A. Karr hired an advertising specialist to promote her book, LINK, when she published it in e-book form. What she spent generated a total of 18,000 clicks and views on Facebook, she reports, but “it didn’t do anything for actual conversions. I tried changing the pictures, text, headers—nothing worked. No sales.”

Karr also used Audio Ad Center, a unit of CBS Local Media (audioadcenter.com) for running broadcast ads online. These commercials reach people listening to an online station broadcast and are not necessarily the same commercials run on the air. Rates, based on estimates of audience size, range from $75 per month for a commercial that should reach 1,500 listeners to $500 for one that should reach 12,500. The number of stations is limited; with CBS, it’s 125 across the United States, so some markets have little coverage. For example, in Seattle, only four stations are available.

Few IBPA members report using the variation on website ads known as “boosted” posts or “promoted” pins, and none report that they prompted sales. At Tell-A-Gram Publishing in Saratoga, CA, Cynthia Summers says, “We’ve used Facebook boosts rather sparingly, every week or two, for $5 or $10 per boost, and have not seen a connection to sales. Facebook reported that one of our posts reached 110,000 people, but even with that number of Likes, we could not tell that any sales occurred.”

One advertising campaign that was effective for Square One Publishing this spring was inspired by an avocation, the closed-circuit online trivia game called Buzztime, with 10,000 US teams. Both publisher Rudy Shur and the father-son team of authors of The Strange Case of Dr. Doyle have played the game for years; Square One has been publishing Buzztime’s trivia books since 2005, and the book’s concept evolved from a Buzztime game.

To promote the new true-crime hard cover, Square One arranged advertising on Buzztime.com and on the game company’s 3,500-plus locations in restaurants and bars across the United States that reached an estimated 6 million people in its first week alone. Its 30-second promotion played at least three times a day, 15 hours a day, every day of the week, and Shur credits it for a sales spike—more than 500 copies sold during the first week it ran. “The book has also been #6 in both the Mystery and Serial Killers subcategories of Amazon.com,” Shur reports.

Public Relations

“Three in five executives don’t fully understand PR’s role and capabilities,” according to HARO (helpareporter.com). Similarly, many businesspeople overestimate the immediate sales that might result from a PR campaign, especially one limited in scope and time.

When Amanda Palasciano published her teen novel Mascara, this former model and music industry publicist labeled 500 mascara tubes with the book’s website URL and distributed them at malls and concerts near her home in Edgewater, NJ, and in New York City. That tactic, along with crowdfunding and press releases, led to sales of only a few hundred copies.

D.A. Karr did something similar during the 2014 holiday season, when she spent $150 to print 600 flyers and then paid someone to hand them out in New York City’s Times Square. She’s unsure whether the flyers were more effective than the online ads, but sales of her e-book did reach about 1,000 during the promotion. “This type of physical advertising seemed more effective than press releases,” she says.

An author or topic with a large following and a campaign that is both carefully orchestrated and scheduled well in advance of a book’s launch increase the chances of PR success. Sourcebooks’ campaign for A Desperate Fortune provides an example. In November 2014, Heather Moore, senior publicity manager, began planning for an April 2015 launch with a message to readers of the author’s earlier books and to librarians and booksellers that was headed, “Send Susanna Kearsley to My Hometown.”

The text invited people to nominate their hometown library or bookstore for an appearance by Kearsley, who has been published for 25 years, and has hundreds of thousands of copies of her books in print. Finalists, selected on the basis of fan votes, were announced in December, and the 11 winners were announced in February. “We have found that putting the event locations in the hands of Susanna’s fans really builds excitement for the book release and author tour,” Moore says.

To help boost attendance at each stop, Sourcebooks also gave away a gift basket of items relating to the novel: a tartan lap robe, a Heathergem pendant, and Scottish cookies and tea. The “hometown” tour wrapped up with the presentation of a grand prize, a reproduction of a jewel important in A Desperate Fortune.

The result: Within eight weeks of the book’s official launch, more than 5,700 copies were sold, and it was on the shelves in nearly 500 libraries.

Can other publishers use the same approach? Sourcebooks is one of the country’s largest indies, and Kearsley is a well-known writer. But even without the Sourcebooks budget and the Kearsley fan base, any publisher can work with libraries and retailers to arrange author visits, and to make sure these visits are publicized months in advance on each host’s Facebook page and website, on the author and publisher websites, and through their social media activities.


About the Author:

Photo of Linda CarlsonLinda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle, where her recent book, Advertising with Small Budgets for Big Results, outlines media and production costs for dozens of big-budget and DIY promotions.

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