I've been thinking about this a bit more, and came up with a few offbeat ideas.
It's human nature that people often spend more time and energy justifying their actions instead of examining them.
In the case of advertising, what if it truly doesn't work, but everyone is so busy trying to think up reasons it must work that they aren't looking at it deeply enough?
"Everyone else is doing it, so we should to."
"What else should we do with a promotional budget?"
"We've advertised many books, and some of them made money, so advertising must have played a part."
"We've been using advertising since our company began, and long before that."
"We know half of all advertising works, we just don't know which half."
No one seems to agree on what makes an effective ad, or campaign. And it's impossible to recoop the high cost of advertising since it seems to be more about promoting brand awareness rather than actually selling products.
Another basic human trait is a deep rooted fear of making a bad decision, being wrong, and looking stupid. This means everyone would rather follow blindly what came before rather than analyze it and come up with alternate ideas and solutions that might fail.
So publishers continue to buy ads. But what if they didn't? Would newspapers and magazines would quickly go bankrupt.
Maybe not. Anyone who reads women's magazines (I write for a female character, remember?) has noticed a trend that has been going on for years: the advertising column. It looks like a feature, and reads like a feature, but is actually an ad. You can tell it's an ad because it usually says "special advertising section" in small letters on the top of the pages.
These special advertising sections usually are an interview, a slice of life, or an explanation of how something works. TV has been doing this for decades in the form of infomercials.
These aren't just ads. They offer content, rather than simply try to sell a product. There's enough information to allow the reader to make an informed decision, plus a little entertainment to make it go down easy.
One of the big reviewing mags (I think it was PW) started a program a few years ago where authors and publishers could pay for reviews. The industry frowned on it, because it seemed ethically wrong.
But what if newspapers and magazines accepted content--paid for by book publishers--instead of ads? What if the NYT ran a full page interview with Michael Connelly, rather than a full page ad, but charged the same? Is that unethical?
Or what if it ran a column by Connelly, writing about his latest book?
Or would it be unethical if Connelly's publisher paid Stephen King to write a review of Connelly's new book, and then paid the NYT to publish it?
What if it ran a full page Harry Bosch short story that was tied-in to the new Connelly book, which the publisher paid for? Or if it printed the first chapter, but again with the publisher paying rather than the newspaper paying (how many newspapers even buy first serial rights anymore?)
Would newspaper/magazine readers prefer this to a ton of ads they just ignore? Or would this blur the line between content and advertising and piss readers off?
I think it would be nice to open a newspaper and not have ads every page. Let the ads stay where they belong--in the classified section, and in the inserts. Inserts work like catalogs, and people like them (try to find a newspaper the day after Thanksgiving--everyone buys them for the sales inserts.)
Speaking of inserts, what if a publisher did that? Instead of some ads in the paper, they could have a mini catalog: "This Winter from St. Martins." Just like Target, Sears, and Home Depot, except it lists upcoming and newly released books. Borders and BN do it. Why not the publishers? Why would they rather blow $50k on a full page ad? The catalog could also include content, like interviews and excerpts and perhaps even coupons. It might be costly, but if there were three dozen books in the catalog, each contributing their share of the marketing budget, it seems doable.
How about smaller magazines. Could they survive without ads?
Let's look at Crimespree, which has become a must buy for many mystery fans and authors. What if, instead of standard ads, authors and publishers paid Crimespree to run little mini essays?
Example: for a set amount of money, the author would get half a page which would feature a picture of the book cover, and a short column on why they wrote the book. It would cost the same as a regular ad (and probably be cheaper to produce--it's just a jpg of the cover and a dozen sentences.) But it would actually offer content, and I'd think it would do a better job selling the books than the standard cover+blurbs. At the very least, it would be more entertaining than a standard ad, and less apt to be glossed over.
I'd buy an ad like that. Plus I'd buy extra copies of the magazine to give to people. And wouldn't it be fun to read what authors think of their own books in their own words?
I have no idea if these things would work, but I'd like to see someone try them. Not only would it make newspapers and magazines more interesting and less annoying to read, but it might actually sell a few books.
What do you think?