Thursday, May 25, 2006


Though the venerable MJ Rose differs in opinion (and makes some good points) I don't believe that print advertising is effective or worthwhile.

My rationale is simple: I don't buy books because I view their ads, so I don't expect anyone else to do so either. Why would I spend money---sometimes a lot of money---using a form of promotion that I don't think is effective?

The trap many new authors fall into is that they realize this business is hard and they feel they must do something. So they indulge in what I call the Unholy Triad:
  1. Send out postcards with their book jacket on them
  2. Have bookmarks made
  3. Buy ads in genre magazines

As far as my experience goes, none of these are effective forms of advertising, and none of them sells books.

Of the three, I believe ads are the least effective, while also being the most expensive.

Those who make their living by creating ads, and publications (including websites) that sell ad space, will tell you ads are effective for several reasons.

As an Announcement - For brand name authors, an ad informs the pre-existing readership that a new book is now available.

JA's Opinion - I slightly agree. If someone is a mega-huge bestseller, then an ad in a large publication (the New York Times, People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly) will help to spread the word.

But that author's die-hard fans will have already known about the book. They'll have viewed the author's website, read genre magazines and reviews, and have been eagerly anticipating it.

If you're a new or midlist author, a big ad won't affect those who haven't heard of you, and your diehard fans will probably already know about the upcoming release.

As a Reinforcement - Advertising is just part of a writer's marketing and publicity arsenal; a prong on the multi-tined fork of book touring, conferences, media exposure, reviews, interviews, etc.

The goal of all marketing is to establish brands, and the more places a would-be customer can see references to your book, the likelier it will be lodged in their subconscious.

JA's Opinion - I disagree. Advertising is so pervasive, we tune it out. The passive nature of print ads makes this very easy to do. Because most ads offer little in the way of actual content (other than an announcement) they are instantly recognized as ads by our subconscious and dismissed.

I'll prove my point. Other than any ads for your own books, can you recall someone else's book ad? If you're a reader, you've seen thousands. You can remember TV commercials from 20 years ago. But can you close your eyes and visualize a book ad you've seen before?

And if you do in fact remember a few, did you buy the books?

As an Introduction - Ads arouse curiosity about new authors and books. If someone is a noir fan, and actively seeks out noir, an ad could make them aware of something they hadn't known existed.

JA's Opinion - I disagree. You can't judge a book by its ad. First of all, ads are biased, and people know this. Ads don't impart any information that would allow the reader to make an informed decision about whether or not to buy the book.

Second, even if the ad did pique interest, there is no forward momentum that will lead to a sale. If you see an effective print ad, what is the likelihood you'll put down the magazine and then rush to the computer or immediately jump into the car and head to a bookstore?

As an Incentive - A print ad that provokes action, such as a coupon, sale announcement, or contest, offers value. Ads like this give to the consumer, rather than take from them, and are effective.

JA's Opinion - I agree, if the ad is for a grocery store or Wal-Mart. No one has effectively used coupons to sell books.

Every once and a while a publisher will cut the price of a book (like $4.99 paperbacks or $15 hardcovers) as an incentive to buy, but that's a point of purchase incentive.

Publishers will also occasionally have big contests to launch books. Win money, or a trip, or a car. Considering how rarely this is done, I can't imagine they're having huge successes with this gimmick. I believe that people buy books because they like the books, not because they could win a cruise.

In my experience, getting people to enter a contest is difficult, because there is no momentum between ad and action.

Ads as Status - Big splashy ads, or a large ad campaign, tells readers that this is a big book which the publisher is behind, and they should see what all the buzz is about. If an author seems to be everywhere, they must be good, and they will be talked about.

JA's Opinion - The amount of hype it takes to impress a reader is beyond anyone's capacity, unless you're Dan Brown.

But I do think it is important to get your name in as many palces as possible. Instead of ads, do interviews, articles, and shorts stories. These are free (or they pay you) and you can still get a piece of the buzz pie.

Who are Ads Really For? - I think that ads are so pervasive in this world not because they work well, but because they appeal to the vanity of the advertiser, and offer a false sense of empowerment.

Author X has a book coming out. She places ads because she feels she has to be doing something. Publisher Y wants to impress Author X, so they take out some big ads to show her that they're behind her.

Lots of money gets wasted, both on creating and placing these ads, and this budget gets tacked onto the Profit and Loss statement for this book.

My publisher placed several ads for BLOODY MARY in mystery magazines, including The Strand, Crimespree, Ellery Queen, and Alfred Hitchcock, to the tune of a few grand. That meant I'd have to sell over 1000 books beyond what I would have normally sold, as a direct result of the ads. I don't think this occurred.

I liked the ads a lot (here's one at and really appreciated my publisher's efforts. But it wasn't cost-effective, and I wouldn't ever ask them to do this again.

Should You Ever Buy an Ad? - Well, I just did.

I know, I know---I just spent this entire blog railing against print ads, so why would I buy one?

Here's the story: The mystery zine Crimespree, run by the always charming Jon and Ruth Jordan, is putting out a special issue for Thrillerfest. This issue is being given away free, as a promotional item to get new readers interested in the magazine. That means everyone at Thrillerfest will get a copy.

Jon is reprinting a funny article by me, tweaked for the Thrillerfest audience, to put into this issue. So he's giving me free publicity.

For him to afford to give out magazines gratis, he needs authors to pay for ads. So me placing an ad is quid pro quo.

Plus, having an ad in conjunction with my article will perhaps help me stand out a smidgen while surrounded by all of those superstar authors. Or not.

I thought at length about the kind of ad I wanted to put in Crimespree. What would be memorable? What would get people talking and get them curious about my books?

This is what I came up with:

It took about ten minutes to put together, at no cost to me, and I think it's funny, effective, and unusual enough to stand out.

Will it sell piles of books?

I'm not holding out much hope.

But I think it will get a few second glances, and a laugh or two.

And if any author reading this is interested, I can do a similar ad for you, for the small fee of nine hundred dollars. Because without advertising, you might as well just flush your career down the toilet...