Thursday, December 21, 2006

Rant Against Advertising

Here is a dirty little secret that even publishers don't know: No one in this business knows what they're doing. Everyone thinks they know what they're doing. But know one knows.

Consider the Skinner pigeons.

Group A pecked on a little lever, and received a treat. As a result, they pecked on the lever when they were hungry.

Group B pecked on the lever, but nothing happened. As a result, they never pecked on the lever.

Group C pecked on the lever, but they only received a treat occasionally. As a result, they pecked on the lever non-stop.

When your actions are rewarded sporadically, you still link your efforts with the rewards, even if there is no direct connection. This is because you're unable to judge the effectiveness of your efforts, since the results are sporadic.

Now consider publishing. Publishers know that in order to make money, they have to spend money. But they aren't sure what to spend money on, because they always get mixed results.

Let's apply this specifically to advertising.

Sometimes publishers buy a huge ad, see a sales spike, and attribute the spike to the ad (even though it may have had no direct connection.)

Sometimes they buy a huge ad, get no sales spike, and wonder why it didn't work. So, like Skinner's Group C, they buy another ad.

Your publisher will keep pecking away, hoping for rewards. Ads are part of their tried and true arsenal. They know they must spend money, so they spend money on ads. But is this a case of ads being beneficial? Or is this just habit?

In my experience (which is flawed like everyone else's) ads don't work for new or midlist writers. An ad as a tool to get people into a bookstore fails because there are too many steps that need to be taken between awareness and purchase.

If you see an author speak, and the book is being sold right there, the distance between awareness and purchase is only a few seconds--the customer takes the book to the register.

People are immune to advertising. They forget it three seconds after seeing it. Even if the ad got them interested in the book, the purchase isn't easy or instant. They have to get in the car, go to a bookstore, find the book, and even then they'll look at it before they actually buy it. The book sells the book, not an ad.

Some say ads reinforce a brand, and customers will remember the product after seeing it several times. That's why the same commercials get repeated over and over within the same one hour time slot.

I believe that content sells. Not advertising.

If you want to reach a specific crowd, visit the specific crowd. If you want to sell books to a demographic, target that demographic with your work, not with your ads.

For example: if you write mysteries about quilting, there are plenty of quilting magazines you can target. Rather than place ads in these magazines, you should write articles for them, or short stories for them. Or give them an ARC and encourage them to review it, or do an interview.

And this is free (or they pay you.)

Branding works when people have a favorable experience with a product, and keep returning to the product to have the same experience. Ads can reinforce a brand, but they don't create a brand. That's why a Stephen King ad works--it's an announcement. But an ad used to sell a product, rather than remind someone of a positive experience with a product, is a lot of money spent on a very small return.

It doesn't matter how many amazing hair dye ads I see, I'm never going to buy hair dye. I'm not the target market. The target market is a very tiny percentage of everyone exposed to the ad, and even if someone is actively looking for hair dye, awareness that a product exists is still a long way away from getting someone to try the product. Especially since the hair dye buyer is probably already brand loyal to something else.

Don't agree? Consider Bouchercon. Every year, attendees get goody bags filled with books. And every year, hundreds of books wind up discarded.

These people are the intended demographic for these books, and they're getting them free, and they're still throwing them away.

Why is this?

A book essentially advertises itself with its cover, jacket copy, genre, and quality of writing. Certain people don't like certain books, so even a free copy won't persuade them to try something new. Why would an ad do so, when the actual product (free) doesn't?

Of course, some free books are kept and read, and new fans are gained. This is because a free book actually offers an experience. An ad only offers the promise of an experience, in a way we've become immune to.

I challenge anyone to pick up a copy of PW, read through it, and honestly judge the effectiveness of the ads. Do they prompt you to buy the book? Do they reinforce branding and name recognition?

They do? Okay---the next day, see how many of those ads you can remember.

Of course, if you're in advertising, or if you're doing this because I suggested it, you may actually retain more than normal. So try this:

Think about the last magazine you read. Can you remember any of the ads? Why or why not? Did any of them reinforce brands? Did any of them make you aware of new products? Did any of them make you rush out any buy something?

I was reading a magazine two hours ago. I can remember four of the articles I read. I can't remember a single ad.

I've experimented with ads, and so has my publisher. I've found that the amount of money it costs to run can be much better used for promotion that produces immediate, tangible effects, such as appearances.

The problem (and even advertisers admit this) is that there's no real idea of what works and what doesn't. And because advertising is used in conjunction with other forms of promotion, there is no way to judge the effectiveness of it.

Save the hundreds of dollars on a trade ad and go to a conference. You still won't sell nearly enough books to justify the cost of travel, but you're a much better (and more memorable) spokesperson for your book than an ad.

Of course, I encourage everyone to draw your own conclusions from your experiences. Try everything at least once. But know why you're trying it, and what you expect from it.