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.


Anonymous said...

I don't know that the intent of advertising is for people to rush out and buy the product. Rather, it's to put the product in the viewer's mind so, when they're next in the store that sells the product, they'll remember the ad and toss it into their cart.

Thus the problem with ads for books is that it really only helps for books available in the grocery store or WalMart or Target because folks tend to go there at least once a month to stock up on basic life necessities. The average viewer doesn't go to a bookstore with any regularity unless they're trying to buy a specific book. And, as you've pointed out, an ad isn't going to get them to do that.

Anonymous said...

Note to self: Scratch magazine advertising off the list of, “things to promote the book if I ever get any money”


Ya know, a Squidoo lens is free and easy. *snicker*

Anonymous said...

I can officially say that I have never bought a book from an author I didn't know because of an ad in a magazine.

You are right that it reminds people like me to go buy the new Stephen King book, but there are very few writers at that level.

The only advertising for new writers that works for me is something actually in the store by the books.

Mark Terry said...

You know, Joe, this is just about the most intelligent, articulate article I've ever read about book marketing anywhere. Really.

I was aware of everything you've said, but have never been able to articulate late it quite so clearly--and really, it applies to radio interviews and TV interviews, as well, although those reach much larger audiences? There are a lot of steps between that awareness of an author and actually getting to a bookstore. Which is at least partially why a terrific place to be is on a book rack at a Sam's Club or a drug store, because people go there more often.

It makes me wonder if publishers shouldn't buy up flashing neon signs for books on the marquee of Borders and Barnes & Noble. At least you'd be getting the attention of the customer as they actually walk through the door. Of course, that's what co-op's for.

Excellent post, Joe. Hope you have great holidays.

Mark Terry

Mark Terry said...

You ever notice how Blockbuster has TVs going showing clips, etc., for upcoming movies or videos? Or just released videos?

Hmmm, hello, Borders? I've got an idea for you...

Anonymous said...

Great post, Joe.

But I have to wonder about the validity of your "does advertising lead to book sales magazine memory" example... Sure, if I casually read PW today, and you quiz me three days from now on which books were advertised, I wouldn't be able to tell you. But as cognitive psych professor would point out, memory is *much* better with proper QUEUING beforehand.

For instance, let's say I saw an ad for Bloody Mary in a magazine, and in that same magazine, there were 5 other ads for mystery books, and 50 additional ads for other products, too. OK, if you quiz me tomorrow, I'd be lucky to name any of the books that appeared... *BUT* if I was in the mystery section of a B&N and you quizzed me, and I was allowed to scan the titles before me before I answered your quiz, I'll bet I'd pick out Bloody Mary as one of the books that were advertised--especially if the ad featured the cover and spine prominently (an important tactic to consider for anyone trying to get all "creative" with their ads).

Second point: if an author advertises their book with an ad that appears in a magazine featuring hundreds of other book ads just like it (say a genre-specific magazine for instance), it will likely "blend in" with all the other books ads and do little to promote the book. I think this is analogous to freebies handed out at cons... But what if the ad appeared in the Wall Street Journal? That might get noticed and remembered (especially with the queuing mentioned above).

Of course, a midlist author isn't likely to be able to afford a WSJ ad, and maybe that's the real reason behind why ads-don't-work-for-midlist-authors... I honestly don't know. Just speculation on my part. Keep up the great blogging!

Stacey Cochran said...

I'd like to say a word or two about one specific ad, the BXGY program.

My book Amber Page and the Legend of the Coral Stone is currently paired with Lemony Snicket Book 13 such that if a customer buys both books together, they get them at a 5% discount.

I have sold on average about a book per day doing this, and I got a free pairing during part of October with another book that netted 11 books sold total.

I'll have the hard numbers on how many books sold in December by early January, but it's looking like I will sell somewhere between 20-50 books as a direct result of placing this ad.

While that's no where near enough to earn back the amount of money spent on the ad, it's a hell of a lot more books than I would have sold otherwise.

The key to success with the paid pairing ads are 1) You must pair your book with an book inside the Top 25 2) You must pair your book with an appropriate match 3) You must pair your book at a time when people are buying a lot of books 4) You must pair your book with a bestselling book that is a high-profile bestselling book.

November and December are's strongest sales months of the year.

I've seen a number of people who have used the BXGY program and were deeply disappointed with their sales. One crime fiction novel I saw yesterday was paired with a book that was currently ranked 250,000.

It does no good to pair your book with a book that lowly ranked, even if it's by a so-called NY Times Bestselling author.

This is one ad I will probably try again and again in the future because it greatly increases my profile, but I will (like with Lemony Snicket) only place my books with very high ranked books (i.e., preferably Top 10) that also have high media visibility from other sources.

Harry Potter's Book 7 would be very cool. As would The Solomon Key for my upcoming novel The Colorado Sequence.

We'll see.

Anonymous said...

Another good post, Joe. Every time I read your blog, I refine my marketing plan. Hopefully, when my book comes out, I shall have the perfect plan.

What? You say there isn't one? Oh dear!

Interesting comments, Stacey.

Amy said...

This is a very interesting discussion, and I am enjoying the other comments as much as Joe's post.

It's a tough call about the value of free books. There might be some indirect marketing plusses with those. With a few of the authors I received books for at Bouchercon Madison, I went to panels and suggested later to library staff that we invite them to come speak. Also I ended up reviewing another one for a magazine.

I did end up giving some away to other reader friends, though, and we raffled others at the library.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of using short stories as advertisements for the book. Maybe because I know I can write and sell short stories. For a first novel in science fiction, I'm guessing that my advertising budget is nonexistent. Every pair of eyeballs I get focusing on my name in print is a potential customer, so I'm going to try to get some short stories in press to coincide with my book release next summer.

I was just commenting on another blog about this plan and it seems I depressed a sucessful writer. Apparently I would make him happier if I wrote short stories because my muse took me in that direction.

I don't know. I'm a part time hack. I don't think I can afford a muse right now.

BTW, I bought "Bloody Mary" last week. I'm looking forward to reading it and then wrapping it and giving it to my dad for Christmas.

Ty said...

I rarely read free books because ... well, because they're free. I mean no disrespect to the authors or publishers, but in my mind if something has to be given away free, then I suspect it's probably not very good in the first place and not worth my time.

Again, this is just my mind working on me, not any real estimation of the value of a particular free book. I'm sure I've passed on tons of free books that could have been great.

I personally think "word of mouth" and similar tactics work best in selling novels. Maybe it's time publishers spend money to pay some people to read books in public places (subways, busses, food courts, etc.) and to speak about the books when asked, or in public forums like bookstores or libraries (it happens on the Web all the time, why not real life?).

Anonymous said...

Tess is correct about the unspoken purpose of book advertising. It's less about selling to readers than about reassuring and motivating booksellers.

Ty will be pleased to know that publishers recognize word of mouth as extremely valuable, and that they cultivate it very deliberately. A large proportion of the effort that goes into manufacturing a bestseller takes place MONTHS AND MONTHS before pub date, when the publicity department is building buzz.

JA Konrath said...

Some really good comments here.

Jim--You bring up some good points, but I've also spoken to many BCon attendees and they love the freebie bag--just not every book it contains. I see freebies as a quick way to introduce books to readers who like those types of books and would have bought them anyway.

Kellie & Jeremy--I agree that ads reinforce branding. For example, if you're appearing at a convention, and are a featured speaker, having an ad in the convention program will reinforce your appearance. But I contend that an interview or story in the book will better reinforce your appearance, and won't cost anything. This goes for all the places ads can be run---content is better than an ad.

Mark--Publishers do have neon signs in bookstores--they're the dump boxes, cameos, posters, and shelf tags they send to the stores and then pay coop to display. But a video setup sounds very smart...

Stacey--I've thought about doing that Amazon program, but it seemed cost prohibitive. However, I do lots of reviews on Amazon, do lists, a plog, and Amazon shorts, all of which are free and get me next to those bestselling books that are like mine.

Tess--I agree, to a point. The catalog copy for a book, and the back jacket of the ARC, always boast things like "12 City Tour" and "Large Marketing Campaign" but they aren't always telling the truth. :)

By the time an ad runs, bookstore pre-orders are usually already in, and a print run has already been decided. I question how much the "promise" to run an ad affects the number a store buys. If a rep talks to the buyer and says, "We've got a million dollar marketing campaign" that is just as impressive, and doesn't need to involve ads.

Ads do make a statement that a publisher is behind a book, but I question their cost effectiveness. A full page NYT ad is $50k. That means it would have to sell thousands of additionalhardcovers (above and beyond what the book would have sold without the ad) in order for the ad to pay for itself.

I've heard editors say that ads, much like tours, are to impress the author as much as the bookseller or book buyer.

That said, very few of us have publishers buying ads that big. The ads I'm talking about are usually placed by the author, in the trade magazines. I've had ads in the NYTBR, EGMM, AHMM, Crimespree, The Strand, and BookPage.

The feature BookPage did on me was a lot more effective than the ad. The stories I've had in the magazines were also more effective than the ads. I know this because I got reader response. I've never gotten reader response from an ad.

I've also heard, from a friend who is a bestseller, that the hardcover release is simply an ad for the paperback, which is where the money is made (hopefully forever, if it stays in print.)

Anonymous said...

Seriously, you should consider hair dye. Something in a peach shade, maybe. Really.

Allison Brennan said...

Joe, good article but here's my two cents:

Tess is right about the ads being for the industry, not end readers. And you're right that it's the PROMISE of the ad. Put it on the marketing material when the sales dept goes to their big accounts and gets maybe 10 minutes to sell their catalog--you need a great cover and a great pitch and hey, we're buying an ad in this and this because we really believe in this book (and/or author.) Did it help me with my first book? I think so. Can I prove it? No.

Orders effect how your book is displayed in the store (as well as coop which I think is the single best thing for a writer, though even good coop isn't failsafe). So if a bookstore believes a publisher is behind the book, they'll order more copies and it'll get flagged in their system. It gets more face out time. ARCs get sent to key book store managers. Corporate says it's an important book. They get 8 or 16 copies instead of 4 in each store. (I'm thinking mass market, not HC which 6 copies is good compared to 2 or 3.)

Branding is a long-term goal. Everything you do should be building up to create that brand, even if you can't point to one thing that did something for the brand. So blogging, or ARCs or public speaking or ads or whatever--all this, if done with "your brand" in mind helps.

Sometimes, you're successful and you can't point to exactly what it was that made you successful--so you do everything you did the last time. Sometimes you fail and you can't pinpoint why, so you try completely new things. Neither approach may be the best approach, but it's all you have to go on.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Let's add the internet and blogging to the mix here. Doc Searls, a marketing/pr expat and internet philosopher geek ( has a fabulous tirade he wrote about the fact that there is no demand for messages. It's 8 years old and here we are still. Here's a piece of it:

"...imagine what would happen to the TV business if mute buttons delivered 'we don't want to hear this' feedback directly to advertisers. It would crash the whole industry's business model in a heartbeat.

"Let's face it: there are only two kinds of advertising demanded by their consumers: yellow pages and classifieds. It's not coincidental that they're both ugly. Beauty isn't a value when the only purpose is to answer the simple demand for useful information.

"The bulk of advertising -- all $160 billion of it (which buys a lot of art) -- is a conversation between advertisers, media and agents for both. That conversation has enormous flywheels that were forged in the Age of Industry, and carry assumptions that are totally obsolete in a new age when the human beings we've been calling 'consumers' are no longer dumb targets in a position only to absorb messages and displace cash. The main reason I got out of advertising and PR was this epiphany:THERE IS NO DEMAND FOR MESSAGES. Let me see a show of hands: who here wants a message? Right: none. And who wants to shield themselves from messages they don't want? Exactly: everybody.

"TV advertising has negative demand. It subtracts value.The day will come, hopefully soon, when we will measure demand for advertising on a customer-by-customer basis, and not just by its indirect effects on large populations. When that happens, and direct vendor- customer conversations start adding serious value for both parties, that new conversation will disintermediate most media. Companies will drop advertising like a bad packet.

"You know how easy it is to kill an ad budget? It's just a line item. Cash savings, right off the bottom line. Almost nobody gets fired, other than some marcom types and their expensive ad agencies. No tax disincentives. No environmental impact statements. Bang: it's done."

What have we learned since then?

JA Konrath said...

Allison--I agree with you completely, but also believe that everythign you mentioned can be done without advertising. And how much more would the booksellers like it if the $15k advertising budgett instead went into coop for that bookstore?

Lisa--Thanks for posting that. I'd ad to Doc's comments and say, along with classifieds and yellow pages, that Google and catalogs fall into the same sphere; things customers seek out rather than are thrust upon them.

I believe publisher catalog listing can tell booksellers a lot about how strongly a publisher feels about a book.

Anonymous said...

Mark mentioned the idea of video ads in bookstores. I've actually been told by a few CRMs that Barnes and Nobles, Borders, are planning to begin installing widescreens whose sole purpose is to display video Book trailers.

1. Is this true?

2. Will this work like coop, ie Publishers pay to get your book's trailer on the loop??

Anonymous said...

Will this work like coop, ie Publishers pay to get your book's trailer on the loop??

It sure as hell ain't going to be free.

Anonymous said...

There is so much wrong with your rant I don't even know where to start.

I think you are wonderful Joe but you really are presenting things that are not true here.

I'm going to blog about it after the first of the year, but you don't understand adverstising as well as you think and you don't understand what publisher are and are not doing. And you're not presenting the whole picture to newbies or anyone else for that matter.

Advertising works. It's just expensive. Publishers ofen do know what they are doing. They just don't have the money and the time to do it for all books. When they do it it for a book it usually works.

Anonymous said...

How do you suppose you profit, Joe, by stating so often that the people at your publisher are stupid?

This does not seem to me like a productive strategy.

JA Konrath said...

Looking forward to your blog, MJ.

How do you suppose you profit, Joe, by stating so often that the people at your publisher are stupid?

My publisher is smart, and I've said it dozens of times.

The publishing industry overall has some problems.

PJ Parrish said...


Re: the giveaway books at Bcon. Yeah, a lot of them end up returned or even left in rooms (one rather pissed off maid told me this when I was checking out at Madison). I know I culled out only a couple I really wanted to read.
So who knows if this has any positive affect outside of being a nice little goodie.

At the Edgars, it's quite the opposite. The publishers donate books of the nominees and they are snatched up like the last corn kernels in the barnyard. But that's a different "market," I guess.

Anonymous said...

I buy a lot of my books at I have certain authors that I like to read. Amazon has a service where they tell you some authors that write in the same genre. I will try these authors at least once. If I don't like their style, I don't buy them again.

I have too little time and too much to do to read something that is not interesting.

Anyway, Amazon's service has gotten me to buy authors that I may not have read... and I have added some writers to my reading list.

Anonymous said...

And yes, I would be happy to read books and write reviews for authors for a copy of their book... It would sure help me save money. LOL

Anonymous said...

Tell me, Joe:

How does this-- No one in this business knows what they're doing.

Square with this? My publisher is smart, and I've said it dozens of times.

And if your publisher is the exception to the "no one in this business knows what they're doing" rule, then why are you having to work so hard to overcome their shortcomings?

I'm truly curious about this. It makes no sense to me, and I'm afraid that if I ever sell a book I might end up struggling with the same problems.


Anonymous said...

I believe two of the best things that sell books and give the author the potential to reach the bestseller list are friend recommendations and blurbs on the book from well-recognized authors. Those are probably the two ways I buy books. Similarly, if I go to an author website whom I like and he recommends something I might buy it. And, to a lesser extent but still worth mentioning,

JA Konrath said...

How does this-- No one in this business knows what they're doing.

Square with this? My publisher is smart, and I've said it dozens of times.

Good question.

A book is an unreproduceable phenomenon.

No one truly knows why some books succeed and soem books fail.

A publisher can do the same things for two books, and one will sell a million, and one will sell five thousand.

Thus, no one knows what they're doing. They're striving for reproduceable results, for an unreproduceable phenomenon.

Hyperion functions like a much smaller company. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and everything is discussed among departments. They try new things, and support new ideas.

They things they've done for my books have been smart--if you'd like a list, read through my previous blog entries.

They've supported me and worked with me.

Do they still make mistakes? Sure. So do I. Remember, no one in this business knows what they're doing, me included. How can you know how to succeed when success comes down to luck?

But we're learning from our mistakes, maximizing our returns, and continuing to innovate.

I doubt I'd get the same courtesy at many other publishers. In fact, talking to author friends, I know that I wouldn't.

Martyn van Halm said...

I have to say, I select my books mostly on positive reviews, either in print, on blogs [or digital NYT 'books review'], and word-of-mouth.

When I read a book I like, I jot down the writer's name and check if they have published anything else.

Other things I look for - when I watch a good television series or film and the credits mention the book[s] the series or film is based on. For instance the DEXTER series by Jeff Lindsay.

I doubt if I would be impressed by an author shaking my hand and pressing an autographed beer coaster in my hand, but perhaps that's because I'm Dutch and that method feels too forced. I do write crime fiction though, so I might have to resort to 'American' methods to promote my book when I get a NY publisher...