Table of Contents
Looking for the “Comp”-etitive Edge
Books are books but they are also containers of ideas, worlds, beliefs, philosophies, attitudes, world-views, etc.
Books are books but they are also containers of ideas, worlds, beliefs, philosophies, attitudes, world-views, etc.
So far, so good, right?
Even though I’ve hit you with the m-word here—oh, no, marketing!—we’re OK with the idea that books contain ideas. The several books I’ve read that seemed not to have a single idea to offer, I’ll kindly not name here. And to their authors: You owe me.
But seriously, pay attention to this good concept that book-marketing veteran Peter McCarthy is onto here. He’s a former Vice-President of Marketing Innovation for Random House and a former Vice-President of Penguin.
What McCarthy has to say in Marketing: Finding and Selling to Non-Book Book Audiences at Digital Book World has special application for those who rightly follow the business carefully, especially entrepreneurial authors.
There’s a built-in trap here, as many of us know. So easy to fall into. I saw it open up recently under the feet of a colleague whose book isn’t moving well. Fiction, very well-written. Her efforts to sell it so far have been mainly within the publishing industry. It’s not about publishing at all, but her access and immediate, articulate, daily interface with the publishing world has led her to focus her sales efforts so far right here in her own backyard.
As we discussed, she needs to platform-out to readers, not platform-in to the industry! the industry!
If you’re selling one of the many (many) how-to writing books—”the other www,” in which writers tell other writers how to write—then yes, the writers corps is your sales target. Otherwise, you likely need to platform-out.
It’s perfectly predictable and understandable, too, when Porter and everybody else keeps yelling at you to be a smart publishing-business professional: you can easily focus on the business, sharing your career development with your peers to such a degree that you find yourself out of touch with the “real” readers you once had so well in mind.
The challenge is to figure out how to market to the right space, to a part of the world-at-large that might want to read what you’re on about in your book(s).
I love the language in A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS: “He was of ill aspect and evil star.” I know guys like that.
— Emily St. J. Mandel (@EmilyMandel) August 14, 2013
Back to McCarthy. He’s talking about a publishing sales conference years ago:
I’m flashing back with great clarity on a phrase I heard repeatedly. Really, really repeatedly. That phrase was: “…will appeal to fans of…” As in “…will appeal to fans of John Grisham…” or …will appeal to fans of Nora Roberts…” or “…will appeal to fans of Malcolm Gladwell…” and so on. These phrases uttered by editors, marketers, and salespersons were based on the “comps” – the titles deemed comparable to this new publication we were spending thousands of person-hours considering.
With gratifying candor, McCarthy tells us the actual validity of these “comps” frequently was dodgy:
Many of the insinuations of comparability would have been more honestly phrased as “…will appeal to 2% of fans of John Grisham if we’re lucky…” but hope springs eternal…
Lasted just 4 months. MT @drmabuse San Francisco Chronicle abandons paywall, returns to free content. http://t.co/hunOMJXMLW — Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) August 14, 2013
As bad as this approach could be, McCarthy confesses to one weakness:
There was one type of comp I loved then and love even more now; the non-book comp. As in “…will appeal to fans of Star Wars…” or “…will appeal to fans of The Sopranos” or “…Six Feet Under…” or “….The Walking Dead…” or “…Post Punk Bands…” or “…the Tea Party…” or…you get it.
That’s what I want you to think about. The non-book comp. Here’s McCarthy on the rationale:
Fervent crowds which are very large, consist of readers (check Pew – most Americans read) and can be sliced and diced to target within the group without losing the key aspect of this comp’ing: the ability to hop on an existing wave that is far larger than the book could ever make on its own.
Blah, blah, blah, blah, unsupported conclusion, blah, blah, blah… — Don Linn (@DonLinn) August 14, 2013
At times when a non-book-comping effort may have failed, McCarthy writes (emphasis mine):
“The reason for this was our inability to identify, reach, and engage those “adjacent” fans efficiently. We would have needed to buy a lot of media in a lot places – competing against other companies doing to the same thing who had far deeper pockets than us – to reach them all, or enough of them to either (a) make a difference or (b) know that it was actually a bad comp!”
“Adjacent fans.” Adjacent fans. It’s a phrase that could help a lot of fans find their way to platforming-out. We’re talking about readers whose tastes lie next door to some of your book’s (or several of your books’) interests.
McCarthy uses television properties as non-book comps:
With a real non-book comp in hand, creativity can be unleashed. How to reach super fans? How about casual viewers? Is there a trend of [online] searches beginning at the opening of a [TV series] season? The close? Do consumers want or need other media to fill the gaps between episodes or seasons? What do they look to? When do the seasons hit Netflix? Amazon instant? Both? One or the other? Audiences, audiences. Times to market. Messaging, creative. The opportunities open up based on a little comp research.
Those books that “are also containers of ideas” can “‘comp’ to life” (McCarthy’s deft turn of the phrase) when given this kind of attention.
So, no, yeah, when I spoke with my friend about her slow-seller, we found ourselves mentioning several films to each other, each of which had some “comp”-arable material to her novel. Those are non-book comps. And suddenly she has film fans to think about in terms of who might be buyers of her book.
Now, stay with me. I’d like to set this non-book-comp business into a more comp-rehensive look at a trend taking shape: entrepreneurial authors, yea, self-publishers, are running closer to their corporate cousins in traditional than they may think.
@RebeccaSchinsky @glecharles @Porter_Anderson Guilty as charged: http://t.co/MdHUeDPkAx — Liberty (@MissLiberty) August 14, 2013
Marketing: Not Just for Companies Anymore
McCarthy in his good piece for DBW is writing as one of the main programming people for the highly promising new conference event, Marketing + Publishing Services Conference & Expo (hashtag: #DBWMP) It’s set for September 26 in New York City and you may have seen me tweeting about it.
A follow-up to F+W Media’s excellent Discoverability Conference of last fall—about which I wrote here at DBW and here on the Ether—this new 2013 conference is a co-production of DBW and of the Publishers Launch series produced by Mike Shatzkin and Michael Cader.
I’m glad to be working with F+W on its conferences and I can offer readers of the Ether a 25-percent saving on registration for the Marketing + Publishing Services Confab with the use of the discount code PORTER at registration. I’m looking forward to covering this one; its roster of speakers has been growing more impressive all summer.
Now, Shatzkin recently wrote a helpful article on McCarthy’s work. In 7 starter principles for digital book marketing learned from Peter McCarthy, Shatzkin observes:
Pete’s really invented something in publishing by looking for comparable products that aren’t other books, but outside publishing they know all about seeking comps that aren’t precisely the same as their own product. The techniques Pete employs to find audiences in people that are like the known audiences for a book are standard tools in consumer marketing outside publishing.
As Shatzkin goes on to enumerate some of those starter principles McCarthy uses, you can readily spot things entrepreneurial authors know well. For example:
The digital marketing menu contains nearly an infinite number of items. That results in a tremendous amount of wasted effort spent trying things that a little research would have indicated will never work.
McCarthy confirmed to me in a tweet exchange a few days ago, that the realistic approach is something like an “agile” effort in publishing. You iterate and re-iterate marketing components, changing tack according to what’s working. And yes, there can be some waste in there as various things are tried and put aside if not producing, especially if research doesn’t precede the trial (and the error): budgeting for marketing, as Shatzkin discusses, may not mean what it once did.
Well, this isn’t that far from what authors experience in adjusting their online book pricing, is it? You see them:
- Bobbing and weaving as price points seem to work well, then fade among the algorithms almighty;
- Trying their best to learn which guest blog posts might really benefit them (“is that blog’s readership a near-comp for my target crowd?”);
- Reading entrails to guess when a giveaway is right and when it will produce no returns, just greedy takeaway-ers.
This morning, my job could be described as “Ginger Clark and the case of the confusing check from a corporation known for disorganization.”
— Ginger Clark (@Ginger_Clark) August 15, 2013
And how about the point we make so frequently with writers that there’s no such thing as being out-of-print in the digital era? Shatzkin on McCarthy’s point No. 6;
The whole concept of “time” also needs to be rethought…not just how long programs run but also when they take place in relation to the lifecycle of the book. In the digital era, whether books are well-represented in stores at any moment is not necessarily the key determinant of how well they’ll sell, so pushing a backlist book that might be thinly distributed but which is suddenly timely is perfectly sensible…And it wasn’t that way five or ten years ago when marketing efforts wouldn’t be extended if books weren’t in the stores.
These are good points, Shatzkin’s piece makes them well, and McCarthy’s guidance rings true. And? And this is heartening in another way. While much of the conference-event structure for entrepreneurial authors and corporate-publishing people remains separate, look how the topics of salesmanship are converging.
The Discovery Myth (with tweets): http://t.co/aSYYqd0vId cc: @Porter_Anderson @peterturner @arhomberg
— Guy L. Gonzalez (@glecharles) August 15, 2013
No regular readers of the Ether are having any trouble following the issues we’re flagging here. McCarthy and Shatzkin are working on an event created primarily for publishing-industry folks, but their talking points are things entrepreneurial authors are tracking right along with them, and very close to the ground, too, no layers of corporate departments underneath.
Understanding the book and author’s digital connections and the right language to describe the book you’re selling are “foundational” elements; everything flows from them.
After Marketing + Publishing Services, I’ll be in Los Angeles for F+W Media’s next event: Writer’s Digest West (hashtag: #WDCW13)—for authors, not the corporati—opens on September 27 with a full day’s conference-within-a-conference on self-publishing. I’m moderating a panel there—“Congratulations! You Published It — Now, How Do You Sell It?”—with Amazon’s Jon Fine; Bookigee’s and WriterCube’s Kristen McLean; and author-filmmaker Eric DelaBarre. I’m also teaching my own Boot Camp again on Public Speaking for Writers, and covering the full conference. On that one, too, you can save 25 percent with code PORTER, and I’d be so glad to see you there.
There’s even a simultaneous event in LA, Screenwriters World (hashtag: #SWCW13), specifically for the film folks. (And even there, the discount code will work; go for it.)
In Tuesday’s Ether for Authors: How Clear a View of Publishing Do We Have? at Publishing Perspectives, I wrote about how great it would be to see an authors’ edition of the Bowker Market Research team’s terrific 2013 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review.
I’ll offer you one canny viewpoint from that survey of interest to many entrepreneurial authors. You know how we love to say, “Oh, that genre is really taking off now,” or “this genre is hot, hot, hot, it’s the new sci-fi,” etc.? But a lot of that appears to be in our anec-data-loving heads. A Hunger Games or Game of Thrones or Fifty Games in the Shade rolls over us and we think one genre or another now is leaping past the others, right? Maybe not so right.
Between 2009 and 2012 there have been only small shifts among both the major categories and subgenres. Over the four year period, the three percentage point change in spending by the adult fiction category, for example, was the biggest shift among major categories.
Romance? “Romance, Porter?” you ask, ready to hear tales of genre-vaulting Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women.
In 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, uh, no. Bowker’s data tells us that romance held steady in market share. In units sold, 6 percent, all four years. In dollars sold, 3 percent, all four years. Seems to me that a lot of perfectly good shirts died for not a lot of progress, but my silly bias isn’t the point: what’s interesting here is that we can perceive big strides in areas of the industry that may not be borne out by the numbers.
No disrespect here for those numbers, however: By comparison, fantasy sat still at 2 percent in dollars, all four years; its biggest “bump” was moving from 2 percent to 3 percent of units sold in 2011 and 2012.
And to push on to our conclusion today, I’ve got another wish.
In addition to an author-focused and -priced version of Bowker’s enlightening work, I’d love to see marketing folks produce their best stuff with two “adjacent audiences” in mind: corporate publishing, sure, but also entrepreneurial authors. We probably could use full-day or half-day marketing conference events for entrepreneurial authors, not just for our corporate colleagues.
I want you to read the next passage without looking below to see who wrote it. I think you’ll find it makes the point well that folks from both major “sides” of the industry are beginning to talk like “adjacent fans” of each other, when it comes to marketing books.
Wait. Who Wrote That?
OK, now don’t look below, no cheating. Just read this first:
As the number of books grows that have commercial appeal but which are published so far outside the conventional trade that their sales aren’t even captured in industry data, it further weakens the legacy publishing ecosystem and further encourages both established and aspiring authors to work around it.
Aspiring authors every week see books on the NY Times Bestseller List that are either self-published or have imprint names they’ve never heard of.
When conventional publishing requires an agent to get a deal (which it does, and which takes time), then you have to wait for publishers to make a buy-or-not decision (more time), and then put your book out on a trade publishing schedule that usually wants to give Barnes & Noble and other retailers months of advance notice (still more time), it can seem ever-so-much-more appealing to just skip the wait and go straight to self-publishing, which will put books on sale right now (more or less).
I’ll even toss in one more short bit, to see if I can throw you off on who’s writing:
The single biggest reason (aside from a fat advance payment, which few get) for authors to work through a publisher is to get the distribution of printed copies to many stores.
Barry Eisler! You’re sure of it, right?
I would be, too.
Remember when he said that the main advantage to authors of legacy publishers was their distribution capability? It was in his keynote address at the Pikes Peak conference and his comments were attacked by literary agents on the spot? I wrote about it here, in Ether for Authors: The Establishment Strikes Back and in Writing on the Ether: Agents and Authors at the Coalface.
But guess what. This isn’t Eisler.
No, it’s our good friend Shatzkin again. Those quotes I just gave you are from a brand-new esssay, more recent than his article on McCarthy.
In Losing bookstores is a much bigger problem for publishers than it is for readers, Shatzkin is working this time toward Publishers Launch Frankfurt on October 8—which runs parallel to the Frankfurt Academy’s CONTEC Conference (hashtag #CONTEC) in which I’ll be moderating. (More on that one soon.)
Too many times I’ve heard people say that Shatzkin, a longtime consultant to elements of the traditional-publishing establishment, was “old guard” and “old school.” What I get in his writings, like those of McCarthy, is increasingly applicable to the challenges facing entrepreneurial authors, not just to publishing companies. What I like seeing Shatzkin do is play these challenges back to the client base in Manhattan in ways that make the world’s workforce of ever-more-sophisticated authors take on new clarity and position.
As bookstores become less powerful discovery engines (fewer of them farther apart and fewer books on display in those that are left), people are forced to find out about books some other way. Many of those other ways are already online (without even counting the suggestions of online retailers). A lot of “word-of-mouth” these days is digital communication (email, Facebook, Twitter, or even a blog).
And as those traditional publishers find their own fortunes challenged by the same hurdles facing entrepreneurial authors, the science of identifying and wooing McCarthy’s “adjacent fans” will become more critical to both.
When an author is tired of checking his/her Amazon rating, he/she is tired of life.
— Jonny Geller (@JonnyGeller) August 13, 2013
Of all things, the difficulties of reaching readers in a content-choked market may be the most unifying element the industry has seen in a decade of digital disruption.
The entrepreneurial author, maybe in business for five years so far, needs his book “discovered” by a reader, right? Well, shake hands with the decades-old publishing house with two logos smacked on its merged forehead: same challenge.
Which is why we read Shatzkin writing this to publishers:
If you do straight narrative reading, your books may continue to sell in equivalent or even better numbers [as ebooks] than they did previously, but both your authors and your retailers will be looking hard at what you take and wondering if they can go around you. Your challenge will be to continue adding enough value to be worth enough of a share to have a business.
What do you think? Can you see more ways in which entrepreneurial authors’ marketing challenges are closer to those of traditional publishing than might have been expected? And how about “adjacent fans?” Any experience in marketing books to them?
Umbrella texting. Why sell this as an umbrella and not just a grip you add to any umbrella? http://t.co/pZNm1jvbX5
— Craig Mod (@craigmod) August 14, 2013
Main image: iStockphoto – DWPhotos
Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He’s The Bookseller’s (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He’s a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he’s a regular contributor of “Provocations in Publishing” with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal’s SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair’s Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.