Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Endangered book ads?

by Jessica

As the week begins, I am feeling decidedly under the weather; last night, I was flipping through magazines in a somewhat desultory fashion, rereading the same sentences again and again, watching paragraphs swim before my eyes, and otherwise making little actual headway. The time I failed to spend reading, however, I devoted to looking at pictures. Namely, book ads. Which are, along with the New Yorker’s weird assortment of sterling silver pet pins/pendants (who, I ask, buys the “European Beret?”), of particular interest. Book ads—whether placed in publication local or national—have long been a staple of publishers’ promotional arsenal, but I’m curious to get your take: has an ad ever driven, or even heavily influenced, your decision to buy a book?

I’m not sure that I can point to a time when an ad alone propelled me to the bookstore (or the library) though February’s Harper’s boasts a full page ad for 36 Arguments for the Existence of God that may well do the trick. I was pleased to spot a New Yorker ad for Simon Mawer’s superb The Glass Room, and I hope that it will drive other readers toward this very smart novel. But it’s difficult to measure the impact of traditional advertising—no click-throughs, no totting up eye-balls or page views. Which is why I’d love to hear your opinion. Do you pay attention to print book ads? Where do they have most impact? Do they influence your choice? And if not, what does?

Publishers, as you probably realize, do not run ads for every book they publish. Advertising and marketing dollars are carefully allocated, with big names generally commanding the biggest budgets (and sometimes the budgets, period) and usually, ads are given to books that are: 1) lead titles 2) already working 3) or have garnered such astonishing reviews that it makes sense to pay to shout it from the rooftops. Publishers rarely count on ads to get the ball rolling, but rather to build or maintain existing momentum. So perhaps an ad alone would not motivate a sale, but a good review, and interview on NPR, capped off by an effective ad in a favorite magazine (one that quotes the other review you might have missed) these might create some sort of tipping point.

Not everyone agrees with this hypothetical; indeed, there are plenty of people who think ads are essentially useless (or worse yet, expensive ways of appeasing agents and big-name authors). Whatever the reason, publishers have certainly cut back. The NYTBR is still the sine qua non, but even there, the costs of a full page ads has fallen precipitously.

When, for better or for worse, publishers decide that the traditional ad model doesn’t work (too much money for too little gain) it has unintended ripple effects across the publishing ecosystem. Falling ad revenue shuttered both the Washington Post Book World and the LA Times Book Review, which in turn means fewer influential places to be reviewed. There are, of course, many book-related sites online, but so far, none have quite the reach that publishers are hoping for.

I’m curious to know how you weigh in.


  1. At my day job I work for an international nonprofit with a healthy marketing budget. I have stopped running almost all ads after research confirmed my suspicion that they were not motivating -- triggering, in other words -- the "purchase decision."

    (I'm being cagey on purpose; my company doesn't sell products but the thinking is similar: we want people to do something.)

    What does work? Word of mouth. I am pouring the money I might have spent in advertising into grass-roots efforts to get people to recommend various things in person. And while surely a print ad can drive awareness in general, and word-of-mouth tends to occur when there's awareness, the astronomical cost of print ads, combined with the difficulty of tracing ROI, makes them untenable for me. I just can't justify spending the money on advertising when other things are more effective.

    OK, rant over!

  2. I always liked the print ads because I have such a poor short-term memory: I might see a book mentioned online but then I tend to drift onto the next page or link and soon forget. With an ad (or review) in print, I tear it out if I like it, and put it in my handbag or coat pocket for the next trip to the bookstore.

    Our local bookstore makes good use of print ads too, pinning them up for people to browse to help promote the titles in store.

  3. As a reader of primarily genre novels, I've always found that the stuff I'm most interested in reading doesn't get that big budget attention. So no, I am pretty much never influenced by book ads--or for that matter, book trailers--when it comes to buying books.

    Here's what does hook my interest, in no particular order:

    1) My Amazon Recommendations list. "If you liked this, you'll probably like this other thing" works pretty well with me.

    2) Occasional ads placed on sites I'm visiting anyway, such as Tor.com or Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

    3) Blog posts by authors I regularly follow, who often mention forthcoming books by their colleagues.

    4) Review posts by people on my Friends list, or review blogs I'm following, of which there are a couple.

    5) John Scalzi's "Big Idea" column, which has influenced me to grab at least two books off the top of my head.

    6) Good ol' fashioned browsing in the bookstore: i.e., thinking 'hey that looks like fun' when I see a cover, reading the blurb on the back, and thinking 'sure why not'.

    7) Fictionwise's "featured books" sections on their homepage, which have occasionally gotten me to snag ebooks I wouldn't otherwise have bought. Same for the targeted discounts they send me on their newsletters.

  4. Angela has pretty much said it all for me, though I've never heard of John Scalzi's column and do not buy ebooks (yet).

    Word of mouth, blurbs or reviews by trusted authors/bloggers, and the occasional browsing session work best for me.

  5. My girlfriend reads most of her books based on recommendations from her friends. The last book I was recommended was an old R.A. Salavtore book, but that was back when I was in high school. As a working adult guy, I'm more often recommended non-fiction than fiction.

    So how do I find out about books? Movies based on books, books in front of the bookstore, and author's websites. I like reading Neil Gaiman's website, and I read his comics as a kid. I have also been picking up books that are in the series LOST out of curiosity. As for reviews, I really only care about the amazon reviews. Newspaper reviewers come across as too pompous. I don't care if it's good lit; I just want to read a good story.

  6. Does an ad cause me to buy a book? Never. Does a review cause me to buy a book? Sometimes. Do recommendations cause me to buy books? Often. These could be word of mouth, something I read, or amazon's predictions for what I will like.

  7. I don't read magazines or newspapers -- I have the internet -- so I don't think I have seen a print ad for a book in the last 5+ years.

    However, I do read the newsletter sent out by the Sci Fi book club and I have purchased a ton of books after leafing through that newsletter.

    After that, I hear about most new books from Chuck Palahniuk's official website, The Cult or its sister site, The Velvet.

  8. I bought a book—from an ad in The New Yorker no less—called The Story of Stupidity which turned out to be someone's self-published thesis. I still have it on my shelves,

  9. I don't really pay attention to print ads at all, whether for books or other things. My eyes pass over them without really registering.

    However, I can't say that they have NO effect because if I'm trying to decide between two books and I've heard of one somewhere (but can't remember where) and haven't heard of the other, I'll buy the one that triggers a memory. Usually that memory is caused by twitter or blog mentions, but it could also be from an ad.

  10. LOL about the beret...I have spent many a lost minute considering the purchase of a poke boat, though.

  11. As for "what works..." Word of mouth is king. Facebook's Virtual Book shelf. NPR. Blogs. I rip out hundreds of slivers about interesting things I find in everything from the New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly, those, however, more often than not, end up washed in my pajama pants.

    I am also most driven by finding things for my stduents to read, so if I think a book's appeal or theme matches one of my courses, I am much more likely to turn that ripped out ad into a purchase.

  12. Mary Witzl:

    John Scalzi is an SF author with a high-traffic blog at http://whatever.scalzi.com. One of the things he regularly posts is a "Big Idea" column, showcasing other authors and the central idea that got them started on whatever book they have coming out next. It's focused on SF/F, but he does a nice variety of forthcoming work.

    It's inspired me to pick up the awesome YA novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth (by Carrie Ryan), and more recently, Malinda Lo's Ash.

  13. Thanks for these thoughtful answers, which really are instructive. Publishing houses would do well to do a better job of targeting the on-line space to build word of mouth. But much as i see the writing on the wall, I can't help but mourn the passing of regional book review sections (and regional newspapers)which are the inevitable byproduct of falling ad revenue. I too make my reading decisions based on a combination of reviews and word of mouth. I'm also in the fortunate position of havng books thrust in my hands with an accompanying "you MUST read this." I almost always dip in, and if it grabs me, I feel it only fair to keep going.

  14. The problem with advertising is that you can't measure your success. If I see a book on NPR or Oprah for that matter, it might take an ad to remind me to buy it. You can't rule out the cumulative effect. Also, if no one buys book ads, we won't see book reviews, which are big motivators in my family. Sometimes you have to support an institution (buying expensive ads) so it will be there when you need it.(reviewing your book)


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