The Shatzkin Files

Book marketers need to rethink three things: time, timing, and budgeting

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The three big shifts taking place in trade book publishing are very much interrelated. The fact that consumers are buying about half their books online is one. That means that publishers are not entirely dependent on books being placed at retail to make sales, which is the second. And the marketing that used to take place around store inventory is becoming digital, which is the third.

And that trinity of changes is leading to another trinity of changes inside the publishing houses as publishers find that the old rules don’t apply around what used to be three pretty-much-constants: time, timing, and budgeting.

“Time” means “time on the clock” or staff time: the hours of staff effort that marketing management has to work with. It used to be that the creative outputs required of marketers and publicists were reasonably predictable and static: jacket, title information, and press release copy and thoroughly-planned campaigns for certain books around their publication date. The marketers weren’t intended to engage intensively in interaction with media or consumers. Now, Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn campaigns, whether they are attempting to connect through earned or paid connections, require interaction and monitoring. Staff time can be absorbed in specific campaigns. This is a management (and accounting) challenge publishers didn’t face before.

“Timing” means “time on the calendar”, or the publishers’ decisions about when it makes sense to put forth marketing effort on behalf of a book. Until very recently, publishers were justified (and often comforted) in their belief that no overt or costly marketing efforts made any sense unless inventory was on sale in bookstores. Part of the reason for the publication date-intensive marketing approach publishers have always taken is that with each day that passes after pub date, publishers have less confidence that books are available at retail locations. They reckoned, based on firm experience, that books not ubiquitously available wouldn’t sell much no matter what efforts were made to acquaint the public with the book. But with half the sales being made online (and a far higher percentage of the potential customers certainly willing to buy some of their books that way), availability in stores is no longer a sine qua non for promoting. That means that opportunities that would not have required or benefited from promotional effort in years past will now.

And that leads to the new challenges of “budgeting” for marketing efforts. Historically, publishers created a marketing budget for those books lucky enough to have one in advance of publication and spent just about all of it within weeks of the book’s release. Significant efforts just didn’t take place on any other books. That is also no longer an effective way to operate. Today’s marketers need funds (and time) available for online marketing campaigns, both coop within online retailers and more ambitious web and social network efforts, to take advantage of unpredicted newsbreaks or trends and to do seasonal or occasion-based promotions that would have, in years passed, required long planning and lead times to get inventory in place but today can be much more spontaneous.

It is also worth noting that the longstanding concepts of timing and budgeting can also be thrown into a cocked hat, but in a good way. Some digital marketing efforts will simply produce a positive ROI: the more you do it, the more money you make. Nothing lasts forever, but that can be true in a very open-ended way. When a publisher finds something like that, would their current procedures around timing and budgeting tell them to turn it off, even while it is working and producing positive margin? I’m afraid in many houses, that’s exactly what would happen.

This creates a lot of complications from the perspective of the big houses driven, as they are and must be, by signing up and then succeeding with the Big Books. The reality, which might be seen as a “dirty little secret”, has been that big books have driven their marketing efforts. Big books have provided the leverage with the stores, of course. The big house sales reps are the deliverers and deal-makers for the books which have historically driven the traffic into the stores, and that has given them the attention and leverage to get distribution across their houses’ list. Indeed, the major book review media were also responsive to the same high-profile books, which gave a house’s publicity department the same kind of bandwidth to push lower-profile titles.

If money were going to be spent, on coop for placement in stores or for ads in media, it was likely to be for the big books as well. So it was actually true that a house having major titles in its catalog used the access those titles created to generate visibility and distribution for many other titles the house published.

And the economics of big book marketing were also different, although it is not clear how much this has been taken into account. Because books that publishers and agents know will be big in advance tend to have advances calculated to be too high to earn out, a publisher can figure that all the sales margin on those titles creates a margin contribution to the publisher; the royalty is, in effect, already paid. But that’s not true further down the list, particularly on backlist, where each incremental sale can trigger an incremental royalty payment. That can confuse an ROI calculation and would tend to discourage a publisher from freely allocating money to promote backlist.

Besides the challenges around time, timing, and budgeting, publishers have a lot to change in the way they do their marketing. We’ve advocated for years that publishers look at marketing as an investment, building assets, such as email lists of consumers they can reach for free, through their marketing efforts for subsequent use. That works better if the house’s marketing efforts are vertical, or audience-centric, which enables repeat efforts to the same people to bear fruit.

Publishers are going to need new skills and new tools to be effective marketers but, even more fundamental, they have to break the mold that has placed the lion’s share of marketing effort and spend behind a small number of books in just a few short weeks around publication date.

Long before publishers become so marketing-driven that the marketers become leaders in helping to pick the books to be acquired, which we expect will happen eventually, there will need to be a complete re-think around marketing: how it is staffed, how and when campaigns should be triggered and stopped, and how both the house and the marketers themselves manage the spending to push books. Almost every marketing expert coming into big publishing from outside sees the ratio of marketers to sales personnel as wildly out of line, with far too few marketers in relation to the number of sales people. That’s because sales used to be marketing; with every bookstore that closes, that becomes less true.

Time, timing, and budgeting for marketing. Every publisher needs to be examining and changing the way they think about all three.

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  • Kate Barsotti

    Interesting analysis! I am curious about marketing to various age groups. With COPPA, those of us who write and illustrate for kids under 13 have to be very cautious, but if we reach out to parents, they may not choose the books their children would if left to their own devices.

  • Peter Turner

    I totally agree “that publishers [need to] look at marketing as an investment” and that that investment “works better if the house’s marketing efforts are vertical,” but there are specific challenges to vertical marketing, as you well know.

    Niche/vertical users/consumers of books and other content don’t much care about the publishing source; they care about the relevance and reliability of the content to their interests and its context. That dynamic in itself turns traditional publishing on its head.

    Along with this “source neutral” dynamic of how content is valued, users/consumers expect that when they are “engaged” by content publishers (i.e. marketing to) that it’s based on offering something of value, not necessarily a sale. Another way of framing this dynamic is that the way ROI is measured has to shift, but to what?

    • You can’t build a community by constantly pitching products. You have to offer other value. I think we agree on that.


  • Jack W Perry

    Another aspect of the “new” marketing by publishers is control and ability to shift pricing. This used to be at the discretion of the retailer. With eBooks, the publisher can decide when to lower the price. This is a powerful tool and publishers are starting to analyze to determine effectiveness etc.

    • This is true, but the court decisions around agency leave considerable power in the hands of the retailer. It is true that publishers, by lowering their price, effectively reduce the maximum that could be charged for the ebook. But the minimum is still in the control of the intermediaries who can discount on any title pretty much whatever they want to.


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  • Andrew Malkin

    When I read your first “t” among this trinity, I thought about the consumer’s “time” to spend around book content vs other entertainment options. Of course, this ties to your “time on the clock” so marketers can grab and hopefully keep their attention and ideally spur word of mouth, the most potent and cost-effective marketing around!

    • There is no doubt that consumer time is a real challenge; it always has been in the book business. What is worrying is that book reading is migrating to devices that also deliver other media, so the competition becomes much more direct.


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