McCarthy-Digital

Rethinking book marketing and its organization in the big houses


Here’s a modest proposal about how marketers at big publishers should be organized.

By audience segment, or, to use my own favored terminology, by vertical.

Marketing demands it and entirely new business opportunities — beyond publishing — can arise from it.

A publisher — even the most general publisher — should figure out which audiences it targets again and again. Some of those are easy and neat and defined by genre, like “romance readers”. Some of them might be defined by demographics and might overlap with genre readers, like “single women under 30″. Some of them might be defined by interests, such as “passionate chefs”.

Each audience segment already has its own web sites, its own apps, its own nomenclature, its own influencers. And, of course, each audience segment wants to know about the books (and other content) that relate to its core interest.

Marketers have always asked about every title: “who is the audience?” Now to optimize their digital marketing efforts, publishers large and small are wanting to know about that audience: “where can I find them?”

Big publishers have always posed their marketing questions in a title-by-title context.

Rick Joyce, the Chief Marketing Officer at Perseus, came to the conclusion by using the social listening tools in the market (like Covercake and Radian 6) that the best approach with them was to use them categorically, rather than title-by-title. He spelled that out to the audience at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference last October.

Pete McCarthy of McCarthy Digital made a related point to me when he explained that it became very clear to him at Random House that the more data that he had to work with, the more effectively he could target an audience. So the rich get richer. It was a lot easier for Pete to structure a strong marketing outreach for Dan Brown than for a first novelist. And it is much easier for marketers to build up data around a category of readers than it is around any single title.

But, as far as I can tell, no publisher has (yet) taken the step of moving away from title-centric marketing structure to an audience-centric marketing organization.

It is bound to happen. There will be increasing pressure on the existing structure driven by two related realities: bookstore decline and Internet-based marketing opportunities.

Until a very short time ago, books not in a bookstore had very little chance of selling, regardless of how powerful a publicity break they could generate. Now we’re seeing an average (across titles and genres) of more than 30% of the book sales being made online. “In stock in stores” isn’t nearly the requirement to make sales that it used to be and it will be less important every month than it was the month before for a long time to come.

The understanding that books wouldn’t sell if they weren’t available at retail excused the savvy publisher from reacting to every marketing stimulus that came down the pike. Only the successful books remained widely available more than 90 days after publication date, so media breaks that occurred later than that in most books’ lives had to meet a very high threshold to be worth acting upon. If the publisher didn’t know about a break far enough in advance to get books in place — and if the break weren’t persuasive enough to make retailers cooperate with that effort, perhaps on a book they’d returned a month or a year ago — then it was just background noise.

In fact, relatively few real marketing breaks occurred for books post-publication in the past the way they do now. Sophisticated print and air media tended to be most interested in books when they were new. If you’re “book-centric”, you focus on the new and upcoming, not on the history.

But life isn’t like that anymore. Books can be discovered at any time because the metadata doesn’t disappear from the virtual shelves. And because so much of the media isn’t book-centric (very few blogs have a book review editor sifting though the new releases), if the book is new to them and relevant to their audience’s current concerns, they’ll be interested in it.

So while it used to be perfectly acceptable (even “highly professional”) to ignore an author’s call telling his or her editor that s/he has a radio interview scheduled for next Saturday (although you would always say “thanks for letting us know”), it isn’t anymore.

With more marketing breaks taking place that are independent of a book’s publication date and in a time when we can no longer call off the marketing efforts for each book when it is about a month old, the by-title approach to marketing is bound to become a workflow nightmare. The old stuff won’t move out of the way to make room for the new. And books remaining permanently in the marketplace combined with the proliferation of marketing outlets assures that the number of stimuli calling for a response will just continue to grow.

It will become less and less acceptable (and less and less wise) to simply ignore post-publication marketing breaks. And when publishers move away from a title-driven marketing structure to an audience-driven marketing structure, it won’t be necessary either.

This is how I imagine organizing the trade publisher’s marketing department in the future. I’m describing an idealized scenario to get there that is almost certainly not immediately practical for anybody, but I think makes it easier to visualize the desired state.

A publisher will build a list of target audiences, defined by interest or demographics. Probably this exercise is best started by looking at the company’s top 1000 titles (I’m imagining a Big Six-type house here; the exercise is actually easier for a smaller and nichier player.) We’ll call the individual audience segments being targeted “verticals.” Each vertical will be assigned a team (although a single team might work more than one vertical and any individual marketer could be on more than one team). Flexibility is key here; each audience has different value to the house and the person-hours allotted to the vertical has to bear some reasonable relationship to the revenue potential. So these teams are not “one size fits all”. That’s why marketers will be on more than one team; some will warrant a fraction of the time and effort of others.

For each vertical, the marketing team’s job is to make audiences aware of the house’s books on a timely basis (which does not mean “pub date”, but means “when a book is currently relevant and likely to be of interest to the audience” which is something that is, on some level, examined anew every single day), to get the audience to “talk” (tweet, blog, chat, comment) about the house’s books, to know enough about trends with the audience to suss out topics of future interest, and to conceive marketing programs — subscription services, establishing brands, selling non-content offerings — to both monetize and get closer to the market.

In some verticals, it might be possible to establish a community hub — a website or an app or a subscription offering or a sharing or annotation capability — that can serve as an anchor for ongoing communication with the vertical. But that won’t happen most of the time. What the marketing team is looking for are the hubs that already exist and the ways to get close to them, collaborate with them, identify the opportunities they present and take advantage of them.

Let’s imagine that there are 100 such audiences with teams assigned to them to start out. Any book might call for help from one of them or several of them. Only in very rare cases should it be necessary to coordinate efforts for a book across teams, because they’re working different audiences.

This approach will result in publishers learning a lot more than they know about the audiences for what they publish. For example, one would imagine (going in) that “literary fiction” has an audience that is common: that there are people that want to read the most “writerly” books. But it will only become evident over time whether “quality” (meaning “literary” or not) trumps genre categorically. I’d assume a priori there are books that would “work” for a romance or sci-fi vertical but also for a “literary” vertical. But perhaps the “literary” team will find that well-written romances don’t work with their audience, even though well-written science fiction does.

Working this way will deliver a publisher a much deeper understanding of the readers and what makes them respond. The most obvious drawback is that it will be more difficult to manage the marketing teams on a per-title basis. You will be putting titles into the hands of many different teams because it has many overlapping audiences when you define them by interests and demographics. And each of them will have timing and messages that are largely, if not primarily, influenced by the environment in their vertical.

Obviously, it will be much harder to coordinate a Big Bang on pub date using this approach. But the guess here is that the necessity for that is diminishing over time anyway and it will be compensated for by the improvement of marketing across the list, on smaller titles and on backlist. There’s room for a “big books coordination” function. It won’t interfere much with the work of the individual teams to have to be in corporate harness for a small number of titles.

With this sort of structure in place, all sorts of additional development not only becomes possible, it becomes inevitable. And the problem of knowing when and how to react to marketing breaks will largely be solved. Purely hypothetically, the “electoral politics” vertical team might find that an NPR break is worth a lot of effort to promote and the “gourmet eating” vertical team might learn it isn’t of much value at all. Niche subscription services, newsletters, first chapter distributions, and event development will flow naturally from the focus on audiences. Having a large number of teams, with many marketers working more than one of them, will encourage both experimentation and the spread of best practices.

This audience-centric way of thinking is pretty natural, or at least easier, for smaller publishers. They tend to specialize by subject or genre more than the bigger players do anyway. They don’t have new titles literally every day — every major house does more than 365 books a year and some are publishing closer to 10 titles every working day — to keep their marketers from having the time to think about anything else. (Yes, the big houses have more marketers than the smaller ones, but whether they have more headcount per title would be a different question.)

It has already happened that the vertical marketing efforts of smaller, more-focused houses have enabled them to be very competitive with big houses in certain niches. One agent told me several years ago that he had concluded that the mind-body-spirit specialist publisher Hay House could sell many times the number of copies of a book in their sweet spot than a Big Six house. Hay House has focused on its audience, collecting email names and running paid events, for years. They have the ability to promote to hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of their core audience without incremental cost. And, not to say that there isn’t plenty of imaginative marketing thinking in their shop, I’d maintain that the innovations that give them marketing power follow pretty naturally from publishing and marketing to the same audience repeatedly. They didn’t have to organize vertical teams for marketing; their entire company is a vertical team.

And Jane Friedman’s Open Road, much of whose list consists of established backlists for which the company was able to acquire the ebook rights, is not as “vertical” but they are similarly untethered from a publication-date-driven marketing strategy. Open Road works from a marketing calendar that looks at the events that will drive consumer behavior and they market to that. What have we got and how can we position it for Father’s Day? What have we got and how do we position it for Election Day? It isn’t exactly vertical, but it is audience-centric and thinking that way makes it natural for the marketers to promote the right backlist at the right time.

But it is structurally much more difficult for a major house to do this because it means blowing up — or at the very least diverting a lot of resources from — the existing title- and imprint-based marketing structure. Imprints in major houses were rarely if ever formed around audiences; they were formed around editorial units. In general houses, even the individual editoral units work tend to work across many topical areas. In the big houses, really it is only the genre fiction that gets an editorial unit, branding, and marketing teams dedicated to them.

That’s why many of the the most interesting innovations in the big houses, like Tor’s massive mailing lists and cross-publisher ebook store and Avon’s Facebook-centric initiative to sell non-DRMd titles through AllRomanceebooks.com, tend to come from the genre fiction units.

There is definitely full awareness in the major houses that “marketing at scale” must replace “we put books on shelves” as their defining value proposition. They are shifting more and more resources to marketing. They’re investing in and learning about SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing).

Random House, showing one strategy that is consistent with this perspective, is developing a tool set to create bookstores for existing vertical sites, starting with Politico. If it works, that’s an extensible way to get the marketing benefits of niche community-building for your books without having to build the community yourself. And it fits with the point we make above that vertical marketing efforts don’t have to be about creating communities; it is more efficient to exploit those that have already been created.

But as far as I can tell, no house is close to accepting the reality that the title-driven and pubdate-driven marketing techniques that we all grew up with will shortly have outlived their usefulness. The increased demands on marketers created by new opportunities, particularly those arising for books past their pub date, are being met now by adding to staff and tinkering with the rules about what’s worth attention and what isn’t and, of course, trying to create tools and techniques that will enable the title-driven and pubdate-driven efforts to be more effective at scale.

Change will ultimately come in stages. (I can’t even imagine how one would quickly implement the plan as I describe it here in a massive publishing house.) Nobody will start with 100 vertical marketing teams and small remnants of the existing structure. But it is definitely time for every house to have three or six marketing teams focused on specific audiences.

When those have raised the sales on the relevant backlist, resuscitated some dormant titles into an active status, created a couple of surprise bestsellers a few months after they were published, and brought in a few great books that were never seen by an agent or any other house, it will make it much easier for management to see for themselves, and persuade all their colleagues, that this is the way to the future.

And, beyond that, when publishers become expert in targeted audiences and also have content reservoirs to attract them and learn more about them, entirely new commercial opportunities will emerge. But that’s imagineering on top of imagineering, so we’ll leave it for another day.

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