Monday, October 09, 2006


Once, in the not-too-distant past, there were three national television networks and there were a handful of magazines that most American households could be assured of having in their home: Life, Time, Newsweek, Esquire, Playboy, Forbes, National Geographic and/or Good Housekeeping. A savvy marketer could place an ad on most networks and in three to five of those magazines and be assured of something close to market saturation.

Today, that sounds like science fiction. Magazine sales are in decline, television channels have multiplied like bacteria and websites have undermined the entire notion of a unified culture, much less a unified audience. Still, large corporations want to promote themselves and their goods by any means necessary. High-end advertising spots on popular television shows (now that they seem to have come back into vogue) are always available to the Pepsis, Fords, Krafts, Exxons, Lockheed Martins and Random Houses of the world.

Fortunately, some of these companies have an advertising budget larger than the Gross National Product of small African nations. And some of these companies don’t. For those that don’t, smaller spots on more remote magazines and cable channels are sort of effective. Well, effective enough, especially if you are promoting a niche product aimed at a subculture of people who spend a lot of money on entertainment media. But woe unto you if you are producing a product whose target demographic doesn’t congregate in easily located online enclaves and seek out new information for the sake of bragging rights.

If you were a publisher, for example, you might be forced to rely on other means of promotion. One of the most popular is something called co-op. Basically, it is an amount of money that publishing companies pay to bookstores every month for preferential treatment with in-store advertising. For the most part, this treatment comes in the form of turning selected books cover-out to increase their exposure to customers walking in through the front of the store.

There is also some minor product placement near the cash-registers, which is called a point-of-purchase display. Point-of-purchase displays are really common, especially in supermarkets, who have made paid a lot of money to independent companies to help them study, understand and optimize their effectiveness. Unfortunately, point-of-purchase displays are not really that effective in bookstores – if bookstore checkouts were designed like supermarket checkouts, they might be. But they aren’t, so they aren’t.

But it is probably difficult for publishing companies to demand more for their co-op. After all, it’s not like this money is helping the chain superstores stay in business. But publishers have paid the Danegeld, which is a damned shame.

Lest you think I am being unnecessarily mean to chain bookstores, allow me to point out that in the last decade, they have been forced to evolve in response to a direct threat on their role as primary distributor of books. Survival is a mean, dirty process and it spawned large companies with the muscle to compete. An essential part of that process was the ability – the need – to hold onto whatever tools were at hand. Co-op and the remainders process are here to stay.

To be honest, the evolution of chain bookstores ought to be an object lesson to the publishing industry. Bookstores were faced with a challenger and they made choices. The publishing industry is (to it’s knowledge) faced with no serious challengers and they do not have to make choices. Sometimes choices are made for them, however, and these publishers howl and gnash their teeth. And then they discover that using Google to index the contents of their books will actually sell more books. Institutions breed inertia. Change often means a different perspective and people get used to the perspectives they currently have.

But isn’t that what marketing is all about? In my understanding, it's about altering perceptions and introducing new information to the audience with an aim towards capturing their attention (and, eventually, their wallets). That’s one of the reasons why corporate marketing is such a funny concept.

One of the truly interesting things about the internet is that it is extremely easy to become a blogger that people want to read – all it takes is the ability to consistently present coherent, interesting information to another blogger that people already read. Most of these pre-established content providers are always on the lookout for new information to pass along to their audience. This is part and parcel of the symbiotic relationship. In this day and age of constant change and novelty, people want to know what’s going on and they have certain trusted sources that they go to for their information.

People like this used to be called critics. They still are, even though they tend to spend the majority of their time these days staring at their navels, deep in debate about the nature of slipstream in science fiction. But from time to time, they do occasionally talk about the books they are reading. And, if you pay attention, you will discover the most amazing books that nobody else is talking about.

And that is exactly what book marketing is trying to do: reach out to the people who pay attention to these kinds of things and tell them about the best of the new in the hopes that it will become word of mouth. The formalized process involves passing a list of titles to the established reviewing apparat and letting them take their pick. It is possible to guide their hands towards the right titles, ouija board style, but a good review is not always assured. Like everything else, investing in a well-placed review carries a heavy potential for diminishing returns.

The truth of the matter is that publishing companies cannot devote all of their advertising budget to effectively promoting every title that they produce. Choices have to be made and, when those choices are made, they are made with the full knowledge that those books that are underpromoted have a fair chance of outright failure. But those choices are also made with the full knowledge that a corporation is allowed to write off losses at the end of the year. So it balances out, really. As long as you are not the poor writer who ended up outside of the profit margin.

The other major source of revenue (and promotion) for publishers is the motion picture industry and newer transmedia alternatives. Books are always being turned into movies and the purchase of an option can be worth more to the author than the initial advance from the publisher. Even that isn’t a sure thing for the writer, though, and (again) the publishers can probably only expect to make a major profit in aggregate. Of course, for all I know, the translation of books to other media is the major money-maker for the publishing industry as a whole. But what does that say about the industry itself?