Book Marketing 101: What Works and What Doesn’t

Part 1: Start with Great Content

This is the beginning of a series of posts I am calling, “Book Marketing 101: What Works and What Doesn’t.” I have wanted to write this series for a long time. There are so many opinions when it comes to marketing books. I certainly don’t have the last word on this topic, but I do have some experience.

A little boy reading a good book by flashlight

I have been involved in the book publishing industry for 30 years. My career has included working at three different publishers, serving as a marketing director, marketing VP, acquisitions editor, editor-in-chief, publisher, chief operating officer, and now, of course, chief executive officer. I was also a literary agent for six years and have written four books, including one that was on the New York Times bestsellers list for 28 weeks. I am currently writing a new book called, The How of Wow.I’ve been able to experience first and second-hand what works and, mostly, what doesn’t. But before I give my perspective on the various marketing tools and vehicles, I would like to set forth a few basic principles based on my own experience. These are generalizations and there are definitely exceptions to every rule. But I think these apply 95% of the time.

Let’s start with content. What does content have to do with marketing books? Everything.

Several years ago, when I was the publisher of Nelson Books, I had a button made for my staff. It said, “It’s the product, stupid.” I am still convinced that this is the most fundamental truth about publishing. It all starts by acquiring great manuscripts.

Great products make everyone’s job easier. When you have a great book, sales people want to sell it, producers want to book the author, bloggers want to post about it, and booksellers want to carry it.

But we have to be careful how we define “great product.” I am not referring to a book’s literary merit, scholarly research, or enduring value. Instead, I am talking about the book’s commercial viability.

As is the case in the movie business, what the reviewers like and what the general public likes are often two very different things. For example, I have heard many publishing insiders pan The Shack. And yet millions of readers love the book and have bought them by the caseload to pass onto their family and friends. The same could be said of numerous other books, including The Purpose Driven Life.

David Ogilvy, the advertising pioneer, once said, “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.” Why? Because it contributes to negative word-of-mouth. If the marketing induces people to try the product, and if the product doesn’t deliver what the consumer expects, then the product dies. This is true of consumer products, and it is true of books.

In the book publishing world, when a book is successful, the author usually gets the credit. Conversely, when the book fails, the publisher gets the blame. But I have seen the reverse happen many, many times. The publisher creates a good, perhaps even brilliant marketing plan, but the book doesn’t take off because the content is mediocre.

Again, the yardstick for measuring great content is not the author’s opinion of his own work. Most authors think their work is brilliant. The standard of success in commercial publishing is consumer acceptance and enthusiasm. If the public doesn’t like the book, as demonstrated by purchasing enough copies to recoup the publisher’s investment and enable him or her to make a reasonable profit, then the book is a failure.

Even in the best case scenario, the publisher’s marketing budget will only carry the book so far. The real goal is to ignite word-of-mouth marketing. When this happens, the book “sprouts legs” and begins to run on it’s own. If this doesn’t happen, then the book dies and the publisher moves onto the next project.

The dirty little secret of book publishing is that most books fail. Based on research I have seen through the years, something like 90% of all books published sell fewer than 5,000 copies. And by almost every commerical publisher’s standards, these books are failures. If this is accurate, then it means authors have a one-in-ten chance of being successful. These are tough odds.

But they are even tougher if the content is medicore. If the book is brilliant and the marketing plan is mediocre, the book can still succeed. But the reverse is rarely true. I have never seen brilliant marketing overcome a weak book. The publisher may get the book placed, but it will ultimately boomerang back in the form of returns.

The bottom line: Authors must write great manuscripts. Agents must represent great projects—and have the guts to tell their clients when they have missed the mark. Acquisitions editors must buy great books for their publishing houses. If they don’t do this, all the marketing in the world will not be sufficient to make the book successful.

Question: If you are an author or a publisher, are you willing to pay the price to create great content?
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  • Mary

    Sorry to put this here (I tried to email you a link but it bounced back with an out of office autoresponder.)

    Try http://www.entourage.mvps.org/database/archive.html for an Entourage archiving solution. Hope this helps … (I don’t use a mac nor do I use Entourage but the documentation seemed pretty decent.

  • Mary

    Sorry to put this here (I tried to email you a link but it bounced back with an out of office autoresponder.)

    Try http://www.entourage.mvps.org/database/archive.ht… for an Entourage archiving solution. Hope this helps … (I don't use a mac nor do I use Entourage but the documentation seemed pretty decent.

  • http://www.hopechurch.tv PLC

    good stuff – the early writers may not have been thinking about marketing…but, God was… rainbows, shooting stars, molting eagles, silkworms, sunsets – that’s some great advertising!
    Jesus was commercially ‘viable’ – there were the blind gaining sight, the dead rising to life, the crippled healed – just to mention a few things that attracted people to Jesus – and, then, he delivered the content.

  • http://www.hopechurch.tv/ PLC

    good stuff – the early writers may not have been thinking about marketing…but, God was… rainbows, shooting stars, molting eagles, silkworms, sunsets – that's some great advertising!
    Jesus was commercially 'viable' – there were the blind gaining sight, the dead rising to life, the crippled healed – just to mention a few things that attracted people to Jesus – and, then, he delivered the content.

  • http://www.higherlevelgroup.com daniel d

    Content is always king. That’s the hardest part though. Good content is subjective and one never really knows what will be a true break-away hit to a mass audience. No one could have predicted “The Shack” or even “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” which was initially turned down by a number of publishers before finial being printed.

    Sure there are fundamentals but if someone could predict what will have the best market viability then that person / publisher would have an grip on the NY Times #1 spot ongoing. As I read on Mike’s blog sometime ago: “Effective marketing is not one thing, it’s hundreds of little things done well.”

    To me, relating back to content, I think there is also an element of timing in the mix here. Every good thing has its season. Authors need to understand that the book biz is a long-term deal. Marathon, not a sprint. Focus on writing good content, not just good by your own perspective but accepting insight and suggestions from others who are qualified to help nurture the content (editors, agents, even friends who will give unbiased insight when reading a manuscript).

    Understand that many “overnight” best-sellers where often years in the making (authors platform building, tireless promotion, authors learning how to define and write to their niche or audience, etc).

    Most of all though, for first time authors, I’d suggest checking the motives of why you want to write a book in the first place. Is it because you actually have something to say (in a unique way that adds value to others or is quality entertainment) OR… is it because you think authors make lots of money or because you want validation and “people approval” from others? Seriously. This may sound odd but lots of people want to write for the wrong reasons and that is often the baseline for the foundation of good or bad content (in my opinion). Successful authors don’t just write a book. They are passionate and driven about the content. That shows.

  • http://www.higherlevelgroup.com/ daniel d

    Content is always king. That's the hardest part though. Good content is subjective and one never really knows what will be a true break-away hit to a mass audience. No one could have predicted “The Shack” or even “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” which was initially turned down by a number of publishers before finial being printed.

    Sure there are fundamentals but if someone could predict what will have the best market viability then that person / publisher would have an grip on the NY Times #1 spot ongoing. As I read on Mike’s blog sometime ago: “Effective marketing is not one thing, it’s hundreds of little things done well.”

    To me, relating back to content, I think there is also an element of timing in the mix here. Every good thing has its season. Authors need to understand that the book biz is a long-term deal. Marathon, not a sprint. Focus on writing good content, not just good by your own perspective but accepting insight and suggestions from others who are qualified to help nurture the content (editors, agents, even friends who will give unbiased insight when reading a manuscript).

    Understand that many "overnight" best-sellers where often years in the making (authors platform building, tireless promotion, authors learning how to define and write to their niche or audience, etc).

    Most of all though, for first time authors, I'd suggest checking the motives of why you want to write a book in the first place. Is it because you actually have something to say (in a unique way that adds value to others or is quality entertainment) OR… is it because you think authors make lots of money or because you want validation and "people approval" from others? Seriously. This may sound odd but lots of people want to write for the wrong reasons and that is often the baseline for the foundation of good or bad content (in my opinion). Successful authors don’t just write a book. They are passionate and driven about the content. That shows.

  • http://www.freshword.com john mason

    Mike,

    Thanks for your thoughts and encouragement as I”m leaving for a writing sabbatical starting Jan 2. It’s been four years since my last book.

    One of my strategies has always been to write books people will actually read (I’m inspired by a study that suggests 70% of books purchased are not read). Maybe that’s why so many “fail”.

    I’ve found people do this when they actually finish reading a book…tell others. And as you said, that’s a great way to sell books.

    John Mason

  • http://www.freshword.com/ john mason

    Mike,

    Thanks for your thoughts and encouragement as I"m leaving for a writing sabbatical starting Jan 2. It's been four years since my last book.

    One of my strategies has always been to write books people will actually read (I'm inspired by a study that suggests 70% of books purchased are not read). Maybe that's why so many "fail".

    I've found people do this when they actually finish reading a book…tell others. And as you said, that's a great way to sell books.

    John Mason

  • http://www.ColemanUnlimited.com Sonia Coleman

    This was an excellent post. I’ve made my living as a writer for years, although it’s not been in the book publishing world.

    Bottom line: God gives us the talent, but we can choose to multiply it or bury it in the ground.

    I like that Mike pointed out that it takes hard work to be successful–whether that be in writing, editing, communicating, public relations, or marketing. God can help us in all of these areas, but we still have to put our foot forward and run the race set before us.

  • http://www.ColemanUnlimited.com/ Sonia Coleman

    This was an excellent post. I've made my living as a writer for years, although it's not been in the book publishing world.

    Bottom line: God gives us the talent, but we can choose to multiply it or bury it in the ground.

    I like that Mike pointed out that it takes hard work to be successful–whether that be in writing, editing, communicating, public relations, or marketing. God can help us in all of these areas, but we still have to put our foot forward and run the race set before us.

  • http://www.generatornetwork.com Mike Rapp, Generator LLC

    Responding to several of the posts above, a commercially viable book is simply one that makes more money than it cost to create and market. I think we’d all agree that there have been literally countless bad books that were commercially viable.

    My point is, commercial success does not make a bad book good; It only makes it commercially viable. Conversely, many great books, CDs and movies simply didn’t reach the masses.

    Joel and Ethan Cohen plan to make movies that barely make money. They are all brilliant movies, but rarely blockbusters. They are successful by almost any standard, but that’s because they make compelling films on medium budgets with realistic profit projections. Transformers is a great mass appeal movie that I really love…but it ain’t Fargo.

    My point is, to say “you need great content” really misses the point. Great content is in the eye of the beholder.

    I always assume that if you are given the task and the budget to market a product, the product is viable. Marketing is NOT product development. Marketing is connecting a developed product with its marketplace. Ultimately it is not the marketing department’s job to determine whether or not a book is “good enough” to be marketed well.

    So what makes a good marketing campaign? It’s quite simple, and it’s always the same equation:

    1. Who is your target market? Don’t tell me your book is pretty much right for everyone. Blah. Be as specific as humanly possible. You will NEVER have enough money to market to everyone.

    2. What is your unique selling proposition? IOW, what can you say that no one else can say? Sometimes I call this my headline idea. What can you say that is unique, compelling AND relevant to the target market?

    3. What’s the creative twist? Go beyond blaring your selling statement. DEMONSTRATE your idea in a creative way. And you don’t need to say a single word to do it. Some of the greatest ads didn’t even use words. But they had that “A ha” moment where you “got it.”

    This is what separates the marketers from the creatives, and not everyone has it. Find someone that works in big ideas and knows the difference between a strategy and a concept. And pay them what they require to give you breakthrough ideas.

    4. Stay on target. Don’t stray from your creative strategy. Keep talking in one tone of voice, everywhere. Repetition is fundamental to marketing success.

  • http://www.generatornetwork.com/ Mike Rapp, Generator

    Responding to several of the posts above, a commercially viable book is simply one that makes more money than it cost to create and market. I think we'd all agree that there have been literally countless bad books that were commercially viable.

    My point is, commercial success does not make a bad book good; It only makes it commercially viable. Conversely, many great books, CDs and movies simply didn't reach the masses.

    Joel and Ethan Cohen plan to make movies that barely make money. They are all brilliant movies, but rarely blockbusters. They are successful by almost any standard, but that's because they make compelling films on medium budgets with realistic profit projections. Transformers is a great mass appeal movie that I really love…but it ain't Fargo.

    My point is, to say "you need great content" really misses the point. Great content is in the eye of the beholder.

    I always assume that if you are given the task and the budget to market a product, the product is viable. Marketing is NOT product development. Marketing is connecting a developed product with its marketplace. Ultimately it is not the marketing department's job to determine whether or not a book is "good enough" to be marketed well.

    So what makes a good marketing campaign? It's quite simple, and it's always the same equation:

    1. Who is your target market? Don't tell me your book is pretty much right for everyone. Blah. Be as specific as humanly possible. You will NEVER have enough money to market to everyone.

    2. What is your unique selling proposition? IOW, what can you say that no one else can say? Sometimes I call this my headline idea. What can you say that is unique, compelling AND relevant to the target market?

    3. What's the creative twist? Go beyond blaring your selling statement. DEMONSTRATE your idea in a creative way. And you don't need to say a single word to do it. Some of the greatest ads didn't even use words. But they had that "A ha" moment where you "got it."

    This is what separates the marketers from the creatives, and not everyone has it. Find someone that works in big ideas and knows the difference between a strategy and a concept. And pay them what they require to give you breakthrough ideas.

    4. Stay on target. Don't stray from your creative strategy. Keep talking in one tone of voice, everywhere. Repetition is fundamental to marketing success.

  • http://seedlingsinstone.blogspot.com L.L. Barkat

    I am struck by your question. I wonder what you think “the price” is. Maybe that is grist for another series.

  • http://seedlingsinstone.blogspot.com/ L.L. Barkat

    I am struck by your question. I wonder what you think "the price" is. Maybe that is grist for another series.

  • http://ero-foto.com/ MarkZM

    Íå çà÷¸ò

  • http://ero-foto.com/ MarkZM

    Íå çà÷¸ò

  • CharleneNeedles

    Hi I’m sixteen and I am aspiring to be an author, but I want to edit books too. What should I major in and what degree should I aim for? What did you major in in college and how did you become so successful?

  • CharleneNeedles

    Hi I'm sixteen and I am aspiring to be an author, but I want to edit books too. What should I major in and what degree should I aim for? What did you major in in college and how did you become so successful?

  • http://GodUsesBrokenVessels.blogspot.com Angie Breidenbach

    This is a great overview and lead in for part two. As the new ACFW Publicity Officer, I’m eager to read part two :-)

    Angie

  • http://GodUsesBrokenVessels.blogspot.com Angie Breidenbach

    This is a great overview and lead in for part two. As the new ACFW Publicity Officer, I’ve signed up for your posts to come directly to me as I’m eager to read part two :-)

    Angie

  • http://GodUsesBrokenVessels.blogspot.com/ Angie Breidenbach

    This is a great overview and lead in for part two. As the new ACFW Publicity Officer, I'm eager to read part two :-)

    Angie

  • http://GodUsesBrokenVessels.blogspot.com/ Angie Breidenbach

    This is a great overview and lead in for part two. As the new ACFW Publicity Officer, I've signed up for your posts to come directly to me as I'm eager to read part two :-)

    Angie

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Matt

    Michael, I was with you on content until this week. I was given a very popular Christian title as a Christmas present. I read it one sitting and was appalled. It was bad theology on almost every page. And the writing was even worse. It was bad theology on almost every page. And the writing? It horrible. From misused words to repetitive hyperbole it read like a high school student wrote it. And then there was the story. Like an Ayn Rand novel the story in this book only exists as framework to hang dialogs and speeches on. It was such a bad story that I knew in the second chapter how the book would end.

    So what is driving this books sales? Marketing. Pure and simple. It is garbage and people are eating it up.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com/ Matt

    Michael, I was with you on content until this week. I was given a very popular Christian title as a Christmas present. I read it one sitting and was appalled. It was bad theology on almost every page. And the writing was even worse. It was bad theology on almost every page. And the writing? It horrible. From misused words to repetitive hyperbole it read like a high school student wrote it. And then there was the story. Like an Ayn Rand novel the story in this book only exists as framework to hang dialogs and speeches on. It was such a bad story that I knew in the second chapter how the book would end.

    So what is driving this books sales? Marketing. Pure and simple. It is garbage and people are eating it up.

  • Dr Robert E McGinnis

    I didn’t post a URL because it might be construed as advertising as all my webs are related to my reading clubs for children or my books for youngsters.

    As a retired teacher and my concern for the non reading student, I decided I could create books that were easy to read with an agile hand at guiding my young readers to think about self worth, self improvement and making the most of their skills and talents. I wanted to create wholesome characters that made the right decisions in a world full of mystery, suspense and methods for problem solving.

  • Dr Robert E McGinnis

    I didn't post a URL because it might be construed as advertising as all my webs are related to my reading clubs for children or my books for youngsters.

    As a retired teacher and my concern for the non reading student, I decided I could create books that were easy to read with an agile hand at guiding my young readers to think about self worth, self improvement and making the most of their skills and talents. I wanted to create wholesome characters that made the right decisions in a world full of mystery, suspense and methods for problem solving.

  • rex correll

    I thought it great, your writing. I guess my main question is, if you have some stories written and want to be bluntly told yea or nay. How can someone with no renown get someone to read it.

  • rex correll

    I thought it great, your writing. I guess my main question is, if you have some stories written and want to be bluntly told yea or nay. How can someone with no renown get someone to read it.

  • Dave Veerman

    Sorry for being so late to the conversation, Mike.

    I was surprised to read your comment about authors getting credit for books that sell well, while publishers get the blame when they don’t sell. That may be true with books. I’ve had 60 or so books published, and I have to admit that I’ve had those thoughts about the various publishers. So you may be onto something.

    My experience has been the opposite, however, with Bibles. I sat in a meeting with a Bible publisher where I had just made a presentation for a new product, and the publisher began reciting a list of “our” products that hadn’t done well. Yet for the ones that we had helped to produce that had been immensely successful the publisher took all the credit. Our company, Livingstone, has helped produce more than 150 Bibles in our 20 years of doing business, and we find ourselves at the mercy of many publishing decisions that directly affect sales: no. of colors, paper weight, price point, distribution channels, title, marketing budget, timing of release, and so forth.

    Also, content may be king, but, it seems to me that most publishers don’t seem to act that way. Instead, “celebrity” or “platform” seem to rule. A good exercise might be to scroll down the list of best-selling books: hmmm, here’s one by a pastor of a mega-church, here’s one with a popular TV show, here’s a TV preacher, . . . and don’t forget the popular athlete, coach, entertainer, or politician. I’m not criticizing publishers for choosing those “authors” and promoting those titles, but in most of those cases, the content was a secondary concern.

    And then let’s take the issue of marketing self-fulfilling prophecy. With some publishers it works this way: the book or Bible concept is run by the sales force and major accounts to get their sales projections. With those projections, a marketing budget is determined. So, if the projection is that 10,000 copies will be sold, a marketing budget of X dollars is committed toward that product. And then, voila, what do you know, sales don’t exceed the projection. From my limited vantage point, it seems that many publishers throw a bunch of products up against the wall to see what sticks. THEN they get behind the sticky ones. Again, I’m not sure that content is the foremost concern in that process.

    Most authors that I know are totally committed to their book and will do anything and everything in their power to promote it. After all, it’s his or her “baby.” Publishers, however, don’t have that luxury. After a few months acquisitions editors, marketing managers, sales reps., and others have to move on to the next project (unless, of course, this one “sticks”).

    I wish that content were king–I really do.

  • Dave Veerman

    Sorry for being so late to the conversation, Mike.

    I was surprised to read your comment about authors getting credit for books that sell well, while publishers get the blame when they don't sell. That may be true with books. I've had 60 or so books published, and I have to admit that I've had those thoughts about the various publishers. So you may be onto something.

    My experience has been the opposite, however, with Bibles. I sat in a meeting with a Bible publisher where I had just made a presentation for a new product, and the publisher began reciting a list of "our" products that hadn't done well. Yet for the ones that we had helped to produce that had been immensely successful the publisher took all the credit. Our company, Livingstone, has helped produce more than 150 Bibles in our 20 years of doing business, and we find ourselves at the mercy of many publishing decisions that directly affect sales: no. of colors, paper weight, price point, distribution channels, title, marketing budget, timing of release, and so forth.

    Also, content may be king, but, it seems to me that most publishers don't seem to act that way. Instead, "celebrity" or "platform" seem to rule. A good exercise might be to scroll down the list of best-selling books: hmmm, here's one by a pastor of a mega-church, here's one with a popular TV show, here's a TV preacher, . . . and don't forget the popular athlete, coach, entertainer, or politician. I'm not criticizing publishers for choosing those "authors" and promoting those titles, but in most of those cases, the content was a secondary concern.

    And then let's take the issue of marketing self-fulfilling prophecy. With some publishers it works this way: the book or Bible concept is run by the sales force and major accounts to get their sales projections. With those projections, a marketing budget is determined. So, if the projection is that 10,000 copies will be sold, a marketing budget of X dollars is committed toward that product. And then, voila, what do you know, sales don't exceed the projection. From my limited vantage point, it seems that many publishers throw a bunch of products up against the wall to see what sticks. THEN they get behind the sticky ones. Again, I'm not sure that content is the foremost concern in that process.

    Most authors that I know are totally committed to their book and will do anything and everything in their power to promote it. After all, it's his or her "baby." Publishers, however, don't have that luxury. After a few months acquisitions editors, marketing managers, sales reps., and others have to move on to the next project (unless, of course, this one "sticks").

    I wish that content were king–I really do.

  • http://mum2twelve.blogspot.com/ Christi

    Do you have a part two? Just found you!
    Blessings
    Christi AKA mum2twleve now a bakers diz.

  • http://mum2twelve.blogspot.com/ Christi

    Do you have a part two? Just found you!
    Blessings
    Christi AKA mum2twleve now a bakers diz.

  • Patricia Griffin

    I'm new to blogging and have a question concerning marketing a novel. Are there guidelines when it comes to posting an excerpt on a website or Facebook? And does posting an excerpt negate future publishing contracts in some way?

  • Patricia Griffin

    I'm new to blogging and have a question concerning marketing a novel. Are there guidelines when it comes to posting an excerpt on a website or Facebook? And does posting an excerpt negate future publishing contracts in some way?

  • http://oixypea.com/oxoxrqr/5.html John789

    Very nice site!

  • http://oixypea.com/oxoxrqr/5.html John789

    Very nice site!

  • http://twitter.com/2020VisionBook Joshua Hood

    I think a key element to writing a successful book is that IT IS A PROCESS. Many authors type out a manuscript and after limited editing, consider it the concrete, finished product. A good book is a PROCESS. Be open-minded. Revise your book. Get input from every source possible. Listen carefully to feedback. Trim the fat out of your manuscript. Make it more simple. Your book needs to grow. And so do you.

    Joshua Hood
    2020visiononline.org

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    I love that Ogilvy quote. This idea of putting content first may be the one thing that’s currently keeping me from pursuing a book. I don’t know that I have the right content yet.

  • http://twitter.com/sarahmaewrites Sarah Mae

    So wow, under 5000 is failure. Is anything over 5000 considered a success? I’m wondering because I released an ebook recently and I’m curious…

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I can’t give you an exact number. It all depends on the amount of the advance and the investment in marketing. At Thomas Nelson, I would say anything less than 15,000 is a failure commercially. In other words, we lose money.