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PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2015

by Magdalene Thomas, Marketing Associate, Greenleaf Book Group


Photo go Magdalene Thomas

Magdalene Thomas

Print is dead.

No, I don’t mean print books—I mean print advertising intended to sell books. And yet it’s still pretty common practice to buy expensive print ads for books in highbrow publications.

The big one, of course, is the New York Times Sunday Book Review. A half-page ad there will cost you about $25,000. If you’re investing that much in anything, you really want to get some bang for your buck. Unfortunately, print advertisements often fall flat for books. You can end up thousands of dollars poorer with only a modest uptick in sales.

Why are print ads such a bust for books? Three reasons.

  1. They offer no real opportunity for consumers to take action or engage with a book. Readers who see an ad and are interested in the book have no way to learn more about the plot, share it with their friends, or buy a copy for themselves without stopping what they’re doing, ordering online, or driving to the bookstore. The impulse opportunities, whether to buy or simply share on a social network, are lost.
  2. Print advertisements are a single-shot strategy. When consumers are done with a newspaper or magazine, it’s typically recycled or trashed. This means there is less opportunity for secondary or tertiary engagement, and your ad money has done all it will ever do.
  3. There’s no good way to track how much impact print ads have. You don’t have access to any metrics. Although you may find estimated circulation figures for a newspaper or magazine, no print periodical can track how many people actually looked at the page your ad is on, or how many people saw the ad and then turned to the person next to them and said, “You know, this book looks interesting.”

So, if print advertisements won’t help book sales, what will?


Eyes on the Audience

Many tactics can help boost book sales. If you can pivot to focus less on selling a product and more on engaging with consumers, you’ll be on the right path. More specifically:

Stop thinking about advertisements and selling. Consumers aren’t clueless—they know when they’re being sold to, and they know how to avoid that. This is true in digital media, where consumers run to the bathroom during a commercial break or install ad-blocking software on their web browsers, and it’s true in print media, where readers flip right past a glossy ad page to get to something they want to read.

Even if consumers do spend time looking at a print ad, that in no way ensures they will buy the product shown. One impression does not a sale make.

Start thinking about engaging an audience. Advertising isn’t as good for making someone buy a product as you might think it is. Reputation is good for that. Consumers are much more likely to buy a book if they have read some great reviews of it or, even better, if it is recommended to them by someone they trust. This means that you need to rely pretty heavily on user-generated content (UGC), which you can think of as organic advertising.

And this is the sweet spot of sales: where awareness and reputation overlap. Getting your book in front of people isn’t hard and doesn’t need to be expensive, but building a strong reputation is tricky.


Bangs for Any Budget

No matter how rosy your view of ads, you probably don’t have the money to pay for one in the New York Times. Luckily, you don’t need it. Here’s what you can do with budgets starting at zero.

With $0 to spend:

  • Polish your elevator pitch. Knowing what makes your book different should inform all your communications to reviewers and readers.
  • Ask for blurbs—it doesn’t hurt to ask. Do this well in advance of publication.
  • Set up social media profiles, thinking hard about your target audience and what networks they’re on. (If you’re publishing a cookbook, for instance, Pinterest is the place for you, and maybe LinkedIn isn’t.)
  • Set up an Author Central page. This free tool for those whose books are for sale on Amazon also allows you to track your sales from Nielsen BookScan (see authorcentral.amazon.com).
  • Pursue your SEO strategy. Optimize your book’s descriptive copy to include keywords and phrases that targeted readers will respond to. If you’re able, establish those keywords and phrases in your book’s metadata so they will feed through to retailer pages.
  • Sign up for daily alerts from HARO. If a reporter asks about your topic, jump in and answer. It could help put your name in front of a new audience, and you can use any articles that mention you in social media content.

With $500 to spend:

Anyone who’s ever tried to market a product—including a book—knows that $500 can go pretty quickly. Since you want to get the most from every buck, add these cost-effective ways to market a book:

  • Give copies away on GoodReads—not your entire inventory; 15 to 20 copies would be just fine.
  • Apply for relevant book awards like IBPA’s Benjamin Franklin Book Awards. Entry fees are generally low, and most awards don’t require that you send more than three copies. Of course, do your research and apply only for reputable, well-regarded awards that relate to your book’s genre or intended audience. There are plenty of awards that your book may be a great fit for.
  • Take advantage of IBPA’s co-op programs, and of the IBPA discount on using NetGalley to reach its powerful community of professional readers, including bloggers, journalists, librarians, booksellers, and educators.
  • Submit your book for trade reviews. Many trade publications with great name recognition welcome books that are independently published or self-published. (Be aware, though, that there is no guarantee of a review, let alone a favorable review.)
  • Design and print some simple marketing materials. Having a one-page sales sheet with a book’s specifications and ordering information is a great asset when you’re working with bookstores. You can also design and print bookmarks or flyers to distribute at events or in mailings.

With $1,000 to spend:

  • Look hard at your book’s cover. For best results in all the moves outlined above and below, your book’s packaging should reflect the quality of the interior. So if you skimped on cover design, and if there’s still time, hire a qualified, professional designer now. Book covers are the most fundamental of all marketing materials, and professional designers will think of things others won’t.
  • Offer bargains to promote your e-book editions. Lowering the price to $0.99 or $1.99 for a limited time is a good way to spike sales and open up the opportunity for more reviews. There are many websites and newsletters whose sole purpose is to share e-book bargains, including BookBub, perhaps the largest and most popular.
  • Run ads on social media. Unlike print media, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all offer advertising with great targeting features. This means you can refine who sees the ads you create while keeping a keen eye on your budget.

With $5,000 to spend:

  • Send books or galleys to bloggers. Because bloggers are in the business of continually producing content, which is both time-consuming and stressful, they love having relevant, unique content offered to them. If you can make a clear connection between a blogger’s audience and your book, the blogger will be more likely to read, review, or feature it.
  • Hire a professional website designer. Your website is the hub of all your online activity and the first place someone interested in your book will look for more information. While you can create a perfectly functional DIY site for relatively little money, dedicated web designers can create and manage a distinctive, intuitive, and professional site that will better meet the needs of potential readers.

With $10,000 to spend:

  • Hire a publicist. Publicists are not cheap, but good ones are worth their weight in gold. Media coverage they may be able to generate will get your book in front of a much wider audience much more effectively than pitches you could send yourself. Many publicists can also recommend good media coaches who can help you refine your message for interviews.

With $25,000 to spend:

  • Think about placing some strategic digital ads. Like that ad in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, some digital ads are expensive, so place them thoughtfully. You’ll see better results when you advertise on a website where your exact target audience is looking for more information about your topic.
  • Of course, you’ll want to make sure these ads have legs. Check to see that they link to a page that a potential reader can somehow act on, whether that’s an e-tailer page or your Twitter profile. And think about also linking an ad to a giveaway through Rafflecopter so that you can collect data about the potential reader, as well.

It’s All About Engaging

Gone are the days of selling books by buying column inches. With advances in technology, digital opportunities now offer the best way to engage with an audience instead of selling to them. Simple engagement strategies can fit any budget, with each set of tactics laying the foundation for the next.


Magdalene Thomas is a marketing associate at Greenleaf Book Group, where she works one-on-one with authors to plan and execute strategic marketing campaigns promoting their books and brands. Previously, she worked for DK UK and as head of the marketing department for BooksOnBoard, then the world’s largest independent e-book retailer. To learn more: mthomas@greenleafbookgroup.com.

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