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Build Your Brand, Build Your Audience, Sell Books Direct

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by David and Stephanie Miles, Founders, Bushel & Peck Books —

David and Stephanie Miles

At Bushel & Peck Books, we’ve long felt there was tremendous opportunity in direct-to-consumer sales, so when COVID-19 hit earlier this year, it only further highlighted the need for us to build that kind of program.

Article Synopsis:

  • To effectively sell directly to your readers, think carefully, creatively, and strategically about your brand. What sets you apart? What are you known for?
  • Think of all the places you’re already capturing someone’s attention and try to incentivize them to sign up during that interaction, then think about how to reach people you don’t yet have any interactions with.

Selling direct has a host of benefits: significantly higher margins, repeat customers, and loyal readers—like the one who recently wrote us: “Just got my books (one for my library, and one for my grand-nephew), and they are FANTASTIC! Great artwork and wonderful writing! What’s next? :)”

Hearing our customers ask us what’s next is the Holy Grail: a set of loyal readers who love not just our books, but us. Readers who eagerly anticipate our next season and engage with us because they love what we stand for. But getting there—and we’re still beginning our journey—means thinking differently about what a publisher stands for.

When you decide you’re going to sell direct, you first have to start thinking about your publishing house as a brand. That can take some doing, because in the past, publishers have largely outsourced branding to authors. It was often the author who readers knew and had a relationship with. Think about the times you stood in line at your favorite author’s book signings, or waited eagerly for the next release, or maybe even wrote fan mail. That’s an incredible level of dedication for any kind of consumer. But of how many publishers have you said, “I can’t wait for the next book they’re releasing!”? The publisher was often more of a B2B type of relationship—the brand was known among key accounts and industry folks, but it never quite made it to the end readers. To effectively sell directly to your readers, that has to change. Think carefully, creatively, and strategically about your brand. What sets you apart? What are you known for?

One marketing professor put it this way: “Stand for something. Stand for something that’s different. Stand for something that’s different, that’s important.” In other words, you need to clearly identify what your publishing house stands for, but you can’t stop there. You need to choose something that’s different from everything else out there. But you can’t stop there either. You have to make sure that whatever you do pick for your brand is important and meaningful.

In our case, we decided to position ourselves as a high-end, values-driven, do-good children’s publisher. That means a reader can expect every Bushel & Peck book to look beautiful to the eyes and feel good to the hands (we invest meaningfully in art, design, and special printing treatments); teach much-needed values in some way (think courage, acceptance, kindness, honesty, etc.); and do good in the world (for every book we sell, we donate one to kids in need; everything is printed on FSC paper; and we plant a tree for every online order we bring in). That’s us—your brand will be different based on your own values and how you want your business to contribute to the world.

Once you know your brand and where you want to position yourself in the marketplace, you’re ready to start building an audience. That’s the key to a good sales program—you don’t want to have to reinvent your marketing plan every time a new book comes out (although certainly every book brings unique opportunities). You want a loyal following of readers who say, “I can’t wait to add the next Bushel & Peck book to my family’s collection.” Building that kind of following is hard, but it’s worth it, because for every new book you have coming out, you already have a built-in readership that is ready to purchase (and if you’re clever with your preorder campaigns, that readership can even fund your print runs, but that’s a topic for another day).

There are many ways to build your audience; we focus primarily on email because we consistently see better conversions there than through social media posts. You might think of that list as your final bucket you’re trying to fill, with channels of water running from all sorts of sources that you’ll want to find ways to steer into that bucket. To do that, first think of all the places you’re already capturing someone’s attention and try to incentivize them to sign up during that interaction:

  • On your website: On your website, offer an incentive for getting people to sign up to your mailing list. And make it good—consumers are getting used to the usual 10% pop-ups that every company seems to be offering. Put yourself out there and offer something of real value: a free e-book, a 50% coupon, a free subscription to some really awesome videos. People know what their email is worth, and you need to make it worth their while to share it. Also, make sure your offering is on-brand. This keeps your narrative consistent and helps you acquire the right kinds of consumers in the first place.
  • In your books: In your books, give them a link or a QR code to make it easy to find your site. And, like in the point above, be sure to give them a reason to. Just saying “Sign up for exciting updates” doesn’t really cut it anymore.
  • With your authors: Work with your authors to offer joint incentives. They have their own brands, too, so find a way to work together to build both of your lists.
  • Anywhere else you already are: Think where else your brand might already be. Do you have book trailers? Put a note about a coupon for signing up in the video description. Are you on social media? Pin some sort of incentive to the top of your accounts to keep a steady trickle of new subscribers. Do you have a customer service email that people contact? Have something in your signature. View every encounter—kindly, of course—as an opportunity to build your list.

Then, think about how to reach people you don’t yet have any interactions with. For example:

  • Run a contest. We’ve had great success acquiring emails with giveaway contests hosted on our site. Pick something juicy to offer as a prize—we did a $500 gift card for any of our books (which, if you think about it, meant giving away only about 25 books). There are many inexpensive platforms you can use for running the contest (just do a quick Google search). Once it’s set up, market it in as many places as you can. A few ideas:
    • Find sites where people list internet coupons and freebies (there are dozens, and they’ll funnel in hundreds of signups—just not always the best quality).
    • Find influencers who might be willing to share your deal because it’s so valuable to their followers (for example, we worked with a homeschool brand that thought homeschooling parents would love the chance to win free kids books).

  • Do a joint email program. Find a compatible brand, host a combined contest, market to each of your own specialties, and then share the combined email signups with each other at the end. For example (and this is more of a social media example), we’re partnering with a kids bookshelf company to sponsor a reading library giveaway. They’re providing the shelves, and we’re providing the books. To enter, a parent has to follow us both on Instagram, tag a few friends, and like our post. This form of cross-promoting allows each brand to pick up some new folks from one another’s existing lists, plus it allows you to put together an exciting enough prize that you have a strong magnet to draw in folks from outside either list.
  • Crowdfunding. Don’t be shy of using Kickstarter or Indiegogo. It’s easy for a company to feel embarrassed because you might think it looks like you’re asking for money, but there are tons of folks using crowdfunding frequently to launch new products, from LeVar Burton on down to famous musicians and lifestyle brands. It’s hip, it’s fun, and if you run things professionally, people won’t think twice. Think of it more as a terrific platform for taking preorders, plus you can sell some incredible perks outside just books: offer to include someone in an illustration (parents love this!), sell prints of illustrations, even exclusive editions with special finishes. Not every Kickstarter works, but we’ve sold tens of thousands of dollars of books on Kickstarter alone, and many of our backers have become loyal customers we’d have never found any other way.
  • Think outside the box. Where else are your ideal customers spending time? How can you find a way to get your brand in front of them? If you really think about it, you’d be surprised. For us as a children’s publisher, we felt there was opportunity in the digital app space. We decided to create a bedtime story app for kids packed with over a hundred songs, stories, and white-noise tracks. We’re offering it for free, but to sign up, it requires the parent’s email (which, you guessed it, builds the list). The nice part is, these are emails of parents with young, school-age kids who are already actively engaged in books and reading. And best of all, since we offer many of our own books to listen to on the app, these are potential customers who are already familiar with Bushel & Peck Books’ content and the level of quality we try to offer. So, when a sales email hits their inbox, we already have some level of amicable relationship established. To further tie the app to our brand and mission, we commit to send free books to kids in need for every certain number of times a family uses the app. We’re excited to do more good, and it ties our products, our app, our mission, and our brand seamlessly together. What you do might be different. Think about your ideal reader and where they are. Then find a positive, meaningful way to be in front of them.

There are many, many more ways you can build your list. Just search online and you’ll find countless resources.

So, once your list is built, how do you run a sales program?

  • First, make sure your website is buyer friendly. If you want customers—especially repeat customers—you must give them the easiest shopping experience you possibly can. A bad shopping experience, glitchy site, poor security, or broken coupons can ruin your credibility and relationship. We use Shopify for our site, and it’s been ideal for us, but there are other similar platforms out there. Think about the sites you actually like buying from and why that is. Then, emulate what you can on your own site.
  • Take the time to design a good sales email. You’ll want a solid email marketing program (SendInBlue is very economical for small publishers like us, but MailChimp has the most out-of-the-box integrations for other widgets), and be sure you only send emails to people who have knowingly signed up for your list. Details matter. Check spelling, write a good subject line, make sure your images are optimized so they don’t obliterate someone’s inbox, and sell the book with good descriptions and sales points.
  • Take advantage of key holidays—or invent your own. Naturally, Christmas sales emails do best for us, but don’t stop there. Think about when people are buying books and adjust accordingly. We even ran a “Christmas in May” special this year, knowing that people were stocking up on books for summer reading (or just needed something else for their quarantined kids).
  • Don’t be afraid to discount. One of the best things about selling direct is that you get to keep that full margin. Don’t forget, though, that it also means you have lots of margin to play with for sales discounts. We’re personally big fans of 50% off, because it’s the same we’d make on retail anyway, and it still brings in thousands. But also experiment with other discounts and see where your sweet spot is.
  • Charge shipping. This one might be up for debate, because common sense says that in the days of Amazon, everyone expects free shipping. However, our experience suggests that when it comes to books, media mail shipping costs are so low that people really don’t seem to mind paying them—especially if it means they can get a deal they can’t get on Amazon. And for our books, the math simply says that a book at a steep discount with paid shipping will net more than a book with a smaller discount and free shipping every time.
  • Use the tools. Most shopping platforms (Shopify, for example) offer tools for boosting your sales. They’ll automatically send out reminder emails to shoppers of abandoned carts, suggest “You Might Also Like” products, and more. Take the time to learn and use them, because they do work.
  • Don’t forget preorders. You’ll have to be judicious here, because there are other ways to use preorders to your advantage (boosting Amazon rankings, for example). But if it’s right, direct preorders can be awesome. We funded a good chunk of the printing of one of our lead titles just by running a direct-to-consumer preorder campaign with the author. And apart from the revenue, it also helped us acquire tons of new customers who we can now continue a relationship with.

David and Stephanie Miles are the founders of Bushel & Peck Books, a children’s publishing company that donates one book for every book they sell. David and Stephanie are also the published authors and/or illustrators of over 50 books for kids. In 2018, David was named a Publishers Weekly Star Watch Honoree. He and Stephanie live in California with their son.

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