How and Why to Test-Market Books
by Brian Jud
Test-marketing is the process of finding out if your product meets the needs of, and is saleable to, prospective buyers. Its objective is to confirm the value of your existing content, format, and cover design, or to provide you with feedback on ways to improve them before going into full production. Taking the time to test-market a book properly will give you a sense of how it will be received by buyers, save you money, and provide the impetus and knowledge you need for successful sales.
Thanks to the advent of digital printing, test-marketing has become much more viable for independent publishers. By using print on demand (POD), you can produce the limited number of books you need to test under a variety of conditions for a variety of purposes. Most—but not all—printers now have POD capabilities (see the list at bookcentralstation.com).
Tactics differ with the content of a book and the markets toward which it is geared. Here’s how several different types of books can be test-marketed:
Bookstores. If you are test-marketing a trade book, you could contact local bookstores and ask to schedule a book event. If they agree, use digital printing to create 20 to 30 copies of the book, give a short presentation about it at the store(s), and then see how many people buy it. As follow-up, enclose a self-addressed, stamped postcard or put your email address in the books people buy, asking the recipients for feedback on certain characteristics of your book and their overall impression of it. This feedback will help you in your nontrade sales as well.
Businesses. If you plan to publish a training manual, a good place to test-market it is in businesses that may potentially buy it. Call relevant local businesses and ask for the names of the people who make book-buying decisions. Then send each of them a free copy of your book and ask for advice on whether you should modify it to meet their needs and make it the best one of its kind.
Catalogs and book clubs. This type of test-marketing is a little nontraditional, but it could end up paying off because it doubles as a sales attempt. Submit galleys to catalogs and to clubs of the sort run by Book-of-the-Month. Do not let them know that you are using them for test-marketing—send your materials as a regular submission. If a catalog and/or club picks up your book, you will know that all the elements are okay, and you will make a sale. If there’s no pickup, you can still profit if you ask for feedback on why your book was not selected.
Colleges and universities. If you have a college textbook, workbook, or manual, you can send it directly to academics to seek feedback. Find the names of relevant course coordinators at local universities and send them a copy of your book. Include a cover letter asking them to let you know if any changes would make your book do a better job of meeting their needs. Also include a self-addressed, stamped postcard or give them your email address and ask them to send you their opinions. If you get lucky, you will receive some responses. If you get really lucky, some of the schools will adopt your book.
Focus groups. An option for test-marketing any type of book is to put a focus group together. Invite people from the book’s target market, give each member of the group a copy of your book, and ask for feedback. You may want to provide a questionnaire to fill out, or you may simply want to ask questions and conduct the session orally. Typically, members of test groups are provided with compensation—anywhere from $50 to $100. The outcome of this type of test-marketing is based on the quality of the people you use. Be careful not to let two or three people start leading the conversation, because that will skew your results.
Trade shows. Trade shows are another great place to test-market a book. You can display the book, or you can simply walk around and show it to people in the industry who can give you accurate, constructive feedback. For lists of trade shows around the country, see:
Start your test-marketing locally with at least five people in the categories above—and contact as many as 50 if you can. If local tests spark interest and sales, you can then expand to regional and national tests. Mistakes are the most expensive part of publishing. By using test-marketing to reduce the number of mistakes you make, you will increase your profitability.
When to Test
When you test-market a book, you should always aim ultimately to achieve a sale. Since people buy according to their schedules and not yours, it is important to submit your book for test-marketing before or during the time of year that buyers make their decisions. You may have aggressive test-marketing and sales plans, but they are meaningless if they do not reflect the buying patterns of your prospective customers.
A good example comes from the academic market. If you send your book to schools for test-marketing in September, it is too late for them to adopt it for the school year starting then, and you will have to wait for months to try again.
Do the research necessary to create a realistic timeline for putting your test-marketing plans into action.
What to Ask
Test-marketing can be very beneficial if you ask the right types of questions. The following list identifies topics you should ask about during the test-marketing process. Each book is unique, though, and you may be particularly curious about how people feel about a certain element of yours that is not listed here. Do not be afraid to tailor the list to your needs.
Cover design. Get feedback on what image your cover projects and whether it grabs people’s attention. You may want to come up with several different cover designs and have people vote on their favorite. The quality and appeal of the cover will play a big role in your book’s success, so this may be the most important feedback you receive.
Features. Ask people about your page layout, font, type size, and other features of your book. You may discover that people are bothered by fuzzy pictures, that there are typographical errors you missed, that the content would be more useful in a different form, or any number of other things that should lead you to make changes.
Overall impression. Find out what people think about your book as a whole. You might ask them to list five words that best describe it, and then state whether they would purchase it. If responses are negative, ask what changes would alter their opinions.
Potential buyers and markets. After seeing your book, your test subjects may have ideas for new buyers, new markets, and new reasons why your book is attractive, so be sure to ask for their suggestions.
Price. Any price is too high if people do not see the value in the product. Seeing what your book has to offer will let people give you more accurate feedback on the price you have chosen.
In addition to testing your book, you may also want to test your Web site and examine your order-fulfillment process. Test the site under actual buying conditions. Have people navigate through it and test your shopping cart. Then give them a free galley or PDF for doing so. If you choose mail-order marketing as one of your distribution methods, find out how many orders you can manually fulfill, and at what point you should utilize a fulfillment company.
The market feedback you accrue before printing a full production run should yield many benefits.
First, you may get information that will help you create more accurate and persuasive proposals and improve your negotiation positions. For example, if eight out of ten businesses you sent your book to for test-marketing ended up buying it, you could add that piece of information to your promotional materials, showing people that it is a desired commodity.
Along those same lines, test-marketing also gives you the opportunity to get endorsements. Once people see the quality of your content and production, they may be more willing to endorse your book. Put the best endorsements from the best-known sources in your promotional materials.
Finally, test-marketing may lead not only to sales but also to sponsorship. Implement a product-placement strategy by using a company’s brand name in your fiction or nonfiction book. For example, if your protagonist picks up a soft drink, say that it is Pepsi or Coke. Then go to that company seeking sponsorship or a prepublication order. If your first choice declines, change the brand name and try again with another company.
If your test-marketing is successful and your book is well received, that is great. But do not let yourself get carried away. It is never a good idea to print books on the assumption that they will become bestsellers. Initially, you should be as conservative as possible with the number of books you print, because you can always reprint quickly. Do not let a printer talk you into printing a larger run just to get a lower unit cost. If you cannot sell all the books, you will end up with a huge unsold inventory and will not have saved yourself any money.
In short: Use test-marketing to improve content, get testimonials, evaluate cover designs and page layouts, obtain accurate cost information, create buzz about your book, and assess your marketing plans. Leave your ego out of the analysis, take criticism constructively, evaluate feedback objectively, and make the changes you believe are warranted, and the result will be a book that is more likely to succeed.
Brian Jud, president of the consulting firm Book Marketing Works, is the author of Beyond the Bookstore and other guides for publishers. This article is derived from his new book, How to Make Real Money Selling Books (Without Worrying About Returns), from SquareOne Publishers. To learn more or to order, visit squareonepublishers.com.