When You’re Being Pitched: Guidelines for Assessing Vendors’ Offers
by Linda Carlson
“You made me promises, promises . . . ” goes an old song Burt Bacharach made famous, and it’s how I often feel when I read promotional material from industry vendors.
For the health of your bottom line, it’s vital that you determine three things before you hire a consultant, enter a contest or awards program, or buy advertising space or direct marketing services:
• exactly what you are buying
• what you can realistically expect to receive
• how what you receive will translate into book sales
Drilling down a little further, you also want to know whether it’s likely that:
• a message from you to the potential customer will be read or heard
• action will follow receipt of your message
• action taken will benefit you
And you want to understand the value of any intangible benefits.
Here are several areas to explore.
Every advertising salesperson you’ll ever meet will talk in terms of potential audience, usually with statements like, “Thousands of decision-makers receive our publication”; “As many as 30,000 parents visit our site”; or “Our lists include more than 1,000 book reviewers.”
Translated, “receive our publication” means that the publication is distributed, usually by mail, but sometimes as a handout, to a certain number of people. Trade publications are especially likely to have “controlled circulation,” which translates to “free.”
For print publications, “circulation” and “readership” numbers are important.
The circulation figure tells how many copies are distributed, but for publications that are given away (at conferences, for example, or in retail outlets, at street corners, and in tourist centers), the number of copies circulated can be the print run.
The readership figure is the advertising department’s best (or most generous) estimate of the number of people who read each copy. Sometimes referred to as “passalong readership” or “passalong circulation,” this number includes everyone in a business or a household where a publication is presumably shared as well as all the people who presumably read the publication in locations such as libraries and waiting rooms.
Now, with cyber-circulation, you may see totals that specify “including passalong readership, Web site views, and email communications.”
“As many as” is one of the best tools a spin-doctor has. It allows an advertising salesperson to use the best numbers ever achieved and imply that they are typical.
When you’re asked to advertise on a Web site, or to enter an awards program that promises online exposure for honorees, you may be given a visitor count based on Web site hits. Ask whether this is typical, how long most visitors stay on the site, and how many pages they typically visit. If the typical visit is less than a minute, or if most visitors see only one or two pages and your message is not prominent on the Home page, your book is unlikely to receive any meaningful exposure.
Also assess the audience for buyers’ guides. Last fall, when we were all looking forward to holiday season sales, one guide was offering to “display” books with toys, audio, and software to 10,000 toy, juvenile product, gift, book, chain, mass market, hobby, and museum stores and to librarians for $600 per five titles.
My translation: The books and everything from pacifiers and potty chairs to overalls, overcoats, bead kits, bikes, and home improvement supplies might be included in a direct mail flyer sent to merchants, who almost all prefer to buy through wholesalers and distributors.
If you’re interested in buying a list, ask how often it is cleaned with “Address Correction Requested” on mailing pieces and whether all undeliverables (aka nixies) are immediately deleted.
Also ask when the list was last cleaned, and see whether it includes publications that don’t have book coverage or even editorial content (most towns have at least one “shopper” with nothing but ads).
Other things to watch out for:
• Postal mailing lists that use physical addresses instead of mailing addresses (a common problem when
lists are compiled from telephone directories rather than built from sales or subscription records).
• Email lists with contacts such as webmaster@[domainname].comor lists of publications using an
advertising person instead of an editorial person as the contact.
• Mailing services that cannot tell you how many of the emails it sends are received and how many
• Free samples “so you’ll see how good our list is.” Recently, when I examined a free sample of 5,000
“school purchasing decision-makers,” I found that most of the people on it were Webmasters or staff in
companies’ buying offices.
• Problems with spam filters. Ask about blocked mail from addresses not in a recipient’s address book and
from addresses outside certain domain types (such as .edu), and about blocked mail sent to several
recipients at once.
Regardless of the quality of an email list, be aware that some spam filters block messages from addresses not in a recipient’s address book, from messages sent to multiple recipients, and from addresses outside certain domain types (such as .edu).
In reviewing the many catalogs and emails you receive from list vendors, you’ll often see a reference to a guarantee. Here’s an example: “a deliverability guarantee of 92 percent on consumer lists and 88 percent on business lists if mailed within 30 days of the order. Deliverability applies solely to the accuracy of the mailing addresses and not to the accuracy of contact names.”
Translation: You will be reimbursed a certain amount—usually the unit cost of the label information and possibly postage—for returns that exceed 8 percent when you’re renting a consumer (residential) list and for returns that exceed 12 percent with business addresses. If . . .
If, that is, you mail your piece within a month of ordering the list, and if you receive all the nixies so you can return them to the mailing house. With bulk mail, which most of us use for mass mailings, you will receive those returns only if you pay first class postage for each one, and it may take weeks for them to reach you. (If you mail first class, and specify something like “Address Correction Requested” on your envelope or mailing panel, return of the nixies is included in the postage cost.)
Since guarantees typically require that nixies be sent to the mailing house within a certain number of weeks after you order a list, you must be prepared to send your mailing as soon as you get the list, and you must hope that all undeliverable are returned to you promptly.
Benefits, Including Branding
“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half!” is a comment, attributed to a number of people, that makes sense. We seldom know exactly what prompts a purchase. Today, however, there’s an emphasis on “branding,” as an intangible that provides valuable benefits for even the smallest business.
Interestingly, some publishing industry observers believe that the most important brand for most readers is the author, not the publisher. “Authors become brands if they write a certain kind of book. They build up brand loyalty—you know what you’re going to get when you read one of their books,” said Patrick Jansen-Smith, now with HarperCollins in London.
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com), who started her career as a small-town newspaper editor, writes regularly for the Independent.
IBPA Members Assess Awards Programs and Contests
Last month, Florrie Kichler’s “And the Winner Is . . . ” identified the “Top 5 Issues to Consider Before Entering a Book Awards Program.” Because so many program sponsors seem to be in business primarily to collect entry fees and to satisfy publishers’ desires to have “award-winning” titles, IBPA members think hard about what to apply for, especially when the entry fee is high and the program sponsor is a for-profit entity.
Questions members consider include:
Who are the sponsors?
“I enter competitions run by organizations that claim to support literacy or reading/writing efforts among young people or competitions run by legitimate organizations such as IBPA,” says Patricia Turner Custard of Black Plume Books in Chesapeake, VA. “I stay away from those run by businesses that sell reviews, marketing packets, and so on to independent publishers. I’ve noticed a disturbing pattern in those competitions—presenting awards to the publisher who has bought the most services from the sponsor, as evidenced by reviews or testimonials on the business Web site.”
Dolev Reuven Gilmore of Mind-Opening Publications in Israel echoes Custard: “It’s a great way for any company to rake in money for doing not a whole lot. Most entries receive no exposure, and I’m not sure the best books are really chosen.”
Who are the program judges? Are they professionals in the appropriate field or publishing professionals whose names you recognize?
“I prefer panels that have actual readers on them and not just industry insiders or educational media experts,” Custard continues. “As a children’s-book author/publisher, I often see books getting great acclaim that were clearly created to appeal to the adult buyer (and what an adult thinks a child would like or would be ‘good’ for them), not necessarily the child reader.”
What are the categories? Are they too broad—or so narrow that it appears every entrant will receive recognition?
At Storycraft Publishing in Loveland, CO, Vivian Dubrovin points out, “If the program lists only ‘Children’s Books’ or ‘Children’s Fiction’ and ‘Children’s Nonfiction,’ I hesitate to enter, because it’s difficult to compare a preschool picture book with a middle-grade nonfiction title. If categories include picture books, beginning readers, middle-grade fiction, middle-grade nonfiction, and young adult science fiction, then the competition is between comparable groups.”
Who is your competition?
Dubrovin also evaluates previous award recipients: “What books have they given awards to in the past? Have they recognized independent publishers?”
Iris Graville, whose startup, Heron Moon Press, is on Lopez Island, WA, uses similar criteria: “I evaluate the categories and previous winners in various categories, which gives me an idea of the fit between a contest and my book.”
Some publishers pass up programs that typically give all their awards to large houses. “Why bother?” one said.
What do winners receive?
One program promises it’ll announce winners in press releases distributed via Business Newswire, which businesses pay to use. Well known for disseminating financial reports, Business Newswire cannot guarantee that any media will use any story. Some awards programs also promise to list your winning entry on their Web sites, with links to your Home page. Seldom do these links appear anywhere near the sponsor’s Home page.
Graville notes that although most programs do not have cash awards, she is more likely to enter programs that offer the winners press releases, displays at trade shows, and announcements in newsletters and on Web sites.
What will it cost you to publicize the award?
You won’t have to pay for an award certificate you receive, but you usually do have to pay for the foil seals that you can attach to your book covers, and if you want to use an image of that award seal on the book or your site, you’ll have to pay a licensing fee of hundreds of dollars per year
Where do submitted books go?
“I will only enter competitions that clearly state that submitted books will be donated to libraries or schools after the competition. This way I have less chance of seeing my books pop up for sale online as used,” says Custard of Black Plume Books.