As it happens, marketing is what I do for a living -- I market business books, mostly but not exclusively complicated technical books to high-end professional audiences, such as accountants in public practice and corporate finance officers. Before that, I worked for various book clubs as an editor, which mostly involved picking books for a specific audience and then promoting those books to that audience -- so it was pretty marketing-intensive, despite the title.
I've picked up a few things along the way, I hope, and I find that I spend quite a bit of time telling authors what I'll be doing for their books, and, more importantly, what they can do. I'm going to try to encapsulate those conversations -- and some of the other things I know about marketing books -- into this series of blog posts, to help inform authors, readers, and anybody else interested in the world of publishing. If all goes well, these posts will go up weekly, on Wednesdays.
Next week will be a look at Amazon, which looms large in my world and is a major player for all kids of books in the US market. Further weeks will either go through topics as I think of them, or as they're suggested by readers. I'll also try to cover questions in this series -- please leave any in comments here or e-mail them to me at GBHHornswoggler at gmail dot com.
But this time I want to talk about something very basic -- channel mix. It's deeply wonky, I know, but at the core of the business of selling books is knowing where and to whom you're going to sell. A "channel" is a way to sell books, and there are more of them than you think.
It's easy to get blindered in the book world, and to assume that the big chain stores are the only way books get to readers. It's more true for fiction than for non-fiction, but there are still more options than you think. This is a non-comprehensive list:
- Brick & mortar book chains -- this is the obvious one. B&N, Borders, Books-a-Million, Indigo/Chapters up in Canada, and Hastings if you want to count them. All of these are chains of stores that sell lots of books, and have books as their main product category.
- Online booksellers -- it's not just a euphemism for "Amazon," though Amazon is huge. BN.com does decent business and Borders.com is trying to grow, and there are plenty of others, many of which are more specialized. The books I do, for example, often sell through 1-800-CEO-READ, and Indigo is still a major online bookseller in Canada.
- Independent book stores -- there are still a couple of thousand of them, and they can be very effective with some kinds of books: particularly the exquisitely-written literary novel. There is also a lot of mythologizing around these stores, mostly by people who should know better; they have much greater nostalgic head-space than they have market share.
- Big-box stores -- the Wal*Marts and Costco's of the world. They take only a few different books at any one time -- many, many fewer books than any bookstore would, making competition incredibly fierce -- but typically sell a lot of copies of those books. This is a particularly good channel for brand names of one kind or another -- from Nora Roberts to Betty Crocker.
- Mass-merchandisers -- not all that different from "big-box stores," really, since they also take a few books and distribute them widely. Think of the spinner rack at a drug store, or the display of books in a supermarket, or similar placements -- typically, this was a channel for high-volume books in low-priced editions (generally mass-market paperbacks). This channel isn't the powerhouse it was in the post-war years, partially because there's been such a growth of bookstores and other outlets selling books.
- Affinity organizations -- these typically sell books to their members through their websites or at their in-person meetings, or both. This channel is strongest for professional books, obviously -- molecular biologists won't find the materials they need at the front of their local Borders -- but there are opportunities for all kinds of books on all kinds of topics.
- Corporate sales and training programs -- sometimes companies want to buy 50 copies of a single book at once. Sometimes it's because their CEO wrote that book and sometimes it's because they're using the book to teach a roomful of new management trainees about Six Sigma. And so publishers have sales reps that sell directly to those companies.
- Direct sales -- selling to consumers one-on-one, via phone or mail or electronically. A few publishers, like McSweeney's and Fantagraphics, have even set up real-world storefronts, where consumers can walk in and browse. The outlets I've listed above have been known to get tetchy when publishers try to sell directly "too much," but it can be very useful -- again, particularly for books for a specific, definable market.
- Non-book stores -- fabric stores carry books on quilting; outdoor-gear places carry books on hiking and camping. Books of local history often move best at the gift shop of the biggest attraction in that area. Fiction doesn't fit into this slot as neatly, but it can work in some cases.
(Authors often have unrealistic hopes, which you should keep in mind. It's not always the author's fault -- some authors are monomaniacs who think their book on cheesemaking in Scandinavia will be a major Oprah pick, but most are just optimistic people who think that the Society for Shadetree Management would really, really like a new middle-grade novel about Becky Balsam, Forest Ranger if they only took a look at it. So be careful about pushing your suggestions too forcefully. Make suggestions, but also listen closely to what the people at your publisher tell you.)
The author's responsibility is, first and foremost, to the book -- making it as good as it can be. But the second responsibility -- and one that's shared with most of the rest of the publishing ecology, from agent and editor to publicist and marketer -- is to find ways to get that book into the hands of the people who want and need it.
I know it can be difficult for many authors to characterize those people; too many authors will just say "my novel is for everyone in the whole wide world, even the ones who don't speak English." But even the biggest bestsellers have definite audiences, and huge groups of readers will not be in that audience -- have you ever heard the snark James Patterson gets? -- so you need to think about what other books are like yours, and what kind of people typically read books like that. (It will also help if your "author like me" isn't Dan Brown or Malcolm Gladwell -- look for writers and books at a medium level of success.)
Now look at those books, and think about where you see them. If you write sexy paperback romances, do you see those in Wal*Mart? (Probably not.) But do you see them in the supermarket? (That may be more likely.) This is what your marketer is doing, more or less.
The ways you can help out are most importantly in the more esoteric channels -- do you have a connection to an organization that's related to your book? do you have a mailing list you can promote the book to? is your book one your employer will want to buy for all of the mid-level managers based in Muncie? Let your marketer or editor know about these, and work out what you can do together.
And, most importantly, remember that having your book on the front table at B&N is certainly very nice -- but it's not the only nice thing, and it might not even be the best nice thing that could happen to your book.
Update: I'm going to add other sales channels (ones I missed the first time, and either remembered or was reminded by commenters) here, in a vain hope of being comprehensive one day:
- Education -- this is actually at least two different, quite separate, channels: Higher Education (college & grad schools) and K-12. Both are immense, and both can be very specific and picky about what they'll take. Higher Ed in particular likes books that come packaged with all of their ancillary materials -- test bank with separate answers (electronic if at all possible), handouts, PowerPoint slides, etc. If you can get a book into this channel solidly, it can mean guaranteed sales every term for the life of the book, so publishers and authors both salivate over it.
- Libraries -- and not just public libraries, either, but also corporate and academic libraries. Public libraries buy pretty much the same books that the big bookstore chains do, and for the same reasons. Other kinds of libraries collect to fit their particular missions, which may include the topic of your book.