What’s Wrong with Publishing? #12: Brought to You By…

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

Short blog this time because I mainly would love to see some feedback in the comments. Especially if you have experience in the area in question, but everyone’s thoughts are, of course, welcome.

The topic? Advertising.

I’m not talking about advertising in books themselves. I find that to be repugnant, as welcome as a sticker for Advil on Munch’s “The Scream.”The Scream Books, in my estimation, should be sacrosanct experiences. Occasionally there will be an ad for other books tucked unobtrusively in the back of a paperback; this doesn’t bother me so much. And I’ve already talked about placing excerpts of my other books in my new books — this is, technically, advertising, but I think we can all agree that it’s a different sort of animal. (If you disagree, feel free to chime in, but I think it’s a semantic argument not worth having.)

So, if I’m not talking about advertising in books, I must be talking about advertising forbooks.

The world moves quickly. And even though we as a culture have more leisure time than any other society has ever had in human history, that leisure time is still finite. Furthermore, we live in an ad-driven society. If you don’t believe me, try using Gmail or Facebook or a free iPhone app — all of them are supported by ads, cropping up in places that didn’t even exist a few years ago. Go to the movies and watch the ads beforehand; I’m not talking about the trailers — I mean actual product advertising. We used to think “ads” equaled television commercials or pages in magazines, but in the last decade or so, ads have infiltrated almost every area of our lives. (One more reason I want books to remain sacrosanct!)

I don’t like this encroachment of advertising, but it’s a fact of life, and if I have to live with it, I might as well try to make it work for me.

There are a lot of ways to make reading sexier and more desirable than other pursuits. But those efforts, ultimately, must come secondary to reminding people that there are books out there worth reading. That the books are available and ready and cool and fun. Currently, most book advertising tends to be of the “promote books to the stores, not the readers” variety, an attitude I’ve talked about before. That works only insofar as it puts books into stores. But then what? If no one comes in looking for that book, it might as well be sitting in a warehouse.

Right now, the average Joe looking for a distraction is bombarded everywhere he looks with ads for movies, TV shows, videogames, recorded music, live music, interactive social experiences, gambling, sporting events, magazines, and hell, even sex. What is not on that list? Books, of course. (Which isn’t to say there is no book advertising. It’s just lost in the more pervasive and more effective storm of all the other ads.)

Talk to anyone in publishing and they will tell you that it’s axiomatic and accepted wisdom that books succeed based on word of mouth. People read a great book (or a lousy one, but they don’t have good taste) and tell their friends. Who read it and tell more friends. And so on. Much of publishing’s promotional efforts revolve around putting advance copies of books into the hands of so-called “loudmouths,” a term that is not used pejoratively at all, but rather connotes tastemakers who are not shy about pushing books they love on their friends. This is an effort to start the word of mouth boulder rolling down the hill, and it’s all well and good. But word of mouth — while enormously effective — is unpredictable and should not be relied upon. Word of mouth can do a lot of good, but word of mouth combined with a smart, effective ad campaign can do even more.

I know we’re in an economic downturn. And I know that advertising is expensive. And I know that publishing is perpetually and legendarily on the brink of fiscal collapse. But I firmly believe the time to act is when things look bad, not when things look good. Furthermore, as I believe I’ve pointed out in the past, publishing is an industry that — even though on the ropes — still manages to pull in decent money on a regular basis.

While publishing can’t rival, say, the videogame industry in terms of profits, there’s no reason why it can’t pool its resources and make a respectable effort to put a few cracks in that wall of sound assailing our potential customers each and every moment of their lives.

While there are organizations and initiatives dedicated to promoting the very concept of reading and the benefits of literacy (and let’s pause here to applaud them), there is no industry-wide effort to grab the average Joe by his lapels and scream — as loudly as a movie trailer — “HEY! DUDE! READ THIS AWESOME F-ING BOOK!”

A part of this, I believe, is because publishing people tend by and large to be genteel sorts. They are attracted to publishing precisely because it is not all about hype and boisterous boasting and screaming at the top of your lungs and getting in people’s faces. They enjoy working in an artistic field and on artistic endeavors where the work itself truly matters.

That’s all well and good, and I truly believe that, too. But sometimes it’s necessary to make some noise.

Personally, I would love to be able to grab a couple of coked-out, arrogant Hollywood douchebags and toss them at book publishing for a month. Just to see what happens. After their initial shock at the paucity of the budget, I think they’d actually find some creative ways to raise the profile of books in general and individual brands in particular, using some in-your-face tactics that will grab attention.

(I should mention that I’ve been heartened by the trend towards producing book trailers (of varying quality). I’d like to see this become more widespread and official, with a certain base standard of production values. And it goes without saying, of course, that authors should be involved in them.)

Now, I’ve been sort of vague about exactly what form(s) this advertising should take. And that’s intentional. The obvious answer, of course, is TV commercials, which is the first thing everyone thinks of. I’m not sure that’s the best bang for our buck, though. I’m open to being persuaded, however.

No, I’m actually not going to make any sort of definitive statement as to what form that advertising should take. Honestly, I think in the early days there will be as many failures as successes (probably more) and as much money wasted as employed effectively. It’s just the nature of the beast. What matters is taking a step forward, making an effort, putting in place a system that allows publishing to promote itself and its wares on the same stage as the other elements competing for average Joe’s leisure time.

I’ll just quickly point out two half-thought-out ideas I’ve mentioned in the past and then turn it over to you guys for your ideas.

First of all, there was my idea that movie rights to book should come with a cost: The movie has to give some free advertising to books. 

And second of all, there was my crazy, harebrained idea of advertising books during the Super Bowl.

I offer these just as a way to start the conversation. Now it’s your turn. How should we advertise books?


  1. As a former publicist in the music industry, I the thought of connecting with people and fans. Random marketing ideas:

    1) Product placement in movies and tv – the main character reading a book, talking among friends, or quoting from new literature. Every actor and writer I know is an avid reader. Passive marketing in a script seems like a getable sell.

    2) love the idea of book trailers placed on Facebook (and other social media), on movie previews and youtube. I don’t see them often.

    3) General reading advertising – “read a book and let the movie come alive in you mind” Show people/celebrities reading.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Todd! As to #3, there was (and may still be?) a campaign called Get Caught Reasing that did just that. I think they mostly targeted bookstores and libraries, though. Preaching to the choir.

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