Friday, 25 November 2011

Does advertising work?

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Philip Berenson and Jack Steel)
The big day was yesterday, 24th November 2011. Well, actually not that big, I suppose, but it was the day when the fourth 'James Becker' book – The Nosferatu Scroll – hits the shelves as a mass-market paperback. This novel had been handled by Transworld rather differently to the previous three, because it was actually first released back in June as a hardback, which I think about three people bought, and as a trade paperback.
            For those of you not familiar with the distinction, trade paperbacks are the large volumes normally sold airside, in places like W H Smith in the departure lounge at Gatwick or Heathrow, where they have a captive audience desperately seeking any kind of distraction while they wait for their aircraft to arrive from Iceland or wherever it's been delayed. Mass-market paperbacks are the regular sized books you'll find in any high street retailer.
            The previous three 'James Becker' novels were all released immediately in mass market format, but I suppose Transworld decided that the fourth book might do better if they tried two bites of the cherry. And they might have been right, because apparently the trade paperback sold quite well, despite the absence of any promotions or special offers. It will be interesting to see how well the book does over the next month or so, because it is a kind of a winter's tale, best read by flickering firelight in a warm and cosy – but, above all, dark – room.
            All of which has rather made me wonder just how effective marketing and promotional campaigns actually are. Whenever you travel by rail or underground, you'll frequently find yourself staring at some poster depicting a book which you may or may not have heard about, written by an author that you probably know. You may even have wondered why you rarely see posters extolling the literary efforts of lesser-known writers, and the answer to that, in simple terms, is money. Or, to be absolutely accurate and to use a bit of marketing-speak, it's return on investment.
            If a publishing house decides that they have a budget of, say, £50k to throw at one of two authors, and they assume that the campaign will generate roughly 10% of additional sales, the choice of which author to select is comparatively easy. If Author A sells an average of 100,000 books a year, and Author B sells an average of 10,000 books a year, the advertising campaign will generate additional sales of either 10,000 books or 1,000 books. So which do you think they'll choose?
            That's why you'll see the latest offerings from Jilly Cooper and Lee Child, to pick two writers from opposite ends of the spectrum, prominently displayed on posters, and why you’ll almost never see any promotions for first novels or for writers who haven't yet hit the big time. In some ways, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and inevitably results in a few bestselling writers selling even more books, and everybody else selling a lot less.
            And while talking, albeit obliquely, about Lee Child, you may have heard that his books are going to be turned into films, which is good news for those of us who enjoy his novels, but Hollywood has chosen for the lead role an actor who is so completely unsuited for the part that it's simply laughable. Lee Child's hero is a man named Jack Reacher, well over six feet tall, massively built and a former military policeman. In every book Reacher solves problems by, basically, bashing heads together and generally beating the hell out of anybody who gets in his way. So Hollywood has chosen, to play this ultimate macho man role, Tom Cruise. Five feet tall and eight stone dripping wet. Presumably he's going to beat up the bad guys standing on a box, which is going to be somewhat limiting. Either that or there’ll be some really impressive trick photography.
            But back to the plot. So do advertising campaigns work? The general perception in the industry seems to be that they don't.
           I know of at least one writer who was poached from his original publishing house by another publisher, allegedly for far too much money, and whose next book received massive, almost blanket, coverage in London. Despite this, the book didn't sell – I didn't read it, but I did try some of his earlier efforts, which were so bad as to fully justify the epithet 'unreadable' – and since that campaign neither the author nor his works have been much in evidence. He's still writing – I suppose his new publisher is still trying to recoup some of the money they spent – and his reviews on Amazon have been, shall we say, 'mixed'.
            The best advertising is probably still word-of-mouth, and a good many bestsellers in recent years have risen to the top of the charts mainly because people read them, enjoyed them, and told their friends about them. Mind you, one of my friends out here in Andorra told me that The Da Vinci Code was the best book he'd ever read, which caused me to revise my opinion of him fairly drastically.
But word-of-mouth works, there's no doubt about that, as long as the book itself is worth reading.

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