Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Book Advertising. The Hackiest of the Hack.

(the below comments do not apply to the one excellent NYC publishing house that I have done work for, a house that has been very willing to try new, fresh approaches)
The Book Publishing Industry is dying
. And it ain’t a quietly-in-its-sleep death. It’s a getting-hacked-to-pieces-by-machetes death. And speaking of hack, have you ever taken a good look at book advertising? Open any New York Times Arts Section to the book page and look at the ads—every single one of them looks EXACTLY the same: big jacket shot, surrounded by “Read it today!”—USA Today; “Entertaining read!”—Entertainment Weekly; and other such asinine attributes (at right, we have the brilliant move of repeating the author's name and title as the "headline"). Not one of the ads provokes even a slight glance in its direction. One of the reasons for this is that book ads are not placed to sell books. They are placed to literarily suck off the author/agent. Another reason is that most book publishers have the visual imagination of a dead slug. If one brave rogue publishing house would step away from the crap pack and actually adopt a well-designed campaign look for their ads, and then truly give readers an inkling of a notion as to what the experience of reading the actual advertised book might be, well, that house would become a FUCKING STAR. Savvy authors would be begging them to sign them. But, the publishers now are just too frightfully desperate to try anything even a smidgen different, let alone adventurous, to attract the new readers they desperately need. They’re a group of neutered pussies. And they’re as good as dead.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about we blame the authors for not demanding more from their pussies, I mean, their publishers?

9:42 AM  
Blogger New York Punk said...

whats with your new background pic? Isn't it the agency team and italian soccer players?

10:15 AM  
Blogger antyx said...

Hear hear!

I can't even go to a bookshop any more without getting depressed - every single jacket summary is identical (and utterly uninspiring).

"How about we blame the authors for not demanding more from their pussies, I mean, their publishers?"

Who the fuck is Lisa Jackson? She's no Stephen King, she is in no position to demand anything.

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just that they're neutered. They're dumb. The typical publishing employee is either a 22 year-old Sarah Lawrence grad who's clocking time until her boyfriend graduates from law school so she can make babies in park slope, or it's a 56 year old embittered sea hag who goes home every night to an apartment full of long-haired cats and empty wine bottles. These are not brave people full of imagination. Those people go into the video game business.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My best friend is in publishing and she's neither a Sarah Lawrence grad nor an old woman. She also has no cats. In fact I'd say that the real reason why publishers don't go for "inspired" advertising is because it would be difficult to have cool advertising that's effective and cost concious. Movie Trailer's give you a peek at the movie and most of the time (except for really big budget fillms or films that they're terrified will tank) the trailer is just movie clips spliced together; short of inserting a portion of the book (which again most people would just gloss over) there isn't much you can do to have the same inside view of a book. I suspect publishers do the boring show the book cover thing and rave reviews for one simple reason - they're not trying to get you to run out and buy THAT book. What they're trying to get you to do, is get the image of that book in your head. So when you're at the bookstore browsing that book pops out at you and you pick it up instead of the one next to it. Have you been to Barnes and Noble? With a few exceptions (best sellers, or a theme related book i.e. black history month etc etc) the books are just sort of there with nothing particularly prodding you to pick this one or that one. It can get really overwhelming.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Scamp said...

yeah they're all shit.

movie trailers too.

in fact many whole product sectors have shit advertising.

i've often thought the smart thing to do is start a business, and do good advertising for it.

but it's just the whole 'starting a business' hurdle that stops me

11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Course, you're making cheesily self-inflating misogynist cracks about an industry dominated by female consumers. But, y'know, you're the big-dicked genius here...

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"they're not trying to get you to run out and buy THAT book."
I totally agree with that statement. Besides, if you go to Lisa Jackson's website, she already has two previous books and probably a solid fan base of woman that don't need to be "sold" with flashy ads.

But still, they do suck. I hate the duplicate name/title thing. It looks like a major printing error.

If they were smart, they'd just blow up the cover and ad the rest of the crap at the bottom. Whatever. Not my book.

11:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for writing this piece. I recently left my advertising job in publishing because it consisted of doing the same ad, over and over again, swapping in different books. I don't know that the editors are the ones to blame here, though; editors often do not see the ad until the advertising director has an ad which they consider "complete" to route.

At my old job, I worked with many talented designers and creative people who came up with interesting and inventive campaigns -- which were then almost ceremoniously killed by advertising directors. When shown several different layouts (say, one standard, one off-the-wall and one quirky but beautiful), advertising directors almost always default to the layout that looks like every other ad they've ever done. We are even told to design ads that look exactly like past ads, or use this exact same color, or that exact same effect on the book jacket. Occasionally, when they do choose a layout with a different look, someone somewhere down the line of approval usually ends up forcing it back into its uniform, squashing any creative impulse it might have once had. Tiny things, like the placement of a comma, are obsessed over, while larger issues -- i.e., "This ad sucks," go largely unaddressed.

The exception in the chain of influence is the big-name author, who will often get final approval, but who is not exempt to having their judgement clouded by ego. I give the authors more credit, though. I think it's more likely that an author will be willing to go in a new direction than anyone at the publishing house, because everyone there is desperately afraid of offending author and agent, as you touched on in your piece.

I'm glad to see that someone has finally called bullshit on this topic. With a combination of talented authors, designers, and ambitious personnel, book publishing should be joining other industries in adapting their campaigns to be eye-catchcing, edgy, and relevant, and less concerned with maintaining an outdated status quo. Maybe once the bottom line gets a little more scary, the industry will be willing to try something new.

11:16 AM  
Blogger copyranter said...

I don't have a big dick.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work in book advertising, and any time I suggest trying something different, I get shot down by the marketing directors who control the budgets. The truth is, book ads don't sell books (publicity and bestseller lists do, and we all know how biased those are), so publishers consider it a waste of money, a necessary evil that's grudgingly tolerated because it's tradition and authors demand it.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vuni here.

As someone the works in a major bookstore in that chain's hometown, I agree that things are bleak for the book world. The ads are horrible, the publicity all goes for hacks like James (I have SO many ghost writers I actually had to start giving some of the credit on "my" books) Patterson and anything with any actual creativity has to survive on word of mouth to build an audience. What I find most depressing from the advertising world is the trend to advertise books on television. "Hi. We know you don't read because you are watching this commercial during Wheel of Fortune, but if you did, wouldn't you like to read the latest James Patterson-ghost writer mystery of the month? Huh? Please? Someone will probably make it into a movie eventually and then you'd want to read it if it had a photo of Morgan Freeman on the cover. Everyone loves Morgan Freeman, right. a book"

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most people that read books are in effect, too "smart" to fall for advertising that occurs in mags, newspapers, or tv commericals. Think about the last time you saw a Nora Roberts Commerical--was that directed at YOU? Nope. Me neither and I read at least 1-2 books a week.

11:46 AM  
Blogger EVIL DISCUSSOR said...

Holy fuck, who knew there were so many anonymous book-publishing-industry-advertising-nerd-faces out there, just waiting in the woodwork, dying to be heard?

Way to bring them out, sweet Ranty.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just that they're neutered. They're dumb. The typical publishing employee is either a 22 year-old Sarah Lawrence grad who's clocking time until her boyfriend graduates from law school so she can make babies in park slope, or it's a 56 year old embittered sea hag who goes home every night to an apartment full of long-haired cats and empty wine bottles. These are not brave people full of imagination. Those people go into the video game business.

Ummm I work in publishing and this made me crack up. Funny 'cause it's true!

11:57 AM  
Blogger New York Punk said...


12:48 PM  
Blogger kat said...

Yes, yes, and yes. I used to work in publicity at one of the major NYC houses and can second the assertion that bestseller lists and review coverage are what sells books. (That, and eye-catching placement on a table at Barnes&Noble.)

But there's one exception to the rule of ineffectiveness-- ads for urban fiction (authors always have names like "Noir" or "Ebony") that feature lascivious photos of scantily-clad women and read like movie posters. They've got the idea, and-- since their target audience isn't exactly reading the NYT book review every Sunday-- they push sales.

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second Soft Skull. (I'm in publishing, but I'm in my 30s, so you can decide whether to discount me because I didn't go to Sarah Lawrence.) The future of book marketing is not in print advertising. Clever design ain't gonna help. What was the last book you bought because you saw an ad? There are those who make the argument that for all industries, advertising is pretty much worthless; I found Ries & Ries, The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR convincing.

As a sidenote, Lisa Jackson can claim the rare distinction of making a living as a novelist. Romantic suspense may be junk, but six figure sales book after book is a pipe dream for most.

1:03 PM  
Blogger copyranter said...

I know I said "ads" in this post, but I wasn't really talking about "print" ads. I meant all pieces of communication, web banners, outdoor snipes, etc.

1:35 PM  
Blogger John McCloskey said...

I'm the guy who made the Sarah Lawrence/wine-drunk cat lady crack. I stand by it.

Everyone here keeps on saying that "ads don't sell books, word of mouth does." It's stupid non-logic. Ads don't sell books because the ads currently suck. The comprehensive marketing plan for all books sucks. Here's the typical publishing business plan as it stands:

1. Get a manuscript.
2. Don't edit it properly.
3. Print it at huge expense.
4. Ship it to bookstores all over the country, who basically sell on consignment.
5. Pulp the remaining books or sell them at less-than-cost when the book doesn't sell.
6. Daydream about moving to Vermont.

I don't recommend that publishers buy Superbowl half-time ads for the next Jonathan Foer book. I know very well that the average lit fiction book can't support the cost when it sells about 10,000 copies (and that's the books published by Random House, not smaller indy places like Softskull--god bless them.) I do second the opinion that publishers should get friggin creative about how they promote books. Creativity can be as cheap as a bowery whore, and every bit as effective at getting the job done.

What's clear is that the current business set up isn't working. If the ads are budgeted largely as an author-stroke, then why not take some risks with them? It's all a loss anyway? Here are a couple of main points:

Ditch the bold face 50 point type displays of an unknown authors name. No one cares. It sells no books. Unless the author is Stephen King or Danielle Steele.

Ditch the shots of the book standing on its edge. This is just stupid.

Why not illustrate a scene from the book? Huh? Is that so hard?

1:57 PM  
Blogger T.A.N. said...

The brave rogue publishing house would definitely become a star. But would that equate to more books sold? I don't know. Does that matter?

I once kissed a girl named Lisa Jackson ... twice.

2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why are there so many gender assumptions floating around? Only women work in publishing (loser women, that is), only women are going to read lisa jackson's book (although no one seems to actually know anything about the book or its readers). Interesting points about the publishing business, archaic and mildly (because they cannot be taken seriously) insulting comments about women. Still surprises me.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Flasher T said - 'Who the fuck is Lisa Jackson? She's no Stephen King, she is in no position to demand anything.'

Um... Lisa Jackson is a #1 NYT best-selling author. Hits the list all the time.

I'd say that's a pretty good position to be in. ...Just sayin'...

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are two interesting truths about publishing underlying J McCloskey's tee-hee-look-at-me being-offensive post about the demographics of publishing professionals.

1. The percentage of women in publishing started rising once the gentleman publisher and his trust fund went the way of the dodo, to be replaced by wage slaves. Since the pay pretty much still sucks, and women are more willing to work in less lucrative professions than men--voila.

2. Why so few publishing professionals in their 20s and 40s? Downside of the flat hierarchy at most publishers. There are assistants, and there are editors, and not much in between. With no bloated middle management, and so few slots at the top, your proverbial 22-year-old puts in a few years, realizes there's no future, and moves on.

2:43 PM  
Blogger copyranter said...

Just an added note: I wrote "neutered pussies" not thinking particularly about female publishing employees. also, I have nothing personal against Lisa Jackson; I picked this ad randomly.

2:51 PM  
Blogger John McCloskey said...

Thanks anonymous, for your dessicated validation of my slanderous generalizations. For the record, my laugh is more of a cackle than a tee-hee sort of utterance.

Were I talking about an industry dominated by men, like the building trades, the financial industry, used car sales, or drug dealing, rest assured that I would make perjorative gender-based remarks about them.

2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work in book advertising in a department comprised of people in their 20s and 30s. All intelligent, all creative, all willing to take risks, and all ridiculously attractive, but I digress.

We put an ad out (I had nothing to do with it, but the collective "we" sure does make me feel like I shine) last week for John Hodgman's new book The Area of My Expertise. You may know Hodgman from his acting career as the PC in the Apple commercials. This ad has been blogged about non-stop (look at me, I'm blogging about it too!) for it's creative spin on the George Plimpton/Intellivision ad from the '80s.

We brainstorm. We look for fresh in a city where produce is sold on street corners. And some of us shamelessly advertise our company's books by posting on blogs under the guise of a rant. (Again, that book was The Areas of My Expertise, and it's in book stores now!)

So let's not say we all take our cues from the bottom line. Although a lot of us do have cats.

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two things I haven't really seen in this thread:

1. Most of this crap advertising starts out with a good execution, and it is then eviscerated by a series of unqualified executives who think design by committee is a valid way to go. Give me a publisher with the sack (or tits as the case may be) to let an ad director work with an agency to create without meddling, and I'll show you some good creative.

2. For the major houses that use agencies, check out how many are currently using the same agency. I think the count is up to six houses using Verso. Any wonder it all looks the same?

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's a book? Is that like a printed-out blog or something?

7:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uh, coop dollars anyone? Those windows, end caps, front of store tables at B&N and Borders are bought and paid for by major houses. IF Lisa Jackson wants to hit the list, then her publisher MUST ante up. Ads do increase jacket recognition, but our sales are review-driven.

Coop can devastate a small publisher who takes on a well-known author--even an author with the best intentions--because they bring the big house expectations to the small house.

Re: those who seek bestsellers, it amazes me how many people come in and ask for a "bestseller." They lack the sense/confidence/knowledge/whatever to choose a book on their own and prefer to read what the masses are. If we handsell a book, frequently we have a new and loyal customer--just because they trust our taste.

And yes, we report to the NYT and the Post. But that's a whole 'nother story. (sorry for long post)

7:55 PM  
Blogger David said...

For what it's worth, I saw an ad for (motherfucking) DANIEL BALDWIN'S new book on the side of some newspaper-dispenser thing somewhere in Times Square. It's called something like "The UnUsual Suspect." Clever.

I was going to take a picture of the ad and send it your way, as it was basically a picture of the book, which proclaims his journey into Christianity / Scientology / Whatever he's doing now.

If I were to take that picture, however, one (or several) of the 47 million people in Times Square might think it's something worth checking out and waltz into the nearby Noble-Barnes-N-Borders to purchase it.

And we can't have that, now, can we?

9:37 PM  
Blogger Scamp said...

Wow, i've never seen such a load of sorry excuses from all you publishing people. There's too much wrong randomness for me to even pick up on any one individual post*
Good ads work.
Bad ads don't.
And yours all suck.
It's that simple.

*OK I'll pick up just one. The anonymous person who wrote that the typical book buyer is "too smart" to fall for advertising. This is the same typical book buyer, presumably, who goes jogging in adidas trainers, drives a Volkswagen, drinks absolut vodka etc etc

7:19 AM  
Blogger Ben Blench said...

"Whatcha readin' for?"

7:23 AM  
Blogger Matt Brand said...

35 comments! Is this a record?

9:36 AM  
Blogger copyranter said...

No, the Gwyneth Paltrow I am African ad had 60 some.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
What's a book? Is that like a printed-out blog or something?

Yeah, something like that-but you might prefer...

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. Just wanted to mention that I bought a book as a result of reading this (The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR).

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that publishers spend so little in advertising. 85% of all books get less than $2000 in marketing advertising. So there's not much you can do with that. Of the 15% that get more - the average ad/marketing budget is under $40,000. Only about 2% of the books published get over $150,000. So when you try to figure out what the hell to do - you are stuck with media that costs too much money anyway.

That's not to say that when they do ads they are dreadful. But they aren't really ads anyway. They are simply annoncemenmts that the book is here.

Some of us (I'm a novelist who also worked in advertising in a NYC agency for years) are trying to do different things and some of those things are exciting - but there are few and far between that stand out.

I write about this stuff all the time at Buzz Balls & Hype - my blog - and invite anyone to write me there with ideas. The industry desperately needs them.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it depends on the type of book.

If you're talking about the page-turning (let's hope) potboiler, then, yeah...there's a real need to take a different approach to selling the things. A book jacket and a few blurbs are lazy in the extreme. Sell the plot, tease the reader, do all the same junk a good movie ad should do. The self help genres could also use an approach that actually sells the benefits of the self-help being touted.

If you're talking about "bookish books," by which I mean the kind advertised in book review magazines, then the quality of the endorsements matters, and the book-cover / synopsis / blurbs-by-people-or-awards-bodies-who-are-known-to-be picky approach tends to work pretty well with me.

(I'm still more likely to buy a book based on a review than an ad in any case, however.)

And maybe that's the problem. It seems that there are really two types of product here, and they need to be handled differently. It seems a mistake to use the traditional book-selling model (cover/synopsis/blurbs) for the mass trade market because you are selling to people who are making a decision between (1) buying your book (2) playing World of Warcraft or (3) parking themselves in front of the tube to watch another episode of Flava of Love 2. So the ads need to compete on the entertainment level, if they hope to sell entertainment.

(The success of James Patterson has always mystified me. Several years ago, I read his (I think) first novel Along Came A Spider and was trashing it to a coworker as being a disorganized mess. She responded by telling me that she had read it and had enjoyed it. There's a market for everything, I guess.)

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really? You of all people are criticizing book publicity? You who clearly have no respect for the people whose job it is to make you more money? If you had any interest whatsoever in improving book publicity, you wouldn't be so quick to fuck with your publicist created myspace page when the publisher is clearly trying in some small way to make your book's publicity more interesting. welcome to hypocrisy dipshit.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Ann Rittenberg Literary Agency, Inc. said...

That pet phrase of publishers and editors—“Advertising doesn’t work”—drives me crazy in its self-satisfied elitism. As any red-blooded American knows, advertising does work. (See Scamp’s post above. Also, the one year Anheuser-Busch didn’t advertise Budweiser in the SuperBowl, their case sales fell by 150,000 per day for the month.) Yet while a full-page ad in the NYTBR may be there to suck off authors and agents, it’s at best a desperate signal to booksellers: We’ve got a big book on our hands and we’re spending money to promote it! To advertise properly—to saturation point—is expensive, and publishers just can’t afford it.

The best ad for a book appears exactly as many times as there are copies printed: it’s the book itself. A book is an object for sale in a retail outlet—you have to want to see it in the store, pick it up, and bring it home with you. That’s why authors should kick and scream about every part of the so-called “package”—the cover design, the paper, the layout, the type, the jacket copy. NEVER, under any circumstances, let the copy for your book go to press without rewriting it. Authors almost never have contractual approval over jacket or copy, but that doesn’t mean they can’t weigh in. Get the jacket sketch, prop it up and look at it from across a room. Bring it to a bookstore for god’s sake and see how it will call to book buyers. It doesn’t have to scream, it just has to look like something that people will want to BUY. No one wants to be seen in public carrying around an ugly or cheesy or boring-looking book.

Yeah, I’m in publishing, I’m an agent, I live in Park Slope, I have three babies (but I didn’t make them there, not that it’s any of your business), and I even co-authored a book that talks about some of this, YOUR FIRST NOVEL (which has a myspace page), so if this is too long a rant as well as too pushy a plug for my own book, don’t post it.

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very interesting discussion. I work for an independent publisher in London having spent 15 years or so working for some of the major companies.

What I think is missing here is a discussion about who these adverts were created to impress. Seems to me from my experience, that the picture of the book on its edge with the authors name and title repeated is a standard advert for publishers to promote their books to the book trade: i.e. the Borders, Barnes & Noble, independents (do you have any left in the US?). This used to work fine for the industry as it provided all the short cuts clues the book trade needed to classify the books in their own minds and shops, i.e.: Stephen King Clone, Grisham Clone; Horror; SF; Romance etc. These customers need informative adds rather than exciting ones (though it would help if they were both).

It no longer works however for at least 2 reasons.

1) The disappearance of independent bookshops, and the centralised buying of chains means that this 'market' is now so ludicrously small it would be better to market to it individually.

2) Marketing managers who see a trade advert created (at greater or lesser expense) and decide to use the same artwork as an advert for the general public (reader). Even though it is a different market consequently needs a different approach.

10:47 AM  
Blogger FiveMZNYC said...

Who reads anyway? In Japan it's women who read books about loved ones dying with lots of sex. They read on the train on their cell phones.

Books are too big for today's high fashion handbags, says the article in the Economist.

Maybe it's not so much the advertisting people and us, the public. They did their research and we suck. I hate us for being such suckers all the time. When are we going to wise up?

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree, I'm trying to sell my books the old fashioned way... FOR FREE. its not that hard like you were talking about, just takes some finesse and actual interaction with the audience...

4:10 PM  
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2:28 PM  

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