Snowbooks is one of the UK’s publishing’s success stories. It’s a thriving independent publisher with a solid reputation for publishing strong titles and selling them in high numbers (the covers are beautiful, too). It's got a great blog, too. Here Emma Barnes, Snowbooks’ co-founder, discusses her very effective approach to marketing and promotion.
One of the interesting things about being a small publisher is that we can see the direct effect of every piece of marketing activity that we do. In larger companies, where there’s a medium-sized budget for a title, there might be a series of interviews and signing sessions, an online ad campaign, an SMS campaign, a series of ads in women’s magazines, a print run of in-store posters, a fund for co-op promotional spend, and a run of pre-publication proofs for endorsers, reviewers, reading groups and prize-winners to enjoy. If the book does well, who’s to say which bit of marketing worked? For our titles, most pieces of marketing activity are usually standalone. If something works, we can usually tell so easily, without the noise of other activities to confuse matters.
So, for instance, when we took out a £600 ad in a popular publication for The London Scene, a collection of Virginia Woolf essays featuring a never-before-seen sketch, it was easy to see that it had had no effect whatsoever when sales remained at a steady rate. When an extract from that self-same book scored a double-page spread in the Guardian’s G2 section, and sales remained static, we could divine the value of that, too. However, when the book subsequently featured in a high street retailer’s promotion, and shifted 4000 copies in a six month period, we knew that we were on to something.
Since then we’ve often experimented with ads and review coverage, because the received wisdom is that PR, reviews and coverage sell books. Maybe it’s just us, but we have yet to find much empirical evidence to support that proposition. Last summer, for instance, we were lucky enough to receive, as part of a deal we’d done, a free full page of ad space in a leading men’s magazine, worth £50,000 if you look at the rate card. I designed a perfectly lovely advert for a book perfectly tailored to that market. Sales didn’t budge at all. When that book got a core stock rating in a leading high street retailer, however, we sold 150 copies in one week.
My point? Retailers sell books, not marketing. Am I right? I’m right as far as Snowbooks is concerned – I have the data to prove it. There is, however, something in the idea that spending a sufficient amount of money will certainly get people’s attention. A Tube ad campaign, for instance, would have to be very poor if it didn’t sell some books. My question would be whether enough books are sold as a result of the marketing activity to pay for the activity in question. There’s also a strange phenomenon about having to spend money on consumer marketing in order to persuade retailers that you are serious so that they promote your title, although I’ve never come across the need for such complicated manoeuvrings myself. And even when PR does sell some books, the costs and time of hiring the PR agency or lunching contacts on a regular basis are often much greater than the promotional charges levied by retailers to achieve the same result.
By the way, when I make comments like these, the first response is always ‘but I buy books based on reviews and so on’. Yes, but look what you’re doing. You’re reading a blog about how publishing works. You are an interested party; someone with an above-average interest in books and the business of selling them. Your behaviour is not representative of the book-buying public as a whole.
If the findings for Snowbooks held true for the whole industry, what would that mean? It would mean budgets should be realigned away from ads and towards retailer activity. It means relationships with retailers should be seen as the most important part of the publishing process. It means the acknowledgement by agents, authors and publishers of the role of the retailer as gatekeeper to the reader. Who knows how differently we’d all behave if we took a fresh look at what retailers achieve.