Friday, 27 February 2009

Snowbooks On Marketing

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.


Sally Zigmond said...

What an absolutely fascinating post and informative post. It's made me think differently about promotion. I also agree that the general book-buying public think quite differently from those of us who are closely involved in one way or another.

Anyway, must dash. I'm off to have a word with my publisher...

Anonymous said...

Fascinating and I totally agree, even as someone who loves her books, chances are the books I buy are the ones promoted in some way by the retailers, even if it's just in a nice book display (even better if it's discounted ;) ). I do pay attention to reviews and ads but there are so many books out there, I'd never have a chance of remembering all the books I want to read. However if there's a book prominently displayed, say in Waterstones and it jogs my memory that I've read a good review, that will make me even more likely to buy it, but if it's hidden away somewhere, chances are I won't even remember to go and look for it because I'll have been distracted by all the books that are on prominent display.

Anonymous said...

That's very interesting. I know you mention that you market in a targeted way on the submissions parge of the Snowbooks blog, which made an awful lot of sense to me.

What about word of mouth? Or when the author has had their book published, as an add on to talks he or she might give, all those peripheral promotional activities? Are they more effective than costly adverts, then?

I know if I buy a book it's because I've been tempted by a retailer.


Anonymous said...

"Retailers sell books, not marketing."
You're right. When I worked in a bookshop I could see the sales figures for the month I was in a promotion and the months I wasn't - the difference was huge.

Jane Smith said...

This piece by Emma is particularly interesting bearing in mind Sceptre's recent decision to give Waterstone's an exclusive right to sell the hardcover version of Glen David Gold's book Sunnyside.

Perhaps not surprisingly many independent booksellers were not at all pleased with this idea despite Sceptre's assurances that this promotion only held true for the hardback edition, and that everyone would be able to sell the paperback once it was published: so while Sceptre's change of heart this morning has been widely welcomed, it does make me wonder what effects this will have in the future. I feel a blog post of my own brewing.

If you're interested, you can read the's summaries of the story here, here, here and here. I've put them in order for you: all you have to do is click and read.

Derek said...

Very informative. I presume this analysis applies mainly to fiction. What you're saying is that the biggest reason by far that people buy fiction is that they "discover" it in a bookstore.

I buy almost exclusively non-fiction for myself, and looking back at the ones I've bought recently, almost all of them were ordered on the internet. Not only that, but almost all of them were books I "discovered" on the internet. I'm not sure if that's typical of readers nowadays.

It would be interesting to hear from everyone how they found out about the books they purchased most recently.

Unknown said...

Hi Emma,

As an ex-publicist - and now would-be published author - I find this intriguing. I used to spend hours on the phone to the literary editors, to no great avail. The reviews I did get only had a substantial effect on sales if they were in the Guardian Saturday review or The Times Books section. They were really most effective as a means of reassuring our authors that they were loved and important. The time we put into sales conferences and - at one company - direct sales to bookshops was far more effective. I do wonder, though, how do your authors feel about it?

Unknown said...

Alice - I'm a Snowbooks author and speaking for myself I'm very happy indeed. If getting the book into store promotions is the best way to make sales, then I want to get into promotions!

As Anon said, I also wonder if word of mouth is pretty important, but there won't be any word of mouth if noone sees the book to buy it in the first place...

Jane Smith said...

Apologies for the comment-spam, which I've now deleted. Not only was it completely off-topic and self-promotional, it was also boring and incomprehensible. I might have left it in if it had made me laugh.

DOT said...

Marketing a chocolate bar is relatively easy - it's a single product designed to appeal to a particular market both of which can be tightly defined through research.

Every published book is a single product in its own right, which will appeal to a particular market but in rare cases will justify the investment in research to define either the appeal or the market. So, I guess, the larger publishing companies rely on tried and tested - for which read sticking a finger in the air - methods of marketing.

Book marketing is further complicated by the widely diverse motivations of the individual purchaser. The reason why I pick up one title one day will be very different to the reason why I might pick up another title the next.

Apart from recommendations of people whose taste I trust, I find the blurb on the back cover most important. It will either lead me to flick through the pages or to replace the book.

DOT said...


For 'but in rare cases will justify the investment', read 'but in rare cases will NOT justify the investment'.


Chris Nichol said...

Emma - I would be interested to know if you extend these ideas to your more specialist titles on cycling and martial arts. I presume you're not getting in store propmotions of these and are resorting to press and PR for them.


Jane Smith said...

Apologies for another example of dull comment-spam, which I've now deleted.

Jan, if you want to attract visitors to your own blog you should try posting interesting and informative comments on other people's blogs: that way, we might just be interested enough in you to click on to your blog.

Dropping into other people's blogs, contributing little, and then telling us how great your own blog is just isn't going to swing it for me.

This isn't the first time I've seen you do this, which is why I'm reacting so strongly. If you want to contribute here again then you're welcome to: but if you make any more such self-promotional, content-light comments then I'll just delete everything you say.

Anonymous said...

Chris - quite the opposite. Core stock is the way we sell these books - so when people are searching in store, they're able to find them on the shelves. Also online retailers do tremendously with them - any time the shopper is in search not browse mode.

We *do* do PR and solicit reviews for all our books, by the way. It's just it doesn't make the damned bit of difference. I do it through guilt, mainly, but wonder why I bother.

Chris Nichol said...

Emma - thanks for the response. I guess I never considered such speciaislist books as core stock candidates. What do you have to do to get them onto core stock - offer huge discounts, pay or just smile sweetly and trust to the buyer's good sense?

Jane Smith said...

Chris, I suspect that such specialist titles have less competition, and so get more of their market to themselves--which is why they do so well when readers are in "search" mode, rather than in "browse" mode; and which is why they find their way into core stock more easily than a novel would, perhaps, or a cook-book (of which there are many already).

Big-niche non-fiction. Perhaps that's what we all should be writing!

Anonymous said...

Having PR'd dozens of books over the last few years I'm not surprised at Snowbook's findings and I can endorse them. I got a double page feature in the Daily Mail for a book last month and the Amazon spike which resulted turned out to be additional sales of 37 copies!

This is exactly why any PR campaign where the objective is actually to sell books we go for a grass-roots approach as much as possible. Retailers sell books but word of mouth also sells books so we do PR campaigns to get word of mouth going, and in these getting reviews isn't important.

Anonymous said...

This was a very keen and insightful post. I can say that on this side of the pond, in the U.S., it is very much the same. I often hear from teh authors we publsih that they want me to send out press releases willy nilly, or advertise in some trade publication, or create a book trailer for the internet. I try to tell tehm none of it works. They all think I am just being cheap, but really, I am trying to be smart.

Selling books, I have noticed is a two-pronged process. The publisher does a lot of hard work getting the instore promotions going, while the author needs to keep a list of fans and sending them newsletters, emails and keeping them active on a blog.

It is the author that must keep the word of mouth going. And the author must keep writing new material to make all of that word of mouth useful. The publisher can't do that for any author, as each author needs a different fanbase and no publisher can maintain a separate mailing list for each author.

I often watch authors working themselves into a tizzy trying to work the PR and I watch them get frustrated. Yet still, it is hard to convince them that it is better to spend that time writing a new book instead.

My time as a publisher is best spent on the phone talking to bookstore owners and with the buyers at the larger chainstores. This is a slow and tedious process, as it requires working the stores one at a time, not reaching out to all of them at once as an industry.

Keep 'em Flying
David A. Rozansky
Flying Pen Press

Jane Smith said...

David, you wrote, "Selling books, I have noticed is a two-pronged process."

I've written a blog post using EXACTLY that "two-pronged approach" wording. How funny! (I can't remember if it's appeared yet, and I am too relaxed to go looking for it right now.) You're right: both the author and the publisher need to work at this. But if the books aren't in the bookshops to begin with, there's little point in the author promoting their titles as no one will be able to buy them. An important point.

Anonymous said...


Great, interesting article on the effects of marketing. It's great to see some clearer cause/effects, and to get away from general theories.

So of course I immediately go back to theory, and in a lot of it you find the idea that the audience for your project is already largely pre-determined -- advertising is just letting that audience know your product is available for purchase and is indeed what they already know they need.

Sometimes advertising doesn't work because it's not reaching the target audience, or the audience doesn't know that it's specifically for them (the problem with a lot of non-niche advertising). Sometimes it just acts as white noise if there is too much competition or if the product doesn't differentiate itself to the target audience within the advertising.

Makes sense that a book retailer would be a trusted voice in what books a reader should pick up.

Chris Nichol said...

Jane - I'm not sure that specialist titles necessarily do have much less competition. Certainly the competition is much more focused and direct. I remember David Roche (ex Borders MD) saying at last year's IPG conference that he'd walked into a Borders which had 35 different guide books to Prague which was clearly ridiculous. Whilst martial arts and cycling aren't the same as guide books - in my experience there is hardly a topic so specialised that it doesn't have plenty of competition.