Marketing Books in 2023 (Goodreads included)
Book publishing has a marketing problem. Will it get better?
This week, The New York Times ran a story about the practice of review-bombing on Goodreads. You can read a gift link for it here. In my previous substack, I explained review-bombing a bit, but here is a quick refresher: It is when a critical mass of people leave negative one-star reviews for a book before its publication. Review-bombing was the catalyst for the self-cancellation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s forthcoming book. It has also caused other authors to pull their books from publication or experience significant unwarranted criticism, making a negative dent in their psyche. The Times piece got me thinking about book publishing’s relationship with marketing, so I thought I’d write about it here.
The Goodreads Problem
It is no secret that Amazon owns Goodreads, which, in my opinion, isn’t great for objectivity. I won’t delve into that part right now, so let’s examine the part publishers play in the Goodreads equation.
I am a Goodreads lurker. I don’t leave reviews or use it to log books I’m reading. I look at Goodreads for marketing purposes because when I worked in-house for publishers, it was a consistent bullet point for a book’s promotional plans. It still is. However, I have never once been in a sales meeting where the success of a book has, in any way, been pegged to promotional efforts on Goodreads. The idea behind publishers paying for promotion on Goodreads is to spread word-of-mouth about books. Yes, people might place a title on their virtual bookshelf as “want to read,” yes, there are ARC giveaways. The problem is that it is hard to quantify how or if those efforts lead to sales. If I had to guess, my answer would be that Goodreads promotion isn’t a harbinger of how well a book will sell. It is a nice bullet point to show authors and agents to prove that a publisher is trying. It isn’t a healthy place for authors to exist, and Goodreads needs to recognize that and make changes. Publishers must also change their approach to Goodreads because it harms their authors. A conversation must happen between those in the book industry and the powers that be at Goodreads.
Publishers need to recognize that our book-banning climate overflows to websites like Goodreads. If you don’t think a group like Moms for Liberty will organize to review-bomb-specific titles, I have a bridge to sell you. The question is, how will Goodreads and publishers work together to course correct?
The Book Trailer Conundrum
Book trailers do not work as promotional vehicles for books. Movie trailers work because film studios pay a lot of money to distribute them online, on TV, and in theaters. Often, publishers create book trailers (again, as a bullet point for marketing plans) with a “build it, and they will come” mentality if there is no rollout plan for a book trailer beyond posting it on a publisher’s website, an author’s website, or on an author’s or publisher’s social media, it’s a waste. I’ve always felt this way about book trailers, and I highly doubt readers purchase an author’s work because they happened to see a short video with generic music, a book cover, and some quotes. A book trailer isn’t in the same category as a TikTok or Instagram Reel. The format for each social platform is different, so cross-posting isn’t practical. Give your readers something engaging!
The TikTok Headache
As much hype as BookTok has gotten—and it has gotten a lot!—publishers haven’t figured out the key to non-organic promotion on the platform. There are “TikTok Tours,” where publishers enlist 20 or so BookTok accounts to post a video featuring a book. Sadly, sometimes the accounts they enlist have as few as 85 followers. Other accounts with over 1K followers often average 200-300 views per video. Allow me to contextualize this: I have 104 followers on TikTok and post videos of my puppy being nutty, along with a song that makes the video funny. The videos average 200-400 views. If you know TikTok, “likes” don’t count as much as views. Still, a view means someone scrolled through and paused to watch a TikTok for a second. Without a link embedded (which users cannot include unless they’ve reached a particular follower count), it is doubtful those 200 views will lead to meaningful book sales. I’m not discounting TikTok; it does help with word-of-mouth. It’s just that brands with big budgets are more adept at TikTok, and, well, their videos aren’t boring. I can’t emphasize this enough: we live in an attention economy. You have approximately five seconds or less to engage someone. This also applies to book trailers (see above).
Advertising: Print, Digital, and Podcasts (Reminder: Advertising is paid media.)
The ROI (return on investment) for book ads—especially print ads—is abysmal. I have witnessed many print ad campaigns, and I can undoubtedly say that they weren’t key to any book’s success. In some cases of ad campaigns, the author was usually a “house” name (already a bestselling author) who needed to be satiated so the publisher didn’t receive an angry phone call. Other times, ads were warranted because the publicity (aka “earned media”) was sparse despite the author being a big name, and the publisher needed to let people know the book was out.
I think podcast advertising is in its early stages and might resonate, but publishers must commit to several ads for them to stick. Similarly, digital ad campaigns (websites, apps, newsletters, social media) are somewhat promising, but it depends on the ability to identify the audience and the budget commitment. I’m curious about ads on streaming platforms. Again, budgets are an issue, but why not try? You can’t fast-forward through them, so one could say the audience is captured. Still, a significant financial commitment would be required by publishers.
Advertising is a tricky business in the current economic climate. The media layoffs you may have read about are a direct result of steep declines in ad revenue. Sometimes, ad campaigns are focused on industry awareness instead of a particular brand. This holds especially true with certain Superbowl ads. People don’t necessarily by beer or a car because of a clever ad they saw during the Superbowl, but subconsciously might think they should go buy a six-pack or perhaps revisit when they’ll need a new vehicle.
Given the slump in book sales in 2023 and the high-profile book bans/challenges, it isn’t a terrible idea for the publishing industry to collaborate on ad campaigns that promote reading and discourage censorship. If these conversations are already happening, great. If they aren’t: why not?
Social Media Advertising
Let me begin by saying I’m a sucker for Instagram ads. When I’m scrolling late at night and come across ads for beauty brands or jewelry, my wallet sometimes takes a hit (I’ve gotten better at resisting these). Every now and then, a book ad finds its way into my feed and while I find it interesting, I also keep scrolling. If you look at the ads on Instagram, they are (usually) visually engaging and aspirational, which is key to their ROI. You, the consumer, want supple-looking skin, cool sunglasses, and whatever other aesthetic marketers put in front of you. Of course, not all of you are like this, and I salute you. I am the consummate consumer, so Instagram accounts like “successionfashion”, where every outfit and accessory from Succession is ID’d, is right up my alley. Further, brands create marketing decks that specify what percentages of a certain aesthetic their Instagram grid, stories, and Reels, should show. Publishers should take note of this and lose the “here’s a book with coffee",” “here’s a book on a nice table,” and “here’s a book with flowers” aesthetic and try something new. I understand that marketing departments are beholden to what the big bosses want, but the big bosses need to switch things up.
Facebook ads for books is still hit or miss. The positive aspect of them is that you can start an ad campaign with a relatively small budget, monitor the results, and either increase your spend or abandon the campaign with little risk.
Twitter ads are a mess. Currently, the ads in my timeline are akin to those you’d find in the back pages of The National Enquirer. Nevermind that the platform itself is chaotic. There is too much noise for ads to make an impact on Twitter.
The entry price for ads on TikTok and Snapchat isn’t cheap, though negotiating a blanket deal with each of them wouldn’t be the worst idea. A blanket deal is when a publisher can say they’ll commit a dollar amount per fiscal year and place “x” amount of ads. It isn’t an official term. Rather, it’s a
Advertsing in Book Publishing Trade Publications/Newsletters
Generally speaking, ads in publishing trades (Publlishers Weekly, etc.) aren’t consumer-facing. They are industry-facing, with the purpose being to reach booksellers, librarians, agents, and others in book publishing. The key to trade advertising is to make it part of a bigger marketing strategy. Some examples of when it works include: announcing a new publisher or publishing imprint, highlighting books for a particular season, and ARC giveaways at trade shows.
In my experience, Amazon ads are the easiest to quantify because, if done strategically, you can correlate an increase in sales to the week(s) ads appeared. This is particularly helpful for promoting a publisher’s backlist.
The proper heading for this should be “Brand Partnerships” because technically, that is how influencers and brands collaborate. Major brands use agencies that vet influencers so they know their following is authentic (read: not bought), they have high engagement, and their social media presence aligns with the brand/products. Again, this is expensive and if a publisher were to go all-in on a meaningful influencer campaign, they’d need a substantial budget.
What Should Happen Next
Publishers must look closely at their marketing and publicity budgets to decide where money will make a difference. Notice I didn’t write that they should spend money where it makes sense. That’s because publishers often think marketing money spent in the same places year after year makes sense. It doesn’t. If it did, more books would sell. Agents, editors, and authors must work together to understand the challenges in the advertising landscape and address them. Sales teams, publishers, and marketing executives must recognize the sea change in advertising and stop spending time and money on things that don’t sell books but bulk up bullet points in promotional plans.
In terms of Goodreads, publishers must—MUST—protect their authors, and Goodreads must commit to being a better partner in the book industry ecosystem. If the platform remains the same, we will see more vitriol towards authors and I don’t think anyone wants that.
As always, email me: email@example.com with comments, questions, and suggestions.
I am on the programming committee for Women’s Media Group, which is a terrific organization that is about to celebrate its 50th year. There are a couple of events that might interest you:
July 17, 12 noon-1pm: The Battle for the Bookshelf: How to Fight Back Against Book Bans. This is an important panel discussion and you can learn more here. It is free for members and $15 for non-members.
August 16, 12 noon-1pm: I am leading a “Lunch & Learn” event and will talk about substack basics for content creators. You can learn more about it here. It is free for members and $15 for non-members.
**If you are interested in becoming a member of Women’s Media Group, please reach out to me!
I’ve just accepted the volunteer position of Director of Program Management for the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association. It’s a great organization and I’m excited to be a part of it. You can learn more about them here. You don’t have to be a published writer to join, and they really have some great programs.
And, finally, I am now booking clients for 2024. Things I do: PR, marketing, branding strategy, business strategy, political strategy, and help in shaping book ideas (I will come up with a better description than that). I work with individual authors, publishers, and organizations. For business inquiries, email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org