Daily Features

Do We Need a Completely New Approach to Marketing Books?

Part 1 of an exclusive Designers & Books survey

By Steve Kroeter March 3, 2020

Today we’re pleased to publish the first in a series of articles that we hope will evolve into an ongoing forum for discussing best practices, creative thinking, and innovative approaches to marketing books.

The impetus for this initiative comes from comments Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle made at the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair. In his keynote address, Dohle was optimistic about the state of the global book business, maintaining that the industry was “doing better now than it has been for the past 50 years, and perhaps even since its inception, and that was some 500 years ago.”

At the same time, though, he did, in his words, “pour a little cold water on the subject” when he identified various challenges he felt book publishers, sellers, and authors needed to address. Key among them was this: “We need a completely new approach to marketing books.”


Now, with the start of a new decade, we’ve decided to try to understand what members of the publishing community took away from Mr. Dohle’s comment about marketing two years ago and get a read on their current thinking.

To do this we sent out a five-question email survey to a cross section of the publishing community, inviting comments about Mr. Dohle’s comments. We received responses from authors (fiction and nonfiction), publicists, editors, and publishers from large international operations and also from small independent publishers and university presses, bookstore owners, bloggers, curators who publish, social media experts, and various other publishing industry consultants. Respondents were both US- and internationally based.

Survey Questions

  1. Do you agree with Mr. Dohle that, “We need a completely new approach to marketing books”?
  2. What one or two indications lead you to agree or disagree with Mr. Dohle’s position?
  3. What developments, if any, since Mr. Dohle made his comment (October 2017) are you aware of that would provide optimism for concluding that things are changing or getting better?
  4. Are there any ideas for improving how books are marketed that you would like to see more commonly implemented?
  5. What do you think of crowdfunding (Kickstarter, etc.) as a way to launch online preorder campaigns for books to the public?

Survey Replies

In this first part of our survey report we’ve focused on replies to the first two questions of the survey.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, respondents split three ways on the question of whether there is need for a “completely new approach to marketing." Some said yes; some said no; some said it depends.

Among those who agreed came the following responses:

“The current new generation of readers has obvious changes in their reading behavior and habits. Less time is spent on reading, and digitization has provided reading alternatives for many. As publishers, we do need to adapt to these changes, hence innovating beyond the traditional ways of marketing books seems to be a sensible suggestion.” — publisher

“Looking for a new approach is inevitable, as bookstores do not seem to be viable any longer and Amazon is too much of a monopoly.” —author

From those who disagreed, we heard:

“I disagree with ‘completely new’ because, in a sense, no matter the changes, you will still have writers, artists, designers, publishers, readers, and places where readers and consumers need to discover and acquire books. So, while certain things may change, you still end up with those players.” — author

“I don't agree that we need a new way to market books. There are always advances and changes in how marketing works but the basics have always remained the same. Word of mouth and reader to reader is slow but honest. Booksellers and reviewers giving praise works. I understand the point he’s getting at but we come from fundamentally different places.” —bookseller

And those who agreed generally but didn’t feel the need to walk away from all existing practices commented:

“Everything builds on what exists, so it’s not possible in any field to create ‘a completely new approach,’ only to modify and adjust to new conditions and circumstances.” — author and museum curator

“I think ‘completely new’ is a bit of a stretch. I think we definitely need to adjust our approach though.” —publishing executive, marketing

“I don’t believe that the old models are completely obsolete. We just need to adapt the more conventional models to align with the new technologies.” — editor and publisher

Respondents confirmed the traditional publishing marketing practice of publishers selling to bookstores, but they noted that this model is now breaking down. “New” in marketing strategy includes re-thinking the path from publisher to reader and how to make that simpler and involve fewer steps.

“Traditional book marketing has typically been primarily B2B (business to business). Bookstores were the customers, and publisher marketing departments main focus was to give their sales reps effective tools to sell books to those customers. Bookstores would invest in the B2C (business to customer) part to hopefully sell the books through to the end consumer. As time has gone on, bookstores are less and less able to put marketing dollars toward aggressive consumer marketing, thereby leaving the task to publishers.” publishing executive, marketing

“We used to rely on the retailer almost exclusively for sales, with us not knowing whom we were selling books to. Those times are gone.” publishing executive, editor

“The fact that we can do sales direct to consumer with much more intelligence and efficiency these days is changing the landscape of sales.” — publisher

“Publishers and authors need to speak directly to book buyers  that is the new marketing. Especially for niche and hard-to-find audiences. The Internet and social media give publishers the longed-for ability to speak directly to specific audiences. No more intermediaries, and that includes Amazon.” — publisher and author

While major marketing responsibility for individual titles is transitioning away from bookstores and more to publishers, in some cases publishers are not seen as willingly or enthusiastically embracing that responsibility.

“My experience with publishers indicates that much of the marketing is the author’s responsibility. Book proposals require extensive information on the author’s networks that are then used by the publishers to generate exposure in the form of book talks, write-ups, etc. But I’ve noticed those things happen when the author corresponds with the publication of venue, not the publisher.” — author and critic

“Popular authors have loads of followers on Twitter and other platforms, and they use them well to connect to readers and sell more books. Publishers try to do the same, and some have millions of followers. But it doesn’t seem like people are so excited about connecting with publishers as they are with authors.” —author and critic

We heard that the perspective on the state of marketing in the industry can be affected significantly by the vantage point of the commenter. This from a small independent publisher:

“The idea of ‘completely new’ originates from a very corporate mindset which doesn’t understand the rich and deeply diverse independent publishing landscape―or the kinds of ambitions for those types of books and connecting them to readers. I stay far away from the center of things but yet I am deep in it, making it work, thriving at the margins where I―and many other indie presses―invent our own ways of doing things. Some work, some don’t. We’re nimble: we learn, we adapt. The revolution is passing the corporate guys by.” — publisher

Of those who agreed on the need for a new level of innovation in book marketing, this remark stood out in particular:

“The new marketing approach has all to do, or at least a lot to do, with the creation of communities.” — publishing executive, editor

Observations and Comments

The Book Industry Study Group estimates that there are over 1,000,000 books published in the United States each year.

The father of modern marketing, Philip Kotler, addresses the issue of standing out in a crowded marketplace:

“Today more than ever, customers want that ‘wow’ experience . . . If you introduce a brand new thing that creates a ‘wow,’ people line up and therefore there is no need for hard selling.”

Yet in an industry like publishing, in which there are so many “new things” released each year, the conventional wisdom is that consistently creating “wows” that on their own attract lines of buyers is impossible—or at least very difficult. But that is why marketing was invented to begin with: to create awareness and bring customer attention to new things that are introduced into crowded marketplaces.

As revealed in the survey responses, more and more marketing responsibility is being placed on authors. It is easy and understandable for authors to resist and resent this as an annoying distraction. Alternatively, though, there is also the perspective of the Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero who said:

“The first and most competent critic of a work of art is the artist who created it; the artist alone will understand how to make the work known and how to launch it.”

Watch for the report on Part 2 of our survey and a continuation of this discussion.

If you would like to be in contact with us in connection with any of the above topics, you can do so using this email address: info@designersandbooks.com


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