On Selling (And Marketing) Books

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BookCamp Toronto is just about to wrap up. It was an amazing day that lived up to its tagline of being, "a conversation about the future of books, writing, publishing, and the book business in the digital age."

If ever there was an event to get your brain melting with new ways of doing things or an enabler to get you thinking differently, it’s an unconference. In this instance, BookCamp Toronto brought together big publishing companies and small/independent booksellers. It saw social media and technology folks mingling with authors and editors. It was a day where people really connected and had deep, long (and sometimes heated) conversations about books, publishing and all things writing.

What was the big take home?

Beyond the obvious (like Marketers, the music industry, the newspaper industry, etc… the book publishing industry is just as challenged when it comes to understanding the digitization of their industry and how to market their products and services in the online and mobile channels), authors and publishers need to think differently about what they have been doing online. As someone who has a book to promote very shortly (more on that here: Six Pixels of Separation Book Details), there were some interesting comparisons throughout the day on how the book publishing industry and the music industry are similar.

The thing is this: even if people steal music, they’re still buying tickets to the show, t-shirts, ringtones and more, but when it comes to a book, that’s all the author has (in most cases). 

Sure, there are exceptions and yes, there are authors who also have speaking engagements, audio programs, additional knowledge products, appearances, etc…, but for the most part, the real money is supposed to come from selling books. Maybe authors need to do the opposite of what the music industry is doing. In the music industry, it seems like most artists have given up on really trying to sell the music, and acknowledge that their future income will come from concerts and merchandise. In the case of books, maybe the idea is to give everything else away, but encourage people to buy the book.

Here’s where this is going…

Authors (and publishers) need to create value and build their readership by leveraging whatever relevant online social channels make the most sense according to an overall (and pre-determined) strategy. Let’s go with using Blogging and Twitter for argument’s sake. These author’s need to be building up readership and interest long before their book ever hits the store shelves. In providing this value (and that should also include taking part in other relevant spaces, contributing to some mass media publications and being active – both offline and online – in the niche communities) and by continuing to give content and value abundantly (think a free PDF document, etc…), they need to literally (and virtually) flood the market with free, great insight and, at the same time, let people know (in a non-pushy) way that there is a lot more where that came from in the book.

Bring value back into the book by not giving it away. 

If the book is the only way that an author can make money, what other choice do they have? They need to be pushing out so much great stuff that not getting the book would be a terrible mistake for all of those who are following, listening and engaged. On top of that, their online and offline engagement has to be sincere, real and powerful, otherwise people won’t care.

Consumers need to be smart too.

If an author is providing tons of free content and is a valued member of the community, the least you can do is plop down the twenty-bucks to support them. You may not see the direct value in the money for the book, but considering how much other content and "stuff" you are getting, is that too much to ask? Back when I was a music journalist, I used to get hundreds of free CDs a month. Still, if I got a free CD of a band I happen to like or respect, I’d go out and buy a copy of the CD (and give it to someone else who might like it) simply because I wanted to show my direct support of the artist.

All of this free stuff is amazing, but it’s going to dry up very fast if we don’t help out the content creators once in a while (remember, books are not ad supported and I don’t think consumers want it going down that route). 


  1. Mitch, I agree with the points you brought up but I think it would apply only in specific book categories. However, there are certain others (i.e. food/cuisine, home improvement, nutrition/diet, etc.) which are bound to become extinct due to the abundance of free (and quality) content that is available online.

  2. I enjoyed the day immensely but feel very challenged in my small academic press to get much advantage out of all the online channels. I’m on Facebook. I Twitter. I Blog. And my authors, for the most part, are completely uninterested in online. They’re on to their next research project and glad that their publication will help with their tenure. I’m not knocking that — it’s the nature of academic publishing, but we still need to sell the books. We recently published a book on intellectual property. Shortly after it was announced that Canada had been put on some sort of blacklist, so I contacted the author to get some content for the blog. He replied that he was too busy that week but might be able to do something the week after. Of course the story was gone by then.
    So I spend a lot of time at these seminars nodding my head and knowing it’s the right direction, but I’m really frustrated.
    However, it was awesome to be in the room with so many innovative people and I’m so glad I went.

  3. Hi Mitch. I enjoyed your session and the rest of BookCamp Toronto.
    I thought that most business authors wrote books to build their credibility and made their real money from the addons like speaking and consulting. That model seems viable and could even use free ebooks to make sharing easier.
    If the writer only makes money from books, then your ideas make imminent sense. Develop a marketing plan to create buzz for the book prior to publication. Give away related stuff of value.
    As Clare points out, writers seem unwilling or unable to market their own books using social media. That’s surprising. If marketing means telling stories that sell (as per Seth Godin), then authors have an unfair advantage because of their mastery of language.
    Discussion of Digital Rights Management for ebooks came up all day long. No one I saw or heard supports DRM. Yet it exists. I like listening to an audiobook and having a DRM-free ecopy for future reference. Too bad this combination isn’t routinely bundled together at an appealing price.

  4. Mitch,
    As the author of my first forthcoming book: “Marketing 2.0; Bridging the Gap between Seller and Buyer through Social Media Marketing,” I have great interest in this topic.
    I think we don’t know the future of book publishing and book marketing. We know that engaging potential readers on the social web makes perfect sense. But, will it sell books? Perhaps some…
    It boils down to the author’s goals. In today’s eco system most authors need a multi-faceted marketing strategy. Depending on book sales is dangerous for many authors who don’t have three or more successful books to their name.
    When my book comes out this summer, I hope to capture more speaking gigs and business for my Internet marketing agency. If the book sells well and puts money in my pocket, I will consider that a bonus.

  5. Gratis vs. Libre
    I agree with you Mitch that the thing of value that publishers and authors have is the content of their books. Setting the value of that content at zero is not the way to go.
    Giving the content away for free (in whatever format the book takes) is like my fellow apartment dwellers who toss books into the “free” box in the laundry room. Those books are gratis. They are one step above being thrown away. The value exchange between giver and taker is “meh”.
    Freeing the content, as in libre, is what publishers and authors are after. It’s the quest to give–as in a gift–that allows the value exchange of the content to remain in tact.
    For your book, think about your agency approach. What content or information do you gift-away to clients? How do you do that? And how do you ensure the value of what you’re giving away for free is understood?
    As a service provider you understand the value of intangibles. Just translate that value exchange into a model for your book promotion.
    More thoughts and a case study (PDF) here:
    Great to see you!

  6. What seems to be missing in all of the discussion around free are metrics. Brian O’Leary at Magellan is involved in research with O’Reilly and Random House where they are investigating the effect of free on sales -so far the free book has not made cannibalized the sales. At any rate -just because your blog is free doesn’t mean I don’t value it!

  7. As an independent bookseller with constantly improving gross sales figures, we might seem to have benefitted greatly by the inability of others in many facets of our business to “think outside the box.”
    But it is difficult to think this trend will continue when we believe the “book business”, enveloping all its facets, needs to be operating as a unit to have any hope of regaining lost ground before rejuvenating itself to serve a changing marketplace.
    We are all guilty of not doing enough.
    We can’t continue to use the excuse that there is already so much work to do that we have no energy left for innovation or education – if such is the case – get out of the business and make room for someone who doesn’t know it can’t be done.
    An author who thinks their work is done when the publisher buys their book needs to be educated … taught to handsell their book … or dropped
    The BEA Convention in New York gave me the impression that all parties are pretty much “phoning it in” and going through the motions.
    A forum such as yours would have been revolutionary in the midst of the status quo they presented.
    Congratulations on your efforts – I would like to be advised if and when you are going to take your event on the road – it is absolutely necessary!!!
    It should definitely be presented to the
    BEA – because the 2-3 clerks they hired to conduct the event need some ideas – and some adrenelin.
    We need fewer book lovers in the book business and more people who love the work so much they’ll actually do it.

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