Book publishers myopic about marketing

The death of Chapters has left a dent in the book retail industry, just as more consumers are turning to the vast Internet to source and purchase titles. While these trends have encouraged some publishers to write stronger marketing plans in order to build awareness around their books, others have failed to follow suit, even though experts believe the current climate deems it necessary.

The death of Chapters has left a dent in the book retail industry, just as more consumers are turning to the vast Internet to source and purchase titles. While these trends have encouraged some publishers to write stronger marketing plans in order to build awareness around their books, others have failed to follow suit, even though experts believe the current climate deems it necessary.

‘I think it behooves publishers to sit down with their marketing departments and [think about] how to make an impression,’ says Salman Nensi, president of the Book Promoters Association of Canada. ‘Anywhere they can place the book where it hasn’t been seen before is vital.’

Another source close to the industry describes Canadian publishers as myopic when it comes to marketing. Although they are often lucky to get a few thousand dollars to promote a title, they also ‘don’t comprehend the concept of marketing outside the [box]. There is an awful lot of, ‘We don’t want to do anything that’s too different.’ That attitude is prevalent in Canadian publishing.’

Even when it comes to kids’ titles, he says, publishers will ignore children’s magazines and settle for an ad in the Globe and Mail, simply because it’s the norm. ‘The Globe may be appropriate for high-end literature, however, this is not literature, it is pulp material. They don’t get it.’

Many publishers are afraid of risk, adds Patti McCabe, director of marketing and publicity at Toronto-based book marketing firm Omikron Marketing Services. ‘There’s no guarantee a strategy will work and they have budget constraints.’

Indeed, publishers have been hit hard by Chapters, which crippled smaller, independent booksellers with its aggressive expansion and, in the past two years, returned a record number of titles to publishing houses, leaving them even more risk-averse. The situation climaxed when the chain was swallowed by its smaller foe, Toronto-based Indigo Books Music & More last February.

Orca Book Publishers, Victoria, B.C., is one company that has felt the squeeze and, as a result, ‘cut back in terms of ad budgets,’ according to Christine Toller, promotions and marketing director. ‘Everyone has a cash shortage.’ But while most strive for free publicity or invest in limited newspaper advertising, they can no longer rely on such vehicles, warns McCabe, who explains that book review sections of dailies are dwindling.

One solution is to bypass the media altogether by utilizing the Internet or special events. In promoting a science fiction title recently, for instance, McCabe turned to Web sites targeted directly at the niche, as well as a recent Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention in Toronto. ‘You’re getting to the fans directly.’

Certainly, there are a few bright stars in the stack, typically larger players with ad budgets to match. One is Penguin Canada, which entered a new chapter last fall with its first consumer campaign for its overall brand. The print ads ran in the Globe for six weeks, featuring a soup can with the Penguin logo and the tagline, ‘Always read the label. Contents vary.’ In-store promotions, transit shelter ads in Toronto, wildposters in Toronto and Vancouver and a digital mall board campaign in Ontario were blended into the mix.

‘The idea was to revive Penguin’s brand awareness,’ explains Julie Traves, marketing manager. ‘It was getting people to think about books like they would a consumer product, where they look at a brand as a stamp of quality, a way to filter through the millions of books they see when they walk into a superstore.’

The effort raised brand awareness by 12%, and the publisher plans to debut a new campaign this fall. ‘Classic. Canadian’ will be treated in a similar capacity. Meanwhile, to capitalize on the value of retailer involvement, a staff incentive program will reward those who wear promotional buttons with a free paperback, as well as a chance to win a Canadian library and leather book bag.

Penguin will also roll out ‘Our Canadian Girl,’ a historical fiction series to be marketed via a dedicated Web site, http://www.ourcanadiangirl.ca, in late August. Kids can access information tied into the stories online, such as how to make paper lanterns, scones and clothespin dolls, as well as trade e-cards and enter monthly polls. Ads in parenting publications and community newspapers will also be implemented.

Kids Can Press, Toronto, which is owned by animation company Nelvana (owned in turn by Corus Entertainment), is also straying from the norm. ‘If we want to continue to grow as we have in the last 20 years, we’re going to have to be a little more creative in our marketing,’ says Rick Walker, sales and marketing manager.

May marked the 15th anniversary of Franklin the Turtle, a character from a book series the firm publishes. To celebrate, Kids Can organized get-togethers in 150 stores, equipping retailers with supplies such as bookmarks, posters and activity sheets. Kids Can suggested booksellers cook up Breakfast With Franklin functions, enabling them to use co-operative cash generally reserved for radio or print.

Promoted through store posters, local newspapers and bag stuffers, the Franklin events triggered a 15% to 20% surge in sales, he says, and due to its success, Kids Can is looking at other book characters it can leverage. ‘I think we had to take the initiative. If you don’t, you won’t see sales increases. You need to be proactive – and not necessarily wait for the bookstores to come to you with their ideas.’

The industry’s recent plot twists have led Toronto-based McArthur & Company to tap into foreign markets, according to Sheri Hodds, publicity director. The firm is selling books in the U.S. for the first time and will promote its titles south of the border in the future. ‘I think it makes sense for everyone, that way if something happens in a particular market, there isn’t as much of a problem.’

McArthur & Company is also pursuing new promotional avenues in this country. For example, to coincide with the introduction of a new Ian Rankin title this fall, McArthur will encourage booksellers to enter a draw, whereby they can win a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, to tour around the setting of the novel with the writer himself. Also, since Rankin-inspired mystery programs are played on TVO, McArthur will hook up with the TV station to offer consumers a chance to win a lunch date with the scribe.

Like others in the industry, the firm is also more inclined to use the Internet as a marketing vehicle these days, but only where it makes sense. For The Great Canadian Beer Guide, written by Stephen Beaumont, for example, banner ads will be placed on beer sites, like beer.com, since the publisher believes brew enthusiasts are also likely to be cyber-surfers.

Currently, kids’ publishers are even collaborating on a plan to push titles on the domestic scene by labelling them Canadian. ‘They’re talking about ways to brand Canadian books, because their market has fallen out from under them, and they’re looking at how to survive in the new retail world,’ says Medbh Bidwell, projects manager of the Association of Canadian Publishers in Toronto. However, the topic is just up for discussion right now, she points out, and no solutions have been tabled.

But the outdated book market needs to act quickly in order to keep pace with savvy consumers. ‘The industry is changing and so is the way people get information,’ says McCabe. ‘Therefore, marketing strategies also need to change to get their attention.’