How would you market Canadian books?

On Nov. 24, the Globe and Mail Book Review section contained an ad, in which a slew of authors banded together and implored consumers to save Canadian publishers by purchasing domestic titles this holiday season. While many observers question the effectiveness of such a strategy, it underlines the current precarious state of the industry. Certainly, the Chapters fiasco has crippled many publishing companies who were faced with loads of returns in the last year, and now have fewer booksellers to work with. More significantly, there is a negative association around book marketing, as most in the business define literature as culture, not a product to be sold like cereal. Therefore, efforts tend to revolve around ads in the book sections of newspapers. Is there any way the book industry can positively alter the direction this story is headed?

CounterStrategy asks industry thinkers to put their creative brainpower behind a specific business problem or topic. There is no client brief, no rules – just out-of-the-box thinking.

On Nov. 24, the Globe and Mail Book Review section contained an ad, in which a slew of authors banded together and implored consumers to save Canadian publishers by purchasing domestic titles this holiday season. While many observers question the effectiveness of such a strategy, it underlines the current precarious state of the industry. Certainly, the Chapters fiasco has crippled many publishing companies who were faced with loads of returns in the last year, and now have fewer booksellers to work with. More significantly, there is a negative association around book marketing, as most in the business define literature as culture, not a product to be sold like cereal. Therefore, efforts tend to revolve around ads in the book sections of newspapers. Is there any way the book industry can positively alter the direction this story is headed?

Salman Nensi

President

Book Promoters Association of Canada, Toronto

Salman Nensi has consulted book publishers for over 10 years. He suggests finding new avenues to sell, branding authors and treating the category as an entertainment property.

‘I think there is a right way and a wrong way to advertise. The ad from the Canadian authors is a negative marketing campaign, not a positive or proactive one. I don’t appreciate when someone buys a book simply because it’s a Canadian book. It should be bought because it’s amazing.

‘The market place has changed on us. A decade ago, we used to sell books in department stores and we did amazing business. Those avenues don’t exist any more. Some publishers have tried to take books into other retail outlets, but there are a lot of economic problems, because of margins and costs. Some have had luck getting books into Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire, but not every book is Canadian Tire material. There are hurdles. But there needs to be an industry-wide effort to address that.

‘If I were advising a publishing company on how to sell into 2002, I’d look for new avenues to reach those eyeballs. Use the Web as a marketing tool, to provide information so people become interested in buying a book. For the most part, it’s the author they should brand. For instance, create an author’s first-and-last name.com, and have that page dovetail to the publisher’s Web site where the book can be sold. The online browser isn’t likely to type in a publisher’s name. But if they’ve heard of the author, they will type in their name.

‘Co-promotion is another idea. I came across a company once that sold half-a-million cheese slices in a six-week period. At the publishing company I worked for, there was an educational service for young kids. My idea was to package promotional flash cards with the cheese slices. If mom collected five, she would get a free book, and had a chance to win a 60-title library. The cheese slice company agreed to buy 10,000 units of books at cost to give away for free. There would be grocery store participation, where the grocery stores would collect ballots. Then they would draw one winner per region. So there would be fanfare and PR, because there would have been a presentation to the winners in the grocery stores. The cost to the publishing company was the time of the marketing director, and creative for the flash cards. But the company’s executive couldn’t understand why we would get involved with cheese slices if we were a publishing company.

‘My advice is, let’s look outside of the box, and become part of the entertainment industry. Books are a product and they need to get to market.

‘People only have a certain amount of money to spend on entertainment. If you’re talking about children’s books, your competitor is Canada’s Wonderland. If high end, it’s the opera or the symphony or movies. Publishers didn’t understand that they compete against movies or CDs.’

Don Sedgwick

Program coordinator of the graduate program in book and magazine publishing

Centennial College, Toronto

Don Sedgwick worked in publishing for 25 years. He suggests teaming up with the federal government to create a generic campaign that touts the advantages of books over other entertainment options. He also suggests marketing book prize winners, and making significant changes to current distribution practices.

‘We need more aggressive marketing. One of the marketing schemes from 10 or 12 years ago, was when the provincial government allowed losing Wintario lottery tickets to be worth a buck at bookstores. I would love to see a similar thing happen now. It drove people into bookstores.

‘We also need a generic campaign that reminds people what a great value a book is. It costs you $12 to go to a movie and it’s over in a flash. For that price, you can get a book that will last a lot longer and will give you more value. I think that should be more of a federal initiative.

‘There are a number of publishers doing branding campaigns – and that’s good. Random House just produced the second volume of their magazine called Read, and they have a Web site where you can test-drive some of their commercial fiction. Consumers don’t think of publishers as brands. I would encourage that heartily. Promote books that have a theme, could be read sequentially, or have a logo on them.

‘Prizes certainly help. You look at the Giller Prize books, and almost all of them are on the bestseller list. Book prizes give an enormous boost to books, but you need to turn around and market them [as winners].

‘When it comes to warehousing and distribution, there was talk from the federal government about creating more efficient systems. In Holland, there’s one central distribution centre, and you can get any book in 24 hours. It wouldn’t hurt to investigate this. Right now it could take four to eight weeks to get a book.

‘The industry also needs better information on the number and types of books going through the cash register. There are efforts being made to use some of the point-of-sale information that’s gathered in England and bring that technology to Canada.’

Patti McCabe

Director of marketing and publicity

Omikron Marketing Services, Toronto

Patti McCabe is a consultant with this Toronto-based book marketing firm. She believes publishers need to establish a stronger business model. She also has some ideas about co-promotion, event sponsorship and contests.

‘Publishers should cooperate with other businesses and be more creative in their marketing. Most people don’t consider books to be products – they are art and culture, so they aren’t treated like toothpaste. And that’s a mind-set that’s everywhere. Publishers need to realize that it is a business.

‘I also think that publishers do need to think outside the book marketing box. There are a lot of examples where books could be tied into events – like Fashion Cares or the Junos.

‘It’s a good idea to do co-marketing with other businesses. More of that needs to be done, because the book industry is so isolated. They don’t even partner with other arts, like music. People could win tickets to the Giller Prize event through radio stations, or win the opportunity to meet their favourite authors at one of the big publishing events.

‘Another old problem that exists – there’s nobody else who has a returns policy like the book industry. It’s crazy that businesses can order a bunch of books and then send them back if they don’t sell.’

John Lee

President

Holmes & Lee, Toronto

John Lee believes Indigo needs to create a solid, single brand for its retail operation.

‘I am not sure you have to ‘fix’ the Canadian book business, but the way books are distributed and promoted in this country certainly has to be addressed. The Canadian books themselves are fine. We produce wonderful, fresh, creative literature product every year. We are good at it. So if the product is fine, then the problem is presenting and promoting that product to customers across this great land.

‘This is where things break down. There has to be a better alignment of distribution and promotion. If that happens, there will be a chance to induce significant change. Publishers seem to feel that book promotion must remain stodgy and lifeless. They may be trying to at least design some nice covers/packaging, but book promotion is still limited to half-hearted, boring print ads. The way it always has been done. On top of that, they have very little money to support their stars.

‘Distribution remains a big issue for the publishers. There are still a lot of retail bookselling brands in Canada, and the resistance to the inevitable is mystifying. Indigo holds all the cards, but insists on standing pat. Chapters has been standing there with a blindfold and a smoke for a long time now, but Indigo won’t pull the trigger.

‘Indigo, I am sure, has lots of research that says there are happy Indigo people and happy Chapters people and they just wish everyone could get along. I am also sure the real estate issues are very weighty.

‘Tough. Do what is going to happen anyway, Indigo. It is your market now. Roll the subordinate brand into the big sister and start developing one single brand, one single destination, one banner for consumers and publishers to understand, appreciate and follow.

‘Two things can then happen. One, publishers with limited budgets for promotion can consolidate with Indigo and then hopefully can provide stronger overall support for Canadian ‘star’ authors/books/product. Two, maybe Indigo remembers that they are in the business of selling books, and then promotes the hell out of it.

‘My CD partner Peter Holmes, a voracious reader of ancient history, says ‘At Indigo, you can buy CDs, dishes, toys, candles, lunch, a latte and oh yeah, books.’ He is right. Indigo sells books. That brand, having blown the competition away, should get to it and consolidate the sell. Now is the time.

‘Maybe then they look at different ways to promote books. With this so-called ‘convergence’ of television and Internet, there has to be some way to let people get more involved with books as a trial device. Sound, pictures, excerpts, live readings, interviews, text – some way to get people involved and get them to try the books as a result.

‘You can’t say, ‘get people to read more.’ They will, or they won’t. You can say, ‘get great books at Indigo. Look, here are some new ones, right here. Some great new Canadian ones too.’

‘Just figure out a way to lead people to great product, and then let that great product take over. That might not be a ‘fix,’ but a lot of the problems in that business will go away.’