Marketing Interview: 'Read-it-First' Lets Readers Try Before They Buy
Matthew Baldacci has been marketing books for 17 years. Currently St. Martin’s Press’ vice president of marketing and publishing operations, he has seen a number of marketing strategies come and go, and is constantly on the lookout for innovative and creative ways to market the company’s some 700 titles a year. He and his team may be on to something with its relatively new “try before you buy” model.
Read-it-First is a free e-mail service that allows subscribers to “test read” books via e-mail. Monday through Friday subscribers are sent a book excerpt that takes about five minutes to read. By the end of the week, after reading the first couple of chapters of a book, subscribers may purchase the book to continue reading it. Each week, a new book is featured. Frequently, the featured book has not yet been released to the public.
Here, Baldacci talks with Book Business about Read-it-First’s initial success, his team’s plans for significantly expanding the service and his outlook during a difficult time for the industry.
How does Read-it-First work?
Matthew Baldacci: We built [Read-it-First] from zero subscribers to the current 15,000 or so, so it’s been a nice marketing tool for us. …
The way Read-it-First works is [that] you get an e-mail every day, and there’s an introduction [before the book content] from … an editor who speaks to a certain audience. She [may talk] about baking cookies, gardening, cutting her finger, etc. It’s not really about the books, but people like to hear from her every morning.
Right now, we know what the audience likes, from experience, because we’ve tried some things that haven’t worked, too. But, going forward, we’re going to be trying some different stuff, too.
You’re set to embark on an effort to monetize this service and grow the subscription list to 100,000. How do you intend to achieve this goal?
Baldacci: What we’re attempting to do is [to] take the inherent value in the service, which is the [book content], and deliver it to a list of people who are really interested in trying before they buy. We’re doing this through our own in-house lists, our authors’ lists, we’re going to acquire some lists, and we’re also looking for partners. I’ve talked to a number of different Web sites with appropriate audiences [about potential partnerships]. It’s a very simple idea of taking this valuable content that readers want and broadening the reach of that audience.
Until now, we really have not spent any money on trying to grow this list, but now I actually am going to spend a little money to grow the audience for Read-it-First.
What’s the most significant change to book marketing you’ve seen over your 17 years in the business?
Baldacci: The biggest change—and it’s probably even bigger than the emergence of the Internet in terms of how you market books—is the change in the retail landscape. It was a very different picture 17 years ago [of] how books were distributed, who was actually selling them and how they were sold. …
What has changed is the portion of our marketing spend that goes to cooperative advertising dollars. So how have we adjusted to that? We’ve become even closer to our retail and wholesale partners. We’ve been very careful about leveraging our co-op dollars to make the maximum impact on particular authors to get the books distributed properly and in the face of consumers. I think that’s been the biggest change. It’s had the biggest impact.
The current economic climate, combined with rising manufacturing costs and the uncertainty that comes with new media, have a lot of people concerned about the future of book publishing. What is your outlook?
Baldacci: I choose to look at this all in a positive light. We need to be very conservative. … We question every dollar that we’re planning to spend. You can look out on the landscape and realize that you have to be cautious about how things are going to change.
All that said, while it’s time to be conservative and cautious, I think it’s also a time to be optimistic about books. If people are cutting down on their disposable expenses, books are still a relatively cheap option. They’re a very solid option. I think that hardcover and paperback books are going to exist for a long time. Not because of the tactile feel of them, but because of their inherent value. These are thoughts and ideas captured in a very good format that makes them easy to digest and discuss.
But on the other side of the fence, I am also a huge advocate of the e-reader. I think that there is [an opportunity to gain] incremental audience for the book publishing industry with the e-reader format, and I think that is a hopeful thing for the future. The audience [that] buys books—35 million people or so—hasn’t changed that much in the last 20 years. So, if e-readers and e-formats open up an incremental opportunity to add readers to that universe of people who buy books, then that’s a really positive thing. So I guess I choose to be positive, while being exceptionally cautious.