BEA Panel Explores the Pros and Cons of Book Marketing Stunts
At BookExpo America on Wednesday, Edward Nawotka, editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives, kicked off a session titled "Book Stunts: Surprising Marketing Practices From Around the World" with an arresting statistic.
According to RR Bowker, "the general professional and trade industries released 1.3 million books [last year]," Nawotka said. "When you couple that with the proliferation of self publishing platforms ... that number hit 3 million individual titles published in the United States last year. It's an astronomical sum. Literally a little bit less than one percent of the entire population of the United States ... has published a book."
With so many voices clamoring to find an audience, it's hard to make any one book stand out, Nawotka noted. "There's noise, noise, noise, noise out in the market," he said. "So how on earth do you get noticed?"
For some authors and publishers, the answer has lately come from attention grabbing stunts, such as novelist Jennifer Belle's hiring of several dozen female actresses to ride the subways of New York and laugh uproariously while reading her book.
The stunt got a lot of press, with ample coverage in New York media including the New York Times and New York Post, Nawotka said.
A stunt by German publisher Eichborn had promotional banners tied to flies (the living, buzzing kind), which were released at the Frankfurt Book Fair. American author Brad Meltzer put together a funny YouTube video mostly featuring members of his own family giving his books poor reviews (including a small child's comment: "Interesting premise if you don't think about it too much.")
Of course, the key question is whether these stunts actually translate into sales.
"Entertaining somebody far exceeds getting a [book] review[ed] in some cases," said Erin Cox, a business development director at Publishing Perspectives who is also a literary agent. "You get a lot more impressions if you entertain people .... [these authors] did things that shock people into paying attention, and I think in a lot of ways that does help."
A book marketing stunt must have a counterintuitive, playful, fun element, Nawotka said, as when a New York writer's collective, Mischief and Mayhem, staged a "protest reading" outside a Barnes & Noble to send a message about mainstream publishing. Of course, this performance (like all stunts) carries the risk of alienating as many or more potential customers as it attracts.
"We all have a vested interest in selling books, so I think we all have to work together to find ways to connect to readers, and is it doing something shocking to connect to readers? Maybe," Cox said.
While these stunts can allow an author's personality to come out, they must be relevant to their approach and style, noted Ramy Habeeb, co-founder of Egyptian e-publishing house Kotobarabia.com.
"You need to make sure it does not hurt the audience's perception of the book or the author," he said. "If you're not funny, don't try to be. You need to know that about yourself."
Word-of-mouth is and will continue to be a major way to sell books in America and around the world, he noted. "People want to be able to connect, so just make sure you connect in a genuine way."
A team Cox worked for at Harper Collins dodged a potential public relations problem when planning publicity for a thriller, "The Righteous Men," with a story featuring a kidnapper's threatening text messages. They initially thought a marketing campaign utilizing texts that lead back to the book would be a good idea.
"We had the whole idea laid out and then we thought, wait, we're going to terrify people into buying the book?" she recalled. " .... Maybe we'll think of something else."