Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What kind of book promotion works?

Sandra Parshall

What makes readers buy a book?  

The answer is a mystery to most writers, but we need to know so we can target our promotional efforts at a time when the selling is seen as our responsibility, not the publishers’. Sisters in Crime set out to find answers in a survey of mystery book buyers conducted by Bowker. The first look at the results, presented October 14 at Bouchercon in San Francisco, reinforced some common beliefs but also provided jolting evidence that a writer needs several different marketing campaigns for each book. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to reaching readers.

The major difference, as you might expect, is between younger and older readers. Older readers are influenced by advertising, bestseller lists, and bookstore displays. To a much greater degree, younger readers are influenced by personal social connections with other readers and with authors, and they find out about books online through Amazon reviews, Facebook, and other sources.

Across all age groups, though, the greatest influence is something writers can’t really control: word of mouth, or recommendations from other readers. Those are the private exchanges that writers simply have to hope for.

The second most important influence is a book’s presence on a bestseller list. If it’s already selling well, more people will want to try it. Reviews online and print reviews are equally important. Next comes the book’s cover, with 18% of survey respondents saying cover art is highly influential and 57% saying it has some influence. (Those fights writers sometimes have with editors over terrible covers are worth the effort, apparently.) Coming in last among all those surveyed was “prominent display in bookstore” – 15% said this is highly influential and 56% said it has some influence.

Those of us who spend a lot of time online do it because we believe it’s an important way to reach readers, but the Bowker survey shows an author’s internet presence isn’t a major influence on book buyers. Only 9% of those surveyed said following a writer on Facebook led them to buy a book, with men and women giving it nearly equal weight. When the data gets down to age groups, though, it becomes more interesting. The under-40 readers are more likely than others to buy books because they’ve encountered authors on Facebook. Even so, only a little over a third of readers under 40 say they’re influenced in any way by the world’s biggest online community. The percentages drop drastically as the reader’s age goes up.

Where do e-books stand with mystery readers? Only 5.3% of survey respondents named e-books as a preferred format. Hardcover is still king, with 35% preferring it. Mass market paperbacks came in third at 34%, and trade paperbacks followed with 23%. 

And what about blogs, which consume so many authors’ precious writing energies? Not so important, according to the survey. It’s down near the bottom of the list, along with a lot of other things writers pour themselves into relentlessly. Named as low influences on purchases are author newsletters, promotional give-aways, mailings from authors, signings in stores, online discussion groups such as GoodReads, author blogs, postcard mailings, Facebook, banner ads on websites, publisher websites, online communities such as DorothyL and 4 Mystery Addicts, and, dead last, Twitter. The online activities are far more likely to reach young readers than older ones.

The survey is filled with information, which should become available gradually over the next few weeks, but this first look gives writers information they can use to decide where to put their promotional money and time. If you believe most of your fans are 50 or older, and you’re spending half your day tweeting or updating your Facebook status, you might want to reconsider those efforts. Unless you have a fantastically successful blog, and you know you’re reaching a lot of younger, web-loving  readers with it, you should probably think of it as a relatively unimportant supplement to more traditional forms of promotion.

A few other points:

Still most influential in the purchase of a new book is the reader’s familiarity with the author’s previous work.

Series books are preferred by mystery readers.

The majority of younger readers prefer dark crime fiction with strong suspense. Older readers prefer lighter mysteries.

So. What do you think of these findings? As a reader, what influences your book buying? As a writer, do you believe you’re focusing your promotion in the right direction, or are you spending a lot of time on activities that might not be working? 


Donnell Ann Bell said...

Very interesting, Sandra. I know so many who are spending hours and hours on these social networks. I worry not only that it's time consuming. It's addictive. Word of mouth to me is still how I buy my books.

KK Brees said...

Word of mouth has always been the best way to promote, but in this techie age, word of mouth can have many different manifestations. Simply stated, if people don't know about your book, they won't buy it unless they trip over it somewhere.

Promotion is frustrating for most writers, myself included, but we're pushed to do it.

Sandra Parshall said...

The big question is: How can a writer generate word of mouth for her book?

Vicki Lane said...

Very interesting. The top three determinants are word of mouth, best seller list, and cover -- all out of my control (No real say on covers for me.) And I can't afford advertising.

I'll continue to blog -- really just because I enjoy it.

I know I've gained new readers through the blog -- just had comments today from readers in New Zealand, England. and the Netherlands, all of whom have gotten my books from Amazon. And I know I've had other people say they bought the books after following my blog.

It may be only a drop in the bucket -- certainly not worth doing if I didn't enjoy it so -- but since all those other factors are out of my control. . .

Jared said...

Does word of mouth/recommendation extend to blurbs on the book?

Susan M. Boyer said...

As a reader, I know I'm virtually never influenced to buy a book by a blog, Tweet, Facebook update, or any other online social networking tool.

I say virtually, because the one exception to this is that I try to be alert to new releases by members of the writers groups to which I belong, and sometimes this news is delivered via list serve or Tweet. In most cases, I would have otherwise missed these titles, because they are not (generally) promoted on Amazon or on a display at the front of the bookstore. Perhaps I would have found the book while browsing, perhaps not.

Aside from the authors on my "always buy new release" list, I'm a browser, whether online or in a bookstore. I select titles that grab my attention, either because of the title itself, or the cover. I read the jacket copy and the first page. I either add the book to the stack in my arms (or my virtual shopping cart) or move on to another title.

As a writer, I am frustrated by the disconnect between my own buying habits (and those of every non-writer who is a reader that I know)and the message I hear from publishing professionals who insist that an online presence is the modern version of the book tour.

Sandra Parshall said...

Jared, by "word of mouth" readers mean positive things they hear from people they know. I'm not sure anyone is influenced much by blurbs (although having them makes the author feel good).

Susan, you're so right about authors jumping into social networking because their agents and editors insist on it. It's time-consuming and gives little return, so you should do it only if you enjoy it. I know I've found at least a few new readers through Facebook.

Dru said...

I've discovered so many new-to-me authors through blogs and Facebook. I'm a visual person so the cover will pull me in and word of mouth and other forms of recommendation and knowing what I like will have me at the cashier with a brand new book in my hands.

Janet Bolin said...

I like recommendations from people I know. In many ways, I consider comments on social media to be another form of word of mouth.

When left to my own, I usually choose books by reading the first paragraphs.

Sandra Parshall said...

The survey respondents didn't say they *never* become aware of books through blogs or social networking, only that those are not significant influences. Obviously there are individuals to whom these things matter a lot.

Online activity by an author is much more likely to catch the attention of people under 40.

Nancy A. said...

I use my local library a lot and my main source for new mystery authors is their new book shelf. Titles are important in grabbing my interest there and I usually read the first paragraph.

As an unpublished writer that makes me think about which publishers my library stocks when I start to wonder about the wisdom of going to a smaller press. I see titles from Poisoned Pen and Midnight Ink, but not many other small presses.

I'm also influenced by the writers lists I belong to, like Sisters in Crime. And I once pulled a book from the library's new bookshelf because I'd seen it mentioned on an agent's website (Janet Reid's--the book was Sophie Littlefield first novel and the prologue pulled me right in).

If I really love a book I've read at the library (like Sophie Littlefield's), then I'll go out and buy it.

VR Barkowski said...

These findings are close to what I would have predicted. The exception would be the 9% surveyed who said following a writer on Facebook led them to buy his or her book. I would have guessed the figure to be <1%.

I've never considered my blog as a means to promote my work, but rather as a way to connect with other fledgling writers. I see blogs as a dialogue, not a selling tool.

As a reader, I am influenced primarily by reviews, both online and in-print. I've connected with several book reviewers who blog and share my reading tastes and often choose my books based on their recommendations. Word of mouth sends me to the reviews never directly to the bookstore.

Based on my own behavior, I'd say reviews are key, whether in-print, online, regional, national or in a church newsletter. As a reader, I don't want to hear from writers, I want to hear the *truth* about their book. Therein lies the disconnect and why I don't think blog tours are effective.

There is currently an experiment underway called Web Splash. On December 1, over 350 bloggers will post the release of a book called THE HATING GAME, and then we'll watch the figures on Amazon and see if there's an impact. Should be interesting.

Jeri Westerson said...

As I suspected, the best stuff is the stuff we can't do with dollars (get on the bestseller list, get our books in prominant locations in bookstores). Word of mouth has always seemed the best. How do you get that? Perhaps by being somewhat involved in these social networks, getting out there to do personal events (I don't find bookstore appearances particularly lucrative) but luncheons are. So what's an author to do?

Kaye George said...

But social networking IS word of mouth. Especially if someone else is talking/writing about you, reviewing you on Goodreads for example. The question is, how many readers are on social networks?

Athanasia said...

Made me feel younger when you stated most of these social network forms are used by the young. My son signed me up for Twitter, FB.

The books giveaways have worked for me...I have won 2 and have enjoyed both books and will buy more in the one series when it comes out, and bought the remaining 3 in the other series. I enjoy the links to blogs and read them...I connect to them through DorothyL.

As someone said, FB, Twitter, blogs...they are all word of mouth for today. I was on FB last night and an ad was on the side for a mystery series. I run my church library...the books looked like a definite possibility and I am going to contact that author.

I am less likely to choose a book due to reviews I see in newspaper. Kind of like a movie tastes never seem to mesh with those either. I enjoy listening to the author appearances on Public radio...I very often immediately search out those books.

Sandra Parshall said...

Jeri, the bestseller lists and store displays *are* achieved with money -- the publisher's money. If a publisher throws promotional dollars behind a book, it will usually succeed just because it's suddenly in everybody's line of vision. Small press writers, and midlist writers whose publishers don't promote their books, simply can't compete. It's not a matter of which books are "good" -- quality isn't usually the dominant factor (also some bestselllers, like The Help, are indisputably brilliant). It's a matter of the publisher using its financial clout.

Helen Ginger said...

I think a lot of people would contend that Twitter, Facebook and blogging fall under "word of mouth" in today's world.

Sandra Parshall said...

The people surveyed didn't answer a general "word of mouth" question. They responded to a "recommendation from someone I know" question -- and they rated that as the top influence overall.

Sandra Parshall said...

Some people persist in wanting to lump all social media in with "word of mouth" -- but the survey was broken down into precise categories, as it had to be if it was to have any value. There's no broad (meaningless) "word of mouth" category among the influences that drive purchases. The #1 influence was "recommendation from SOMEONE I KNOW" (caps mine for emphasis). That literally means somebody the book buyer actually knows, a friend, relative, acquaintance. 47% of respondents said such a recommendation is the strongest influence on their book purchases, and another 42% said it had some influence. No other influence even comes close to this one.

Social media were among the LEAST powerful influences on all persons surveyed. Here's the list of LOW influences, with the first number rating each as a strong influence, the second number meaning it has "some" influence. (Sorry if the formatting goes screwy.)

Author newsletter 5% / 23%
Give-aways by author 5% / 16%
Mailings from authors 5% / 23%
Signings in stores 4% / 23%
Online book groups such as GoodReads 4% /17%
Author blogs 3% /18%
Postcard mailings 3% / 18%
Facebook 3% / 9%
Ads on websites 3% / 22%
Publisher websites 2% / 25%
Online communities such as DL 2% /11%
Twitter 1% / 7%

MODERATE influences are:

Bookstore newsletters 11% / 33%
Bookseller recommendation 11% / 41%
Librarian recommendation 10% / 36%
Mystery catalogs 10% / 30%
Author webpage 8% / 30%
Posters in store/library 6% / 41%
Heard author won an award 5% / 31%
Advertising on billboard, train, airport 3% / 30%

carl brookins said...

How about that? Maybe now we can stop spending time and money (sorry, Bowker, Zoig) on studies and surveys that all say the same thing. The last three surveys over the last ten years all revealed word of mouth is best. So, how do we authors work on that? My marketing friends smile and say, "who will talk about your books if they aren't aware of the book. What is it that gets the word out?
You wanna guess? Blogs, librarians, newsletters, news groups, social networks, trusted bookstore people, tweets.
Advertising. wOOZA!
You can't beat the hard truth. Write a good book and then spread the word through multiple channels. Gee, that sounds familiar. Lemme look it up. Oh, yeah, it's in my class notes. Advertising 101. At the U. 1954.

jenny milchman said...

Fascinating, and encouraging! Sounds like when it comes down to it, a good story still trumps all.

Patg said...

Very interesting, and will follow all the reports. This is a major concern to all writers, especially the small press and ePublished.
Wish we had more places to put this survey. At a book convention is good, but a broader field is necessary.

Kath Russell said...

Social media is not as 'sticky' as personal word of mouth. The bonding is just not as strong in most cases, and I don't think you can rely on converting social media friends to actions, for example buying books. It doesn't take much motivation to 'like' a post.

I had a funny thing happen with an ad I ran in my church magazine. I bought an ad for A POINTED DEATH when it came out, because I had seen another author who is a member do the same. Our church is a community of 2,000 people and the space was very reasonable, so this is a social network of significant size accessed cost effectively. Now, not all the members know me, but many know of me or we have good friends in common. People who saw the ad bought books on Amazon, and, if you look at the 'people who bought this also bought' feature, my book is now associated with the other church member's work. Comparing our work is apples and oranges, but we are joined at the hip due to purchasing behavior. The other author is Diane Noble and her book is THE SISTER WIFE. She has written many, many novels and I am both honored and embarrassed...

Krista said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing, Sandy.

We all know that repeated exposure is the crucial thing in advertising. I can't help wondering if social media doesn't play that sort of role on a subconscious level. If someone asked me if I bought a book because of a blog, I would probably say no. On the other hand, seeing the person's name on a blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, on an advertisement -- all those combine and when in the bookstore, the reader might recognize the author's name and be more inclined to buy the book. Something like that is hard to measure.

~ Krista

Clarissa Southwick said...

Thanks for posting this interesting study. I always buy my favorite authors first and feel sad when I've read their entire backlist. Then it's word of mouth. It's always a thrill to discover a new favorite author.

Linda Pendleton said...

I would guess word of mouth has a big influence, controversy may be another (such as Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code); and in today’s world social networking seems to play a part.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for sharing, Sandy. Very interesting. I'll continue to do my blog and Facebook, because I do like personal interaction with readers. But it's good to see the stats.

Unknown said...

I decided to list ten writers whose books I consistently buy and try to remember how I found them.

Dennis Lehane. A friend insisted I'd love him and lent me Gone baby Gone.

Elmore Leonard -- Can't remember

Cornelia Read -- Review of A Field of Darkness on DorothyL

Erin Hart -- Sandy Parshall recommended her...

which brings me back to Sandy. She's my critique partner and I read Heat of the Moon shortly after we starting critiquing

Laura Lippman -- Sandy again

Daniel Woodrell -- Sarah Weinman's blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

George Pelecanos -- He wrote many episodes of The Wire and I bought my first book as soon as I discovered he also wrote mystery novels

Carl Hiaasen -- Came across Lucky You in a used bookstore.

Tana French == Sandy again

Richard Riordan -- Recommended by a friend

P.I. Barrington said...

Well well well. Here I thought that my dark crime/suspense was more attractive to older readers! That one small fact (younger readers like the darker, more suspenseful books)will make a major impact on where I place my efforts in the future! Good to know that my small efforts on FB, Twitter, etc., aren't so important after all! Thanks so very much for this preview of the info to come Sandra! I still love my Twitter friends though.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Thanks for information that confirms my suspicions. The message I'm walking off with is to keep writing, keep putting books out there, and keep hoping for "an avalanche" of readers.

Kit Sloane said...

Over the ten years my series has been "out there," I've received quite a bit of feedback from my readers over how they've discovered the stories. Several have mentioned that they collect the COVERS (!) all of which are done, through 3-different publishers, by my art director (yes, in Hollywood) daughter. I think this is great but do hope they sometimes open the book and read what's inside!


Deni Dietz said...

We seem to be avoiding the elephant in the room: pricing. Although a hardcover book costs less than dinner at a good restaurant (and lasts longer, too), folks are reluctant to pay big bucks for an unknown author (thus, #1 = word of mouth). I predict that publishing as we know it will fade, if not disappear, within 5 years as e-readers -- and low ebook prices -- grow. Then PR becomes a whole 'nother ballgame!

Sandra Parshall said...

The survey did ask about pricing, and a high percentage of respondents said they would buy more books if they were cheaper.

Ann Charles said...

Thanks, Sandra, for sharing this. I'm a little late to the party, but thankfully Susan Schreyer forwarded the link to your post to me.

I can't tell you how happy I am to read that Twitter ranks so dang low. If there were an award for The Worst Twitterer, I'd probably win at least third place...maybe second.

I've often thought of Facebook, author websites, and other social networking venues as tools used to KEEP my readers, because almost as important as hooking a new reader is keeping them coming back AND keeping them happy and in love with you, the author.

I've chatted with many readers as I've tried to figure out the great how-to-spread-word-of-mouth mystery. Many have told me they really like the feeling of community. They like to feel like they are part of a unique group, and they like to feel like the author is one of them. I know several authors who do this very well. Their fans are die-hards. One bestselling author in particular now has her own "-con" conference. She is very available to her readers and they absolutely adore her and spread word of mouth all over God's green earth for her. (I'm a huge fan of hers to, for these similar reasons).

I realize this isn't the same for every well-known author, but I've sat back and watched many best sellers and what they are doing. Their publishers help them, but they still do a lot to generate word of mouth on their own.

Anyway, didn't mean to blather on, but I think we need to work on selling each individual book. Make marketing campaigns for each, yet at the same time, selling ourselves, keeping that personal touch involved in the whole mix.

Is it going to be hard? Definitely!
Is it doable? Yes.

My favorite quote this week: "If your ship doesn't come in, swim out to it."--Jonathan Winters.

I'm wearing my flippers.

Ann Charles

Leslie Budewitz said...

It’s important to keep in mind that while some of these factors are of less importance, they are still important. The cover beats a blog or a Facebook presence by far, but blogs and FB do still influence buyers–some more, some less, largely dependent on the buyer’s age and the type of mystery. Does that mean writers can let go of some of those less influential methods? Probably yes–so long as you’re not giving up on the entire spectrum of electronic methods or social media marketing. Pick and choose what works best for you, your schedule, location, and personality.

Keep in mind that marketing isn’t just about KNOWing your audience, but about GROWing it. Pick methods that appeal to known readers, but branch out. For ex., if you write darker fiction, then maybe social media should play a larger role in your marketing efforts.

This was a first look at preliminary results; more details will follow, and I think it will be very useful. There truly were some surprises, and as we get more info and look closer, I think marketing efforts will noticeably change. This survey is a huge contribution by SinC to the mystery community.

Leslie Budewitz

Leslie Budewitz said...

Don’t assume you can’t afford advertising without checking into it. Ok, the NYT and CNN are out for most of us, but your local access TV channel may offer a full array of ads for $100, and the local paper, mystery mags, or special-interest publications may also be affordable and effective, maybe more so because directed at a specific audience. Kath's ad in the church newsletter is a great example.


Marilynne said...

I just posted your URL to our local Sisters In Crime. Thanks for the preview.

lil Gluckstern said...

This is really surprising to me. I have purchased a ton of books based on reviews on DorothyL, and "The Rap Sheet." Plus I read authors' blogs with great pleasure. I also buy regularly on Amazon, and they send me a weekly new releases newsletter, guess why. Maybe that can be utilized somehow.
I also haunt the new books section in my library, and then talk up a storm. I discovered Sandy Parshall's books because my daughter is a veterinarian, and there might have been a blurb or review somewhere. I do hope that this doesn't dissuade you all from your blogs, and I promise to spend my monthly allotment to support you as much as possible.

Sandra Parshall said...

The study didn't say Facebook, etc., NEVER work. It shows that social networking has a low priority with many older readers, but that doesn't mean that *no* older readers are looking for authors/books there. DorothyL works well for the writers who are part of it, but it's a very, very small "community" (about 3,000, most of whom probably look at the messages only occasionally). We'll sell some books to people who "meet" us on DL, but there simply aren't enough book-buyers on that listserv to make a noticeable difference in a writer's sales.

Todd Ritter said...

This is incredibly interesting. A lot of it, like Vicki mentioned, is beyond our control. But it's nice to finally know what makes some readers buy a book and bypass others.

Judging by the comments, it seems one good way is to have Sandra talk about a book. So, Sandra, would you like a copy of my book? (He asks only half-jokingly.)

Patricia Stoltey said...

This is such an interesting discussion. The thing we have to remember is that the survey results reflect one moment in time while the publishing world and all its marketing opportunities are dynamic. As the population ages, and more and more older readers are computer savvy, "word of mouth" will change again.

Since I now consider my blogger buddies friends, my world has grown and "word of mouth" means something different than it did before I started blogging.

Seems there was one now famous mystery writer (before blogs) who began her promotional efforts by e-mailing her friends and relatives and asking each one of them to e-mail all their friends and relatives, etc. "Word of e-mouth?"

Sandra Parshall said...

Todd, I'm flattered, but I think you overestimate my influence. :-)

Deb said...

How much (ballpark) must a publisher pay a bookstore chain to get them to order and stock the book? Just wondering.

If it's a substantial amount of money, is this the reason we rarely see small press titles in bookstores?

Sandra Parshall said...

Deb, small presses can;t afford to pay co-op money for special displays in stores. But another big problem is that small presses simply don't print many copies of a book. If only 4,000 to 5,000 copies (sometimes a lot less) are printed, there's no way the book will be widely distributed. St. Martin's also tends to print small batches of books by new authors and midlisters, and those books won't be in many stores either.

Betty Gordon said...

Informative post, Sandra. I believe word of mouth is the fuel that keeps a book out there, but one has to always promote in other ways.
Betty Gordon

katekindle said...

Hi! I've been directed to this link by a note from Diane Craver. I'm happy to read the blog. Just as I suspected, online presence like Tweets aren't that impt. Thank the Lord! I'm too busy to tell people I just washed my hands; and I'm not a lead writer who gives 'tips' on Tweets at this point. However, add all the little percentages online offers and you get big percentages. I have found Facebook doesn't respect my privacy settings, so I put it on 'hold' , but I'll have to get it moving. This has come just as my first mystery comes to print through createspace. I'll continue to blog, I'm going to try to get a Jersey mystery writers group going online and become a bona fide presence if there is interest. Speeches at luncheons? Hear Ye! Hear Ye!