When it comes to digital, the state of the e-book grabs all the headlines. But digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media, the greatest impact technology holds for publishing may be in the way e-books are now marketed. “I’m a huge believer that the entire time you are the publisher of an author’s book, you should be thinking about that author,” explained Open Road’s chief marketing officer Rachel Chou, “and making the most out of every opportunity.”
Indeed, that philosophy is core to Open Road and can be traced to the company’s cofounder Jane Friedman, who, as president and CEO of HarperCollins, turned good backlist publishing into something of an art. For Friedman, authors have always been valuable brands. And establishing and marketing author “brands” is at the foundation of Open Road—a company where backlist is the new frontlist, and the staff works to keep Open Road authors in front of new readers.
Among its efforts to give backlist a fresh look, Open Road has adopted a “milestone” marketing approach. “Milestones” are hooks around which new marketing efforts and videos can be pushed—whether events in an author’s life, anniversaries, historical events, or periods of recognition, like Black History Month. But this also includes current events, and an ever-growing litany of “Twitter-milestones,” as Chou called them. On National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day, for example, Open Road might push an author’s favorite recipe into the conversations showing up on reader sites, news sites, and social media.
Of course, the digital revolution is changing the marketing game not just for e-publishers, but for everyone. “I don’t think of it just in terms of e-books,” Chou said. “It’s a new way to do product marketing, whether it’s indie films, or music, or whatever. If you look at Pepsi, even its ad-spend is shifting to social media, bloggers, and social networks.” Chou cited the benefits of better analytics as well as the ability to adjust plans on the fly as an opportunity presents itself or perhaps succeeds beyond—or, perhaps, doesn’t work to—expectations.
The team closely tracks events and milestones that may present an opportunity—including some of the more offbeat occasions—and keeps a large white board in Open Road’s downtown offices to track potential openings. Chou recalled one such offbeat milestone: Geek Pride Day. Last year, Open Road used this occasion to push out a video with author James Gleick, who talked about being a science nerd. And in another video, bestselling fantasy author Barbara Hambly donned a pirate costume.
According to Chou, Open Road’s targeted videos in various outlets have a “significantly” better click-to-buy rate than traditional ads. Milestone marketing recently helped to propel Walter Lord’s classic bestseller, A Night to Remember, a definitive account of the Titanic’s last hours originally published in the 1950s, to #1 on the New York Times e-book nonfiction bestseller list, tied to the anniversary of the ship’s sinking.
While a number of publishers are moving their marketing in this direction, Open Road has been able to get out in front for a few reasons. As a mostly backlist e-book publisher, Open Road’s publishing time frame is condensed, Chou says. The time from contract to publication for an Open Road e-book is three to six months, “so we’re not doing marketing plans for books that will come out 18 months later.” That keeps efforts timely and relevant. And every quarter, she added, Open Road revises plans for the roughly 250 authors on its list—which raises another factor: scale. “We’re not talking about 2,000 titles with 2,000 authors,” Chou noted. At Open Road, gone are the days of launching authors with a bang and leaving them to settle into the backlist. “We’re a different kind of company.”