Rosen is v-p and executive director of the Free Press. He edited The Influentials (reviewed on this page) and spoke with PW about how the authors' theory applies to books.
PW: The idea of a core group of people spreading the word about a product has been around for some time. Is anything different now?
Bill Rosen: It's not a new idea, but it's newly important. The old, mass market advertising techniques that once were the sine qua non of marketing aren't as effective today. As audiences keep fractionating, you find that people are opting out of advertising.
PW: But book publishers have never been big advertisers anyway.
BR: No. We don't have the budget or the muscle to make a difference. We're raindrops on the ocean in the world of advertising, compared to the McDonald's and Cokes and Toyotas. But what we do have is a staged event, where we first speak to booksellers and then to the media and finally to book buyers. In other words, we try to build a chain of word of mouth.
PW: Why do you think book publishers often have trouble marketing books?
BR: Book publishing executives have been right to be skeptical of market research, focus groups, product testing and message testing and all the other things that Proctor & Gamble product managers do for a living. They're not appropriate for what we do. Even if it worked, it would be too expensive for any one book.
PW: Will book publishers ever change their ways?
BR: Although we've been skeptical of people with MBAs in marketing, they're mastering a new set of techniques now. They're mastering people strategies, word of mouth strategies and niche marketing strategies about which we probably can't afford to be quite so skeptical. It's been right to say we don't speak the same language for as long as I've been in this business, but I'm not so sure it's going to be right going forward. Other smart people who do have MBAs are now mastering the techniques that are more appropriate for a business that's trying to leverage, manage and expand the influence of word of mouth. Which is, in the end, what this book delivers.
PW: So what does work for marketing books to Influentials?
BR: We do have people who are willing to talk about our stuff. People are much more willing to talk about books in the pages of newspapers and magazines than they are willing to talk about soft drinks, which is why we're able to survive as an industry without spending what every other industry thinks is an appropriate marketing level.
PW: What, specifically, can book publishers learn from The Influentials?
BR: The research synthesized in The Influentials argues that there's some good to be done in making sure that the local garden clubs and the people who participate in local open space initiatives and engage in local political campaigns, [i.e., activists], are an opportunity. They're the people you want talking about your books. We do have enough information from the data that's contained in The Influentials to know a lot more about where these people congregate. They're people who take on a lot more control about the information that passes in front of them. They want the information to be made available when they are interested in getting it. They're sponges for information. There are opportunities here. I don't know of any publishing house, including my own, that is formally investigating them. But I think there's probably some real good that could be done, because these aren't merely the people who buy the most books, but they are by far the people who recommend the most books.