There's an old maxim that explains the uneasy relationship between marketing and publicity: with marketing you pay for it, but with publicity you pray for it. A catchy soundbite, it only begins to hint at the complexity of how products get marketed, at deconstructing the equation that governs when to spend and when to let others spend for you.
As industries across the country cope with a slowing economy, they find themselves looking heavenward, hoping that coverage will replace what they once paid for. (Not that shrinking edit space will provide many answers.) The book business has thus far avoided a serious malaise. But it, too, may soon get religion. The drying up of ad money has created a number of wrinkles, of which diminishing space in book review supplements is only one. In a time when spending heavily on ads can be regarded as foolhardy public relations, if not bad business, the publishing community is taking a more careful and creative look at how marketing budgets are spent; working muscles of the business, like publicity, that go underdeveloped in stronger times; and, in some cases, even creating new businesses.
Despite signs of a decrease in advertising, publishers are reluctant to talk about their advertising and marketing plans. Those houses willing to go on the record—Random House, Putnam, Hyperion and Von Holtzbrinck—insist that little has changed. "If you think spending a dollar in marketing is going to make you more than a dollar, you do it all the time. If you think it's a bad idea, you don't do it when the economy's good and then stop when the economy's bad," says Hyperion president Bob Miller. "There's no difference between May 2000 and May 2001," echoes Random House spokesperson Stuart Applebaum. Spier and Associates, an agency that handles many publishers' ad accounts, says it has not registered a decline in business.
Privately, though, some executives acknowledge a "tightening." Others confess that restraint makes sense now more than ever. "TV is getting more expensive," says Putnam marketing director Dan Harvey. "We have to be careful about where we're going." Linda Stormes, an ad rep for Book magazine, tells PW, "I hear, 'Our budgets are tight; we really are being very picky' more from the bigger places than the medium-sized publishers."
Book-related publications provide the most dramatic example of this scrutiny. In addition to newspaper supplements, Salon, a popular choice for publicists over the last few years, has scaled back as it moves to a last-gasp strategy of charging for a premium service. In many cases, declining ad sales in book-centric publications—from publishers as well as others—have hurt magazines. The Atlantic Monthly, for instance, watched as ads have dropped more than 30% in the first three months of 2001 compared to last year. Meanwhile, magazine and newspaper editors say they're receiving calls from an astonishing number of authors who feel frustrated by what publishers can afford.
"It seems like the industry is falling into itself," says Emily Russin, managing editor for the alternative newspaper Seattle Weekly and coordinator of the paper's book coverage. "Authors aren't getting what they need from their publishers, so they'll call me and then follow up two, three, four times. These authors aren't even from Seattle. It's like the reverse of the [aborted] Hollywood writers' strike—you have all these people writing and no way to get the word out about their books."
Advertising pages in Publishers Weekly are on about a par with last year, says group publisher Fred Ciporen, due largely to an increase in advertising from independent publishers that has offset declines from the larger houses and from electronic publishing companies. "Big houses are not as robust marketers as before," Ciporen continues, adding that he believes there is a general lack of imagination when it comes to marketing. Publishers are still focused on advertising books as they are published, but do not do any advertising once the book is actually in the market, Ciporen says.
Marketing dollars are generally the first to go when budgets shrink, their value not easily measured by the harder criteria of publicity hits or sales figures. Lining a subway car with cover shots of the latest James Patterson probably won't impel thousands of consumers to run out and snap up copies.
At least that's the perception. Marketing's osmotic benefits have never been fully proven or disproven, so business are normally willing to take a risk so long as the revenue is flowing—even if the advantages are dubious. "When I was at IDG we did an ad twice a month in USA Today," says Amy Kaneko, director of marketing for Chronicle Books. "They make no difference whatsoever. But you throw it out there because you're supposed to do that. It's about image. A lot of the ads in the New York Times Book Review are about image. The ads tell the industry that the publisher is here and is doing well."
To understand how the ad rollercoaster began hurtling down, it helps to remember the ride up. The growth of Amazon in the late 1990s gave advertisers reason to try to reach consumers directly. Suddenly, trade advertising was out; radio, movie theaters and buses were in. The boom coincided with an increase in the number of potential venues, which meant dollars spread more thinly than ever. As long as the money kept coming, this didn't pose a problem. But as publishers scrutinize their plans and the viability of the media outlets themselves come into question, many wonder whether broad strokes are a good idea. "Advertising will work in two cases: you either have enormous budgets where you can canvass the world, or you can do some very precise niche marketing, like advertising a poetry book in a poetry magazine," says Sourcebooks' Dominique Raccah, a veteran of the ad industry.
"I have trouble believing a lot of the ad vehicles for book publishing work."
Profiting from Tough Times
The weatherman is predicting rain, but Rick Frishman sounds like it's a balmy 75°. "Recessions tend to be good for my business," says Frishman, who heads up the independent publicity firm Planned TV Arts. "Publisher who can't promote their authors' books tell their authors to call companies like mine."
Frishman isn't the only who finds himself in the position of benefiting from less spending. As the reevaluation leads to a smarter deployment of dollars, it also is creating fertile ground for new business models. One of the most ambitious is Publishers' Billboard, which aggregates money and ads from publishers as varied as Duke University Press and Pantheon, produces a supplement with the ads and places it in consumer magazines. The ad costs publishers less than it would if they lit out on their own. According to Bob Palmer, though, this aggregation offers many of the same benefits. The program will kick off this summer with a buy in the New Republic (circulation: 104,000). "It's supplemental advertising. We're by no means trying to replace traditional channels," Palmer says, dismissing concerns about his margins and the possibly limited appeal to publishers, who may not like to be grouped with competitors. Palmer's business serves as an example of the way the ad climate is changing. "There's no way I could have launched this business a year ago," Palmer says flatly.
Some stalwarts say they, too, find 2001 promising. The New Yorker saw 175 pages in book advertising last year, and new publisher David Kahn predicts this year will bring even more. Numbers held steady in the first quarter and could go up in the second, according to Kahn. "In times like these, people go back to essential advertising," he says.
Just in case, Kahn will soon offer publishers a new advertising vehicle in his magazine. Publishers can now buy premium packages that, while they won't allow for two pages of straight text, will give advertisers the opportunity to buy supplements that include graphics, blurbs and limited citations from the book, in an area that will function more like advertorial than a traditional New Yorker ad. "I can't imagine a more appealing concept to publishers. It's as though Titleist was able to bind golf balls inside Golf Digest," says Kahn. He added that the ads will be clearly marked as "special advertising" and will go through the same minimal screening as any other ad. There will be no coordination with the editorial department.
The first ad, which will run later this month, will be for Crown Publishing's The Change Monster by Jeanie Daniel Duck. Duck is a Boston Consulting veteran whose book discusses how to deal with organizational and other types of change.
While the title comes from Random House, certainly no stranger to the New Yorker's pages, Kahn said anyone can buy space, even self-published authors. "As long as the content of the book is not objectionable, I think the door will open to anyone," he said. "[The program] is predicated more on advertisers' ability to buy a full-page ad."
The New Yorker has long relied on glossy publisher advertising to support its unusually favorable edit-ad ratio (currently about 60:40), along with smaller ads, many from lesser-known publishers. Kahn said this effort is part of his mission to move the magazine closer to a 50-50 split.
The New York Times is busy conjuring up its own antidotes to a downturn. Spokesperson Kathy Park says the newspaper is launching "specialized advertorials that feature excerpts from upcoming books" and will sell advertising against the packages. It's also offering a number of creative buys, such as packages that include ads in the Sunday paper, the daily book page and other Times properties like the Boston Globe. The paper's ad reps are also "reaching out to those companies that do business with book publishers for advertising opportunities."
What's a Publisher to Do?
Advertising in the New Yorker may come with built-in advantages, but other programs require more thought from publishers. These programs emphasize creativity over spending, finesse over muscle. Chronicle's Beatles title achieved much of its success with only a minimal dollar push. Among the house's efforts was the purchasing of an ad on the morning program of San Francisco rock station KFOG, which the house hoped would lure the station's morning crew to a live event. The move paid off—the deejays turned out, and so did 1,000 people. San Francisco mayor Willie Brown declared the day Beatles Day and the book went on to bestsellerdom.
When it comes to off-the-book-page coverage, though, fiction, especially from unknown authors, may find itself on shakier ground. "Most of publishers' money goes to the 10% of the books they spent a lot of [advance] money on.," Frishman says. "In good times, they'll have a little more money for the midlist books. But in these times, those are the books that are going to get hurt." And because brand-name authors often coax stipulations from publishers about marketing dollars, publishers' flexibility in spending could be further limited.
Yet the clouds aren't without their silver linings. Periodical editors are working to figure out how to keep the number of featured books constant as pages shrink. At Seattle Weekly, Russin says she hopes to piggyback books on the general arts section.
And publishers could delve more deeply into more time-tested methods. "Even if [the downturn] doesn't represent a return to handselling, it could nonetheless bring about a situation where more books get exposed through other means, like reader's copies and co-op," says Carroll & Graf chief Philip Turner.
The new climate could also mean the media conglomerates will be looking to their sister companies for an assist. Access to other media, after all, is more critical when budgets clench. Hyperion, for example, will soon for the first time add TV spots for Ridley Pearson to its marketing roster. The company will pay ABC, but Miller hinted that his company will benefit in some way from being under the same corporate parent. No matter how wise a retrenchment may seem, large publishers may find it difficult to resist the siren call of sexy consumer spots. "TV ads are very efficient," says Putnam's Harvey. "It's hard to give something like that up."