Over the course of eight years, our marketing agency, Digital Natives Group, helped launch over 60 books. We worked with every major publisher, partnering with Nobel laureates, Ivy League professors, and Fortune 500 CEOs. Our work even helped a handful of titles reach the coveted rank of #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Despite the fact that the books ranged from a title on brain surgery to a murder mystery, through all of these campaigns, there was one foundational idea at the heart of our success, and it’s incredibly simple.
Now that we’ve sold the agency, I’ll spill the beans: people don’t buy books, they buy souvenirs. The book isn’t the product; the book is the key chain, postcard, or novelty T-shirt. Most people don’t actually read all that much, but they like to think of themselves as smart, savvy readers. Books are ultimately aspirational purchases.
People buy a book because they intend to read it, one day.
People buy a book because they heard the author on a podcast and thought they were a pretty interesting guest. They were funny, engaging, and intelligent. They think, “Buying this book will make me like that too, right?”
People buy a book because they want to see themselves as the kind of person who reads these kinds of things. We’re all in groups (and want to be in more)—what does our group do?
People buy a book because they want other people to see it on their shelves on Zoom or at the next dinner party. Books are a set design for offices and living rooms; they are props for the performance of our lives.
People buy a book because they’re thinking of starting a hobby or New Year’s resolution and this is the first, easy step. It’s far easier to plunk down a credit card for that paperback than to cut out gluten.
The book isn’t the product. The idea, the aura, the movement, the group: that is what people are buying. A 300-page codex is just the packaging.
If you’re a publisher or author preparing to send a book out into the world, ask yourself, How does this book fit into the life story of its reader? Does it empower them to improve their health, open new worlds of imagination, find spiritual enlightenment, grow their business, or even just become a pub trivia champion? The answer to this question is actually the product you are selling.
In traditional marketing terms, the chapters and paragraphs are features, but the life-changing effects are the benefit. This is better put in the words of legendary Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt, who said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” Readers don’t want 30,000 words; readers want to be better people.
The most important thing a book says isn’t what is on its pages, but what it says about the person who owns it. The book is a signaling device to the buyer and to their network of who they want to be and who they want other people to think they are.
When you change your mindset, the marketing almost solves itself. You can push back against decades of cards-close-to-the-chest orthodoxy and give away the chapters, interviews, guides, or recipes. These are tools to build your audience and grow your reach—please, by all means trade that chapter for an exclusive magazine feature or use it to grow your email list. In the age of the limitless scroll and limited attention span, content is the most powerful tool for selling a book.
The truth is, the content is already out there. Most business, health, or self-help books can be summarized in one page, and plenty of people and companies are doing just that. Spoilers can be found for any novel if one digs around enough. And for any author: if readers piece together every tweet, YouTube video, podcast interview, and review available for free on the web, they can scotch tape your book together. (At that point, they’ve earned it!)
Over two decades ago, Napster threw a stick of dynamite into the music industry—all of a sudden, everything was free. The sky was falling. But Apple, with iTunes, understood something that changed everything: most of the time, easy beats free. Listeners would happily pay a few cents per track to avoid the headache of dealing with sketchy, complicated software and having to piece together a bootleg album piece by piece. And even today, in the age of Spotify making the streaming of everything available everywhere, the largest growth in the music industry is in vinyl records—themselves a physical artifact, a souvenir. It’s never really been about the music; it’s about what that music says about the listener.
People don’t buy books because of the words inside them. People buy books because of what books mean. Authors, use your content for your own benefit. Give it away, generously and frequently. Grow your audience and your movement. Book sales will follow.
Ben Guttmann is cofounder and former managing partner of the marketing agency Digital Natives Group, an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College, and the host of the community-building event Queens Tech Night.