Judging books by their ad campaigns

Gone are the days when books were read merely on the recommendation of friends or the Sunday supplements. Nowadays, novels compete with cars and burgers for poster sites, TV slots and our attention.

This week, Harlequin Mills & Boon, long known for producing fast-paced reads for bored housewives, launches a new brand – Red Dress Ink – targeting 18- to 35-year-olds. The company is hoping to attract a new market, the “Bridget Jones generation”. The launch will be supported by a press advertising campaign, created by London-based Davies Little Cowley Fiddes (MW last week).

Harlequin Mills & Boon isn’t the only publisher to have cottoned on to the value of marketing of late – the rarefied world of literature in general is at last waking up to the hard sell. Book publishers are increasingly keen to make their companies, authors and individual titles as easily recognisable and desirable to consumers as their favourite burger brand.

Helped by the successes of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, UK book sales rose to &£1bn last year, according to the Whitaker Book Trust. Excluding sales over the Internet, British readers spent 2.6 per cent more on books than in 2000.

Harry Potter was also responsible for boosting Bloomsbury Publishing’s pre-tax profit for 2001 by 62.5 per cent, to &£9.4m. Turnover increased by 20.6 per cent, to &£61m.

Book publishers, once content to rely on word of mouth, have taken to advertising individual titles and authors with print, posters and, more recently, TV ads. Penguin Books’ Puffin subsidiary last year relaunched Roald Dahl’s children’s books using TV advertising by Mustoe Merriman Herring Levy, now Mustoe Merriman Levy (MML) (MW January 18, 2001).

MML account director Damian Horner says: “There was a time when books were only advertised by word of mouth. The more recent use of traditional marketing techniques to sell books has accelerated that word-of-mouth process. It gets the names of book publishers and individual titles into the minds of readers. Over the years, advertising spend on books has increased, but publishers are now focusing on fewer titles, in the same way as record companies do.”

Horner adds that publishers with bigger marketing budgets are able to attract the best authors.

But the industry is candid enough to admit that it is not traditional marketing alone that pushes book sales. The fact that adaptations of both Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Bridget Jones’s Diary made it to the big screen last year helped to sell copies.

Bloomsbury head of children’s marketing Rosamund de la Hey admits that the news that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was to be turned into a film boosted sales of the book even before the movie was released. Apart from making the most of “playground marketing” – promotion by word of mouth among schoolchildren – the publisher produced special editions of the books, specifically designed to appeal to adults. Merchandising opportunities have also produced additional revenue, helping author JK Rowling earn an estimated &£45m last year from the Harry Potter books.

HarperCollins key properties brand manager Barry Clark says: “The success of both Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Bridget Jones’s Diary was down to the fact that there were enormous films based on the two books. Books that have been made into films sometimes have the power to turn non-readers into readers.”

Sales of JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit were revitalised by the film Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, reaching 250,000 copies a week in the UK prior to the release of the movie.

Clark feels that it is hard to sell books without some sort of marketing support in order to establish the titles. He claims that sales of Agatha Christie books have doubled in the past 12 months, following an advertising campaign last June. Another burst of advertising is to follow next month.

Jonathan Tilston, an independent publisher of film books, says that book marketing is brutally commercial rather than dynamic and creative. “We are dealing with a nation that does not read very much and where books are seen as very expensive products. The marketing of books is anything but sophisticated. Bookselling is a desperate business and most publishers and retailers want to sell as much as they can as quickly as they can,” he says.

The industry maintains that in contrast to other consumer-targeted products, such as cars or food, it is difficult to develop brand loyalty towards titles or publishers.

Guy Sellers, joint managing director of Total Media, which handles media for the HarperCollins, Penguin, Harlequin Mills & Boon and Macmillan, says that over the past five years the book market has experienced “intensive marketing activity”. By way of example, he adds: “For instance, Penguin now not only has a brand marketing budget, but also markets each of its individual titles separately, which is a very clever thing to do. Marketing can add something into a mass-market title that appeals outside the normal book-buying market.”

Sellers adds that the move by Waterstone’s founder Tim Waterstone to challenge the Net Book Agreement (NBA), which prevented retailers from discounting books, was a “liberating factor”.

Clark says that the ending of the NBA in 1995 paved the way for bookshops to discount books and develop special offers promoting a mix of classic and contemporary titles, thereby encouraging sampling.

The arrival of the Internet – once thought to be a threat to the very existence of books – has, according Jane Dalton, branding consultant at The Value Engineers, helped to promote book sales. She says: “The electronic age promised the death of the book. That hasn’t happened, because the Internet has acted as an information tool for readers.”

Dalton also points out that the book retail environment – with the addition of coffee shops and browsing areas – has also become a more attractive place to buy books.

More sophisticated or not, book marketing has undoubtedly helped to boost sales. But the fact remains that, like all successful products, a book must appeal to consumers if it is to be a hit. Finding the right author with the right novel is perhaps a little more hit and miss than developing a new recipe for a fast-food burger bar.

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