Friday, November 19, 2010

Repost: Book Buyers in all the Strange Places

Originally posted on February 25, 2007:

A few weeks ago Mrs PND and I were watching The Daily Show-- and I thought this show and The Colbert Report, which follows it, are really serious about books. And not your run-of-the- mill titles, but some with real meat. Recent authors on the shows have included Ralph Nader, John Danforth, Jimmy Carter and Ishmael Beah. It is curious that the last title seems to have generated some media attention on a number of fronts. Firstly, it was the second title that Starbucks has selected to 'showcase' in its stores (following Mitch Albom's recent book). Recent sales figures indicate that sales through Starbucks are smoking the traditional sales channels of B&N and Borders. Fellow traveller Eoin Purcell noted the reports from Galleycat and wondered several things about the market for these books sold via Starbucks and whether publishers are doing something wrong. In my mind, Starbucks moving so many units has more to do with the power of the Starbucks brand but it could also reflect a deficiency in publishers' marketing philosophy, as I noted in my comments on his blog:
In my mind there is a distinct correlation between a Starbucks selection and an Oprah selection and it doesn’t surprise me that Beah’s book and the Albom title are doing well at Starbucks. The reason I think there is a correlation is that the Starbucks and Oprah brands are so strong we well may trust them to recommend anything (probably some limits!). Certainly there are some other factors at play - no other titles, spur of the moment purchasing, what have you - but I think we believe that the title is available at Starbucks because they have taken the time - like Oprah and Richard and Judy - to select the very best title that they believe their customers will like and value. Five or six years ago, no one would have predicted that Oprah would be able to move so many books and it took the industry by surprise. The point for publishers is that there are ‘influencers’ that captivate the media (and thereby consumers) that publishers need to identify, nurture and exploit. I think it will be the canny publisher that actually starts to build a list specifically of interest to an ‘influencer’ so that this person (or brand) can support and promote the titles as Starbucks or Oprah does. For example, what if Macmillan launched a Starbucks imprint to sell titles (out of every outlet) that were selected and ‘vetted’ by the Starbucks team. The books would be available everywhere else but, at Starbucks, the consumer would associate their warm fuzzy feeling about the brand to the product extension--the books.
I do think that success in non-traditional outlets seems to catch publishers off-guard. A few months ago, the NYT wrote about books sold at weird, non-bookstore outlets such as butcher shops and clothes stores. Many in the industry derided the article because, as 'insiders', we thought the NYT was being disingenuous about something publishers already know. But do they?

Today's article in the Times discusses the book program on Comedy Central and it strongly suggests that the success of the program is an accident - at least to the publishers. Perhaps this is the manner in which the article is written; however, it appears that weighty titles are ending up on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report because the traditional outlets utilized by publishers don't work as well as they used to. Thus by default. What is unsaid is that publishers don't really understand their market. The relationship between The Daily Show audience and a publisher's target consumer should be easy to determine. Yet, despite the fact that The Daily Show has been on for 10 years, we are supposed to be surprised at the bump Beah's book received after appearing on the show two weeks ago.
Publishers say that particularly for the last six months, “The Daily Show” and its spin off, “The Colbert Report,” which has on similarly wonky authors, like the former White House official David Kuo, have become the most reliable venues for promoting weighty books whose authors would otherwise end up on “The Early Show” on CBS looking like they showed up at the wrong party.
Perhaps twenty years ago, Rolling Stone magazine ran an ad campaign that showed a hippie tricked-out VW van with weird colors and stickers with a recent Merc or BMW next to it. The ad was headed "Perception and Reality "and was meant to show that the readers of RS were not the hippies of old, but rich yuppies. To some extent, there may be some of this going on here when the publishers say,
Part of the surprise, publishers said, is that the Comedy Central audience is more serious than its reputation allows. The public may still think of the “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” audience as a group of sardonic slackers, Gen-Y college students who prefer YouTube to print. But publishers say it’s a much more diverse demographic — and, more important, a book-buying audience.
There are more book buyers out there and perhaps if publishers spent more time understanding how 'influencers' manage our information flows they wouldn't be taken by surprise. As we know, 'influencers' can be butchers as much as they can be news readers.

The Times isn't necessarily a completely viable messenger and I believe their perceptions are off-kilter to some degree, as they reflect on the subject matter and refer to it as 'fake-news'. Objectively, The Daily Show is not 'fake-news'; it is ironic, funny and sometimes brutally honest news, but it is news nonetheless. I expect they wouldn't suggest that the NBC news is 'real news' just because it is dull and humourless.

It all comes down to knowing your audience. That is the Starbucks way and should be what publishers need to do more of.

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