Why Print Advertising for Books Doesn't Work

One of the worst things that can happen to a self publisher, or to any small business for that matter, is to have a little too much cash or credit on hand when they start out. That may sound counter-intuitive, but there's a strong tendency for people entering a new business venture to waste valuable resources on advertising that doesn't work. I've done it myself, and so have many of my friends in publishing. It's not because we're stupid, it's because the people who sell book advertising are very good at their job, which is selling book advertising. It's too bad their job isn't selling books, but that's the job of a publisher.

The basic problem isn't that the publisher does a poor job designing or contracting for the advertisement and it's not because the ad isn't run often enough to make an impression. It's that advertising is a poor match for book marketing in most cases, due in part to publishing economics and in part to specific title considerations. Just think for a minute about the last book you purchased as a result of an advertisement.

1) Was it a new title from a fiction author whose books you've read? That's a good example of advertising that works, but it's not that the ad sells you on the book, it just lets you know that a book you're already inclined to buy is now available. This type of advertising doesn't work for self-published books, unless you're pretty famous and have already sold hundreds of thousands of books. Not many self publishers fall into this category.

2) Was it a genre specific book advertised in a genre specific media? It makes perfect sense that veterans of the Martian Wars who subscribe to the Mars Veterans Monthly would be sold by an advertisement for "Inside the Martian High Command," especially if you're the first publisher with a title on the subject, but such matches made in the heavens are few and far between. Keep in mind that advertising is expensive, and if the only relevant publication is the Galactic Veterans Weekly, then you're paying millions of comet dollars to advertise to a billion ex-soldiers who don't know what solar system Mars is in, or care about their strategic blunders.

3) Was it a well timed book about a current event? Everybody would like to be the publisher of "The Day the Dam Burst" in the days and weeks after the dam bursts, though getting the advertising out in that time span is tricky. There is a market for books about events that are scheduled for a future date (think the Y2K bug or the collapse of the housing bubble) but these titles are subject to strong competition and the same issues of genre and fame mentioned above.

Even if your new title falls into one of the categories above (all three of which imply that there are people just waiting to hear about the book so they can buy it) there's an economic problem. The cost of the advertisement(s) has to be justified by the direct profit from sales or increased future profits due to wider audience and word of mouth. No matter how efficient your publishing model is, unless you're talking about a $50 ad in a newsletter, you'll need to sell quite a few books to break even.

And there's the rub. Most new self publishers are hoping to sell tens of thousands of books, and assume that selling tens or hundreds of books is easy. You can spend thousands of dollars on advertising and only sell one book, and like they say in the movies, "That's a true story," although it doesn't happen to be mine. I have wasted hundreds of dollars to sell a handful of books on more than one occasion. Here's another thought experiment. Before you spend some hundreds or thousands of dollars advertising a new title, try finding a dozen genuine potential customers who will accept a free copy. If you can do that, you can start thinking about how you'd reach those people through advertising, but it's not as easy as it sounds.

2 comments: said...

Wow, your article was great. Unfortunately I fall in the category of spending too much money on ads for an eBook that didn't sell.

I thought everything from my design all the way to the website was flawless. In the first month I had 1,000 unique visitors visit my eBook pitch one bought.

You should send me an email, i'd like to talk to your further about what you did to boost your book sales. My name is Jeff.

Morris Rosenthal said...


How can I send you an email when I don't have your address? Just do a search on Morris Rosenthal and you'll find my contact page.