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May 08 2012

Think of it like a political campaign: Baratunde Thurston's book marketing

Since its release in late January, Baratunde Thurston's book, "How To Be Black," has sold more than 15,000 copies, hitting the New York Time bestseller list out of the gate. Thurston, The Onion's former director of digital, and Craig Cannon, his campaign manager, have employed a slew of creative tactics for selling the book. In a recent interview, Thurston talked with me about what's worked, what hasn't, and the secret sauce for their campaign.

Before you dive in, I'll note that Thurston — in addition to having written a terrific book — has a gift for making people feel like they want to be part of his world. Although I'd read excerpts of the book early on, as he included them in his email newsletter, and although I was given both an electronic and a print copy of the book, I still bought it, just to support him. How can you make that magic happen for your book? Read on.

Any sales numbers we can share for context?

Baratunde ThurstonBaratunde Thurston: We went into this with a goal of significant pre-sales to hit the New York Times bestseller list. How many does it take to do that? Anywhere from 1,000 to 100,000 in sales, and it depends on what else has come out that week. The pre-sales all accrue to one week, so you can stack the deck. We had 20,000 pre-sales as a goal. That was insane. We wound up with several hundred pre-sales, which was helpful, but not a juggernaut. We hit the list at No. 21. Mostly, that was useful because The Times had me do a joint interview with Charles Murray that ran in print and online during Black History Month. And that drew some attention.

What we learned from this is that people do not buy books. They like to talk about books. They like to talk about buying them. But they do not buy them.

Also for context, how important are book sales for you?

Baratunde Thurston: Sales are important. I want people to read the book. I want them to spend money. This wasn't a vanity publishing project, but it wasn't a get-rich scheme, either. It was a way for me as a creative person to point to something solid. I speak, I tweet; it's gone. I publish in very forgettable platforms. A book has some staying power. It's a cultural object, a physical object on which you can focus some attention.

What elements of the campaign worked?

Baratunde Thurston: We decided to treat this like a political campaign — more about the issues than the politician. We asked ourselves: Can we create a sense of movement that has other people seeing themselves in a book about me?

There was a process to arrive at the plan, and it equaled me coming up with the marketing. I knew I had to get on it when I was on a trip somewhere, and I got an email from Harper [Collins Publishers]: "Do you think you'll tweet about the book?"

There was a big research phase, talking to people I know or was introduced to, like Gary Vaynerchuk, Deanna Zandt, Eric Ries, Amber Rae at the Domino Project, and Tim Ferris. There were a lot of conversations had and articles read. There's no excuse to make things up completely or rely on hope.

We went with a content-oriented promotion strategy — check out this video or tweet or interview. So, for example, we wound up with 50 short videos that we could build into the book and the campaign.

The book's website was the heart. We posted a daily question every day in February, seeding it with the video I had already shot.

For speaking gigs I'd already booked, we asked if we could add book sales.

We had field ops — the Street Team. They were the ideal beta group: 115 people, half active and half of those really dedicated. We thought each street team member would equate to sales, but it's turned out to be more important as a group that lets us test ideas.

We also identified the high-value donors — people who are going to deliver a bunch of votes or cash. I went through all my contacts manually, about 4,500 people, and scrubbed that down to about 1,800 real people. I tagged them lightly, looking at them in terms of relevance. And then I started reaching out to them one by one.

"Fresh Air" with Terry Gross worked. MSNBC appearances worked.

How did the Street Team work out?

Baratunde Thurston: We tried to build a very loyal, very intense community. People had to apply. We asked them to participate in web video chats. It was like they made it through basic training. And that was kind of the goal: to have a group of advocates you can deploy in different ways. At launch parties across the country, they help out. Craig crashes on their sofas. They provide a support network; they're the volunteer fire department.

They also became an early-warning system for how the public would interpret the book. They weren't biased the way the other people close to me were. For instance, during Street Team video chats, they asked questions the public would ask. So I'd go to launch parties and interviews really prepared with answers.

Michael Phelps parody photoThis notion of showing the book cover in the hands of people as an image of value — they helped create that. Somebody Photoshopped Michael Phelps holding it, and that was one of first we saw. We seeded that idea with the Street Team, and they ran with it. The Photoshopping became redundant because actual people were holding the book and people were taking their pictures. It turned into a photomeme as people began to post them [to Twitter and the "How To Be Black" website].

We had a roadmap of things we had to do, and one thing we didn't miss was the Amazon reviews. We wanted to get them up within hours of the book's availability to set the trend for five-star reviews. We had a video chat with the Street Team right before the Amazon release. Within hours, we had 10 five-star reviews. That signaled to the Amazon buying market that it was a worthwhile book, and the Street Team provided the initial traction. And it's not just the number of five-star reviews, it's also how many reviews were helpful or not. We basically created our own Amazon Vine program.

What didn't work the way you expected?

Baratunde Thurston: The goal of 20,000 pre-sales didn't work. Every weekday in February, I should have been doing something for Black History Month. That didn't quite work, because the lead time for booking events is six months to a year, and we weren't on top of it early enough. As I mentioned, having the Street Team directly account for a certain number of units distributed didn't quite work.

What role did Craig Cannon play?

Baratunde Thurston: I knew Craig loosely at the Onion [where he was graphics editor]. He invited me to lunch to talk about something he was working on, a project with Skillshare. About five or six months before the book launched, we did a class on how to be black. That was a good test for our relationship.

We had a huge Google doc with everything laid out. Craig set up the Tumblr, the Facebook page, a private group for the Street Team, the tour support, the admin support. He's running the merchandise business. The black card — he just went off and built it.

I would have been able to do a lot of that worse. Even the two of us are only hitting 60% capacity. We should have had merch ready at launch. At some of our book events, we didn't have books.

For people who don't have a Craig, the most important thing is the personal one-on-one outreach. Look at the market of people interested in your topic, interested in you. Start with your inner circle. I had an epiphany with Gary Vaynerchuk. I asked: "Did I ever ask you to buy my book?" He said, "Yeah, I bought it yesterday." I talked about his book, but cash on the table — it didn't happen. He wished he had identified everyone he knows, sending a personal note explaining: "A) buy the book; B) this means a lot to me. You owe me or I will owe you. Here's some things you can do to help: If you have speaking opportunities, let me know. For instance, I would love to speak at schools." Make it easy for people who want to help you. Everything else is bonus. If you haven't already converted the inner circle, you've skipped a critical step.

What specific marketing technique would you recommend to other authors?

Baratunde Thurston: You can make everything easier by figuring out what value to attach your book to. We've been working under the over-arching theme of identity. If you blog every week about why your book is so awesome, nobody cares. If you're producing relevant, interesting content, they get attached to you in context. That leads to sales. It's a good model.

Once you've actually articulated what that value is, make everything else consistent with that. For us, it was comfort with yourself and your identity — everybody has an outsider identity. That provides a roadmap for interviews and events. It establishes the brand and reinforces it. This approach requires time and consideration, but not cash. It's not just reactive. For instance, this book is about DIY culture that makes the world a better place. With that approach, somebody like my friend Nora Abousteit can get involved, even though race, per se, isn't her issue.

Anything else you want to add?

Baratunde Thurston: There was a very important tactical layer, the secret sauce: Knod.es [Note: this is launching to the public soon]. Ron Williams, Knod.es founder, has been an essential shadow. The types of services Knod.es provides — pre-qualified leads — are going to be important for everything. We were sending targeted blasts around and used Knod.es to augment that. The results have been incredible.

For example, we wanted people to submit more content to the How To Be Black Tumblr. After launch, it had faded. We recruited 18 people [some from the Street Team] to push a message through Facebook and email. We had a 50% conversion rate on those messages, and got in nine stories without trying that hard. In the same way you approach your network of friends, you can do the same with social networks where you don't know them as well but they still want to help. You still have to make it easy for people to help you, but finding the value in your existing relationships — that's incredibly valuable. "The Today Show" isn't available to everyone.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Related:

March 06 2012

The core of the author platform is unchanged — it's the tools that are rapidly changing

Digital not only is affecting the way books are produced and consumed, it's also affecting the way readers and authors interact. In the following interview, Jeff Potter (@cookingforgeeks), author of "Cooking for Geeks," talks about the changing author platform, which is requiring authors to don marketing hats and connect with readers directly. He says the book as a product is expanding to include the conversations and communities surrounding the book.

Potter will expand on these ideas at Mini TOC Austin on March 9 in Austin, Texas.

Our interview follows.

What is an "author platform" and how is it different today from, say, 10 years ago?

Jeff_Potter.pngJeff Potter: There is so much amazing writing available online, whether curated by hand (New York Times, The Atlantic) or by community (Reddit, Hacker News). Readers today can satisfy most of their reasons for reading for little time and money. That's a pretty big hurdle for a book author to compete with. I realized that, in order for people to want to spend time with my book, it was going to have to fit into a lifestyle that's already full of amazing, quick content.

Readers are buying books as experiences, not just for the facts or knowledge, and a component of that is the author-reader relationship. A decade ago, it was a very one-directional conversation: The author wrote and the reader read; ideas and questions rarely flowed from reader to author or from reader to reader. Today, that's no longer the case. Readers tweet me questions; they file errata and corrections on O'Reilly's site; they send me messages. The "book" is no longer the product — the product is now the conversations and community that grow around the book.

Historically, an author's job was done when the final manuscript was submitted, maybe along with a minor number of press interviews after the book launched. The author platform today has expanded to include fostering that online community and supporting readers. Being an author is about communicating ideas, not about writing a book, and once framed this way, it's easy to see that an author's platform, at its core, is unchanged — anything that helps the author spread ideas and excite readers — but that the tools for doing this are rapidly changing.

What are some of the key ways authors can connect with readers?

Jeff Potter: Google Alerts and Twitter searches, these are some of my favorite things. Readers will tweet out or blog about my book without even thinking that I might see it. I make a habit of responding, even if only a short comment ("Glad you liked it!" or "Let me know if you have any Qs"), and I can't tell you how many times that's blown people away and led to a fun conversation.

As for blogging, and this is just me, I find it to be more work than it's worth to post regularly, but that's probably more an artifact of who I am and the particular topic I deal with. There are tons and tons and tons of food blogs; coming up with something novel and not just being an echo chamber is harder in this field. If, however, you're dealing with a specific topic and can create a blog of real value to your community, definitely do that.

In marketing your book "Cooking for Geeks," what were some of the most successful tactics you used?

GeeksCover.pngJeff Potter: In a nutshell, being creative and coming up with tactics that fit my audience and message. I was incredibly lucky to have my book come out the same month that JetBlue sold its "All You Can Fly" pass — I put up a blog post that read, "If you buy a box of books, and JetBlue flies to your city, I'll come and give a talk." This worked out amazingly well. I didn't have to deal with cash or selling book-by-book — I had the boxes of books shipped ahead of time, and I got to go to events where someone else was excited enough to have me come and speak that they made sure there were plenty of people for a fun talk. And by selling a box (using my author's discount), I was able to pay for my costs along the way. It wasn't glamorous, but it was an incredible experience.

In the interest of offering something directly actionable, here's my quick punch-list of things that I recommend:

  1. Have a website for your book that comes up right away in Google when searching for the title. (Change the title if necessary!)
  2. On the main page, have a very clear "Media / Press" section.
  3. On your press page, give the following information:
    • List your contact info, including a phone number (You can remove it after a few months; get a Skype or Google Voice number if you prefer.)
    • List two or three bullet points of what makes your book unique (from the viewpoint of what would be interesting from the journalist's readers perspective).
    • Photos of you and your book, with a permission release.
Mini TOC Austin — Being held March 9, 2012 — right before SXSW — O'Reilly Tools of Change presents Mini TOC Austin, a one-day event focusing on Austin's thriving publishing, tech, and bookish-arts community.

Register to attend Mini TOC Austin


What advice would you offer to new authors just starting out?

Jeff Potter: This is going to sound cheesy, but write a good book that readers want. Worrying about publicity and even author platform stuff is much further down the list, compared to having something interesting to share. So, to that extent, here are a few tips I wish I'd been given on day one on how to write a book.

  • Dedicated time; dedicated space. This is the magic formula that I hear over and over from successful creative people. Whether it's a dedicated writing desk or a table at a café, find a space where you can get into the act of creating content. And then carve out time in your schedule to go there. The hardest challenge, I found, was to get the proverbial pen and paper ready to go. Once out, things seem to take care of themselves, at least most of the time.
  • Do creating separate from editing. The act of creating is about adding words (or paint or clay or cocoa powder); the act of editing is removing the weaker ideas. Trying to do both at the same time is like trying to play tug of war with yourself: You'll end up exhausted and in exactly the same spot you started.
  • WIIFM: "What's in it for me?" Every single sentence is there for the benefit of the reader. Not you, the writer, nor your editor, nor as an inside joke between you and a friend. (Well, maybe some of that's okay, right Marlowe?)
  • Know who you're writing for, and write for them. Don't worry about trying to make something "broadly appealing." For me, I wrote the book I wish I would have 10 years ago when just starting out in the kitchen. It was that simple.
  • Answer one and only one fundamental question in your book. The "Cooking for Geeks" question was: "How do you go into the kitchen and have fun cooking?" As a corollary to this rule, develop a simple litmus test for anything you're putting in your book. In "Cooking for Geeks," everything had to be a) fun or interesting, b) directly applicable, and c) answer the fundamental question.

I'll leave you with two of my favorite quotes. Stephen King: Writing is "like crossing the Atlantic in a Bathtub" (I'd add "with a teaspoon as an oar"). And Gene Fowler said, "Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." Writing a book is the single hardest thing I have done in my life. It's also the most rewarding.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Related:

February 15 2012

Book marketing is broken. Big data can fix it

Peter Collingridge (@gunzalis), cofounder of Enhanced Editions says digital books are requiring a new style of data-driven marketing and promotion that publishers aren't yet implementing. He also says that book marketing is broken and big data is the solution.

In the following interview, Collingridge talks about how real-time data and analytics can help publishers and he shares insights from the beta period of Bookseer, a market intelligence service for books his company is developing.

What are some key findings from the Bookseer beta?

peter-collingridge.jpgPeter Collingridge: I think despite the increasing awareness of data as being a critical tool for publishers to compete, it's genuinely hard for people to look at data as a natural addition to the work they are doing, whether that's in PR, marketing, acquisition, or pricing.

Publishing has operated in a well-defined way for a long time, where experience and intuition have dominated decision making and change is hard. What has been really exciting is that when people have the data in front of them, clearly showing the immediate impact of something they did — a link between cause and effect that they couldn't see before — they get really excited. We've had people talking about being "obsessed" and "addicted" to the data.

Some of the most surprising findings: That on some titles, big price changes aren't as relevant to volume as everyone thinks; that big-name glowing reviews of literary fiction don't have anywhere near the impact on sales to merit the effort; and that social media buzz almost never translates into sales.

For me, the key observations so far are around marketing. First, big budget media spending and ostentatious banner ads might impress authors and bookshops, but they deliver very poor return on investment (ROI) for sales. Secondly, the super-smart publishers are behaving like startups and doing tiny little pieces of very focused and cheap marketing — and watching the results like hawks before iterating in direct response to the data. Bookseer is designed to disclose the former and to aid the latter — and that is probably our biggest finding: it works!

Find out more about Bookseer in the following video from the If Book Then conference earlier this year in Milan.

What kinds of data are most important for publishers to track?

Peter Collingridge: Before we built Bookseer, we spoke with 25 people across the industry, including authors big, small and unpublished; editors and publishers; managing directors; digital directors; sales, marketing and PR directors; and literary agents. We asked exactly that question.

For most people, the data they had was pretty basic: Nielsen (which obviously only goes to the granularity of one week) plus the F5 button to manically refresh an Amazon web page for changes in sales rank. Neither of these is particularly helpful in determining the impact of an activity.

Of course, there are loads of data points, but we began with the lowest-hanging fruit. Aggregated sales (print and digital) across multiple sources; Amazon sales rank; price; best-seller charts; social media mentions; buzz; review coverage in mainstream and new media, and on social reading sites; and other factors such as promotion (advertising and other) and merchandising.

We think the most important thing to do is aggregate activity and data points across as many sources as possible, building a picture of what's going on for one title or across a whole retailer, and allowing publishers to draw their own conclusions.

What does real-time data let publishers do?

Peter Collingridge: Publishing has been B2B, about supplying books into bookshops, for forever — combined with working with media to support that. And for that world, weekly aggregated retail sales work, I guess. But when you're in a much faster-paced world, with the industry moving toward being consumer- rather than trade-facing, and with a fragmented retail and media landscape, you need to make decisions based on fact: What is the ROI on a £50,000 marketing campaign? Where do my banner ads have the best CTR? Who are the key influencers here — are they bloggers, mainstream media, or somewhere else? How many of our Twitter followers actually engage? When should we publish, in what format, and at what price?

Data should absolutely inform the answers to these questions. Furthermore, with a disciplined approach to promotion, where activities are separated from each other by a day or a few hours, real-time measurement can identify what works and what doesn't. We can identify the difference between Al Gore tweeting about a book and Tim O'Reilly doing the same; the difference between a Time review and a piece on CNN; the impact of a price drop against an email sent to 200,000 subscribers; and measure the exact ROI on a £300 campaign against a £30,000 one.

Over time, you build up a picture of which tactics work best and which don't. And immediate feedback allows you to hone your activities in real-time to what works best (particularly if you are A/B testing different approaches), or from a more strategic perspective, to plan out campaigns that have historically worked best for comparable titles.

How would you describe the relationship between sales and social media?

Peter Collingridge: Right now, sales drives social — not the other way round. However, I believe there will come a point when that's not the case, and we will be able to identify that.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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