Jacobs, Farrin, “Internet marketing actually works — with the right book and the right campaign.” BP Report, 23 July 2001, 26(29).
Though the Internet hasn’t turned out to be the promotional Eden book publicists anticipated, for the right titles, with the right campaign, it is a useful tool.
The proof is in the instant bestseller status of some recent releases, including Doug Stanton’s In Harm’s Way (currently in its 14th week on the NYT hardcover nonfiction list) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (which hit the hardcover fiction list on July 8), as well as the by-now familiar success stories of Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Ideavirus and Lip Service by e-publishing guru M.J. Rose.
Despite developing a more cautious attitude toward all things Internet, publishers continue to bank on the power of the digital word of mouth. Gaiman’s publisher, William Morrow, for example, has only placed one major trade ad for his book, said Gaiman’s agent, Merrilee Heifetz of Writers House. And that ad, in the NYT Book Review, came out after the book became a bestseller.
“Web sites have closed,” allowed Fauzia Burke, president and founder of the Internet marketing firm FSB Associates, which managed the campaign for In Harm’s Way. “But traffic is actually higher. People are still online; it’s just a matter of figuring out where they are.”
But Internet marketing won’t work for just any book. And it’s more complicated than simply papering, so to speak, Web sites with ads. A successful online marketing campaign generally follows a few simple rules:
Rule 1. Choose an Author or Book Likely to Appeal to a Niche Audience
“Fiction can be incredibly difficult to pitch online,” Burke said. “But nonfiction works incredibly well since you can tap into the specific communities.” With In Harm’s Way, for example, “I knew that the history community would be really supportive of this book,” she said.
When Burke left her job at Holt to start her own company in 1995, she saw the potential for harnessing the effects of a grassroots campaign. “I started looking at what was possible online and seeing the amazing communities online and how supportive they are of certain books. I thought this was a really great way for authors to take their message to the communities they’re writing for.”
Though American Gods is fiction, it hasn’t been hard to establish an audience online. It probably helps that Gaiman, as Heifetz put it, “is a media chameleon.” The author of The Sandman, a popular comic book for DC Comics, as well as a collaborative novel with British author Terry Pratchett, and the man behind Neverwhere, a popular BBC series, Gaiman came equipped with a built-in fan base for his first novel. His publisher, Morrow, must have had faith that it could translate into readers; it paid Gaiman a $1 million advance for two novels and a short story collection.
Rule 2. Start Early to Build Buzz
For Stanton’s book, FSB started promoting four months ahead of time. They sent galleys to history buffs, and while building anticipation for the book they also got insight into how best to serve potential readers online. Word of the book spread through newsgroups and enthusiast sites like historychannel.com and historyhouse.com.
Morrow took a similar approach with Gaiman. “They built excitement with americangods.com,” said Heifetz. Features on the site included a journal about the writing of the book and a countdown to publication. “It was the perfect way to grow his audience. Comic book readers are Internet kind of people. We not only found new fans, but got the old ones to go out there and buy the book.”
Rule 3. Know Your Audience; Target Your Audience
One of the reasons it’s difficult to promote general fiction online is that it’s not easy to market directly to a general reader. But niche fiction and nonfiction often have a loyal readership or information-hungry audience. Heifetz said she is trying to get foreign publishers to use the americangods.com Web site in the same way that Morrow has, because she knows Gaiman’s audience will respond. “I’m trying to coordinate that now because in each of these countries, he already has a comic book audience.”
For Stanton’s book, it was simply a matter of tapping into the audience of history and World War II enthusiasts. “The history community sort of flies under the radar of the mainstream media,” said Burke, “but they support each other and are well connected and wired. It’s not easy, because they know their books. You can’t just give them a bad book. But they trust our judgment.”
Rule 4. Provide a Useful Web Site with Information That’s Easy to Find
The one-day laydown and twelve-city tour for Gaiman may have been costly, but spreading information about the book and the tour was not. Gaiman drew crowds of 250 to 300 people at his signings. “It was mostly the Web site that got people out there,” Heifetz said.
Burke said even a campaign that relies heavily on print can benefit from the Web. “If you advertise but don’t have a Web site, there’s no place to go for more information.” Her team created ussindianapolisinharmsway.com and loaded it with book tour information and content related to the book.
Rule 5. Be Prepared and Enjoy the Success.
Morrow has gone back to press with American Gods six times since June 19. In its first week, the novel sold 2,613 copies at BN.com and Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton stores across the nation (this number is thought to represent approximately 20% of sales of nationwide) and has sold 7,909 copies as of the week ending July 15. It spent two weeks on the NYT hardcover fiction list, and is still hanging in at No. 19 on the expanded bestsellers list for July 22.
Stanton’s book had first week sales of 1,651 copies at those outlets and has sold 27,760 copies there since May. Not bad for a book about the sinking of a WWII battleship. Of course, none of this means publishers can abandon traditional marketing tactics. “I certainly think the Web campaign was part of the successful overall marketing campaign,” Burke said. But, she added, “On its own I’m not sure it works as well as when it’s in conjunction with an overall strategy.”