Category: Opinion

Where are the readers?* and do we still call them readers?

Authenticity in the age of big data
by Niamh Murray

Data, data everywhere – no time to stop and think.

If we’re living in the data age, where consumer metrics and engagements rule the roost, where readers are being called ‘users’* and where we’re constantly measuring performance, what numbers actually matter? And which can you trust?

Let’s take a look at 2016. It’s worth remembering that a data-led approach to human behaviour can be a risky business. At Profile we’re liberated from the tyranny of a data-focused approach by our publishing, which rarely sorts our books into silos of digestible genre-based chunks. But as for 2016: here are things that the numbers, for the most part, promised us would be impossible.

Data and data analysts failed to tell us that 2016 would bring about unholy upset in the form of …

… Trump
… Farage
… and Brexit

In an age of big data and big data fails, it’s worthwhile being skeptical. Readers – and yes, us folks at Profile Books still call them readers – are also humans. Irrational, unpredictable, like-Gilmore-Girls-while-also-loving-thrash-metal, change-their-minds-several-times-over-the-course-of-a-conversation, humans.

We’re living in an increasingly loud, busy, and overwhelming age. It’s no coincidence that mindfulness and colouring-in are two of the stories of our era. So, tweaking that newsletter subject line and repeatedly A-B testing to gain a 1.7% increase in open rate is one way to reach an audience; but, another approach is to remember that what makes us different, awkward and unpredictable will always be a factor, and it is to be celebrated.

We’re not one size fits all.

Things in 2016 which are not driven by (and if you ask me, not necessarily improved by) metrics:

  • Having a distinctive, engaging voice
  • Knowing your audience
  • Publishing brilliant books and making them look like beautiful objects
  • Concentrating on surprising and aweing readers
  • Realising that there’s no substitute for word of mouth. There is no metric that can show which books will achieve it.

It is okay to realise that not all of your books are for people who like contemporary fiction. Or even that all of your crime books are not just for people who like crime fiction. Or even that all of your Scandi crime books are not just for people who like Scandi crime fiction. And that’s okay.

There’ll always be another Girl-Gone-From-A-Train-In-An-Airport-Dead-In-A-Dark-Wood. (Aside: what is it with all these pesky girls and why do they keep dying?) Or even another Norwegian Wood – although that case is more interesting as an example of true oddness standing out and triumphing. You can even flog next year’s spotty teen trying out American snackfood or leisurewear from the luxury of their bedroom via YouTube. But then that savvy audience begins to realise it’s just a moment – and soon they see what is fake and sponsored and ultimately has nothing meaningful to say.

I think people will always search out authenticity. It’s that which makes Mary Beard so brilliant on the telly and forms queues of 2k fans around the block cheering her on when she takes on Boris Johnson (insert pantomime boos here), debating whether the Ancient Greeks or Romans did it better. It’s that which makes Sarah Perry the absolute superstar she is, both on the page and off. It’s that which lends itself to surprise and awe. Authenticity is that experience you can get from browsing in a well-stocked, beautiful bookshop. You can sometimes get it from a lively twitter conversation or emotive YouTube clip. Authenticity is what Lena Dunham delivers brilliantly via LennyLetter, what Melville House does so well, what I am yet to experience in any way from a corporate newsletter – and I’m not just talking about publishing here. Enough of the corporate cotton wool.

Authenticity is best served live – hence the resurgence in events – or in the author’s own voice. That’s why Chris Kraus’s I LOVE DICK found its niche. That’s why there is no substitute for a brilliant author who is willing to engage.

As for finding new audiences – which is not the same as new markets – you need to go low. Around knee height in fact – your new audiences are the same little people who start out with Booktrust’s bundles, sign up for their local libraries, embrace the Gruffalo and graduate to David Walliams, spend a few years in the dark wastelands of the YA novel and emerge on the other side as fully formed readers. If you want to start developing new audiences, look for more kids who aren’t white, middle class, and from north London. Look for the people who eventually grace the pages of books like Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. Look for the next incredible, ferociously smart, unapologetic Zadie Smith. Get them early. Treat them like the smart, irrational, creative, brilliant unpredictable humans they are and will become. Nurture their love of reading.

Because we’re people, not metrics. We like stories, and things that are real and personal to us and speak to us on a deep emotional level. We like stories that are real – because we’re real. And that might ultimately define what makes us readers*.

(*The question as to whether we still call our customers ‘readers’ nowadays was posed thoughtfully by James Spackman in a recent post on the Facebook hub of the Book Marketing Society.)


Niamh Murray is the Marketing Director of Serpent’s Tail (now part of Profile Books) driving marketing strategy and managing the marketing teams for both the fiction and non-fiction lists. Successful brand partnerships are a key part of her role as Profile publishes books by Wellcome Collection and The Economist.

Decline of a Captive Audience

by Dominic Gettins

Without a captive audience, advertising isn’t advertising.

The centrepiece of this year’s Oxford Street Christmas lights appears to be a giant illuminated jar of Marmite. It’s fairly unmistakable what this paid-for media content is suggesting we buy.

For the avoidance of doubt, it’s Marmite.

There was little opportunity for much else here, but it is emblematic of modern advertising.

Who needs an illuminating message when you have an illuminating medium?

Or as songwriters Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz asserted at the end of a fruitless day trying to write a country song, ‘You say it best when you say nothing at all.’

Technology has changed advertising to the point at which it doesn’t really exist any more.

Do publishers need to be more discreet about the way they promote their books?

Where advertisers could once sit and wait for a captive nation to read their ads, they now send a logo into space and hope someone trains a search engine on it.

As in the case of call handling software, technology in advertising has turned something simple and intuitive into something complex and inscrutable.

PR agencies, Direct Marketing agencies, Media Buyers and Events Organisers are piling on the grief. Their ideas for give-aways, competitions apps and media spaces are designed for product placement, not for written content.

Dominos can put their logo on a flag in the online game of a player who will soon have to break for food. Dolce Gabbana can hunt down the woman (or man) obsessed with shoes and place their kitten-heels right where it hurts.

The diversification of media has had a liberating affect on the audience, who now can individually browse for information like bees in an infinite meadow.

I, for example, don’t open news stories that involve child deaths, or Somali pirates; I do open stories about transfer rumours and incompetent organisations.

But that’s just me.

The person next to me on the train browses Metro’s ‘Guilty pleasures’ on an iPad, prodding pictures of celebrities to find out what they’ve been up to.

We are no longer a captive audience so we are less open to foot-in-the-door persuasion, as click through rates of 0.1% for banner ads persistently underline (source: Doubleclick). But we are more open to something else.

Like the bees we are naturally attracted to what appeals to us and away from anything toxic or stressful.

Any advertiser trying to get to us in this field had better have some sweet nectar.  We will be drawn to anything that makes us laugh, smile, feel richer, happier, better informed or gives us a guilty pleasure.

Take the illuminated Marmite for example.  It’s not advertising. It’s part of the street furniture, hiding in full view, fitting in.

Writing in ‘Men’s Health’ Will Self recently said:

‘Sinister corporate interests have always understood that the best advertising is lethargic: it hangs around forever, until buying the product concerned has become as natural as breathing (or as unnatural as smoking).

Notice how McDonalds TV commercials have evolved:

  • 1970s: Smiling kids lap up the empathy of Ronald McDonald –
    a bright yellow clown.   Clearly an ad.
  • 1990s.  Comical Dads in comedy situations ending up with
    the kids at McDonalds.  Less clearly an ad.
  • 2010s:  Modern commuters, people in overalls and ordinary Mums
    with kids drop in and eat burgers, with clarinet music.  Possibly a documentary.

It’s as if eating at McDonalds were the most natural thing in the world.

Why would you want to work with Independent bookshops?

By Meryl Halls

The indie bookselling sector is in a state of some flux, and is also a bit schizophrenic about how it sees itself.  It’s weathering a brutal retail recession, there are pressures on rent, rates and high street infrastructure, as well as the onslaught of ebooks and discounting from what’s still quaintly called the non-traditional sector (online and supermarkets).  They are small businesses, run – mainly – for love of the products they sell. Clever publishers looking for a deft, creative and energetic partner could do much worse than cultivate their relationships with them.

This is an oddly buoyant sector – as remarked on by more than one commentator after the recent BA Conference – and the thriving shops now are lean, commercially acute, business-savvy, often peopled by the chain diaspora, creative, hardworking, and committed to books. They are instinctive retailers – and thoroughly embedded in their communities.  It’s here that lies the key to independent bookselling success.  So fleet of foot have indies become that the strangest combinations are now almost de rigeur – books partnered with coffee, with ice cream, with homeware, jewellery, antiques, chocolate, furniture, art, theatre box offices, games, puzzles – even with hats!  If you engage, delight and entertain your community, you are much more likely to prosper, and the indies know this.

I work closely with the BA’s IBF Advisory Panel, 10 fantastic independents that include Patrick Neale, Jane Streeter, Ron Johns, Andrew Cant, Andy Rossiter, Sally Johnson, Sarah Waddington, Catherine Hetherington and Matthew Clarke.  Between us, we drive initiatives and projects for the indie sector, and these bookshops have some great examples of how imaginative partnering can work.

One of the most pleasing for us recently was when Ben Gutcher at Hodder decided to promote Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers exclusively through independents, a move welcome with glee by the indies I spoke to.  We used the IndieBound logo on the press adverts, and a link to the site for a Bookshop Search for those keen to find their local bookshop instead of shop online – it’s not all that snazzy, but it makes the point – and we like the point being made!

Some initiatives we’ve had for Independent Booksellers Week have worked brilliantly. Walker Books ran a “Find Wally” competition this year, where the first 100 bookshops to sign up received a full pack of large Wally, 10 small Wallys and lots of stickers and participation sheets for children.

The idea was that the bookshop hid mini-Wallys in other retailers in the town, and launched the search to find them with customers.  It worked perfectly in so many ways – it connected the bookshop with other retailers, it drove customers into the bookshop, and then into other shops, it created a sense of excitement in the town and a children’s activity around the bookshop. It also created costume character photo opportunities which are so important for local press coverage.

We would love more of the same (and similar) for Independent Booksellers Week next year – running 29th June to 6th July 2013 – it’s a great way to connect with a large number of indies, and really raise the profile of your books and authors in the indie sector.  When indies really get behind a book, it can have a huge impact – look at the Christmas bestsellers every year, which always nestles an unexpected hit, sold quietly but effectively through independents.

Beyond the bigger campaigns, even individual shops can make a disproportionate impact.  Jane Streeter at the Bookcase in Lowdham has had great success with the new Ben Fogle – she ran an event for 450 people this summer at the Lowdham Book Festival (which she helps to run), received extra discount on the paperback from the publisher, and simultaneously offered signed copies of his new hardback for pre-orders placed at the Festival.  There are dozens of independents running festivals, racking up substantial sales for featured books, and they are almost always up for a challenge if you have an idea to take to them.

Mark Thornton at Mostly Books has taken an innovative step forward by partnering with Angry Robots (Osprey Publishing) and selling ebook and paper books in a bundle – exclusively in-store.  Mark has attracted new custom, and the publisher is creating a marketing concept that works for a high street bookshop in a pretty counter-intuitive fashion!

The point I’d really reinforce to publishers is that you should always think about the independents in your marketing cycle  – increasingly they are looking to organize author tours collectively (and the BA could help with this), they are often deeply experienced in events management – and if you take them an idea, they can make it work because only THEY have to make the decision.

If you’d like find out more about working with independents, or taking part in Independent Booksellers Week, email or visit for information on the 2012 campaign.


Under the Hood

There are many problems that loom over publishers these days. Among the loomiest—and most familiar—are these two:

How do we talk directly to readers?
How do we show that we matter?

I have a suggestion that might help answer both of these questions: allow the public to see more of what we do.

Not allow them to do what we do: this is not crowdsourcing, in fact it’s the exact opposite. It’s about presenting ourselves as experts.

Of course I’m not proposing that we lay open everything we do to the gaze of Johnny Public. Some of it’s too secret. Some is inappropriate. Some of it is too dull. Some of it’s all three.

What’s much more typical is a brand new author or book which you have to launch from nothing, and frankly anything that gets the public engaged with it is worth considering.

So how would this work, practically? Penguin do creative transparency very well. Their website features lots of excellent videos of designers talking about how they made their covers, along with editors, copywriters (or “blurbistes”) and others.

My favourite is Coralie Bickford Smith, above, talking about designing the gothic horror novels in the Red Classics series. It eschews slickness in favour of wit and honesty, and is very, very charming as a result. And it makes you want to own those books. It dramatises the creative process, shows you what care and cleverness went into it. So it helps you realise that the books are worth buying, at a premium price.

This post originally appeared on The Bookseller’s blog here, and formed the basis of a presentation given at The Bookseller’s Design & Marketing Conference on June 21st 2012.

Other great “behind the scenes” videos:

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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]James Spackman works in high street and online sales for Hodder & Stoughton, having combined sales and marketing for most of his career. He is particularly interested in the role of copy in publishing, and strategies for direct communication with readers.

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QR Codes:
not a black-and-white issue

Once upon a time, a phone number and an address was all that was needed for communicating with readers, customers, or the general public.

Now, print has to also contend with URLs, email addresses, and mobile shortcodes. My copy of Moby’s album Everything is Wrong from 1995 has a set of specific instructions, including phone number and modem settings, for dialling into the Telnet server of Moby’s label Mute Records.

For conveying information we have QR (Quick Response) codes to consider, too. QR Codes are not new. They were invented in 1994 by Toyota subsidiary Denso as a way to identify and catalogue parts in a production line. They translate a short string of text – the form most popular to many is the URL. Like SMS, which was developed as a way for engineers to relay information back to base, QR Codes have evolved to be used in a way far removed from their original function.

For publishers, the QR Code can be a handy box of tricks. It is a simple, flexible way to add value to the reader experience; to be directed to commentary by the author at the end of a chapter, to be taken to a website where the reader can buy the next book in the series, to download the accompanying app, or to listen to an audio clip or podcast from the author – or all three. How this would be done is as follows.


Using QR Codes in a book

Let’s say that the publisher is called Acme Books. The end of the first chapter of Acme’s latest bestseller features a QR Code, with some explanatory text inviting the reader to find out more about that particular chapter – why those particular locations were of interest to the author, notable news stories from that era, and the ability to download an app which brings the world of the book to life.

The QR Code would resolve to a short URL.

This short URL can be controlled by Acme Books by a URL shortening service, run internally. It directs to a page about the book:

Note the ‘ref=qrcode’ at the end, which is a tag for Acme’s analytics service, enabling the publisher to know how many people are scanning the QR Codes in its books.

Because the QR Code resolves to a short URL which Acme Books controls, they can repoint to a different target URL when the website is redesigned. This would not be the case if Acme used the QR Code to point directly to its website, or by using a public URL shortener such as (Perera can provide such an in-house URL shortening service to publishers to cater for this requirement).

When the reader arrives at the page, the website must be mobile-friendly. Note that

isn’t going to a special mobile URL. This is because the reader may wish to look at the ‘desktop’ website if they have a tablet. This works when the website’s content management system is configured to ‘sniff’ the device that the reader is using, and automatically serve them a desktop or mobile version of the site.

Once the reader is on the page, they are presented with a well-presented-but-functional introduction and series of links that carry out the promise of the blurb underneath the original QR Code – linking out to audio, text, and the appropriate app store. Of course, this page can be modified at any time.


QR Codes and ebooks

Because a QR Code is a basic image, it can be used anywhere. But, it doesn’t have to be limited to print alone. 

One of the most effective examples that I have seen where QR Codes can combine a desktop or tablet with a mobile device is Stack Apps, part of the ‘Stack Overflow’ family of geek / tech websites. The mobile apps within the site come with a QR Code, which the user can scan from the screen to be taken to the appropriate page within the device’s app store. It’s simple and there’s a tremendous amount of utility value there. Also, look at the size of the QR Code on the page – you can scan it without having to lean into the screen.

This shows that digital devices can co-exist with QR Codes. So, in the above example of Acme Books, there is no reason as to why the same QR Code would not exist in the e-book version. What’s more, the URL might subtly change to include a different referrer (… tag=kindleqrcode, for example), allowing the publisher to not just know how many scans there are of a book’s QR Code, but precisely which formats are being interacted with the most.


Reaching new readers

Of course, effective QR Code planning is more than about just the book. It can be used as an encouragement to read.

The Catalan Government is working with a number of publishers, starting with Random House, on what it calls the Reading Train project. The central carriage of ten trains feature QR Codes in their interiors, which provide the ability for travellers to download the first chapter of a prominent book for free. It’s a neat idea that, again, provides a lot of utility value: people like a good read on the train, after all. There are some additional environmental considerations: the train needs to have power sockets and wifi for the mobile devices without 3G to be able to download and enjoy the free content. But, it’s a low-cost, high-value way to deliver interesting content to an engaged audience.

All new media take us through a learning process. With a bit of lateral thinking and a focus on what will engage and draw readers in, there’s no reason why QR Codes can’t be part of a strategy to deliver an engaging experience and become the glue between online and print.
Paul Squires is Managing Director of digital agency Perera. For further information, visit on the web, @pereramedia on Twitter, or scan the QR Code! 




Form is temporary. Class(ics) are permanent.

‘Form is temporary. Class is permanent.’ This saying, heard most often in my life in a cricketing context, came to mind today as I was helping to judge a recent BMS Seasonal Book Marketing Awards.

One BMS entrant was the campaign celebrating the centenary of the birth of William Golding and, inevitably, his seminal novel ‘Lord of the Flies‘. I know not everyone likes the book but that black-and-white film and its mantra ‘Kill the Pig, Kill the Pig’ haunted me throughout my lonely, scary boarding school childhood.

The marketing idea was to invite children to design a new cover for the book. But the real delight was the opportunity to look back at the beautifully designed and wonderfully crafted covers that have graced ‘Lord of the Flies’ since it was published in 1954.

There can be no greater conjugation of literature and art than these.

The same observation can be applied to Gary Oldman’s performance, and today’s Oscar nomination, in the recent film of the book ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘. Of course, the book was reprinted alongside the film. But why not  push Le Carré’s entire canon? What an opportunity to connect another class act to a whole new generation of readers!

In this digital age, ‘class is permanent’ applies to literature like never before. Virtually every book that has ever been published is available on the internet. And, while there is always room for new books, and the awards they attract, I do feel the book trade would benefit from dusting off the covers of the great works of literature and being more creative in promoting them to new audiences in new formats.

I wrote a column to this end which The Bookseller magazine published in 2007. If anything, because of technology, it is even more true today than it was then:

“At a family wedding last year, a cousin of mine from Washington DC told me that his favourite author is E. F. Benson. So last summer I read my first two Mapp and Lucia novels. They were first published in 1920 and 1922. But they were new to me.

More recently, a friend told me that his favourite books are by Brian Moore. So, as this friend has invested money in my company Lovereading, I thought I should read Moore. It was called Colour of Blood and was written in 1987. But it was new to me (and, thanks John, I loved reading it).

Then I read that Sebastian Faulks considers ‘Loving’ by Henry Green the best novel ever written in the English language. So I definitely thought I should read that – even though it was written in 1945.

I bought all of these books very easily. As we all know, virtually every book that has ever been published is available on the internet. There are even book price comparison sites to find the cheapest place to buy the one you want. No problem.

This is how people buy books. Someone tells them about a good book and then they go and buy it. Sometimes these people have names like Richard or Judy. Sometimes the word, especially if it’s Potter, gets round like wildfire and the book just takes off.

Yet the book trade doesn’t work like this. The book trade has things called ‘frontlist’ and ‘backlist’ titles. Unlike every other market I have worked in, the new books – the ones that are really newsworthy – are ‘promoted’ as three-for-twos or even sold at half price. The old products, the ones that you might have thought had passed their sell-by date, the ones that may even be out of copyright, are mostly sold at full price on the high street. It’s true – go to your nearest bookshop and see for yourself.

We all know about the effect of the major multiples on the book trade. But once you’ve been into your local bookshop, as requested above, pop into your nearest supermarket. Is the fresh, new crispy lettuce sold at half price with the older stuff still at full price? Of course not – that would be daft.

So there is massive potential value in ‘backlist’, and the best place for publishers to realise this value is on the internet. There are ways specialist bookshops could do it too.

But that is another story.”

This article originally appeared on the Brand Republic website.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]
Hugh Salmon is a business leader, and provider of ‘upstream’ consumer insights and innovation for business growth.

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