Comparing Commercial Marketing to Book Marketing: What Can We Learn?

Commercial Marketing Pic

We’re exposed to marketing every day.

So when authors realize that they must market their books to sell them, it’s not like they have no experience with marketing at all.

We all have experience with marketing.

It’s not that marketing is new. It’s just that marketing books is different.

Some of the strategies that we see every day can be applied to books. However, some strategies that work for other products don’t tend to work well for books, or work differently for books.

(1) Advertising.

If you saw a commercial right now advertising a new brand of laundry detergent, would you run to the store immediately and buy it?

  • I’m guessing not. But if your answer is yes, I’d like to pay you some money to watch commercials for half an hour. 🙂

If you saw a commercial right now asking you to run to the store to try a new brand of potato chips, would you do it? What if the commercial asked nicely? Pretty please? What if the commercial tells you instead of asks? Go there now! Or threatens you? Or else you’ll be the only person on earth to never experience this wonderful new taste.

  • People usually don’t like being told what to do, or being asked to do something that seems quite inconvenient for no other reason than to give others profit.

If you saw a commercial right now telling you about a new brand of shoes that’s the best ever, would you believe it? Suppose instead that the commercial describes what makes the shoes better. Would this strategy have a different effect?

  • Just hearing that a product is good doesn’t tell a customer how the product will help him or her. But knowing something specific that the product does might accomplish this.

When you go shopping, what you probably remember is which brand names sound familiar. People are more likely to buy products they’ve heard of before. This is the idea behind branding.

Advertisements help to establish brand recognition.

When you’re shopping, you might also remember something about the brand. For example, you might associate a particular brand name with luxury (like Cadillac) or trust (like Sears when they branded their image of Satisfaction Guaranteed), or you might recall a slogan or logo.

One strong goal of marketing books is developing a brand. The author can be the brand. Or it can be the name of a series (like Dummies) or a distinguished character (like Sherlock Holmes).

Branding occurs through repetition. You can brand a name, an image, a sound (think Jeopardy), and even a smell (with free samples of perfume).

Paid advertisements may not be cost-effective for most books. Although millions of people read books, there are 20 million books to choose from. There aren’t 20 million brands of paper towels, so advertising is cost-effective for large-scale paper towel manufacturers.

But there are many ways to brand an image through free marketing.

The key is to get the target audience to see the same name and image in a positive context a few times. Not so many times that it become annoying (then people think, “Oh, not that book! It drives me crazy!”). Not in a way that it seems intrusive, yet gets noticed by the target audience.

One way is to offer content that attracts your target audience, and allow your book to be discovered by an interested party (rather than shoved in front of their face).

When having conversations with people in your target audience (and natural conversations with anyone, but it’s your target audience who are most likely to buy your book), it’s natural to be asked, “So what have you done lately?” They’re more likely to be interested in your book when they asked you than when you come out and say, “I just published a book last month.”

You can get discovered through your blog, social media, a website for your book, personal interactions, book readings, book signings, attending workshops or conferences, giving presentations, doing community service, and many other ways.

But there are three things that you need for this to be effective:

  1. Traffic. (But note that you can interact with a much smaller group in person and have a higher yield than when marketing to a large group online. Personal interactions can have a powerful effect, if you can charm your readers conversationally. To some extent, you can also provide some charm online when interacting with people individually. I’m not saying to flirt with your readers; but maybe make them feel special for a moment – obviously, it’s far better if you really mean it.)
  2. Relevance. If you wrote a mystery and 70% of the traffic reads mysteries on a regular basis, then your marketing is highly relevant to the audience. But if only 2% of the traffic reads mystery, your marketing effort is being wasted.
  3. Value. People don’t like advertisements. If you can brand your image while providing something of value to your target audience, you’re marketing efforts are more likely to be noticed. You can provide nonfiction information that relates to your target audience, or you can provide a nice bookmark that doesn’t just look like an advertisement, or you can provide a service to your community, etc. Ideally, you want to give the reader something he or she is likely to want, where your brand gets recognized unobtrusively.

People aren’t going to remember a paragraph. They might recall a picture that has one central image (this gives covers that have multiple images a disadvantage). They might remember a few key words (so shorter titles without strange names have an advantage). They might remember a logo. The might remember a catchy phrase about the book. But definitely not a long sentence.

(2) Packaging.

Your intuition might tell you that the product is far more important than the packaging. If so, let me try to convince you how wrong this is.

If you thoroughly analyze product A and product B, and determine that product A suits you better than product B, then you would definitely prefer to have product A regardless of the packaging. Unfortunately, shopping isn’t so easy.

It’s often not easy to tell which product is best. Packaging has a very significant impact on buying decisions. We almost always look at the packaging to help determine which product suits us best.

Here is another important point: Nobody will ever know how good your product is if the packaging doesn’t attract their attention.

You can’t buy a product if you don’t discover it first.

Suppose you’re hungry for a candy bar, and one of the candy bars is packaged to look like sticks of gum. Would you even notice the candy that looked like gum? If you were shopping for gum and picked it up, would you buy it when you realized that it was candy?

Packaging helps people find the specific product that they’re looking for. If the packaging doesn’t fit the product, it will be highly ineffective. Good packaging attracts the target audience.

Poor packaging – and even average packaging – sends a message that the product wasn’t good enough to warrant better packaging (alternatively, perhaps they invested as little effort in the product as they did in the packaging).

Effective packaging does three things:

  1. Grabs attention. (In a positive way.)
  2. Attracts the specific target audience. (It should also look appealing and professional.)
  3. From a distance, it sends a short message (not necessarily in words) about what to expect from the product. (There may be more details in print upon closer inspection, but it’s the distant message that determines whether or not the consumer will ever inspect the packaging closely.)

Book packaging includes the cover, title, and blurb.

A good book with a fantastic cover and a killer blurb can make the difference between consistent sales and dwindling to the depths of millions of books.

It’s very important that authors realize this: The cover isn’t just part of the packaging, it’s also a permanent part of the book.

The cover is fashion. Just like clothing.

The reader has to feel comfortable holding the book. It must suit the target audience well. Better yet, it should attract them. If the shopper visualizes himself or herself holding the book in his or her hands and enjoys this feeling, then the buyer will be begging for the blurb and Look Inside to give him or her a reason to click Buy Now.

The cover is that important.

At least, if you’re hoping for many sales to come from people who discover your book. If you plan to sell most of your books in person after presentations or because you’re providing expertise that people will crave, then the cover may not be as important. Although it’s still important for similar reasons then, too (especially, if there are other expert books similar to yours).

The blurb and Look Inside are your only salesmen at the point-of-sale. The blurb has to draw the reader’s interest (without making empty promises, as that will affect reviews and word-of-mouth sales).

The cover, blurb, and Look Inside need to send a unified message. They must make it instantly (shoppers might look at your thumbnail for two seconds to decide whether or not to check the book out) clear what type of book it is. Precisely what type (e.g. contemporary romance, not teen romance; or does the cover look a little naughty, when the romance is light and clean?).

If the book cover doesn’t clearly suit the genre, it’s like packaging candy to look like gum.

Look at the covers and blurbs of top-selling books similar to yours to help get a sense of what readers expect.

(3) Promotions.

Everybody loves a discount.

Not quite true.

Everybody loves a discount on something they want to have.

Getting a discount on something you don’t need isn’t helpful at all.

Just discounting your book probably won’t help sales much. Amazon discounts books, and sales don’t always improve with the discount. People give books away free, and sometimes few are given away and almost none are read.

So if you offer a temporary discount, make the first book of your series free to help hook an audience, give away free bookmarks, or offer any other type of promotion, you have to realize that the promotion itself probably isn’t enough.

People don’t buy prices. People buy products. A discount is only effective if the target audience discovers the product and realizes the value of the discount.

So you have to market your promotion. A sale isn’t a substitute for marketing. A promotion can help your marketing efforts, but won’t work in place of them.

If sales are too frequent, word will get around and people will wait for the sales. This means that your sales rank might climb considerably in between sales.

Stores can put the same products on sale at the same time every year (like Black Friday). And some people will wait for the sale, but many won’t. But stores sell many products. And often you can’t wait for Black Friday. And not everyone likes to shop on the busiest days.

But books are different. You only buy the same book once, unlike many products that you need to buy every week, month, or few years. Many books, you can wait for if you know they will go on sale in the coming weeks.

(4) Mailing list.

Businesses strive to get customers to sign up for catalogs, email notifications, focus groups, etc.

Authors can have fan mail, book websites with supplemental material, preview readers, etc.

If you primarily use such things to send out advertisements, they probably won’t be effective. But if you provide significant content (like supplemental material), they can be effective. Content helps to attract your target audience. Then you can occasionally (10% or less of the time) announce a promotion, give a cover reveal, solicit input on a title, etc. (The cover reveal and asking for input on a title are ways that you can help to build buzz for an upcoming book.)


Think about the different forms of marketing that you’re exposed to every day. Consider what is and isn’t effective with you. For those things that are effective, see if you can find a way to achieve a similar effect with your book marketing.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

12 comments on “Comparing Commercial Marketing to Book Marketing: What Can We Learn?

  1. I particularly love what you mention about differentiating your work. Explaining why your target audience will like it rather than saying “It’s good.” “4.5 stars.” etc.

    Thanks! fantastic article!

    • Thank you, and especially for pointing out which part you liked. 🙂

      We can see this point in reviews, for example. Customers are starting to look beyond the number of stars and “good” or “bad” to pay more attention to what the reviews say (if anything). This shows that customers want to know how the book is different.

  2. G’day Chris—you can’t blame me for this–it is courtesy of Harry Steinman and was waiting for me in my inbox this morning:

    Heisenberg and Schrödinger are driving, and get pulled over. Heisenberg is in the driver’s seat, the officer asks “do you know how fast you were going?” Heisenberg replies, “No, but I know exactly where I am!” The officer looks at him confused and says “you were going 108 miles per hour!” Heisenberg throws his arms up and cries, “Great! Now I’m lost!”

    The officer, now more confused and frustrated orders the men outside of the car, and proceeds to inspect the vehicle. He opens the trunk and yells at the two men, “Hey! Did you guys know you have a dead cat back here?” Schrödinger angrily yells back, “We do now, jerk!”

    • Maybe I’ve been telling this story wrong every year. I usually tell it as a joke when I teach Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Heisenberg gets pulled over by a police officer. The police officer asks, “Do you know how fast you were going?” To which Heisenberg responds, “No, but I know exactly where I was.” I like your version better, though. 🙂

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