Marketing departments at publishing houses have a daunting task, figuring out how to use shrinking budgets to create promotional materials that are actually effective for the publisher and useful to the bookseller. So what works? What do we love seeing in our bookstores? What gets tossed out without a further glance? Whereas a centralized bookselling corporation may have one buyer to please, indies range in size, scope, and individual buyer preferences.
Here are a few do’s and don’t’s Josie and I have put together from our perspective. Other booksellers’ mileage may vary, and we hope the comments section will fill up with feedback that helps you hardworking publishing folks. (Note: the format makes this post sound really bossy—Do this! Don’t do that!—but of course nothing in publishing and retail is that black-and-white. These are just observations and suggestions based on our experiences over the past 12 years. There’s always room for imaginative promotions.) So, our wish list for promo items, taken in alphabetical order:
ACTIVITY SHEETS & TEACHER KITS AND GUIDES
Do: Allow us to re-order the kits if we run out.
Don’t: Give us so few we can’t share with the customers most likely to want them.
Consider: Letting us decide what promo items we want and not just sending boxes willy-nilly. That’s very expensive for you, and good kits can end up going to waste needlessly. Also consider creating a web page listing all of your available activity kits and teacher guides for booksellers to reference when planning events and helping teachers.
AUTHOR EVENT MATERIALS
Do: Send event posters, if possible. We also like press releases and hi-res images of the author photo and book cover (300 dpi), so that we can use them in ads and our own event flyers. Another helpful attachment would be a complete backlist for that author, which keeps everything in one place and makes event ordering easy.
Don’t: Make us fill out extensive author-request grids. (Okay, wishful thinking.)
Consider: Creating a flyer template (8.5" x 11") for touring authors’ new releases that bookstores could download and display. All we’d need to do is add our store name, date, and time. A professionally designed flyer usually trumps bookstore efforts, though not always, and it’s a very easy promotion.
Do: Send appealing bookmarks. Designers, think like a consumer: would you choose that bookmark out of a jar? Would your kids? Great bookmarks have appealing front-side images without a lot of text; no one ever picks up a cluttered bookmark that is obviously only a marketing tool. There’s nothing in it for the customer. Less is more with bookmarks, truly. Do put on-sale dates, backlist information, website, and/or author info, on the back; the back is fair game for any text you’d like. Again, think like a consumer, not a marketer. What would you or your children actually pay attention to? It’s often not quite the same thing that a marketer wants to get across, but it can still sell a book or series. An author’s signature can be a draw, and does double-duty as a giveaway at school events where not every child can buy a book.
Don’t: Design very dark or black bookmarks; for some reason, no one takes them. A pirate or vampire book could get away with a black bookmark, if it were handsomely designed and had white and bright accent colors. Otherwise, a no-go. Other bookstore mileage may vary.
Consider: Trifold bookmarks for series books. Scholastic had a great promotion for its Weekday Fairies series: it was composed of several connected perforated bookmarks, one for each book in the series. Kids loved these and we sold a lot of Fairy books. Children also love quizzes and mazes; tie in a back-of-bookmark game to the book and kids might hang on to the bookmark for quite a while.
Do: Send autographed copies we can use for prizes or raffles. We love that, and usually build a promotion around it. Sells books! Do encourage reps to put post-it notes on galleys they particularly love or want to draw our attention to: "Boys will LOVE this!" or "Great summer read" are helpful, as well as more specific praise: "Rep top pick. I couldn’t put this one down." Holly Ruck was our first rep to do this, and we always paid attention. OH! And these two are crucial: Do put release month and year on the spines of ARCs. Many publishers have started doing this and we love you for it. Also, please please please put series numbers on the spines of your books, in easy-to-find, easy-to-read type. You would not believe how much time is spent by customers and frontline booksellers trying to track down which is the next book in a series.
Don’t: Tie ribbons around galleys or gift hardcovers. It immediately conjures images of overworked interns or reps, and all we do is reach for the scissors. The ribbons get mashed flat in transit anyway. Truly not worth the time and effort. And please don’t send them in the kind of envelope that explodes in a shower of newspaper pulp. Don’t worry about trying to find a doo-dad to throw in with the book; unless it’s a very clever tie-in, extremely cute, or useful, it just gets thrown out. We’ve seen a lot of Oriental Trading Company kinds of things; they really don’t add interest or value for booksellers, so save that money to use elsewhere, maybe on better envelopes. With ARCs, please don’t make us actually have to open the book to find the release date. Most of us shelve them by month for easy access, and when you’re trying to sort stacks of galleys, it’s a pain. And if the date is only on the back cover, pretty please make the type large enough for middle-aged eyes. Someone in the art department should make his or her mom try to read the info before approving it.
Consider: This is as nitpicky as it gets, but for those of you who list an author’s books in the front matter, please do two things: include all the titles (don’t do the old-fashioned thing of omitting the book the person is holding from the list), and list them in order.
CARDBOARD DISPLAYS, STANDEES, MOBILES, ETC. — We haven’t seen nearly as many of these in recent years, but man, can they be effective. Customers love seeing a life-sized Olivia greeting them at the door, or a little Skippyjon Jones countertop standee. (I made up the latter as an example; I don’t think that was actually a promo item.) We had a beautiful Angelina Ballerina cardboard display that we kept in the picture-book section, always fully stocked, for years. Now, that’s effective marketing!
Do: Put as much thought into the shipping as the design and printing of these items. So often, they arrive with whole sections bent or creased, which undercuts the sharp appealing new feeling you’re trying to create with the piece. Also, make sure they (a) assemble correctly, (b) have clear directions, and (c) are sturdy enough, something a toddler would have a hard time pulling over.
Don’t: Send anything made of materials you wouldn’t let a baby chew on.
Consider: Displays for six titles. These work so well on counters at smaller stores.
CDs & DVDs
Do: The multi-book samplers are usually well done, but we rarely listen to them, probably because a taste of honey’s worse than none at all. (You can quote me on that.) Single-book samplers with an author interview are better.
d us your catalogs on CD unless you know we want them. I think this practice has died out in favor of websites and online catalogs, but in case you do these, don’t waste your resources on something that will get thrown out.
Consider: Sending a complete audiobook for titles you love. Nothing sells audiobooks in bricks-and-mortar stores like a recommendation from the bookseller. Also, any chance the prices could be a little more affordable for the common man? We hate losing sales to online vendors.
CONTESTS — Many booksellers do more with contests than we do. Our most successful contests have been generated from within the store, so we’ll let other bookstore folks comment on these.
DOO-DADS & GIVE-AWAYS
Do: Send sticker sheets. These are always, always popular, especially when the book cover is one sticker and the rest of the stickers are cute images from the books. Creative pairings are wonderful; Harcourt’s promotion of Little Miss Matched socks with Linda Urban’s MG novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, was imaginative and attention-getting, and did our work for us; the display practically created itself. Pins and magnets can be great, if they’re terrific-looking; otherwise, they tend to get tossed.
Don’t: Send bottles of glitter, body powder or other dust-type things. Inflatables and other items made of that vile-smelling plastic seem hazardous to your health and I wouldn’t let a child near them. (I might blow one up and suspend it from the ceiling if I love the character enough, but even that’s iffy.)
Consider: Less packaging for all promo items, and doing away altogether with those trinkets that make a person feel like factory workers overseas are being exploited for an item that won’t even get used.
Do: Send pencils, pens, or crayons, in enough quantity to actually give away. A great T-shirt always makes a terrific raffle item, too.
Don’t: Send three pens on a light-up lanyard. The staff probably won’t think to wear them, and there aren’t enough to share with a teacher.
Consider: Writing implements or erasers with your book title or cover image on them.
Do: Send good candy. We love it! We still remember the delightful "Fudge Bucks" from a Judy Blume promotion. And Workman had a golden ticket promotion that came with a gigantic Hershey bar perfect for sharing with your staff at 4:30 when everyone needs a little boost. Or send something that lasts beyond the promotion terms. Candlewick gave out a pretty painted wooden Maisy coin bank 10 or 12 years ago, and we still use it.
Don’t: Use way more packaging than you need. Large boxes with few galleys and lots of pretty packing material come off as wasteful and needlessly expensive. In addition, a lot of fancy packaging gets banged up in the mail, so it often doesn’t reach your booksellers in great condition.
Consider: Attaching something value-added to your promotion. We’d all rather get a plain old ARC and 2% than a cute imprinted carton. Honest.
POSTCARDS — [Edited to clarify: here I’m talking about single postcards sent through the mail to alert buyers to a new release.] Bookseller opinion on these is mixed. Some booksellers hate them, but I actually do pay attention to postcards, though some get recycled immediately while others make it to a to-be-ordered stack. Here’s why:
Do: Make it pretty (i.e., well-designed) and keep it brief. Follow the bookmark rule: put a great image on the front and save the text for the back. Most effective text? ISBN, on-sale date, one-line teaser, and two or three great review quotes. That’s enough. A small, handwritten personal note instantly makes the "okay, I’ll take a look" stack. These often come from authors; it’s amazing what a difference a personal touch makes.
Don’t: Put too much text on the back; that makes a bookseller’s (and a reader’s) eyes glaze over.
Consider: Choosing the larger-sized postcards; they do stand out in a crowd and allow for a cleaner, more readable, back side. Consider collaborating with authors more often, helping them with design, printing, and postage; let them add a note and signature before sending. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to get the word out about a release.
Do: Ship them with adequate protection. Crumple-edged or crunched posters are a waste of your design, printing, and postage money. (This is why I never take posters from booths at trade shows; the chances of them making it home are practically nil without a tube, and I never think of bringing a poster tube with me. Hmm, maybe this year….)
Don’t: Fold them. Teachers will take folded posters because any poster is welcome, but for a key spot on a bookstore or school wall, rolled is best. Don’t waste your money on posters created more as marketing tools than art, i.e., posters with a few different books and a lot of text promoting them, and the publisher’s name in huge type. (Award books are an exception to the several-book-covers rule; those are good. But, a simple label like "Newbery Books," accompanying the covers is best, with the publisher info tastefully at the bottom in a slugline. The poster is more likely to be placed in a prominent location and looked at, and the books will sell on the basis of their covers, titles, authors, and reputation. Kids and their parents don’t tend to ask for books by publisher.
Consider: Is this a poster you would put up in your child’s room? Classroom? Library?
TOTES are a mixed bag, literally.
Do: Make them as eco-friendly as possible. And pretty / handsome. The ones with great children’s book art get used again and again and again. They are expensive, but probably pay off in the long run for books you’re hoping will sell solidly well into the future.
Don’t: Bother with the junky stuff. Better to spend your money elsewhere than have crummy totes, the weird ones that feel like environmental hazards, have handles too short to sling over your shoulder, and/or feel creepy to the touch. We also dislike plastic bags with book cover art sent in quantities for the checkout counter, but some booksellers love them. (Poll a few of your accounts?)
Consider: Imprinting recycled paper bags (with soy ink; it’s everywhere now) instead of plastic. Not for trade shows, but for in-store promotions.
ONE LAST IDEA:
We got a terrific promotion from a publisher that had all the right elements, and all in a very small bubble envelope (no waste and inexpensive to mail): good bookmarks, a one-page sheet with an author interview on one side and an ordering promotion on the other, and — this was brilliant — a sheet of small square stickers listing release dates for that season’s titles. Booksellers could pop them onto our calendars and plan ahead so easily.
Thanks for letting us share our preferences. Now we’d love to hear from publicists and other booksellers. What have we left out? What floats your boats?