First, the bad news: we read fewer than 10% of the email promotions we receive. The good news: sometimes even an unread email leads to sales. (More on that in a bit.)
Just like everyone else in this information-overloaded world, booksellers are inundated with page upon page of electronic mail to assess and dispatch. Our inboxes are overflowing, and the problem just keeps getting worse. So how do you, publishers and authors, better your chances of getting read and building buying momentum via email?
There are a few tips that hold true in our store, so we’ll share them and let other booksellers share their approaches to the glutted-inbox dilemma.
In a subject header, less is sometimes less.
I admit it. I am less likely to open an email titled New Spring Releases than one with specific titles or authors: something like New Lowry, Wittlinger, Lockhart, Broach + more would get me to open that email. New Spring Releases makes me feel overwhelmed; this email is from only one of hundreds of publishers. I can’t read every new release email, and reading just one seems pointless. Plus, if I’ve met with my rep, I’ve already bought the new spring releases. So that email header needs to make its appeal in a more interesting, specific way. Even It’s a Dog’s Season (highlighting all of that publisher’s dog-related books, for example) would be better than a title that subconsciously screams, "Yet another of the same email we send every month."
Inject some personality into the subject header.
June 18th’s email brought us a message from our Penguin rep, Nicole Davies, entitled, DK and Penguin offers…Puffin Classics...Oh happy day! That little "Oh happy day!" made me chuckle, and I opened the email. Admittedly, the word "offers" made me sit up and say howdy, as my grandfather would have said, also. The word "offer" coming from a legitimate publisher will always get an email opened, if not acted upon.
Don’t inject too much personality.
I know, I know. How picky is she going to get? you complain. Well, here’s the thing. Like most of you, we respond to lively, funny, fresh language—but chafe at cutesy, effortful, or over-the-top attempts to get our attention. Library Journal, a wonderful review magazine, used to send out emails with three rhyming phrases meant to capture that issue’s main articles of the day. For reasons not entirely clear, those rhymes started to irritate me; I think it was because they tended to confuse, rather than clarify, the email’s content. For example: Successful chicks, baby pix, Austen mix or Gay books treat, RA complete, Lit hits the street. Yes, you may think they’re kind of cute now, but day after day? It’s similar to the way Carl Kassel’s halting, drawn-out style of reading limericks on "Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!" actually makes the limerick harder to follow. Maddening. (I love the man’s radio voice except for this, by the way.) Speaking of maddening, I’m going to contradict myself a little here by saying that LJ abandoned that rhyming scheme a while back, and though I was hugely relieved to have some clarity, I was also a tiny bit sad that the subject header’s spirit had been broken, possibly by curmudgeons like myself. (I guess there is just no pleasing some booksellers. Harumph.)
Think like a bookseller, not a publisher.
All good ad campaigns focus on the needs of the consumer instead of the vendor. Booksellers are grateful for timely reminders of special offers (especially that second reminder three or four days before an offer expires), book-themed handouts they can give to customers or use as buying references (Great ideas for Father’s Day, Best of the Backlist for Summer Reading, etc.), and round-ups of regional books releasing that season. You’ll get a better response from your email blasts if you try to approach them from our point of view as overbusy retailers. If you don’t already do this, perhaps talk to a few booksellers to find out what they’re looking for, or have reps think to ask us at meetings.
Unless you are attaching something along the lines of the as-yet-unseen cover of the third Hunger Games book, or something that needs to be signed and returned by the bookseller, we may skip (or forget to make) the extra effort of downloading, opening, and reading that attachment. If the attachment IS important (affidavits), subject headers indicating such would really help. All caps in this case are helpful instead of annoying. If a subject header says: IMPORTANT: BOOKSELLER AFFIDAVIT ATTACHED, I’ll be opening that puppy.
Subject headers should introduce a title or author, not make a claim.
Whet our interest with the book’s subject matter, not your certainty that the book will sell in our store. Not to be unkind, but we pretty well know what will and won’t sell well in our stores. Also, human nature leads even the most accepting of readers to automatically suspect unproven claims. Something that links the author with the store is effective: Possible title to carry / Vermont author was perfect, if not colorful. It was modest; "possible" indicates the author knows enough to know that we can’t sell every book, and "Vermont author" sealed the deal; we’ll always look at books from people in our state, because we love supporting local authors. Truly professional authors spend their precious "get our attention" the subject headers on less bluster and more plain information.
Do not use subject headers like this: Guaranteed bestseller just released! or Move over, John Grisham! Generally, there is an inverse relation between the size of the claim and the actual success of a book. Also, avoid words like "important," as in "an important new work." Literary importance is earned over time and is conferred by readers, not authors. Basically, do not evaluate your own book. Just tell us what it is about, in as brief and interesting a way as possible.
Today, we got an email with this title: New LGBT Children’s Book "Oh The Things Mommies Do!" That header gives me enough information to figure out whether or not I wanted to open the email and learn more. (I did; always interested in new LGBT titles for families.) Another recent, perfectly practical header was this: New book: Carve Your Own Road – Do What You Love & Live The Life You Envision. It’s enough to get us to open the email if we carry advice books, to take a further look, but also easy to delete if that isn’t our metier. No exclamation points (the one in the first example is part of the book’s title, so is exempt from the subject header prohibition), no exhortations, no attempts to tell us why we would be idiots not to read the advertised book. Instead, a simple alert to a new title and its subject matter. Perfect.
Do not address your email, "Dear Gentlemen…"
In addition to being an outmoded form of address for feminist reasons, your email is overwhelmingly likely in this field of children’s bookselling to be read by a woman. The men are vastly outnumbered, sorry to say. So you would most likely be inaccurate, as well as distressingly sexist, to adjure only "gentlemen" to purchase your book.
Let your book stand on its own merits instead of trying to ride the coattails of successful books.
Do not compare your own book to Harry Potter, The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, or any other published title, for that matter — especially to claim that it’s that book’s equal or better. Authors and publicists who g
o this route actually undermine their books. Since it’s very unlikely for a new author to outdo bestselling blockbusters and titans of literature, booksellers trust that if that is the case, established review sources will bring it to our attention. These claims read as amateurish, even desperate, attempts to get the attention of buyers, who are savvy, well-read experts in their fields. Such comparisons not only make the book less credible, they make it less likely to get read. You must trust that if your book truly is good, it will get read and be appreciated. This is not to say you shouldn’t believe in your book ardently or do your best to get the word out, but do it with dignity, honesty, modesty, and a realistic sense of the marketplace.
It’s probably best to forget attachments.
No bookseller I know ever opens attachments from an unknown source; we’re all virus-wary. I’m afraid that, no matter how good that flyer or teaser of a first chapter is, it won’t get read as an email attachment unless it’s sent from someone at a publishing house who knows the bookseller and personally recommends it—and sometimes it won’t get read even then. Even worse, booksellers often delete (without opening) any email with an attachment from an unknown source. Without an attachment, an email has a better chance of being opened.
FOR PUBLISHERS AND AUTHORS BOTH
Do let us know about local (or national) media coverage of your books
It’s so helpful to know when your book will be featured in the newspaper, on the radio, or on television. A very brief message with a clear subject header to this effect often leads to a beef-up in our stock. One of our customers, Bill Schubart, is a local author and fantastic, uber-professional promoter of his book, The Lamoille Stories. His subject headers are simple, clean, and informative: Upcoming Publicity for The Lamoille Stories by Bill Schubart. Seven Days Review & VPR. He even sent out a copy of his commentary on Vermont Public Radio that focused on the importance of supporting local bookstores. His emails are relevant and speak to our needs as booksellers, not to his needs as an author. That’s effective promotion.
I promised at the beginning of this post to explain how an unread email can still sell books. When a subject header gives us enough information, we make a note of that book even if we haven’t read the accompanying email. We have even been known to add its proffered book to a distributor or publisher order right then and there (mainly if we’re already familiar with the author, or a trusted rep who knows our store has sent the email). It would at the very least lead us to look up the book on one of the store databases, where we can take a gander at the cover and read any reviews. For instance, the subject header New book: Kerplunk! Swimming Holes in Northern Vermont (not a real title, sadly) would immediately go to the ordering shortlist and its credentials checked out pronto.
By the way, I hope none of these Do’s and Don’t’s columns make anyone feel embarrassed. Every single person reading this column has made rookie mistakes or misguided efforts in some field or other, including and especially me. And booksellers don’t have enough room in their brains to remember who sent what email they just deleted. You can make your mistakes in comfortable anonymity, as long as they aren’t giant enough to stop us in our tracks and take notice. This blog offers such a wonderful opportunity for communication between booksellers, publishers, editors, marketers, publicists, and authors that it seems useful to raise the questions of what, from our end, is most helpful and effective. Please weigh in with your thoughts.