Feb. 11, 2010

The Perils of Advertising

Rummaging through my computer recently, I came across this ad (PDF) for The Strangler. It ran in the New York Times and the Boston Globe on February 6, 2007, and in the weekly Boston Phoenix at the same time. There was a radio spot airing that week, as well, which was very fun to hear while riding in the car. Some other advertising, too.

An ad like this is every writer’s dream, of course, and I’d be a fool not to appreciate it. But there is a catch-22: you cannot sell books without publicizing them; but the more you spend on publicity, the more copies you have to sell to turn a profit for your publisher. When you go to sell your next book, the publisher will be looking with a gimlet eye at a balance sheet showing not just how many books you sold but whether you actually made any money. Obviously, advertising expenses count. From an accountant’s perspective, it is better to profit on 25,000 copies sold than to lose on 250,000.

Obviously this sort of old-school dead-tree advertising is going to become quite rare in the grim new low-margin world of publishing. No doubt it already has. It just does not make sense to pay top dollar to broadcast your message to millions of readers in the Times when only a tiny fraction of that audience is your actual target. In theory, at least, the web promises pinpoint accuracy in aiming your ad, and costs far less. The shotgun approach makes sense for mass consumer products like soap and beer. For books, you’re probably better off with a rifle. Or, budgets being what they are, a pea shooter. Most readers, I suspect, are more influenced by word-of-mouth from a trusted friend than by ads like this one, anyway.

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