The sessions at the second annual U.S. Book Show, hosted virtually on May 23–26 by Publishers Weekly, reflected on another tumultuous — yet hopeful! — year for the publishing industry. In the past year, we’ve seen consumer behavior return nearly to pre-pandemic levels, increasing demands for digital privacy, an industry grappling with employee burnout and turnover, and more.
And this is all while authors recover from the impacts of bookstore closures, book tour cancellations, and shipping suspensions of print books on Amazon at various points throughout the pandemic. Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, shared that a recent survey of Authors Guild members showed 60% of authors lost on average half of their writing income during the pandemic. Supply chain issues and inflation also continue to impact book sales.
Yet through all this, as we saw at the show, book marketers are finding creative ways to move forward. We’re excited to share some of the top takeaways we learned from the event!
Digital and hybrid experiences are here to stay
The continued focus on digital channels has opened up new avenues for book marketing. TikTok, podcasts, and virtual events enabled partnerships and engagement with audiences authors and publishers otherwise wouldn’t have reached — as well as new income channels for authors. TikTok in particular (more on this later!) “has done a great job attracting young readers to join book clubs and get involved with books in other ways,” Mary said.
Jennifer Enderlin, St. Martin’s Publishing Group president, agreed that new avenues are something to celebrate. She thinks authors and publishers should evaluate virtual events on a case-by-case basis moving forward, continuing to leverage digital opportunities when they’re better suited to a marketing team’s goals. Paul Bogaards of Bogaards Public Relations said that “authors have realized they can access as many or more readers virtually” without the hassles of travel for in-person book tours.
In addition to digital and hybrid marketing opportunities, some publishing companies are also embracing a hybrid work environment. Jennifer acknowledges that things will never fully go back to the way they were in 2019. She believes in allowing “as much schedule flexibility as possible” in the workplace and trusting her team. “Everybody wants to do a good job,” she said. “When people get as much choice as possible, they’re incentivized to make it work.” Both Jennifer and Monica Odom, literary agent and Odom Media Management founder, hope that more remote opportunities in the publishing industry will result in a more diverse workforce, and in turn, better representation of marginalized voices and communities.
New privacy measures rocked the digital ads world
Digital marketers have faced a lot of changes to the major platforms and data they rely on to target their audiences, with more to come as users increasingly expect more transparency and control over how their data is used. As digital advertising manager Kashmira Golatkar puts it, the digital world is divided between data companies that want to offer advertisers the best experience and technology companies that want to protect users’ rights to privacy.
Of the latter group, Google announced that it would be retiring third-party cookies in 2023, which platforms like Facebook utilize to track users’ browsing and buying habits. And in September 2021, Apple rolled out a Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) feature with iOS 15, an update that gave users the option to hide certain data from email senders.
Meanwhile, early this year, Facebook removed the option to target certain audience parameters that allowed for granular targeting. The loss of targeting was “certainly more widespread than I had anticipated,” said Rochelle Clark, director of advertising at Penguin Random House. “We’ve seen targeting options pared back in the past in areas of political affiliation, but this round we saw rollbacks in areas related to wellness, social justice, LGBTQ+ issues, and other areas that were especially helpful for advertising nonfiction titles on the platform.”
At Harlequin, Kashmira has seen a big impact on conversion and cost-per-click advertising. She shared that in early 2021, when Facebook started making changes to its attribution model in preparation for iOS 14, ROI across most of her conversion ads fell below 50% for a considerable amount of time.
Advertisers are resetting their expectations
All of these changes have meant that book marketers have to adjust their expectations for digital advertising and email marketing results.
“It’s not possible for us to see the same kind of ROI or cost per click that we enjoyed a year ago, and it’s not possible for us to deliver at the same scale,” Kashmira said. “This has led us to reevaluate whether Facebook is the right platform for us at this moment in time, or whether we want to take a more targeted approach with platforms like BookBub, LiveIntent, or Google.”
New York Times bestselling author Erica Ridley used to base a lot of her decisions on her newsletter open rates, such as for A/B testing subject lines or judging the performance of different newsletter topics. Now she is looking to other email metrics to measure success.
“Although it’s true that we do have less data now, I don’t see it as the end of the world when it comes to analyzing general trends,” Erica said. “When it comes to open rates, it’s important not to judge the effectiveness of new campaigns by contrasting the current literal numbers against past numbers, since they’re no longer directly comparable. But trends are trends and if a certain percentage [of subscribers] show that they favor a given topic, you can still make informed decisions about your business and your advertising.”
Despite new limitations, Facebook is still a major player
Nicholas Erik, USA Today bestselling author and book marketing consultant, noted that Amazon’s ad platform hasn’t really been impacted by recent privacy measures — since it has the advantage of knowing its customers’ preferences down to the purchase level — and BookBub Ads has adjusted well to the impacts of Apple’s iOS 15 update. However, Facebook has new limits on the amount of data it can track on both its own properties and on its users across the internet.
“Facebook is definitely still really useful and scalable but it’s not as stable as it once was,” Nicholas said, “which makes sense because it’s trying to adjust” to losing access to the granular interest-level knowledge it used to have on its user base.
“During the recent Facebook overhaul, several of my campaigns were automatically switched off due to prior inclusion of targets that they’ve since removed access to,” Erica said. “That does impact my campaign reach directly, but I would say that the doom-and-gloom outlook is a little bit overstated when it comes to book advertising. I still think that both email and Facebook are very powerful and the changes, while real, are not so impactful as to make either of those significantly worse than before.”
Direct access to readers is more important than ever
As changes to cost-per-click advertising limit access to certain metrics and targeting options, and with the pending loss of the third-party cookie, advertising experts unanimously agreed that book advertisers should rely more on their own data to evaluate the performance of their campaigns.
Rochelle said this underscores the importance of building relationships with readers on platforms other than Facebook, and taking advantage of existing Facebook tools while they’re available. For example, marketers can lean into what they know about their newsletter subscribers or website visitors to develop lookalike audiences to market to.
Erica echoed the importance of building your newsletter and finding new ways to target readers. She also noted that platforms like BookBub, with direct access to readers and reader data, will become even more important:
“While other platforms are removing targeting options or limiting analytic data, in the case of BookBub specifically, the readers themselves have not only actively opted in to be marketed to but have also helpfully indicated their genres of choice and the comp authors most likely to tempt them. When it comes to the granularity of targeting by both reader taste and vendor preference nothing else really comes close. I’m hopeful that platforms like this will continue to grow their user base and enhance their targeting capabilities.”
Authenticity is key to success on BookTok
We loved hearing from BookTokker Kendra Keeter-Gray on how the authors and publishers she partners with are finding success on TikTok. Kendra had just one word of caution: TikTok isn’t a space where sponsored content and targeted ads do well. “First and foremost, BookTok is a reviewers platform,” she said. TikTok’s algorithm favors authenticity and BookTok, the platform’s literary subcommunity, prides itself on being a place to make real connections, hear a diversity of voices, and see how people engage with books organically.
“Sometimes in publishing, we can be our own worst enemy by trying to sponsor too much,” said Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble. On TikTok, “it’s more about the relationships you build.”
Kendra shared that indie authors and publishers reach out to her almost every day with requests to collaborate. She’s more likely to work with them if they’ve done their homework and tailored their outreach to her specific interests, but most books she reads are suggestions by trusted friends she’s made through TikTok. This explains why backlist titles tend to get more attention on this platform than frontlist — because it takes time for word of mouth to spread. And on TikTok, word of mouth has a “snowball” effect that fueled the massive success of Colleen Hoover, for example, whose 2016 novel It Ends with Us, 2018 novel Verity, and “authentic self” on the platform have recently gained a loyal following.
Experts agree that TikTok’s demographic skews female and that the genres that thrive the most are romance, rom-com, fantasy, and YA, as well as niche subgenres. BookTok is fostering a genuine enthusiasm for reading, and panelists agreed it will be important to keep that enthusiasm alive.
Authors should focus on one platform at a time
When it comes to digital marketing and advertising, experts emphasized the importance of mastering one tool at a time.
“One problem I see, especially with indie authors, is the feeling that they have to be everywhere at all times, but you can drive significant sales and visibility through any one platform,” Nicholas said. But, “when you really concentrate on a single ad platform and drill into its nuances you’re able to wield that tool more effectively. It also teaches you about the principles of marketing and advertising, and you can transfer those over much more easily to the other platforms.”
Rochelle agreed that “trying to do everything means not being able to dedicate the time necessary to optimize on a regular basis,” saying that it’s time to ditch the “set it and forget it” mindset. “Really pay attention to how your ads are performing because we have that information readily available.”
Erica added: “The FOMO is real — there’s an infinite number of promotional tools and tricks you could be doing. The key is to find the few things with the most impact for you, your books, your authors, and do those while keeping an eye on what’s coming next.”
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