Monday, August 15, 2005

Getting new books to buzz


August 15, 2005

On a bright Saturday afternoon, a youthful team that often hands out nightclub leaflets fanned out across Central Park, Hamptons beaches and sites in five other cities with an unusual assignment: Give away the first two chapters of a novel.

The team scored right away with Monika Krejeirova, a 31-year-old hedge-fund worker who was sunning herself on Central Park's Great Lawn. "It's just enough to get me excited," she said as she finished the excerpt of "The Black Silent," by David Dun. "I want to know what happens next." She planned to stop by a Barnes & Noble store to ask when the science-fiction thriller would go on sale.

A few blankets away, though, Jackie Spitz, a 26-year-old teacher, tossed the booklet aside. "I only took it," she said, "because I felt sorry for the people handing it out."

Pity the book industry. Of all forms of media, it may face the greatest challenge enticing people to sample its products.

That's why a few publishers are trying guerrilla marketing to build all-important buzz for their books. Some are employing teams to give out samples at concerts, parks and movie theaters to people they hope are trendsetters. Others are using stealth Internet campaigns, the way movie companies do, creating mysterious Web sites to intrigue potential readers. Both techniques helped promote a summer science fiction bestseller, "The Traveler," by an anonymous author with the pseudonym John Twelve Hawks.

In perhaps the most unusual move, some publishers have recruited thousands of ordinary people to act as so-called buzz agents to talk up books to their friends. Books ranging from the bestselling "Freakonomics" to literary novels have recently gotten the buzz treatment.

Reading in decline

These days, it's especially important to find better ways of pushing books, publishers say, as reading continues to decline, especially among young adults. And for books that do catch on, publishing has become a winner-take-all business. One or two runaway bestsellers become the books that seemingly everyone is reading and talking about while the rest of the 195,000 titles published in a year languish.

"This is a business where people know one very difficult fact: Americans want to read hits. They don't want to read flops," said Albert Greco, a professor of marketing and book-industry researcher at Fordham University. "What works? It's hard to say. Most people think that it's word of mouth, called 'buzz' in the business."

Buzz is what propels a book such as "The DaVinci Code" to 124 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. The same goes for "The Kite Runner," a first novel set in Afghanistan, now at 47 weeks. Traditional methods like media appearances, ads and author readings help, especially for famous authors, but it's everyday chatter at dinner parties and offices that puts a breakout book over the top.

"Word of mouth is very important," said Laurie Parkin, vice president and publisher of Kensington Publishing, publisher of "The Black Silent." "It's what gives a book what we call 'legs.' Media attention is great, and it's instant and it's immediate. But if people like the book, they talk about it, and that's when you see books hit the bestseller list for 50 weeks, 100 weeks. It's what we all aspire to."

Getting people talking

That's why the new techniques aim at getting people talking. And talking is the essence of BzzAgent, a 3-year-old Boston company. It has 90,000 recruits who've agreed to talk up products ranging from shoes to sausages to books -- for no pay, just for access to some free stuff and the feeling of being in the know about the latest things.

"It definitely sounded kind of kooky," said Rick Pascocello, vice president of advertising and promotions for the Penguin Group of publishers. BzzAgent approached him back in 2002 to do a campaign for free if Penguin would be its first client. So he took a why-not plunge with "The Frog King," by a first-time novelist, Adam Davies.

The book is a somewhat humorous take on a young man coming of age in the work world. But despite its possible appeal to 20-something readers, Penguin had low expectations: no money for advertising, virtually no reviews. Yet, crowds of more than 100 showed up at readings, and the book went on to sell a healthy 50,000 copies.

Pascocello credits 1,000 BzzAgents, who read the book on subways, asked for it at bookstores, reviewed it on and buzzed their friends about it. He's since used BzzAgents for 30 more books, including an Iraqi war memoir, "Generation Kills," by Evan Wright. After selling 40,000 copies in hardcover, it would have been expected to pull in similar numbers in paperback, but it more than doubled that after a buzz campaign.

For the middle-tier book

"This isn't for the big commercial books that are on the bestseller list," Pascocello said. "This is for the next layer of books that everybody here in the industry knows and loves but struggles with how to get people to find them." Other publishers have tried BzzAgents, too, including HarperCollins and Rodale. Doubleday is considering it.

In practice, BzzAgent campaigns lead to encounters like this one in an apartment-complex laundry room, reported on the company Web site: "A woman walked in with her wash. I looked up and smiled, as did she. After a few minutes she asked what book I was reading, and I told her about the 'Young, Fabulous & Broke' book [by Suze Orman]. Her eyebrows raised and said, 'Wow . . . that's me!'"

After comparing stories about debts and child-rearing, the agent gave the woman postcards about the book and reported: "She was completely exstatic !" Authentic or not, that sort of personal connection is hard to duplicate in traditional promotions.

Michele Hanson, in charge of book campaigns at BzzAgent, said agents are encouraged to be honest and buzz books only if they like them. Still, there's been some backlash. Someone posted a reader's review on warning that other positive reviews of "The Frog King" might be the untrustworthy result of buzz marketing.

Stealth is inexpensive

One reason publishers like stealth promotions is they aren't expensive. Pascocello said he spends in the low six figures to buzz 10 books a year.

Low marketing budgets are a leading obstacle to unknown books, according to Greco of Fordham University. Unlike movie companies, which might spend $50 million to market a $100 million film, book publishers rarely allocate more than 10 percent to 20 percent of what they've spent on a book to go out and sell it, he said.

However, publishers have borrowed one page, if an inexpensive one, from movie marketing by trying some stealth Internet campaigns. Faced this summer with promoting "The Traveler," Doubleday set up a series of Web sites.

Posted months before the book was published in July, the sites weren't identified as having any connection with "The Traveler," the idea being to create some mystery and capture the attention of alternative-reality fans, a target readership. Gradually, they discovered the sites and began to chatter about them, including a site that allows people to break into the files of the book's sinister Evergreen Foundation, and a blog for a major character.

Handouts on the street

At the same time, Doubleday hired Sniper Marketing, a Brooklyn street-team company that hands out promotional items for nightclubs, record companies and other youth-oriented products. "They're very good at reaching a younger male market, and that's part of who we were looking for here," said John Pitts, marketing director of Doubleday. It was the first book assignment for Sniper.

The teams targeted campuses, comic book shops and lines for the latest "Star Wars" movie with a promotional DVD. "On the first day of 'Star Wars,' we got the fanatics," said Ozzie Salcedo, the founder of Sniper Marketing. "It was awesome. People were eating it up."

That, along with some good reviews, pushed the book onto The New York Times best-seller list for two weeks when it came out last month. Now 200,000 copies are in print. Not bad, said Pitts, "considering it's a first-time novelist that nobody's ever met."

For its second book project, Dun's "The Black Silent," Sniper hit a glitch: A Central Park employee asked the teams to stop -- he claimed the sample chapters were litter. Still, Sniper gave out 150,000 samples over the July 4 weekend. Kensington Publishing also took out some newspaper ads.

The result? So far, the publisher is shipping 20 percent more copies than it had for Dun's previous books. Absent detailed market research, unheard-of in publishing, it's hard to measure the impact of the new efforts to promote outside the bookstores, said Parkin, the publisher of "The Black Silent." But it's worth trying, she added: "You've got a very limited time to market a book. This gives it a little added dimension."

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc. Getting new books to buzz

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