Making Information Pay

Content Marketing For Book Publishers

In an earlier talk, “An architecture of collaboration”, I argued that the market for reading may be expanding significantly, but the gains are seen almost entirely outside the prevailing book industry supply chain. “Architecture” encouraged publishers to engage with communities – and companies – to offer new sources and uses of what was once just book content.

That talk also recommended publishers do 12 things to develop “an architecture of collaboration”. I ranked these 12 ideas from easiest (“Join the w3c”) to hardest (“Change our approach to copyright”).

The potentially bad news: the recommendation that underpins this post – Experiment with conversion architectures that help attract and retain audiences – was ninth, counting from the end that was easiest.

Conversion architectures represent a significant shift in the way that most publishers think about our business. Our current focus results primarily in the sale of physical or digital objects.

As we move to the web and work to organize communities, at least some of our content can be used to attract audiences to a given digital destination. That’s where conversion architectures and content marketing come in: we have to offer potential readers a reason to visit and still more reasons to stay.

From conversion architectures to content marketing

As I worked on these ideas, “conversion architectures” expanded to become “Content marketing for book publishers”. I want to tell that story in five parts:

  • How conversion architectures work as a part of content marketing
  • How content marketing applies to book publishing
  • Why publishers are well-positioned to compete using content marketing
  • How publishers can be good content partners for other companies
  • What publishers can do to make content marketing work for them.

Before I dive in, though, let’s examine some interesting data.

Each year, the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) conducts a survey of small businesses – companies it defines as having between 10 and 99 employees. It’s an interesting market, companies whose size reflects the majority of book publishers in North America.

The annual survey asks a range of questions. CMI then reports the results to that wider audience of folks who want to keep up with what works in content marketing. I’ve picked up three sets of answers that I think help frame why content marketing matters for publishing.

Let’s start with a list of the top 10 challenges small-business marketers said they face. The top three answers?

  • “Producing engaging content”
  • “Producing content consistently” and
  • “Producing a variety of content.”

The second question that caught my eye: CMI asked “How many different content marketing vehicles do you use?” The average number was 12 – that is, the average company used a dozen different approaches to content marketing to reach its target audiences.

No doubt some of these tactics are more important than others to various types of small businesses, but if you compare the overall range to what publishers use in most book marketing campaigns, you can quickly imagine how much broader and more engaging publishers need to become to compete for share of mind going forward.

Finally, I looked at what that same group of respondents said was their most effective content marketing tactic. According to CMI, eBooks are said to be the tactic thought most effective for small-business marketers. eBooks!

What’s going on here?

On one level, reports like this one from the Content Marketing Institute confirm that publishing skills – producing engaging content, doing so consistently and across a variety of forms – are a critical part of effective content marketing efforts. They also show that something publishers already know how to do – make books available! – is seen as an effective tactic in this space.

The data also point out an immediate, perhaps growing need for publishing skills and book (or at least book-like) content in the content marketing space. Beyond direct and perhaps special sales, publishers whose lists align with an audience or an industry might find themselves supplying marketers with expertise, not just products. That’s an opportunity, but not to simply sell an incremental number of units.

Partnership and collaboration might involve a book, but in becoming content marketers, we need to be mindful of limitations inherent in our conception of “the book”. Consider Hugh McGuire’s definition of “the Book”:

“A book is a discrete collection of text (and other media), that is designed by an author(s) as an internally complete representation of an idea, or set of ideas; emotion or set of emotions; and transmitted to readers in various formats.”

There’s interplay here, among ideas and emotions, that provides rich content for readers. The definition doesn’t include a cover, or endpapers, or a binding method, or even the notion of pages, though it doesn’t preclude them. And for our purposes here, it opens the possibility that the book and its components can serve as the basis for a conversation.

It’s important to work with a wider definition of what a book may be, as a wider definition challenges us to reconsider the way we reach and serve readers, opening the door to potentially sustainable competitive advantages.

How conversion architectures work as a part of content marketing

To strengthen that claim, consider how conversion architectures work as a part of content marketing.

Experienced marketers are familiar with the work required to attract, retain and monetize an audience. These activities are often shown stacked on a funnel, with the widest part (at the top) reserved for “prospecting” or “attracting” potential customers. The narrowest part (at the bottom) represents the subset that becomes paying customers.

On the web, attracting an audience of potential buyers is done through search (and search optimization), social media, referral traffic and promotion using offline formats that can include print and eBooks. The cost of acquiring a potential customer can be quite low.

Once a potential buyer is aware, many web retailers have successfully used vehicles like e-mail newsletters, content updates and promotional offers to retain a portion of the initial audience. The key here: obtaining a valid e-mail address.

Although many retailers focus on selling products, an audience can also provide value through sponsorships, subscriptions and live events. A relationship with an audience also provides cost-effective opportunities to sell related products.

How content marketing applies to book publishing

As I said in my introduction, book publishers focus primarily on the sale of physical or digital objects. We don’t really think about using content to attract readers. Nor do we plan for ongoing, direct relationships. Ee think relatively little about the experience our readers have with our books, beyond the moment at which the books are bought.

There are exceptions, and those exceptions may come to be the rule. Nearly two years ago, HarperCollins U.S. appointed a director of audience development, a role classically reserved for periodical publishers. More recently, Kobo announced the launch of its eBook data service, an opportunity to measure things like drop-off, persistence and completion rates for books.

Proponents of such features point out that they can highlight early success of mid-list titles, informing how PR and social media efforts are deployed. As the number of titles assessed by these data services grows, so too does their ability to help publishers benchmark reader behavior and surface a book that might otherwise be missed in a crowded field.

The growth of subscription services such as 24symbols, Scribd and Oyster and series-specific sites such as Pottermore illustrate ways in which conversion architectures are starting to affect how publishers approach their businesses. I have encouraged publishers to think about using subscription models as a direct-response opportunity to test demand for various types of content. We could also consider subscription models and e-reading platforms as options to measure persistence – how long a reader stays with a book.

Having built an audience, a publisher might offer membership benefits to loyal or highly engaged readers. Value-added efforts can take many forms. Consider Scribners’ decision, announced last fall, to revive its iconic early-20th-century magazine as a digital publication made available on a weekly basis. The magazine offers behind-the-scenes stories about authors’ reading lists, approaches to writing and the story of published works. The goal isn’t to sell the magazine, but to build relationships with the people who will buy the books the magazine was launched to cover.

A similar case can be made with The Oyster Review, a collection of “criticism, culture, essays and other content about books.” The subscription service is planning to include personalized content and targeted calls-to-action in the Review. In fact, when Oyster announced its decision to hire Kevin Nguyen as editor of the Review, it added “We believe the best product lies in the pairing of high-quality editorial with our work in personalization, data science, and design.”

I recognize that direct-response marketing won’t work for every type of book, nor will it work for every type of reader. But it does give publishers who try it the opportunity to interact directly with readers in ways that can refine both the content they create and the forms they use to deliver it.

Why publishers are well-positioned to compete as content marketers

Publishers that see the value of conversion architectures and content marketing may still wonder, “Can we really compete in this space?” I’m strongly arguing yes, as publishers already have the skills required to compete effectively as content marketers. In fact, publishers can deliver on the promise of conversion architectures and content marketing because:

  • They are already in the business of linking content to markets, the purpose of content marketing;
  • They are established as content curators, a core component of effective content marketing;
  • They have access to and can offer the kind of longer-form content that is most likely to have an impact, whether measured in shares, inbound links, actual consumption or sales, and
  • They are among those best able to recognize and know how to tell great stories.

Linking content to markets

Publishers have long been in the business of linking content to markets. They evaluate titles on their merits, and in doing so publishers think carefully about the readers who would buy a particular book. The links are often intuitive, with successes backed by years of trial (and error). Still, understanding how audiences look for, read, share and recommend content is in our nature, even if publishers haven’t always measured it.

Publishers are also accustomed to the idea that we can give away content to sell it. Whoever decided to put chairs in bookstores was a content marketing genius. Galleys, ARCs and blads are examples of the way that publishers traditionally have tried to build word-of-mouth by giving away early looks at a book. Typically, these samples are distributed to booksellers. As with the decisions made about what books to publish, the measurement might not be precise, but publishers recognize the value in building awareness of a book by using the content of the book, itself.

More recently, publishers have been able to offer sample content directly to readers through features like Amazon’s “Search Inside The Book”. For the most part, only the platforms know the extent to which these samples turn prospects into readers, a situation that partners like Kobo are working to change.

But the traditional and emerging marketing efforts share a common characteristic: they rely on content to help sell a product: books. In that sense, publishers have been acting as content marketers for decades. Now, they need to use the data available to us and refine our understanding of how prospects find, consume and respond to our content.

To better understand those interactions, publishers can try using journey maps, the “visual or graphic interpretation of an individual’s relationship with an organization, service, product or brand, over time and across channels.” The journey is mapped from the reader’s perspective.

Journey mapping can help publishers in a number of ways, providing data that allows us to connect, collaborate and align around reader interests.

In mapping a reader’s step-by-step journey, it is useful to look upstream to understand prior experiences, and downstream, after purchase, to see what a customer does as a result of their interactions. These journey maps can be decidedly low-tech: wall maps, post-it notes and visual aids are the preferred tools.

The need for effective journey maps is probably growing. I have noted that “It’s much easier to deal with an overarching platform than it is to figure out how to market at a small scale. But the web isn’t a community of millions; it’s millions of communities.”

More to the point, Jim Bankoff, founder of Vox Media, described the challenge this way: “The audience isn’t ‘sports fans’ or people interested in ‘health’ but rather New York Rangers fans or those suffering from gout.”

Publishers are already content curators

Across social-media platforms, marketers can use content to reach audiences. Whether the content is owned or aggregated, it is effectively curated – chosen with a target audience in mind.

Again, this is an area in which publishers excel. The industry already understands how to develop and publish content that:

  • Provides value to readers
  • Creates opportunities to interact more frequently with those readers
  • Showcase content depth in a given area, and
  • Earn attention from target influentials (that is, reviewers and book bloggers)

Consumers value content providers who can gather information and share recommended links or resources. Bundling the work of others can be an effective way to build a provide value, interact with prospects, showcase expertise and gain visibility. So, too, can mindful sharing of published content.

The web values longer-form content

It’s a common refrain: no one appreciates long-form content anymore. People want snippets, factoids, blog posts, news they can use. Publishers lament that the web is overwhelmed by short-form content.

Platforms like Medium, Atavist and LongReads challenge those notions, but the mere presence of platforms isn’t confirmation that longer-form content has value. What is interesting, though, comes from the world of search.

Writing for ProBlogger, Garrett Moon, co-founder of CoSchedule, explains that Google’s algorithms favor long-form content. Data developed by social-media consultant Neil Patel show that long-form content is more likely to be linked to from another site. The posts at the top end of their assessment run about 35,000 words.

Patel also found that longer-form content was more likely to take the top spot in search results. Analysis from  SerpIQ shows that the average length of posts returned on the first page of a search result consistently exceeded 2,000 words, with the longest posts outperforming the somewhat shorter ones.

Okay, you’re thinking 2,000 words is not a book, but publishers are unlikely to post a full book online, right? Something north of 2,000 words is a healthy excerpt, though. It is certainly more than enough room for a thoughtful interview with an up-and-coming author. It could even be the right length for an editorial preview of a coherent, carefully curated spring list.

Publishers understand longer-form writing. The question they have to ask (and answer) is, “What content can we offer that helps us attract and retain readers?” That’s an interesting and inspiring question to answer.

The primacy of good storytelling

To illustrate how far ahead of the curve publishers are, I decided to draw on something Scott Aughtmon wrote for the Content Marketing Institute. Aughtmon’s post explains how BusinessWeek began as an in-house publication for a furniture maker, A.W. Shaw. External demand for the publication led the owner to sell the magazine to people outside the company.

After proving the concept, Shaw sold the rights to McGraw-Hill, which owned BusinessWeek until 2009. The success story inspired Aughtmon to remind content marketers of what works:

  • Top-quality content. Shaw’s content benchmark: make it so good that people will pay for it.
  • Even though he was a furniture maker, Shaw thought like a publisher. Specifically, he understood his target audience and its immediate and longer-term needs, creating content that helped his audience address those needs.
  • Shaw focused on niches. He didn’t try to serve everyone; he picked the markets where he was able to deliver a superior solution.
  • He found value in developing your own style, a unique voice that stands out.
  • He understood that audiences expect a clear point of view.

Any publisher could have predicted the points on Aughtmon’s list. The reason is simple: Effective storytelling is at the heart of what publishers do.

This isn’t to say we have it all figured out. New platforms and new formats emerge about as often as new books seem to. Some of them seem impossibly intriguing. Snapchat, the home of the disappearing sext, has started to offer Snapchat Stories. At Business Insider, Nicolas Carlson noted that the interface guaranteed that the recipient was always 100% engaged. It’s inherently an opt-in program, meaning you get qualified leads. The demos are young – who wouldn’t want a younger demo these days? – and the scale can quickly rival broadcast or cable.

And of course, it came out last fall and will probably peak in less than a year. Welcome to the web …

Publishers can be good content partners

Publishers can also be good partners for content marketers in industries and niches that would benefit from distinctive, high-quality content. The easiest sales might come from those imprints specializing in content of value to specific audiences. The result would be win-win: publishers could gain more sales of existing or adapted content; content marketers would benefit from greater effectiveness, increased loyalty and sales growth.

The alignment need not be perfect. It might seem counterintuitive, but the most powerful kind of content a marketer can offer might actually be content that doesn’t directly focus on its core business or industry.

Think about the perceived effectiveness of eBooks as a content marketing tool. These digital formats offer both value and persistence. For a content marketing partner, a prospect might return to a well-chosen eBook on more than one occasion, each time directly or indirectly remembering the marketer who offered the book.

Publishers represent an important resource for content marketers who face challenges doing things like “producing engaging content”, “producing content consistently” and “producing a variety of content.” Content marketers are on solid ground in considering publishers as part of their content strategy arsenal.

What publishers can be doing now

Even if you think you won’t need to use content marketing anytime soon, it won’t hurt to do some things to become better informed about the practice. You’ll pick up some other useful skills, and working on it now offers a nice hedge. Here are eight straightforward steps publishers can take in the near term:

  • Grow your understanding of how search, social and referral marketing works. Ideally, make this more than an IT or web assignment – put a senior member of the team on the hook to report back to everyone on best practices here.
  • Inventory content to see what might work in a format valued by your target audience. It is possible that marketing materials were written for a trade or supplier relationship. If so, that’s important to know early, especially if you decide to cultivate more direct relationships.
  • Create or capitalize on longer-form content. As you do, improve your meta-tags and rich snippets to accurately describe content in ways that the audiences you want to reach will recognize and respond to.
  • Measure what you do. Start with simple measures and grow from there. Try tracking the number of followers and subscribers. Look for higher levels of engagement using services like, which provides users with the ability to track when readers click on links to curated content. Track brand recognition – how familiar an average person is with your imprint, as an example. Goal-setting is an area where a fair share of content marketers fall short. Start by setting both short-term and longer-term goals, then track actual results.
  • Blog about something you think readers care about. Cultivating an audience starts with a voice and takes practice. Authors know this, giving most a head start on their publishing colleagues. To attract and retain an audience, think about ways to connect what you do with people who might value it.
  • Think carefully about your calls to action. Not every content passage will result in a sale. Be mindful of the value of keeping a prospect close, close enough to obtain an e-mail. Learn about their interests and behaviors before contacting them with subsequent content and multiple offers. Mine the data you can collect for insight, not volume.
  • Nurture your infrastructure. Don’t neglect the basics. Make your content shareable using ‘click to tweet’ plug-ins. Optimize your sharing buttons to reflect where your target audiences are. If you’re planning to bring people back to you site – and I hope you are – make sure it loads quickly, particularly on mobile platforms.
  • Host a live event. Okay, maybe this isn’t as straightforward as the other three ideas, but it can be instructive. The success of BookExpo’s BookCon in attracting an audience (and some industry notoriety) illustrates the opportunity you have in reaching out to readers.

Will content marketing pose risks for book publishers?

So are there risks in this direct-response world I’m describing? Sure. There’s a school of thought that all this data will be the death of us – that the thing that makes us unique is that gut sense of what works, coupled with the unique vision of a writer, an editor and a discerning marketplace.

I’m not blind to the argument. For several years, I worked as a member of a school board in the U.S., at a time when national curriculum standards were developed as part of an effort to improve educational outcomes.

There’s no denying that standards, and outcomes, influenced curriculum and pedagogy. Much like the effect of a magnet on iron filings, local practices started to change to reflect standards and measurement. Lately, there has been a backlash, a resistance to over-testing. Over time the use of data has reshaped how we think about education in the U.S., particularly at a local level.

But good instruction still occurs. We’re not all cookie-cutter products of a single model. In practice, the models and the ecosystem recalibrate in tandem.

Something similar can be said of book publishing. In one sense, the fear of data was ever thus. The widespread availability of sales data goes back a generation, and rare is the editor who hasn’t looked at an author’s most recent sales before signing a new work. The success of Harry Potter, or 50 Shades of Something, spurs a rush, even a glut, of titles from authors and publishers eager to capitalize on a “proven” market.

It’s true that we’ve never had to deal with as much data as we have now. But it’s also true that authors have never been able to publish more quickly and reliably without the intervention of a publisher. If the data truly does change publishing for the worse, readers will still have access to those works of surpassing beauty. And when they succeed, the data will probably get them signed pretty quickly.

Keep these five points in mind

Publishers interested in adopting some best practices from content marketers should make sure they understand:

  • How conversion architectures work as a part of content marketing
  • How content marketing applies to book publishing
  • Why publishers are well-positioned to compete using content marketing
  • How publishers can be good content partners for other companies
  • What steps they can take now to help make content marketing work for them.

Given how steeped publishers are in trade and other institutional relationships, some of what I’ve proposed may feel uncomfortable, even foreign. If it does, try taking some of those eight steps, asking yourself along the way how you might parlay what you’re learning into new or different ways to attract, retain and serve your readers.

The one thing I want you to avoid: doubling down on prevailing models without trying at least some of what I’ve outlined. I know there are risks, risks that challenge how we have organized publishing for much of the last century. But as John Paul Jones, the Scottish emigrant who founded what is now the American Navy, observed, “It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win.” Now is a time to take some studied and potentially eye-opening risks.

[This post is adapted from a talk given at Booknet Canada’s 2015 TechForum conference. I am grateful for the direction and support provided by the Booknet Canada team in advance of this presentation.]

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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