22 February 2007

Buzz Marketing Books to Teens

Publishers and book reviewers have been interacting pretty much the same way for many years. Publishers send the reviewers at big newspapers and magazines free copies of books. Reviewers choose which to review and what to say about them. Publishers extract the phrases they think can sell the book. Reviewers try to find time to write their own books.

There are little frustrations on all sides:
Why is no one reviewing this book?

Why do they keep sending me such dross?
Why didn't he say nicer things about it?
How did they make it look like I liked that book?
Why are review copies showing up at the Strand?
How can anyone make a living reviewing books?
But both sides share the same understanding.

With blogs, suddenly everyone's a critic. Some bloggers already have the influence of newspaper and magazine reviewers--especially in children’s books, which the big periodicals touch less often. But are publishers and bloggers (and their readers) working under the same understanding that's prevailed in print media? For bloggers excited to learn that anyone cares about their opinion, does getting review copies change their attitude toward those books? Does it confer an obligation to review those books?

I don't yet see evidence of the system changing, or being abused, among adult bloggers. As a Cybils judge, I received free copies of all five nominated books; a friend on a Cybils nominating committee reported receiving many, many more. But the Cybils organizers have pointed out that the publisher of one of the winning titles didn't supply any free copies at all.

However, Publishers Weekly recently ran a story on how Penguin is marketing its YA novels to teens which made me wonder if the previous understanding is buckling. Is the online review process turning into cheap buzz marketing? The article says:
About a year ago, the publisher began sending galleys to school newspapers and teen Web sites for possible reviews. Emily Romero, v-p of marketing for Penguin Young Readers, says of the campaign, "We know that teens are heavily influenced by their peers and we thought that in some cases, they might be more likely to read a book their friend recommends. We thought of it as a grassroots way to create buzz about Penguin's teen titles."
Nothing unusual there: publishers have always offered free books to bonafide reviewers. It's nice that they're acknowledging where teens themselves review books. But then this approach starts to become more.
Penguin has collected names of teens at events such as library and education conventions over the last year as well as through the company's Web site. Those who sign up for Penguin's online teen newsletter can opt to receive a galley, which members are encouraged to review.

The marketing department can track how many reviews have been written because reviewers are asked to send in a copy of their review or a link to it on their blog or Web site.

If they do, they get to choose between three paperback books, one of which will be sent to them for free. Those who don't have a blog or Web site set up are asked to post the review on other teen Web sites.
The company is making an explicit link between reviewing a book and receiving more stuff. Normally reviewers choose not only what to say about books, but also what books are worth saying stuff about. If they ignore a book, they're not risking future review copies from that publisher (or at least that would be an extraordinary step for a publisher to take).

The article makes clear how Penguin aims to turn those targeted teens into an unpaid arm of its marketing:
Romero says that response to the campaign has been good, and they will continue to work on getting the word out. "We are developing a ‘big mouth’ list of teens, which consists of teens who seem to have the greatest reach, and can almost work for us in terms of spreading the word and creating buzz about our titles."
All those "big mouth" kids who "almost work for us" are getting for their efforts are some free paperbacks. But maybe having those paperbacks before their friends is reward enough.

That’s just the way buzz marketing works with adults, after all. The firms in the field have found that people are willing to spread the word about the free products they receive simply for the thrill of being the first at the barbecue with the new type of sausage, or whatever it is. We are a strange nation.


mbpbooks said...

The Newton Free Library ended up as the beneficiary of my stint as a Cybils nominator ... it would be interesting to track the destination of all the books sent out. Maybe we should have created a label, "This book donated by a member of the Cybils Awards committees." More buzz. Is that word starting to sound weird to anyone else because it's used so much? Much buzz about buzz these days.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Thanks for the news about the Penguin marketing campaign.

I've noticed blogs reviewing books before the official pub date, which is something newspapers don't do.

Yesterday Random House urged everyone to go wish the Cat in the Hat happy birthday through a series of clicks on its web site. It's great that for every click, the co. would send a book to the First Book organization, but I saw it only as a gimmick to get people to the RH site. Maybe I'm too cynical, though.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't think you're being cynical about Random House's Cat in the Hat marketing. Yes, it will probably benefit First Book. But it also helps bring attention and eyeballs to the Cat in the Hat series and Random House, which just happens to have debuted its new "look inside the book" widget the week before.