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Stop Selling Your Books

by Brian Jud

Years ago, Charles Revson, then CEO of Revlon Company, was asked to describe what his company sold. He responded, "In the factory we make cosmetics, but in the stores we sell hope." He knew that people do not buy a product, they buy what the product does for them

Most products, including books, are combinations of tangible and intangible elements. People do not buy the tangible features of a book, i.e., the paper and ink that create it. They buy the intangible benefits they receive from reading fiction: a vicarious feeling of fantasy, romance, adventure or mystery. And when purchasing nonfiction they are buying information, motivation and help.

As an independent publisher, you will become more successful at marketing when you stop selling your books and begin selling what your books do for the people who read them. That is the difference between marketing a feature, an advantage and a benefit. A feature is an attribute of your book. It could be its size, binding, title or number of pages. An advantage describes the purpose or function of a feature, and a benefit is the value the reader receives in exchange for purchasing your book. People buy value, not generic books.

One way of distinguishing among these three definitions is to use the "So What?" test. When thinking of a reason why someone would purchase your book, put yourself in the place of the prospective buyer and ask yourself, "So what?" Keep doing that until your imaginary customer says, "Oh. Now I understand." Then communicate that concept in your promotional literature and they will be more likely to buy.

Feature: A four-color cookbook with a spiral binding. (So what?).

Advantage: It will lay flat while you are preparing the meal, making it easy to read. (So What?)

Benefit: It contains recipes that are easy to prepare and guaranteed to please your guests. You will have more time to socialize and enjoy yourself at your parties. (Oh. Now I understand.)

Think potential

There is another way to think from your customer's perspective. First, describe your book in terms of its generic function and what people expect of it. Then describe how you can augment their expectations by making a credible claim. This promise leads the reader to anticipate a potential payoff that no competitive product offers.

For example, consider the book, It's Show Time that is about performing on radio and television. The generic product is a stack of trimmed, numbered pages, perfect bound and protected by a soft cover. People expect it to be a helpful, descriptive narrative about the techniques for performing successfully on the air. Most marketers stop here, promoting only these undifferentiated expectations.

Successful marketers take their message further by augmenting this expectation, offering prospective customers more than they envision receiving or have been accustomed to expect. In this case, It's Show Time promises practical advice about media performances based upon interviews with producers of top national television and radio shows. The potential payoff is that authors will perform successfully and sell more books when they appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show (Oh. Now I understand.).

A book is what it does for each of its readers; the benefits they receive when reading it. Even though your title may be undifferentiable as a generic or expected product, you can still distinguish it from competitive offerings by means of value, brand identity, trade dress and advertising. You will be more successful at doing this by appealing to emotional buying motives.

Traditional theory divides buyer motivation into two major categories, rational and emotional. Experience has demonstrated that while people say they purchase books for rational reasons (convenient size or right price) they tend to use these reasons to justify emotional buying decisions. They buy art books not to own four-color photographs of famous works of art, but to demonstrate their artistic acumen to visitors who happen to see it prominently displayed on a coffee table.

A different example demonstrates the nuances of using emotional appeals. If you are marketing a book about how people can get more money, you must first understand that people can gain money in two different ways. Conservative readers may want to increase their wealth by saving more money, responding to a message about how "a penny saved is a penny earned." This would not appeal the more venturesome readers who think that "noting ventured, nothing gained." The important point is that the information in the book remains the same

Similarly, your book on exercise might portray the increased life expectancy of people in good health. You could show actuarial tables (Features) proving that exercise extends one's life. But your direct mail piece directed toward senior citizens you will sell more books if you show elderly people playing tennis (Benefits). A direct mail piece for the same book directed at a younger audience might appeal to their social needs by showing healthy, happy people enjoying themselves while playing volleyball on the beach.

Impact on marketing strategy

Just as individuals have a variety of reasons for purchasing your books, businesses also have diverse reasons for buying them. For instance, think about the companies in your channels of distribution.

People at each level of the distribution network have a unique reason for buying your books, and a plea to an incorrect appeal will not motivate them. The key to persuading each to carry your books is to show them why it is in their best interest to work with you. For example, when selling to the buyer at a retail operation you would demonstrate that your superior promotional plan will bring more people into their stores, increasing their inventory turns and profitability. However, an appeal to profitability would not entice a librarian to purchase your book, nor would it persuade a college instructor to buy it as a textbook. The key is to match the appropriate benefit to each prospective customer's reason for wanting to own it.

To demonstrate this concept, assume you are selling a job-search book containing information about writing resumes and cover letters as well as on how to interview effectively. Choose the benefit in the right column that corresponds to the customer in the left column.

1. Bookstore buyer A. Help Patrons

2. Distributor B. Increase inventory turns

3. College student C. Help students learn

4. Librarian D. Make sales people more productive

5. School teacher E. Help me find a job

Answers: 1B, 2D, 3E, 4A, 5C


Your promotional campaigns should translate features into benefits, and the process begins with the design of your book. To demonstrate this, just look at the covers of romance novels. Generally, they portray women in revealing positions looking longingly into the faces of bare-chested, muscular men. This is an overt appeal to the readers' desire for a vicarious romantic experience. It is interesting to know that the bare-chested muscleman was a later change, responding to research that proved more women than men buy romance novels.

Think about the size of your book. You may have designed it in an 8.5" x 11" size so the readers will be able to make notes in the large margins. In this case you would not promote the size but the fact that the information may be conveniently recorded and saved. If your leather-bound book is designed as a gift, promote the feel, smell and status of leather and not the information in the book. If your book has a wide spine, tell retailers it improves your book's self presence and more people will buy it. But at the same time, tell consumers that it is designed to lay flat and be easy to read.


The price of your book is a feature. The value of your book is a benefit. Customers attach value to books in proportion to the perceived ability of it to help them solve their problems. If your book is more expensive than competitors' books, your promotional material must translate the price into value for the consumer. One way to do this is to describe the incremental difference and what the reader receives for it. If your $19.95 book is $5 more than the competition, demonstrate to the readers what they will gain in exchange for that amount. Or, you could appeal to their fear of making a wrong decision and how much they will lose by not spending the additional $5. In either case you will be more effective if you communicate the value your book offers your customers.

You can also use a surrogate indicator, a cue that takes the place of a buying criterion, to demonstrate the benefits of your higher price. These cues include endorsements, guarantees and slogans. Even the way you write the price makes a difference. For example, which looks like a larger figure, $5 or $5.00? If you want to make a price look smaller do not include the numbers to the right of the decimal point. On the other hand, if you want to accentuate the difference, include the decimal point and zeroes.

Practical application

There is a way you can organize this information for everyday use, and that is by condensing it into a handy action guide that will regularly remind you of your book's benefits. To create this useful plan, align a page horizontally and divide it into four columns. In the left-hand column list the different market segments that are potential targets for your title. In the next column define the decision maker for this segment. Use column three to describe the benefits your title provides this group, the potential you need to communicate. Column four lists the general marketing strategies you will implement to describe the respective benefits to each decision maker. The example below demonstrates this technique as it applies to book, It's Show Time.

NicheTargetBenefitsGeneral Marketing Strategy
Publishers Director of Publicity An author who is media trained will perform more effectively on the air, selling more books, making the publishing firm more profitable. Communicate via direct mail, exhibit at PMA University and relevant seminars, advertise in Independent Publisher
Writers Groups & Associations President Use It's Show Time as a fund raiser, as a way to entice new members or as a gift for those who renew membership; this will increase membership and renewals making the group more profitable Use direct mail followed by personal telephone calls, and personal visits to those nearby
Libraries Acquisition Librarian This unique book contains information sought by a large number of their patrons Cooperative marketing programs with Unique, Quality and B&T; Participate in co-op mailings

People do not buy features, they buy benefits. They buy what your book will do for them. Each decision maker has a unique reason for buying. Know what that is and communicate that benefit to them. Keep this in mind when you are creating your book or convincing people to buy it and you will sell more books, have fewer returns and become more profitable. (Oh. Now I understand.)