Writing books is a tough business.

Selling books is an even tougher business.

The world of marketing has been going through a lot of changes over the past decade thanks to technological advances. Advertisements are less effective, competition is higher than ever, and people’s attentions are split between so many things. Media types sit on a vast range now, and the scope of the world just grows.

What was thought to be effective marketing ten years ago is barely mentioned now.

In April of 1997, an article in the New York Times proclaimed that advertisements for TV was the new way to sell books. It had just reached a time where TV ads were affordable, audiences were reachable, and book publishers were getting excited to jump on the new platform. Not only were publishers competing with each other, they were competing with other entertainment and media: internet, television, and movies. So, expanding into the new frontier of marketing was sensible, and necessary.

It meant learning a whole new form of advertisement. “The challenge that we face is that the advertising has to be entertaining, especially in the movie theatres. It’s as much entertainment as the movies,” the article says (Carvajal).

This is a pretty humorous article to read considering books rarely touch TV now. Maybe the author gets a televised interview somewhere–but a commercial? Unlikely.

According to one experiment run by a non-fiction author, which ran a tv ad for a new book for 10 days, the conversion rates of impressions to customers is terrible. The author measured it by having the commercial direct viewers to a specific website and enter their email. “The commercials created a total of 8.3 million impressions but led to only 112 website visits…. Even worse, a mere 40 people filled in the … form requesting name and email to receive the two free chapters.” (Ford).

With such a low conversion rate, it’s no wonder book trailers on TV are so rare, if they ever appear. The costs do not justify the returns.

In a world where book competition is massive and consumer attention to platforms advertising books is infinitesimal, it almost seems like actually creating awareness of and selling a new book is impossible (ignoring, of course, books from names with already-established huge followings). Most book publishers are cornered with such razor-thin profit margins and slim marketing budgets that taking a risk on new marketing strategies that might cost a buck or two is just not considered.

Nowadays it seems more and more like a books marketability is entirely dependent on an author’s established platform. “In the old world… [a]uthors created the product and relied on their publishing company to market it. But that world is dead. That doesn’t mean that publishing companies expect [authors] to do everything. But it does mean that they are more effective if [authors] have a platform already in place.” (Hyatt).

Now while the branding of the author and the ability of the author to sell by having a following is great and makes sense in some cases, it does not create a very inviting atmosphere for newer authors and, to me, does not seem like a very healthy ecosystem for publishers to thrive in.

How can a publisher take a work of fiction from an unknown author with no platform and turn it into a relatively decent success in sales?

How can a publisher create awareness of a book and drive sales enough to at least break even?

According to my Management and Marketing class in SFU’s Master of Publishing program, we know that the driving force of creating title awareness in a customer base is word of mouth. This is corroborated by a study done by GoodReads, which reported: “One of the biggest things we learned—or should we say confirmed—is the power of word of mouth. Searching for titles on Goodreads is the top way people find books for their to-read shelves. That means they first heard of it elsewhere—likely from friends or the media.” (Brown). This study also shows recommendations from algorithms (Goodreads, Amazon, etc) as influential, and browsing in-store and online as big players.

If most book sales are a result of word of mouth—friends, family, coworkers, influential blog reviews, recommending books to each other—and browsing and algorithm-based recommendations, how is advertising fairing as a driving factor? According to Bruce Batchelor, not very well. (The same Management and Marketing class also states that print, broadcast, and TV advertising does not factor in very highly). “Even the largest publishing houses are quite tight with spending on display advertising—that’s the term for any ad that isn’t in the classified section—because display ads really don’t work all that well for book sales even when promoting a likely bestseller by a politician or other (in-)famous celebrity.” (Batchelor).

Essentially, advertisements aren’t a trustworthy marketing practice for books. To sell enough books warranting its print, marketers must turn to other strategies.

One of my fears about the trade fiction publishing world is that books will live and die by the whim of the algorithm, and what little control a publisher seems to have of noticeability will be wrested from their fingers. Publishers will throw in the relevant info about the book and have to bank on a confluence of digital forces to resolve into that title becoming a suggestion for a certain browser. Playing in the digital space limits the flexibility in tactic a publisher has to draw attention to their title. The algorithm dominates. A little bit of self-feeding popularity loop with a dash of randomization.

One company sprouted to try and combat this inherent issue with the digital suggestion algorithm, a company that has conceptualized a program called BOOKSAI, an Artificial Intelligence book recommendation program that relies less on the “people who bought also bought” method in favour of a different philosophy for recommendation.

They claim that the traditional recommendation setup reinforces an elitist selection of books where few books tap into a torrent of momentum that lifts them to massively popular status, and most books are left in the dust, being unable to create awareness in the audience that would want to read them (Booksai). As well, the traditional system can be gamed by fake reviews and purchases to vault the title into mass market awareness (see the story on how Handbook for Mortals trumped The New York Times in the Donaldson article).

How BOOKSAI hopes to solve this is through an artificial intelligence that actually reads books and recommends them based on qualities such as style, attitude, mood, and tone. It aims to shift recommendations from books of similar genre or plot or by the same author, to books of similar style. From what is it written about to how it is written.

Now that isn’t a new concept. Traditionally, book recommendations have always incorporated the how factor over the what factor. However it is a new application of the concept and it’s fun to think about the effects a recommendation AI like that becoming commonplace might have on the publishing industry. Could it level out book awareness more equally and more specifically to audience target needs?

I do not think BOOKSAI is the solution I am setting out to find, however. An integral part of books is community. The shared knowledge of having read the same text connects people. This is why word of mouth is such a powerful selling force.

As well, the idea of sitting back and letting an AI pick what people read next, for the traditional algorithm and the proposed BOOKSAI algorithm both, goes against a couple basic tenets of publishing and marketing which I will describe after a brief comparison.

After Donald Trump won the USA election in November of 2016, a lot of minds turned to social media and an outpour of critical analyses of the effects of social media on the outcome of the election ensued. It was suddenly all Facebook’s fault for two reasons: fake news (Facebook did not employ a rigorous enough filtering system to ensure only the best news), and highly targeted algorithms controlling what people saw, based on their tastes. “Tens of millions of American voters gets their news on Facebook, where highly personalized news feeds dish up a steady stream of content that reinforces users’ pre-existing beliefs” (Wong, Sam, Solon). This effect created a “bubble” of news that conformed to your interests. Liberals were aghast that Trump won because they were not aware of how many people there were in alignment with Trump. Because they did not see those newsfeeds.

In the world of fiction, it’s different but similar, there are parallels. Fiction feeds ideas, creates modes of thought, enhances understanding of language. Broadens understanding of perspective, creates empathy, exposes readers to boundless viewpoints. With the approach that fiction exists not just to entertain but educate and shape and grow people and societies, the parallels suddenly start to get startlingly similar: the algorithmic approach of recommending books similar to ones we like will create closed minds and “bubbles,” if you will, of modes of thought.

The two tenets I hinted at earlier are this:

In Marketing, it is a marketer’s responsibility to create awareness of a product and educate people why they need it (Luecke). Essentially, it is the marketer’s job to create the market for the product. In book publishing, this translates to creating awareness of a book and educating people as to why they need to read it, and encouraging that need into a sale.

In Publishing, it is a publisher’s duty to distribute books (or other forms of written media) to a public/market for the sake of the betterment of society. This means pushing people out of their comfort zone to read something that otherwise would not fit into their profile of what they already like.

Together these two principles underlie why I cannot stand behind an algorithm-dominated mode of book recommendation. And hence, the problem of marketing is returned with no solution found.

I will bring back my original question: How can a publisher market a book of fiction from an author with no platform—and now expand my question—without relying on the traditional recommendation mode of similar reads and avoid an algorithm-dominated future?

The answer, I believe, holds close parallels to how publishing continues to exist in Canada at all. Much like people (cultural policy nuts) must educate about the importance of cultural content so that the government funding for books will continue, people (intellectual growth nuts) must educate about the importance of that same cultural, and intellectual, content so that people want to (creating a market) broaden their modes of thought.

The approach to this I am not sure about. With a lack of capital and a lack of effectiveness in many traditional advertising methods, it is difficult to create that awareness, that need for a book, especially with the overwhelming number of books in existence. But I will argue this: book marketing should move beyond finding the audience that wants the book to creating the audience that wants the book. Publishers must not just concern themselves with publishing books, but must also focus on ensuring the continued importance of books to a society.











Batchelor, Bruce T. “Book Marketing Demystified: Enjoy Discovering the Optimal Way to Sell Your Self-published Book; Learn from the Inventor of Print-on-demand (POD) Publishing.” Agio Publishing House, 2007.


BOOKSAI. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Brown, Patrick. “How do books get discovered? A guide for publishers and authors who want their books to find an audience.” February 17, 2012. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Carvajal, Doreen. “Promoting books via TV commercials and movie trailers has become affordable.” April 28, 1997. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Donaldson, Kayleigh. “Updated: Did This Book Buy Its Way Onto the New York Times Bestseller List?” August 27, 2017. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Gardner, Rachelle. “Do Publishers Market Books.” June 30, 2011. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Greenfield, Jeremy. “How Do You Discover New Books?” October 16, 2012. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Hyatt, Michael. “Four Reasons Why You Must Take Responsibility for Your Own Marketing.” June 28, 2011. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Kung, Lucy; Picard, Robert G; Towse, Ruth. “The Internet and the Mass Media.” SAGE. May 14, 2008.


Moody, Nickianne. “Judging a Book by its Cover: Fans, Publishers, Designers, and the Marketing of Fiction.” Routledge. Dec 5, 2016.


Rust, Roland T.; Moorman, Christine; Bhalla, Gaurav. “Rethinking Marketing.” Jan 2010. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Wong, Julia Carrie; Levin, Sam; Solon, Olivia. “Bursting the Facebook Bubble: we asked voters on the left and the right to swap feeds.” November 16, 2016. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Zickuhr, Kathryn; Rainie, Lee; Purcell, Kristen; Madden, Mary; Brenner, Joanna. “Part 2: Where people discover and get their books.” June 22, 2012. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.