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John Kremer’s Book Marketing Update

A monthly excerpt from the newsletter that covers major media publicity opportunities for authors.
Behind the Bestseller: Letting 'Core Readership' Spread the Word Helped Sell Six Million Copies in Under Four Years

From Book Marketing Update.

Dan Harvey, publishing director at Penguin Putnam and the one who handled much of the marketing for Dr. Spencer Johnson's Who Moved My Cheese?, says books like this don't come along very often. It's rare that a business book will hold so much appeal for lay readers that it can achieve this level of sales. For a book like this to reach #1 on so many bestseller lists, including The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, means a heck of a lot more people than just corporate CEOs are buying the book.

"When a book saturates to this level, it's reaching people who don't normally buy books," says Harvey. One of the main reasons Cheese became such a phenomenon, especially among people you wouldn't ordinarily think of as buyers of business books, is because the strategy that was followed early on was to let the author's fans spread the word themselves. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, the publisher marketed the book first to those most likely to buy, and in large part relied on those fans to introduce the book to a wider market. Here's how it worked.

* Convince yourself that your book is not for everybody. It may be that your book is one of the very few that truly would appeal to just about everyone. But even if it is, consider this: Harvey had a strong sense that Cheese was one of those books, but he still didn't market it that way initially. As he says, "The biggest mistake publishers make in marketing is to say, 'This book is for everybody.' Nothing is for everyone." Why? Because when you say that, or, worse yet, when you believe it, it's going to cause you to ignore the people who are going to be initially responsible for the success of your book -- i.e. your "core" readers (see the next bullet point below).

* Don't ignore your base. In book publishing, as in politics, it's dangerous to ignore the people who are most likely to support you. "You always have to figure out who the people are who you just can't ignore," says Harvey. For Cheese, those people were business leaders -- the same people who had bought Johnson's other books like The One Minute Manager. Without a base who is excited about your book, you have no "launching point" for other markets.

* Let your base "seed" the rest of the market. Although the book sold well initially, sales really started to take off when people other than traditional business-book buyers started climbing on the Cheese bandwagon. "This is a business book with a broader appeal," says Harvey. "There are no charts, no graphs, it's basically a fable that can be read by just about everyone." Harvey found that once the core market starts reading the book, you begin to find that they'll start passing it along to other people -- perhaps by buying it for their employees, for example. "That's when you start to see orders coming in for 500 copies," says Harvey. "Then those people read it and say it might be a good book for my daughter who's just graduating from college." That's what starts the ball rolling. "It's the perfect example of word of mouth where people find something they like and then pass it along."

* Listen to booksellers. Once the book started demonstrating strong crossover appeal, one of the best sources for determining which new markets to target came from the bookstores themselves. "The key was watching the ball, listening to our accounts [i.e. bookstores and other retailers] and asking them who was buying the book and who they were seeing as a new market," says Harvey. For example, if a bookstore mentioned that an organization or special-interest group had ordered a large quantity of books, Harvey could look for similar organizations as an avenue for potential premium sales.

* Keep it fresh. Getting on a bestseller list is one thing. Staying on a bestseller list for any length of time is another. Four years after publication, Cheese is still selling between 10,000 and 50,000 copies every week. This can only happen if you continually find new ways to create excitement about the book and keep it fresh, thus continually creating buzz and attracting new readers. Harvey is still actively promoting Cheese with aggressive in-store promotions, point-of-purchase marketing materials and special incentives for bookstores. He's also continually creating new themes to get more and more segments of the market interested in the book. For example, in January the book was promoted with a "Resolve to Change" theme; around graduation and Father's Day, it was "Dare to Succeed"; for a back-to-school theme, buyers were told, "Don't Go to School Without It"; for the holidays, gift-seekers were reminded that "Everybody Knows Somebody Who Needs to Make a Change." "We're not just sitting back and waiting for people to get tired of it," says Harvey. "We're being very careful that the book doesn't become neglected and get hidden away on the business shelf."

* Solicit input. In addition to the publisher seeking feedback from retailers, the author himself sought advice from colleagues during the writing of the book. This serves a dual purpose. The most obvious advantage is that it gives you a different perspective on your work. Especially if the people you show your work to belong to the target audience you're trying reach, getting input can only help you hone your message. Second, the mere act of passing around even rough drafts of your work can help to create a buzz ("Hey, have you seen what Spencer Johnson is working on now?").

* Create a brand. If you liked Who Moved My Cheese? the book, there's plenty more Cheese products for you to choose from: a video, post-it notes, golf shirts, maze pens, calendars and more. As you've read here many times in the past, there's no reason why someone who likes what you write wouldn't be willing to buy everything else you have. Remember, it's much easier to "re-sell" to a prior customer who's been happy with your material than it is to convince someone entirely new to give your stuff a try.

Thanks to Dan Harvey of Penguin Putnam for his participation in this story. For more information about Who Moved My Cheese?, visit www.whomovedmycheese.com.

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This article is from a recent issue of John Kremer's Book Marketing Update newsletter, a twice-monthly publication that reports on book publicity and sales opportunities, as well as case histories of successful book promotion campaigns. To get a trial subscription to the newsletter, along with a transcript of their recent telephone seminar, "What Bestselling Authors Do Differently," go to http://www.freepublicity.com.