News for Authors

Building Support for Breakout Books

by Milena Schmidt and Katherine Fleming|March, 2013

Every year, Random House, Inc.’s imprints publish hundreds of new titles by authors who don’t yet have an established fan base or sales history. Every book is acquired with the expectation of bringing it to the widest audience.

While there is not a single recipe for doing this, we keep analyzing and learning from what has worked before, and finding new ways to apply the success factors to other books.


Preparing for Takeoff

In order to position and promote any title successfully, it’s essential to have a target audience in mind. That is nothing new, and has always helped us understand what publications might be interested in reviewing a title or interviewing an author, and where a book could be advertised. For some titles, the book’s content or subject makes the target audience easy to identify, but for others, it’s not so obvious. For instance, with 2012’s Defending Jacob by William Landay, marketers had to decide whether to present the novel as a legal thriller or a hard-hitting family drama.

What has changed over the last few years are the tools that allow us to identify or validate a book’s target audience. With more access to consumer research via our in-house Consumer Insights team, web-based tools such as Comscore, or social listening tools such as Radian6, our marketing and publishing teams can get a much deeper understanding of the target demographics for a particular genre or author—and how to best reach them. For Defending Jacob, the Random House Publishing Group tested different versions of pre-order advertisements, and found that more women than they anticipated were interested in reading the book, responding to its strong family theme. They also used Radian6, a social media listening tool, to discover an audience for the title on Weight Watchers forums—an unusual place for a book discussion. Insights like these then set the direction for the remaining marketing activities.


Lifting Up

 One characteristic is common to books that end up breaking out—they are driven by strong word-of-mouth support, generating a “buzz” that helps sustain sales over time. Whether buzz leads to a title taking off in a big way is ultimately based on how deeply a book resonates with its audience. But there are a few things that can help set that dynamic in motion.

One old trick that is still effective to spark a word-of-mouth wave is a broad distribution of advance reader editions to influential readers, including booksellers and librarians. This can help multiply a strong initial response, which usually starts in-house in the publishing and sales groups.

In the case of last year’s Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the early response was so positive that Strayed’s publishing team at Knopf took her to meet personally with booksellers at regional book shows like the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association. Similarly, with Wonder by R. J. Palacio, the school and library marketing team in the Random House Children’s Group knew that adoption by teachers and librarians would be crucial for the long tail success of this novel about acceptance and tolerance. Early outreach to teachers, librarians, and guidance counselors nationwide led to the book’s selection by a number of All-School Read programs.

Beyond booksellers and librarians, we have built a database of influential readers—book club leaders, bloggers, and online influencers (e.g., readers who have a high Klout score on Twitter but might not write for a site). Sending advance copies their way can also help kick off word-of-mouth momentum.


Maintaining High Altitude

Once a book has been on sale for some time and has received strong consumer response, we often need a new angle to keep it in the public eye. There are many ways to go about this. For instance, in the case of Wonder, Random House Children’s Books created Choose Kind, a new campaign around the national anti-bullying movement, to give the title a prolonged life in the news, as well as continue discussion of some of the book’s key messages. The campaign featured an interactive Tumblr site with an educator’s guide for Wonder and a pledge that readers could sign, committing to work to spread tolerance and kindness in their community. It also included cross-promotional partnerships with national anti-bullying organizations, and during National Bullying Prevention Month we donated $1 to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center for every signature on their kindness pledge.

To help marketers, publicists, and sales reps identify opportunities to pitch older titles, we have developed a proprietary newsroom database that matches news headlines to book titles. Pitching a set of backlist titles for a news story or merchandising program is often more effective than pitching an individual title.

Social media platforms are great vehicles to extend the chatter around a book. In the case of Defending Jacob, the publishing team monitored online chatter and was amazed by how much readers enjoyed discussing the issues that arose in the book. In response, they created a “What would you do?” social media messaging campaign to emphasize the book’s themes of personal conflict and parents facing unimaginable decisions.


In Conclusion

Although there will never be a singular template to turn any given book into a breakout success, over the past few years we have built a richer collection of tools that allow us to position titles in a more targeted fashion, to gain insights into what promotional approaches are most effective for particular categories of books, and to track what efforts keep books visible for readers after their initial publication window. All of this helps us support our overall goal of spreading the passion we have for the books we acquire. After all, that is what excites and motivates everyone at Random House!


Milena Schmidt and Katherine Fleming are both part of Random House Digital Publishing Group.