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Selling the sizzle, not the steak

November 3, 2010

Selling the sizzle, not the steak is an old marketing rule for copywriters yet it’s surprising how often this basic rule gets ignored – and often with disastrous results. Wherever a publishing company wants to talk about its products it needs to enter the mind of the reader without the reader suddenly lapsing into disbelief. This means having good copywriters who know what the products do, who they’re written for, and why they’ll be necessary to enhance the life of the reader.

Lets think about where people read about a publisher’s books (bearing in mind a publisher has multiple audiences):

  • Advance Information Sheets (AI Sheets, ATI Sheets etc)
  • Catalogues
  • Direct Mail Flyers
  • Brochures
  • Sales Letters
  • Back Cover Copy
  • Websites
  • Blogs
  • Email Campaigns
  • Social Media Outlets
  • Retail Sites (Amazon, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble)
  • Third-party Marketing (e.g. supplier catalogues and websites)
  • Word-of-mouth
  • Remainder House Newsletters

The list goes on – but you can see that the multiple outlets listed above are NOT targeted at the same people. So why is it that many publishers are happy to produce single product descriptions which they then spew out to everyone from Nielsen Book Data to seasonal catalogue entries or author flyers? That’s right – the same copy but targeting different people with different needs…

Copywriters – the much-maligned and undervalued creatives of a publishing house – need to stand up for themselves in a market today where much relies on what is said about a book. In the past, publishers could gain extra sales leverage from in-store promotions, advertising and back cover copy, but not any more. Today, social media brings a new art to the copywriter (or the good ones at least): credible writing which delivers trust. Trust-based marketing in fact.

This means that copywriters, if they want to hold onto their jobs, need to think not “what’s in it for me?” but rather “what’s in it for them? – the reader. Sure, there will be people reading this who’ll say that’s what they’ve always done. But in many cases I would just say “oh yeah? I doubt it”. And for this reason: most publishing companies couldn’t really be bothered about copywriting. Harsh? Maybe, but I’ve seen a lot over the years and sometimes it seems to me that the world is spinning backwards.

Copywriters in publishing aren’t particularly well paid; their jobs often get subsumed within a catch-all “marketing” job description; and then, when their work is appraised, it’s often on ancient rules of grammar (or the odd typo) rather than what it actually does (sell books).

But copywriting is now crucial to a publisher’s success because commercial pressures are more brutal and unrelenting than ever and because decisions on buying are now taken far away from the cosy snug of some bijou bookstore. Whether it’s in the horrifying neon light of a national supermarket or lurking in the bowels of some obscure academic reference website, the decision to purchase is driven through channels which publishers now need to consider more than ever before.

In online PR for example, it may still be the case that journalists are still as lazy as ever and simply want to cut an paste press releases into their articles. Or in social media a blogger may want to cite some copy as support for his or her own theories. Or in academia, someone tasked with researching books online needs to make objective assessments about individual books before compiling a reading list.

How are judgements made in this environment other than by reading, assessing and then – crucially – matching what is said against what is delivered?

That’s why copywriters in publishing these days need to be good, damned good. Because the future of publishing – bizarrely – rests still in reading. Only now, the copywriter’s promise is a core part of the reader’s ultimate experience.

So the sizzle – the substance of why someone should want or need a book – is crucial to a good publishing company’s success. Today, second-rate writing can no longer be tolerated. Be it by the copywriter or the author. The power of words, remember, rests in the minds of those who ingest them. Bad writing, more than ever before, depresses sales like nothing else.


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