Some years ago I attended a conference where an expert in digital books talked about physical books still being what he called a “perfect product.”
And although the ways we consume books, market them and use them for fun and profit has changed considerably over the years, books are not going away anytime soon…and there actually seems to be a resurgence in the enthusiasm for reading and writing them.
It seems like every entrepreneur and thought leader I come in contact with these days is either writing a book or has written one (or several).
It’s the most exciting time for everyone to be sharing their wisdom…and books are fundamental to that sharing.
With my first book coming out in October (and those of you on this list will have first crack at buying it at a discount along with initial access to an awesome bonus package I am putting together), I was reminded of my love of books that goes back to my childhood…then to college (where I was an English major)…to my career at Boardroom where I was able to create marketing programs that sold tens of millions of books, mostly through direct mail.
One of the crowning achievements for the marketing team at Boardroom was creating a book division that included titles that we created; but we also published books that were sort of “lost classics,” fantastic, useful books that were never widely distributed because no one knew how to market them properly.
The story of how we brought those lost classics to life— previously titled, “Hanging out at Barnes and Noble with a Hand Truck”—is a story worth telling again…
While I know that the best “use” of a Barnes and Noble these days is free wireless and maybe a cup of cappuccino (if you can afford it!), there was a time when bookstores actually served a purpose.
Yes, they sold books.
What follows is the story of how I used a local Barnes and Noble store to do “new product development” for the Boardroom 7 million name offline database and created more than a $50 million per year franchise selling the best books written by other people.
I believe this story has some lessons that apply to new product development today…since choosing the right products for your particular audience is a critical step to the success of any direct marketing operation.
I recall conversations I had with Joe Sugarman and Greg Renker while planning “Titans of Direct Response” in 2014…those guys in particular taught me a thing or two that I didn’t know about “product selection” (Blublocker sunglasses and Proactiv beauty products are not flashes in any pan).
The fact that they thought my “hand truck at Barnes and Noble story” was worth sharing with more people motivates me to share it with you today.
During my first decade at Boardroom, creating products–mainly books–was relatively easy.
We were publishing the most useful newsletters on the planet at the time–namely Boardroom Reports, Bottom Line/Personal, Tax Hotline, Breakthrough (technology/investments), Health Confidential (and there were others).
We created best-selling books by taking the “greatest hits” of our newsletters and putting them into huge volumes…indexed and categorized…and sold millions of copies of those books.
I never lost sleep over not being on the New York Times bestseller list either.
We were much happier selling millions of books and helping millions of consumers while not being involved with bookstores or anything that resembled “trade publishing.”
Direct mail scaled then as it does now…and we had a wonderful formula for creating these books and then taking them to the best copywriters in the world (like Gene Schwartz, Gary Bencivenga, Jim Rutz, Mel Martin, Clayton Makepeace and others) to work their magic.
We charged higher prices than any books similar to ours in a bookstore; and we created higher value than anything we could have done in a traditional book selling environment.
But then we were faced with a moment of truth in the late 1980’s:
We started “running out of content” doing these greatest hits volumes.
Our best sellers were 500+ pages, encyclopedic, and we often joked that we sold books by the pound.
These kinds of books sold much better than our niche titles (often by single authors) which were also good…so we had to find a way to do more “big books.”
Simply put, selling books by the pound was what our core customers wanted…and it got tougher and tougher to deliver those kinds of books.
For example, we had one book called The Book of Inside Information (BII) or what I called “Bottom Line’s Greatest Hits,” which sold 3 million copies over many years, hardcover, at $30 a book.
We had offshoots of that book…daughters and sons of BII…including The Big Black Book and The Book of Secrets…and they all sold well.
In fact, The Book of Secrets once did ONE mailing on a single mail date of 9 million pieces of direct mail.
That was the single biggest mailing we have ever done in our 40+ year history. The book mailed over 25 million pieces in its lifetime…
I will tell the story of that book and how it came to be in a future post…when I talk about the amazing Mel Martin (“the best copywriter no one ever knew”).
And there was also our book Healing Unlimited which sold over 2 million copies.
In addition, we sold big tax books and we even had a vertical title on estate planning which sold over half a million copies.
Lesson: Even vertical books in tight niches became a little more “horizontal” when direct mail targeting was involved…
But how were we going to expand this franchise/formula?
We had a hungry database waiting for more BIG books…
Enter Gordon Grossman, the man who was the architect of Reader’s Digest in the 60’s and 70’s…who I hired as a consultant around that time…and he looked at what we were doing and said:
“Brian…what makes you think that all of the content for your books has to be your own stuff?”
Now that may not sound so earth shaking to you but at the time, it changed everything…because I took it as a challenge.
I realized I could “buy,” and didn’t have to “make,” all of our new books.
However, how would I find books that had high integrity (i.e. good enough to put the Boardroom/Bottom Line name on them) AND edgy enough for our world class copywriters to write world class copy?
Here was the light bulb idea:
Go to Barnes and Noble (I don’t even think there was a coffee bar there back then…it really was a BOOK store!)…ask to borrow a hand truck…and walk around the store to every “category” that fit with the interests of our 7 million name database.
And I am a whiz with a hand truck…worked in a liquor store in high school and college…and working the hand truck here was easy because books don’t break!
I got a good workout running with my hand truck all over the store.
I visited every category that made sense including health, fitness, finance, investing, taxes, personal development, food/nutrition, retirement etc.
There were so many amazing books in those categories, most of which had an inch of dust on them, and I knew many of them just needed a marketing home.
I also realized that if any of those dusty volumes had sold 10,000 copies in their lifetime (none of them came close to that number mind you), they would have been considered bestsellers by the “trade” at that time.
Thinking ahead, I knew I could propose a “windfall opportunity” to some old school trade publishers…who didn’t even know what direct mail or direct marketing was…
My master plan was to approach those trade publishers and secure the “direct marketing rights”…and then blow their minds with how many books we could sell in direct mail of a title that was selling virtually nothing in the bookstore.
Five or six trips to my car later, after purchasing 40 or 50 books, weighing down my 1985 Toyota Camry until my tailpipe was almost dragging on the ground, I had my “candidates” to rival our current direct mail bestsellers.
Next step: We went through the books to see which ones had the most useful information from the most credible sources…got them “approved” by our editorial staff…and then we started matching up books with appropriate copywriters.
Many books got nixed by the editors (“can’t put our name on that crap!”)…others got nixed by the copywriters (“not enough juicy information for compelling copy!”)…but the ones that got through this gauntlet were the ones we put into the new product pipeline.
There was more to this of course…we learned to “concept test” through questionnaires later on, we came up with an amazing “pitch” to the trade publishers for the direct marketing rights, and we knew how to re-position any appropriate trade book to direct mail (i.e. how we “Boardroom-ized it”).
Another nice twist: The books we ended up taking into direct mail under our brand were often in paperback in the bookstore already, selling for less than $20.
But our direct mail version of the book would always be hard cover (higher perceived value) and we would add bonuses and premiums that made this new version not even comparable to what was on the shelf at Barnes and Noble.
Our price points started at $30 plus shipping and handling and we eventually got the price point up to $40 plus shipping and handling.
And that’s how we created a book division with books “not just of our own stuff”; and we had multiple outside titles as a result of this methodology that each sold in the hundreds of thousands…one or two over one million copies…with no dust accumulating on OUR shelves…
I think there are a few lessons here for any marketer, online or offline:
1. Look everywhere and anywhere for undersold or underutilized assets or products right under your nose that could be of interest to your audience; and I’m not talking about doing another affiliate mailing…I’m talking about buying the rights to those products and making them your own.
And I am also not just talking about books and physical products…this same principal applies to digital products as well.
2. Know the power of your name and your brand to your audience…and look for products that you would be proud to put your name on.
3. Nothing gets sold without a great sales letter/promotion/e-mail/whatever…think about how you will be able to position and sell any new product before you fall in love with it.
And have seasoned copywriters look at everything you are considering.
I remember seeing an online marketer speak at a conference some years ago, telling everyone the deep, dark secret of marketing online is to start using “physical products.”
It was nice to hear someone else in the online world making sure we don’t underestimate the power of using almost anything in your product mix if it’s a good fit for your audience (especially on the back end of your digital sales)…even if you have to “ship it.”
P.S. Those of you who are new to my list might want to watch an interview I did with Joe Polish called:
I don’t sell everyone on using direct mail…nor do I even recommend it as the best front end medium…but it’s still great to use on the back end of any marketing program. Let me know your thoughts.