Episode 14: Mary McAveney on Book Discovery

Mary McAveney, Chief Marketing Officer at Open Road Integrated Media joins us this week on the BookSmarts Podcast. Mary has extensive expertise in marketing, strategy, and branding in the publishing industry, and now helps the Open Road team tackle marketing and discovery with data-driven tactics and a comprehensive understanding of direct-to-consumer marketing.

In this episode, Mary and Joshua discuss the opportunities and challenges around book discovery. As sales have moved online, publishers have increasingly become more responsible for their own book discovery, and that can be a real challenge for publishers who have not tackled book discovery before. While the focus is often on the big titles that will make a splash, it is the debut authors and lesser-known titles that can suffer the most from discovery problems.

As publishers take on that challenge, there are many opportunities available to them, but in essence book discovery comes down to building solid SEO on your website and creating and cultivating connections with your consumers. Mary shares some wonderful insights and suggestions to help publishers build their discovery platforms and cultivate those connections to increase visibility of their titles. 

BookNet Canada study: Aged like a fine wine: What’s the ideal age for a backlist title?

Transcript

Joshua Tallent 
Hello, and welcome to the book smarts podcast where we talk about publishing data and technologies and send you away with some insights that will help you sell more books. I’m your host, Joshua Tallent. So this week on the BookSmarts podcast, I’m really excited to have Mary McAveney from Open Road Integrated Media. Mary is the Chief Marketing Officer over there, and she’s been working in the publishing industry for over 30 years, at various publishing companies and also at Internet startups. So, Mary, thanks for joining me on the show today.

Mary McAveney 
Thanks for having me.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, this is exciting. So I’m really happy about this, actually, because Mary and I were chatting earlier about the need for better discovery, and how book discovery really happens. And so, Mary, I want to talk to you a little bit about this. So when we’re talking about book discovery, obviously a lot’s changed over the last couple of years with the pandemic and things like that, a lot of sales have moved online. But book discovery is just in general, a different animal now than it was 10 years ago. So I’d like to hear your thoughts on what you think book discovery really is about? And how can publishers take advantage of book discovery? And where do you see the problems in the industry? Where do you see the problems right now in book discovery?

Mary McAveney 
Well, I think, I’ll probably start with the opportunities rather than problems. You know, about 10 years ago, as you can imagine, there was there was a pretty big shift into what people call the “unlimited shelf space of the internet”, right. And so, you know, publishers had very traditionally relied on booksellers to be the conduit between them and the consumer. And most of the discovery was happening, either at a library or at a local bookseller, or at your Barnes & Noble or, you know, at media, you know, media opportunities. There were, you know, pages and pages dedicated to book reviews. There were whole sections of the major daily newspapers in almost every city that was dedicated to reviewing books, there were late night talk shows who were, you know, often having authors on their programs. And we gradually saw a lot of that sort of shrinking, we saw fewer and fewer media opportunities for authors, we saw booksellers closing or reducing the shelf space that they made available to books, and, you know, building up sidelines and things like that. And so what, what began, what I think began to happen is that it, it caused the publishing industry to have to continue to winnow down the number of books that they were essentially marketing. And so if you look at you know, from the beginning to the end of a book’s lifecycle in a publishing company from acquisition, which in itself is a winnowing down of the number of submissions that a publishing company gets, to the actual go-to-market plan, it is just one stage after another of you know, what, are we really getting behind  what is going to give us the biggest shot. What are we going to really push at consumers. And so it leaves an awful lot un-marketed at the end of the day. And so, you know, what, what I’m hoping publishers can do as they build up their relationships with consumers and as they begin to really, you know, build their mailing lists and you know, start to have that direct relationship is harness the searchability on Amazon is harness the searchability in browsers like Google to bring in more readers for those books that aren’t getting you know, the big marketing push behind them. And that has become really critical and we saw that happen you know, obviously. The month that the country was in lockdown or the world was in lockdown around the pandemic really shined a light on how much reliance publishers had on on those independent bookstores on Barnes & Noble on you know, people you know, going into a physical space and discovering a book there, which I think is wonderful. But when it’s removed, what do you have, you know, what’s left? And so you know, lots of publishers saw great increases in revenue and in sales during that time when people were turning to online search, or browsing in Amazon or browsing, you know, on bn.com. Bookshop is done phenomenal work in helping readers discover books, but a lot of what was happening is readers were gravitating to books they knew about, right? They either remembered, or they were classics or, you know, somehow, you know, the book had an audience. But debut authors were very often struggling during that time, because there was no real discovery engine for them. And so you know, what we really need to do, what our responsibility is, is to, you know, how can we bring those readers into books that they aren’t aware of, you know, that are really high quality books, but there’s no demand, right?

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, that’s good. And that’s—that also ties into this whole question of the backlist and how the backlist is being marketed by publishers and, you know, a debut author may have, you know—their first book is out, it’s been out for six months, and there’s been some marketing behind it possibly, there’s obviously been something happening. But it’s hard to get a debut author into the minds of readers, when nobody really knows them, nobody really knows that they’re even available. And I think that’s part of the reason why we see this two to five years after publication, that’s when things start to kick in for backlist titles. There was a study was done by BookNet Canada, I’ll link in the show notes on that I talked about last week as well. But what’s interesting to me is that when you get into that two to five years, things really pick up. And so there’s an opportunity there for publishers to take advantage of that—with especially debut authors or, or lesser known authors or kind of those midlist titles that aren’t necessarily the ones that are really going to push a ton of marketing on at the beginning, because they don’t have the time or the energy or the or the money for that. Hitting that middle time period, that two to five years might be just a benefit to go back and say, hey, let’s just put a little more act at this right, let’s think about these titles that really haven’t, you know, they’re kind of been selling a little bit here and there. Let’s put a little bit of effort behind them. Right? And this, you know, this also comes back to a conversation, I think it was the one I had with Guy Gonzalez back earlier, this whole question of how do we handle titles that, you know, that aren’t—like the publishing industry is built on this idea of like the stable, cornerstone titles—there’s so much more out there, there’s so much more that publishers are taking on, right? They’re getting through that winnowing process of the acquisition process, and they make it to actual publication, the publisher thinks it’s important, but somehow it just never gets the attention, even within the publisher sometimes that it really could benefit from. So okay, so there’s the opportunity, it’s very clear, there’s a lot of opportunity here. Where do you think discovery comes from? Where do you think publishers can take those titles that they haven’t been putting a ton of energy on? What do you think that can be doing to really push more discovery on that?

Mary McAveney 
So, you know, I think, you know, if you think about where you’re, you’re going to find information, you know, I think part of it is, is actually just getting those books, sort of getting the metadata, you know, correct in those books, right—is the very first step, really making it as as positive as possible, as complete as possible. So that when someone’s searching on Overdrive, or they’re searching on Amazon, or they’re searching on Google, that those books are turning up for the searches that those folks are looking for. You know, we’re seeing books that, you know, come into our program, and, you know, we’ll do a search on Amazon by title and author and that book won’t, won’t surface. And so really, it’s about trying to figure out how to get that book recognized in all of the different algorithms that consumers are now relying on to find books. So a big part of it is, you know, trying to find a way to replace that media piece, right? That has always been something that, you know, I as a marketer, and I know, everyone in publishing is really keen to harness, right? If you have a media hit around a book, it’s it’s like manna from heaven. Oh, you know, somebody, somebody that you know, with an audience is actually talking about this book, and what can we do to, to pump that. And so, so that’s one thing, but you know, what you have to do is actually build your own verticals, to build your own content sites, because, you know, there are people looking for books, and they may only know Dan Brown’s name, right? They don’t know anybody else in that genre, but they know they like that book, and so many people have, but they’re not going to read the same book over and over again. So it sounds sort of, you know, simplistic, but you want to bring in those people who like that book, but it’s really important to make sure that the book you’re putting in front of them when they’re doing that search is you know, something they’re going to enjoy just as much as that book. And there are so many many—you know, I was just talking to a publisher just got off the phone with them, where I said, you know, we’re really looking for the quality of the titles, you know, the demand we can build, right? And I’m sure every publisher would agree, nobody’s looking to publish poor quality titles, right? Everybody’s looking to publish, and they do publish really great quality books. And, you know, authors spend their lives writing them, and you know, they’re fantastic. And if the, you know, they shouldn’t be punished, just because the demand isn’t evident, right, you should be able to build that. And so it—but it’s work, it’s, you know, it’s really creating your own owned media, right? Through funnels and content verticals and articles. And if you can harness those readers into newsletters, and really continue that relationship and build it, if you become like a hand, a book hand seller, right, you’re, you know, you know what Josh likes to read, right? Because Josh is clicking pretty consistently on the books that he likes to read. And as that reader stays in your system for years, you become even more and more familiar with what they’re looking for. And you can really segment the titles Well, for them, and so that becomes really critical. And I know that you know, so many publishers, of all different sizes are building mailing lists, and really trying to develop that one-to-one relationship with the consumer. And it’s critical, but it’s also critical to make sure that you’re thinking about that consumer more than you’re thinking about the book, right? You have a book you spent a lot of money on to purchase, and you want to push that book out to every consumer you can think of, but that isn’t, that isn’t necessarily going to win the day at the end, right? You want to really cultivate those, those customers.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, and that’s a big mind shift for a lot of publishers, publishers, you know, like you said before, traditionally have been very focused on Okay, the retailers do that job, right? The retailers are the ones who are focusing on the customer, I’m selling book, I’m making books and getting them into the hands of retailers who handle that relationship. That’s no longer the case, every publisher has to have a good solid online presence needs to have a relationship with customers that buy their types of books buy their content. So for a publisher who hasn’t done this before, how would you recommend they get started on building out those verticals? or trying, you know, getting those mailing lists? How do they build that from the beginning from the ground up?

Mary McAveney 
Yeah, I think it it’s, it’s not an easy proposition. It’s extremely, you know, costly to do that. But the way we started, is really to start with demand, like, what are people currently searching for? How does that map to, you know, the kinds of books that we have available to put in front of them. And so it starts there, and then you know, you can use, you can use those audiences to build—it becomes sort of a pyramid, you get your base of consumers, and then you use those to build on top of it, you know, more, more and more. So you know, whether you’re using social channels, or you’re using, you know, external newsletter ads, or you’re using just your content and your search engine optimization, or you’re using search engine marketing, there are a number of tools. And they all require a good amount of expertise, right? to function well.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, that makes sense. And when you’re thinking about it, as a publisher, you know, obviously a website you’re going to have, if you’re selling your own books on your website, that’s a great place to start getting some of that contact information. When you’re looking at how how do people interact with us as a publisher, if all of your focus is on Amazon, and all of your, you know, contact with consumers is on Amazon, it can be really hard. So having your own website, building out that online presence for yourself, even if you’re not selling direct to consumer, even if what you’re doing is just showing here are the books that we sell, and pointing to retail stores like BookShop and Amazon and Barnes & Noble or other places, that at the very least get you SEO on Google, to let people find your books on your own website first. And especially if you can think more about what kind of content can we put on our website that’s different than Amazon. You know, Amazon doesn’t necessarily have great SEO on Google. It’s, it’s okay, but it’s not, it’s not the same thing your website could be. So putting in the first chapter excerpt and putting in extra details about the book or you know, if you if you’ve got nonfiction, and you’re trying to put in charts and stuff, maybe that’s a good place to put that kind of content as well, or additional things, resources from the author, author interviews, there’s lots of things you can do on a website that have nothing to do with the actual sale of the book and more to do with just the marketing side and the SEO side, that can help you build those relationships with consumers, collect their email addresses, put them on mailing lists, you know, let them be the ones even to direct what mailing lists, they sign up for because they’re interested in that genre or that type of book, that helps a lot. And that’s, that’s a good place to start. Because then you start building that up slowly, and you start to see what’s really happening. So let’s talk about the let’s talk about the SEO side of things, or even on the, you know, the advertising and, you know, kind of the, the social media side of things, which you mentioned just a minute ago. So how would you recommend that a publisher engage? Let’s start with with, with SEO, any other SEO tips, or any I’m, obviously been talking a lot, but any other thoughts about that?

Mary McAveney 
Um, yeah, I think, you know, SEO is, it’s—there’s a really fun cartoon out there, where someone’s doing a crazy mathematical problem on a blackboard and turns to the person, you know, listening and saying, and he says, “And that, in a nutshell, is SEO,” and the board is covered by this complex algebraic equation. And that’s, that’s what I feel like right now, SEO is really not simple. In some ways, you know, the idea of it is very simple that you are, you know, you are creating content that is, you know, primed for discovery by people who are searching for certain subjects. And if you are building that content, and you have authority, and you have expertise, and you have—and your site is trustworthy, that you will be rewarded with traffic around the things that you’re writing about. And if you are targeting the right kinds of search, and they—the folks who are searching are getting what they want, when they arrive at your website, then you will be rewarded with more traffic, you know, and so you really just want to tune in really, to what people are searching for. And there are lots of tools that help you do that. We, you know, we use moz.com, we use SEM Rush, we use Answer the Public, all of those things help us fine tune the kind of content that we’re writing, and the way we’re writing about it. You know, an example I would give is, you know, we always want to understand what the search intent is, right? So if somebody’s searching for death in the afternoon, you know, we might have a great piece on that book, but somebody could be looking for the cocktail. And so we want to make sure that we’re hitting the right audience, and that we’re bringing in people who aren’t going to immediately say a book, I want a cocktail, you know. And so it also helps us because as we become more expert at what we’re serving those folks when they come in the door, the more we can delight them with the kind of content that we’re offering, the better the relationship is going to be. And you know, the more long term that relationship is going to be. And so as you point out, they then sign up for newsletters, you have a more long term relationship with them. But what that allows you to do beyond just having that—it’s great to have that relationship—but pointing them to the retailers, as you suggest, you know, some folks have ecommerce, right on their sites, we happen to steer our, our site traffic to external retailers, you then can actually deliver a really highly qualified consumer to a retailer, right? And that opens up a whole other world that opens up, you know, the follow on effect, or the network effect of saying, oh, okay, you know, this retail algorithm now knows what kind of consumer is interested in that book, because you sent a highly qualified consumer that they can create their own look alike audience. And so it really becomes this huge network effect where we can actually take our small-ish list of readers and create a much bigger audience on the retail platforms.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, that’s great. So let’s talk about social media, then. How would you run social media campaigns for, say, a title that’s a couple of years old? It was it’s a midlist title, the title that was by an unknown author or a brand new author, how would you handle “Okay, we need to come back to this, we need to think about that product again, that title again.” If you were just going to jump in and try to do something to get more more eyeballs on that. Just from the social media side. You know, obviously, we talked a lot about email and stuff, but how would you approach that just as an as an example?

Mary McAveney 
Sure. Well, we’d approach it in two ways. One, we have the content sites that we run, actually post to social media. So we’ll have a content piece about that book, or that includes that book, that we would post on to the appropriate social media sites and target audiences that we believe based on the profile of the book and what other books we have in our system that maybe have had some audience, we can use those sort of look-alike books and look-alike audiences to build audiences for that book. And we do that in two ways. One is pure content, social sharing, and organic and the other is paid social sharing. So we would actually run Facebook ads or Twitter ads or Instagram ads that target consumers that fit the profile that we’ve outlined for that book.

Joshua Tallent 
Okay, so at the very least, what you’re doing is using the social media to drive traffic back to the website, to content that you’ve written, whether that’s a blog post, or an author interview, or something else that’s interesting about that product about that book. And then if you want to do advertising, trying to focus in on who are the, what’s the audience? Who are the audiences, if necessary for that type of content? That’s good. That’s great. So we’re close to out of time, but any any final thoughts? Anything that you think, wow, this is something that publishers need to be really considering about this move? You know, they’re thinking, I need to get more of this going for those titles that I haven’t been focusing on? How do they—How do they take that? what’s what’s next for them?

Mary McAveney 
I mean it’s—that’s a really good question. And I feel like, you know, a lot of publishers have, you know, looked at the last 18 months and realized, you know, we’re moving all of our marketing to digital, because everybody’s moving to digital, and certainly, there are still people going into bookstores, but the the reach is far vast, much more vast on the, you know, in the digital realm. And, you know, I think that is all really valid. I do think that, you know, it, pay it, you know, pay attention to the audience first, you know, as, as a marketer, I feel like that’s our mantra, right? is audience first, customer first. What is the customer looking for? You know, I think publishing does a lot of curating of titles for the public. And I, you know, I think that’s sort of a euphemism for, these are the books we got behind, and that’s what we’re gonna push out, and I think would be really great to see, you know, publishing, lift up, you know, many, many more titles than they currently do. I feel like I ended on a bad note.

Joshua Tallent 
That’s good. No, it’s it’s actually I think it’s very encouraging. When you think about, again, publishers, we’re all in the same state. We’re all trying to figure out how do we get more eyeballs on the on the products that we sell? How do we make sure that things don’t just get lost in the shuffle. And with backlist sales rising as quickly as they have, you know, there’s opportunity there. It’s just a matter of grasping that and knowing how to grasp that. And I think that a lot of these things we’ve been talking about will hopefully be very helpful. So Mary, thank you so much for joining me and chatting with me today. Before we go, can you let people know where they can find you and learn more about what you’re doing at Open Road?

Mary McAveney 
Sure, we, there is an overview at http://openroadintegratedmedia.com. You can learn all about Open Road, what we’re doing with audiences and what we’re doing with our Ignition program, which is really largely promoting backlist.

Joshua Tallent 
Awesome. Thanks again for joining me. I appreciate you coming on the podcast.

Mary McAveney 
Of course. Thanks for having me, Josh.

Joshua Tallent 
So that’s it for this episode of the BookSmarts Podcast. If you like what you’ve heard, please leave a review or rating on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you happen to listen to the podcast, and also please share the podcast with your colleagues. If you have topic suggestions or feedback about the show, you can email me at joshua@firebrandtech.com. And be sure to fill out that listener survey at booksmartspodcast.com/survey or just on the BookSmarts Podcast website. Thanks for joining me and getting smarter about your books.

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