Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Interview With Tom Thompson, Verso Advertising, VP, Group Director

1. What does Verso Advertising do? Verso Advertising is a full service advertising agency that specializes in book publishing. We have fully-staffed media, creative and production departments that are proficient across all existing and evolving media—including print, digital, outdoor, and broadcast.

2. Who do you work with in the book publishing community? We work with everybody in the trade publishing community—from the “Big Six” to independent niche publishers to self-published authors. We have worked with both Barnes & Noble and Amazon in one capacity or another and have good working relationships with many of the finest publicists and agents in the business. Our president even owns an independent bookstore.  So, while we are “only” an advertising agency, we have contact with almost every part of the publishing business.

3. How do you formulate or customize the best advertising approach for each book campaign? All advertising requires a general sense of the category as well as a feel for the specific product (in our case, the book) being advertised. So we start with what we already know about a book’s particular genre and the best practices for reaching that genre’s core readership. But it’s just as important to see the ways in which that title stands apart. Each book has unique qualities that guide where and how you advertise. As much as we rely on our experience, however, we work hard to stay ahead of the latest trends and evolve our advertising toolkit. We constantly take advantage of new technologies that allow us to reach book readers in new and more efficient ways. Those technologies are changing so much, so quickly, that a lot of our job comes down to scouting out what’s possible now.

4. How should one benefit from advertising? What metrics do you use to judge success? Different ads are designed with different goals in mind, and the metrics shift accordingly. Obviously, the measure that matters most is unit sales. But because publishers don’t sell all books directly, the cause of those sales can be hard to measure when an ad campaign is happening—as it should—in concert with strong reviews, good PR, and good bookstore placement. That said, there are cases where a single print ad is the only thing happening for a book, and we see a bump in sales. We have also run digital campaigns for authors whose titles have been out for several months, have no review attention, etc., and their book suddenly starts selling when the ad runs. 

Digital ads are the easiest to measure, but what exactly the data means is not always clear. For example: While an ad’s success is commonly measured by click-through rate (CTR), we have run ads with average to below-average CTRs that have performed astonishingly well in driving e-book downloads or newsletter sign-ups. It’s important to remember that a good digital ad placed in the right context can perform a display function every bit as effectively as a billboard or a print ad. That’s why we preach the importance not just of demo targeting, but also contextual targeting.

Conversely, a traditional display ad can now have viral impact. Last fall, we ran an “old-school” Times Square billboard for Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. We kept the ad as simple as possible—no digital tie-in, no QR code, not even a website mentioned. But because of the context of the ad, it generated tremendous attention on Twitter and various blogs and eventually in articles everywhere from New York magazine to German Vogue. So while digital ads have a display function, it’s also true that a strong display ad in the right context can have a digital function.

5. Describe what makes for an excellent ad: is it the offer? The headline?
Something else? The ad has to work within its context—sometimes that means a hard-sell with a direct offer, sometimes it means a soft cell with great quotes. Again (always!) it depends on the book, the readership, and the context. With a traditional print ad, it often makes sense to pump up the reviews as much as possible. But you need a lot of real estate for that (not to mention good reviews); so that doesn’t work as well online. Anytime you have the flexibility to offer a book at a discount, or provide a real value proposition to the audience, that is always a good idea.

6. What do you like about being in advertising and servicing the publishing community? What I’m advertising matters. I’ve never understood people who say they’re “passionate about marketing.” I’m passionate about stories and ideas. For me, books are where those elements can take extraordinary shape, and I love connecting readers with books that will inspire them.  It’s a fascinating time in both industries. Book publishing and advertising are each changing at a rapid pace. So working as we do, where these two industries intersect, is thrilling. There’s never been a more interesting time to work in advertising. I have little interest in Mad Men-style nostalgia. With the tools we have now for targeting audiences and engaging them creatively, I think the best time to work in advertising is right now.

7. How has the ad industry changed in the last three to five years? I think the larger change has been happening for more like the last ten to fifteen years, and it’s not just in the ad industry. The larger movement is away from top-down, one-way mass marketing and toward more grass-roots communicating. Of course, in book advertising we never had the budgets of car companies or packaged goods; so we’ve been practicing grass roots, hyper-targeted, highly efficient marketing from the beginning! The real difference in the last three to five years is our ability to measure results. Our data is still highly imperfect for all sorts of reasons (especially budget constraints and the publisher-retailer structure), but it’s getting better.

8. Where do you see the book publishing industry heading? It’s impossible to answer that question with any true confidence, given the pace of change and the propensity of new, disruptive technology to shift trade winds in this business. But there are some larger trends we can report on with some confidence. For the last four years, Verso has run annual internet-wide reader surveys in partnership with Burst Media. The surveys suggest that e-readership is entering a more mature phase where the exponential growth is beginning to level off, and a hybrid print and e-reader market emerging. The biggest bestsellers and most enduring authors will continue to be produced by the largest publishers. But there will be more room for what we used to call “mid-list” authors—as well as a tiny handful of Shades of Grey scale hits—to make a go of it through DIY platforms and good old-fashioned hustle.

Dead Men Tell Many Tales

Not that long ago, once an author died, his or her work died with them.  Now it seems the norm for two other practices to take place:

1.      Finding “lost” manuscripts that were incomplete and not deemed worthy of publication at the time the author was alive—and now assuming another writer to “edit” it and publish it posthumously.

2.      Serializing a book and franchising a character long after its creator died, where the writer’s estate or publisher handpicks an heir to continue writing books under the deceased author’s name.

Ian Fleming may be dead but his creation, James Bond, will live another day when Scottish writer William Boyd was anointed by the Fleming estate to produce a new Bond novel for next year, the 60th anniversary of the Bond series debut, Casino Royale.

The PR firm I work for, MEDIA CONNECT (, has promoted authors long past their expiration date.  A few years ago we promoted an Atkins book that was produced by his estate.  The same with Mario Puzzo.  Most recently, we did a radio tour for a Sidney Sheldon book long past his death. 

As a fan of such authors I would be happy that these post-death books are being published as long as they are of a decent quality, but as a writer, I am not sure how I’d feel about someone else finishing my work or attempting to write in my style.  When it comes to comedians, I love those who do good impressions, but when it comes to writing, I’m not sure if imitation is the best flattery.  Dead men may not tell tales but the publishing industry still prospers when it can release books beyond the grave.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s leading book publicity firm. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person

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