Marketing the Printed Word in the Cyber Age

D. Lyn Hunter

According to those in the publishing business, any book on Abraham Lincoln, doctors or dogs is guaranteed to sell. With this in mind, publisher Donald Lamm jokes that a sure-fire recipe for a runaway bestseller would be a book on Abraham Lincoln's doctor's dog.

While waiting for this magnum opus to be written, Lamm, a 1998 Regents' Lecturer, has discovered another potential predictor for a bestseller-the Internet.

"The mere mention of a book on a highly-read web site can send sales through the roof," said Lamm, chair of the board for W.W. Norton publishing company. Lamm spoke at the Graduate School of Journalism Feb. 2.

According to Lamm, one of his company's more obscure books, a treatise on ornithology, racked up only modest sales after its debut, as predicted. Then, mysteriously, orders for the book began to skyrocket.

"After looking into it, I found out that Bill Gates had favorably reviewed the book in a bulletin on Microsoft's web site," said Lamm. "Apparently, thousands of people access this site daily and it resulted in a flood of on-line sales through Amazon and Barnes and Noble."

Lamm feels that this type of Internet exchange is the new "word-of-mouth," the method used by many readers to select a new book.

Lamm also hinted that considering the new technology, publishers may change the way they market books.

"The tradition of parading authors with new books on TV and radio talk shows actually has very little impact on sales," said Lamm. "Not even Oprah's Book Club has a very lasting affect, usually no more than three months."

So why do publishers continue sending authors on book tours? Because, according to Lamm, marketing departments use these appearances and reviews to entice book stores to place orders for their product.

While pleasantly surprised by the budding relationship between books and the Internet, Lamm expressed concern over the eroding readership of print publications such as newspapers and news magazines.

"Publications like Time magazine have been losing subscribers for years and send free copies to many residences just to boost circulation numbers. At the same time, magazines like People, Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly are rapidly increasing in sales," said Lamm.

Predicting this trend, the daily national newspaper USA Today designed its publication to look more like TV, with short stories, color graphics and whole sections devoted to the weather and entertainment, said Lamm.

Another problem facing print media, according to Lamm, is that aging readers are not being replaced by young people who read.

"None of my three adult children, who happened to be raised in very literary home, reads a daily newspaper," lamented Lamm.

A student in the audience took umbrage at Lamm's characterization of her generation's reading habits.

"I and most of my friends read the paper," she said.

Lamm countered with statistics from a study concluding that on the average, young people read less than older people.

Lamm also warned audience members of the potential damage superstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders Books can have on local, independent book stores, a staple in Berkeley's retail market.

"Corporate leaders led us (publishers) to believe this type of retailing would increase readership and book sales, but unit sales haven't increased and, in many cities, mega-stores have managed to push out smaller, family-owned stores," said Lamm.

Lamm's visit to campus was hosted by the School of Information Management and Systems. In addition to his position at W.W. Norton, one of the few employee-owned publishing houses in America, Lamm serves on the boards of Yale University Press and University of California Press and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.



Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
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