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Why buying a book is like taking out life insurance

Recently every time I open Facebook, I’m pestered with the same ad. ‘Have you ever arrived at an event only to find your pocket square irretrievably crumpled?’ it asks. (For the record, even if I was a man, I suspect I wouldn’t be the kind of man who wears a pocket square and/or buys a handy device to keep it from crumpling). It’s a familiar story to most of us – Facebook, or your other internet/social media site of choice, will stalk you with the same ad for months until you break down and seriously consider buying whatever it is. It’s an entire business model.

You might think that life insurance sits at the other end of the spectrum from here-today, gone-tomorrow startups advertising on Facebook. Not only do most insurers belong to the staid, blue-chip part of the finance industry, they think in terms of decades rather than years. But there is one important thing that unites them with their startup colleagues, and it’s contained in a conversation I had with a colleague who works in marketing life insurance. He explained that very few people spontaneously decide that they will go out and buy life insurance. In general, life insurance is sold rather than bought. Whether it’s seeing an ad on the tv, or talking with a colleague or professional advisor, people purchase as a result of a prompt rather than an immediate need.

So why am I talking about this in the context of publishing? We all know that the industry is going through a difficult time. Fewer people are reading books, and the number of other entertainment options are multiplying. Meanwhile, the number of books is growing exponentially as barriers to entry for self-publishing disappear and old books are brought back into print. Even if you do wake up and decide you want to buy a book today, the number of options is simply dizzying.

The result? Books, too, are gradually evolving towards a product that needs to be sold rather than bought – whether that’s via a recommendation from a friendly bookseller, a Facebook ad, a book review, or an algorithm. As a consequence, marketing is no longer an optional extra, but an essential that needs to be planned and budgeted for from day one. The publishing industry has a tendency to believe it is special, but this is a dangerous fallacy. I believe books can go toe-to-toe with Netflix and other entertainment options for customers, but first publishers need to accept that they are in that fight, rather than rising above it on lofty wings. Most traditional publishers are not there yet. Still, this gives an advantage to the smaller, more innovative parts of the industry, which can question the ways in which things have been done (including purchasing ads to chase you around Facebook if required).

Meanwhile, if you have realised that the solution to all your problems is the aforementioned pocket square device – you can find it here. I’ve probably just condemned myself to another six months of ads by clicking on it. You’re welcome.

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