Advertising and Promoting Your Bookshop: Is it all too hard?

When it's a quiet week for features at The Read, we contact booksellers to see what trade related problems are on their mind at the moment.

Here’s a plea that saw the team put on their power suits, high heels and big hair to rush to the rescue:

“Flipping advertising - is it worth the time and effort? How do you get a profile in your local rag - i.e. free advertising? How big a name does an author have to be before the ‘press’ will take notice? “Do we settle for shoddy ads just because it's all too hard? “These relate mainly to independents that have limited advertising budgets and no staff member who is a publicity specialist. It just drives me nuts!!!!”

Mary Sangster, The Children’s Bookshop, Christchurch.

Know how you feel, Mary, and we’re sure you are not alone.

Yes, advertising can be worth it, but you have to advertise in the right places to ensure your customers see your message.

Emma McCleary has done this exercise in a different context. She is part of a group of craft and design businesses who were not attracting the audience they wanted at their seasonal fairs. They took a step back and did a questionnaire circulated around craft-aware people who are their audience, specifically to find where these people drew their information from – what papers, magazines, websites did they read? What radio stations did they listen to?


IMAGE: A larger-budget advertising campaign from international bookstore Mint Venetu.

Like any good pollster they offered the chance to win a (small) prize by taking the survey and collected contact information to send out event information in the future.

“I found our results really shocking. I’d assumed most people would be the same as me; the survey proved a lot of assumptions we’d made about what media our target audience use were completely wrong,” said Emma.

Putting into practice the new information, and hiring a local PR student, they were able to turn the craft event around, attracting the right audience who spent more than ever before.

Run your survey for free
As Emma says, you can use generic (and mostly free) sites like Survey Monkey and customise them to gather the information that is relevant. Or run an in-store survey – or both.

Having worked extensively on PR for small and medium businesses, Emma would be more than happy to peer review any surveys before you launch them on the public.

But sorry, Mary... Emma emphasises that it does mainly take time to when it comes to ads and PR.


IMAGE: Survey Monkey can be used for free and set up to be easy to use.

How do you get a profile in your local rag - i.e. free advertising?
Use discretion here. About half the pages of some community newspapers are filled with what looks like features about businesses, but they are in fact paid advertorial, which research shows is less respected by readers because they know it's been paid for and, as dull as dishwater for the most part.

Avoid these unless you want to keep company with blind installers, dentists and tyre fitters. You certainly don’t want to pay for poor copy and dreary photos.

There are times when you have to resort to a paid advertorial – opening a new branch or relaunching your upgraded store – but keep control of the content by drafting the message you want to communicate, and perhaps getting a friend with photography talent to take the picture and supply that yourself. Unlike major dailies (NZ Herald, DominionPost et al) community papers will accept good, high-res (over 500kb) photos for publication.

Let the results of your customer survey dictate what you do - if most of your shoppers are on Facebook but don't read the newspaper then any classifieds will be misdirected.

You can get a free profile, but it will have to have a genuine news hook.
If your store has won a THORPE-Bowker Award, ring the local paper, ask to talk to a reporter and tell them how excited you are to receive one of these rare awards and why you think you have won it – because of your great stock of New Zealand non-fiction, (or if you are The Children’s Bookshop, because you have the best selection of books for kids in your city). Awards or nominations are great hooks for stories.

Think like a journalist: their mantra is what, where, when, why and how. Even journalists on the smallest community papers want to have news, so if it happened yesterday, tell them today – not two weeks later. If it is exciting and dramatic – a car has taken out the store’s front window – phone immediately

It won’t always work – the sole photographer may be out of town on a story and won’t be back before the car has been removed from the window – but you won’t know if you don’t try.

Also take time to work out who the best media people in your town are and get to know them so you’re not a stranger when you call with news.

Invest in your relationship - invite the local reporter out for a coffee and a chat and tell them what you’re up to.

How big a name does an author have to be before the "press" will take notice?
Sometimes very big, sometimes there is another angle. If JK Rowling is in the country promoting her new adult book, all the major media will be over the story like a rash, and if she drops into your store it could be a ho-hum as far as the community paper is concerned.

But if a local teacher’s first picture book is newly released, invite the local paper to interview the author in your store – makes for better pictures. When you tell the reporter how excellent the author is and how well the book is selling, that adds another dimension to the story.

Be selective about which authors you promote, think like a journalist – where is the story, the angle, here?

If you have a good relationship and know they’re keen then you might also offer them a review copy.

IMAGE: Novel (no pun intended) events will almost always capture attention - like this one.

Do we settle for shoddy ads just because it's all too hard?
No, you don’t have to do that.

With a bit of thought and some time on a calculator, you can come up with a format that suits your purpose and is viable financially. Look through the local rag to see which of the modest sizes work – 2 x columns by 10 cm is about as small as you can go to promote one book and author event.

Talk to the paper’s ad rep without making commitments to get the parameters to see if what you want to do is affordable. If you book, for example, an ad a month for a year, the rate will be better than just doing 12 separate ones. Work hard for the best deal – it is a buyer’s market.

Often radio stations will offer packages to new advertisers - or around special events - again, use the findings of your customer survey to dictate your direction.

The paper should also be able to help you with the art work at a reasonable or no fee – think of creating a template with the store name and logo at the top and the address, opening hours and email/website contacts at the bottom. The space between is where you put your changing message. Having a template makes the process speedier.

Publisher websites now all have book jacket downloads available, so illustrations are not a problem. Also note that the best placement of your ad is on the early, most frequently read, news pages. Always request your ad run on these pages and ask for it as part of the deal when you are negotiating and write it in to any contract. (You may be asked to pay a ‘loading’ for this preferential placement, and if it is absolutely necessary pay this because display ads at the back of the paper are often never read.)

Use the results of your customer survey to work out where you’ll get the best deal. If your customers are radio listeners not paper readers then target the radio. And think outside the norm: popular local bloggers might offer better rates than papers and so might the local school newsletter.

While these ideas relate mainly to independents that have limited advertising budgets and no staff member who is a publicity specialist, The Read can confidently say that in every facet of book retail, the advertising budgets are limited, so you are not alone.

We’d advise thought and consideration when drawing up a plan for advertising expenditure – don’t be swayed by enthusiastic sales people. Find what works best for a similar store to yours in a town with a similar demographic. Start small and slow and build on that when you get results.

No in-store publicity specialist? You might be able to tap into the expertise of enthusiastic customers who are well connected in journalism or advertising – in the case of The Children’s Bookshop, a teacher who is a bit of a whizz at getting publicity for their school might help out.

The alternative is to be curious and cheeky and search out your own news. Reps will often pass on publicity ideas they’ve gained from other stores. You just have to put yourself in the place of a reader of a paper or a listener to a local radio station and think “what would I like to read/hear about this book/author/trend when I am the audience.”

And we haven’t even mentioned customer relations, newsletters and catalogues! There is more to be said on advertising, promotions and public relations, and a wealth of bookseller expertise we can call on.

Ask The Read your advertising, publicity and promotion questions by emailing them to and we will try and find the answers you need in follow up stories next month. We're happy to name your store or run the question anonymously.

Article written by Jillian Ewart, writer for The Read.