Book promotion: Do Private Eye adverts work?

29 March 2008

I'm a keen reader of and subscriber to Private Eye. Given that my novel 'University of Death' has a subplot involving politics and uses a lot of humour in telling its story about the music business, the Eye's 798,000 readers could be an ideal advertising target. Adverts start at £26 for 10 words, which is within the reach of self-publishers.

And indeed, many self-publishers do promote their works there. But I had my suspicions the ads don't work. There's relatively high turnover of advertisers in the Eye Read section compared to some other sections (eg speechwriting), which suggests advertisers aren't seeing results. Additionally, the margin on book sales is such that I'd need to sell more than 13 copies directly attributable to Private Eye to break even. You only need to sell one speech per advert to make your money back, maybe even less if you're booking a series of ads.

I did a spot of market research and emailed five authors who have recently promoted their books in Private Eye and who had a website address. Four were kind enough to reply in some detail, and there was a clear consensus.

Lazz Hewings is a cartoonist researching a book about British Pub culture. He advertised to ask for responses to his questionnaire. He told me:
I was very disappointed with the response, considering the publication has a circulation of close to a million - I had 4 replies! Yes that's right - four! This, I thought, was interesting in its own right.
Chris Snowden has written a book documenting the war against smoking and liberty. He said:
I actually got very little response from that advert although I have used Private Eye for business ads before and found them to be quite good. What the response would be for your novel I really couldn't say.
Kevin Duffy, author of the novel 'Anthills and Stars' and small press manager, placed a couple of adverts for different books in the same issue. He said:
To be honest, for £120 the response wasn't that great, but that could be my ad, they went to the website and thought what was on offer was a pile of shite...however, glad I did it, I have had some great responses, e mail converstaions etc, but if you're thinking was it cost effective the answer is no it wasn't.
Ian Poole used Private Eye to promote his 'radical interpretation of the events in Jesus's life'. He told me:
In answer to your query about the efficacy of Private Eye adverts, I can report that, sadly, it was a waste of £52. As far as I can make out not a single copy sold because of it. Obviously they tend to circulate for a while so it may produce a few, but it certainly has not been a success. Worth a try I suppose. The book has rather narrow appeal, so I think that it may have been the wrong place.
I was particularly interested to see that Chris Snowden had found the business ads effective and Kevin Duffy's statement that it had generated some interesting correspondence. That suggests people do read the adverts, so for the right kind of book and right ad copy, there might be an opportunity there to pick up sales. But the experience of recent advertisers should be taken as a warning to authors and publishers that 798,000 circulated adverts does not necessarily translate into even a handful of sales.

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U2 3D - even better than the real thing?

U23D is the first live action 3D Imax movie, and it captures the band in concert in Argentina on the Vertigo tour. After a dazzling few introductory minutes where the shots chopped and changed too quickly for my eyes to focus, the filming settled down and it was magical. You have access all areas: in the front row, on stage with the band and high above the crowd.

When you fly over the drumkit, it's clear enough to see the pulsating ripples in Larry's orange drink. When the camera flies back over the audience, you feel as if you're among them, watching Larry drum on one platform while Bono sings from another.

Pop video effects are used well, with shots fading into each other at different perspective levels. Mercifully, they've resisted the temptation to do too much 3D 'trickery'. There's an effective sequence where Bono reaches out his hand to you, and another at the end where the big-screen visuals fly in your face, but the effects help immerse you in the experience, rather than detracting from its realism, as is often the case with 3D films.

The 80-minute show draws on the band's whole back catalogue, including a surprise appearance of 'Miss Sarajevo', with Bono singing Pavarotti's lines brilliantly. The three songs from the band's most recent album 'How to dismantle an atomic bomb' were thrilling even though I didn't know them before seeing the film. My favourite U2 era of 'Achtung Baby' gets a good showing, but I surprised myself at how moved I was by some of the older stuff. I'd forgotten how much I liked songs like 'New Year's Day' and 'Pride' until the iconic riffs kicked in.

I saw the film in London at the BFI Imax, and it's running for another week there. I strongly recommend you go. Here's an official taster of what's on offer...

It's a bit late for Easter eggs, but when you get bored of that, maybe try clicking on the logo in the top left for three seconds..? U23D


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Jean-Michel Jarre grants fans permission to make derivative works

27 March 2008

Following the removal of several videos from youtube that (I believe) showed fans playing Jean-Michel Jarre's music on a keyboard, he's gone on record to say that the videos were not spiked at his request. He says fans are now free to adapt, edit and perform his work providing they give him credit. The terms of this are a bit vague - he just asks everyone to play fair, which presumably means you need to add value with your reproduction, and need to give him credit.

This is a landmark announcement: Jarre has recognised not only the power of the web to distribute content, but also the way it enables artists to engage creatively with other musicians who happen to be fans. Bands often invite fans to post widgets that stream music to their blogs under the band's control, but rarely do they cede this much creative control. It'll be interesting to see what works this announcement inspires. He's offering a prize for the three best works to emerge before the current tour ends, too.

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The Cure at Wembley

24 March 2008

On Thursday, I went to see The Cure at Wembley. The sound suffered from apparently having no full time keyboard player (although, with nearly all the lights behind the band, pointing out at the crowd, they could have had a shire horse on stage and I wouldn't have seen it from where I was). On a couple of songs there were samples or keyboards, but the setup was basically two guitars, bass and drums. It gave a raw edge to songs like 'Never enough' and 'Love cats', with the drums really driving it, but the pace was relentless. On past tours, slower and more subtle songs like 'Apart' and the slow version of 'Close to me' have given the set more shape and variety. Songs like 'Hot hot hot' and 'Why can't I be you' sounded extremely sparse with all the synths and horns stripped away. With the sound being so basic, it was hard to get into many of the new songs (although, to be fair, many of them were probably just new to me).

Can't fault the choice of songs, though: Opening with 'Plainsong', playing a rocked-up version of 'Push', 'Prayers for rain' including a long howl of 'Raaaaiiiiin', and pretty much all the hits present and correct. 'Lullaby' and 'Friday I'm in love' got a raucous reception, and it was slightly surreal to see The Cure being treated by many of those around me as a party band.

One of the jokes in 'University of Death' is about how people never buy music just for music - it's always an accompaniment to something else, and at the last few gigs I've been to, there have been lots of people who were 'only here for the beer'. If you're chatting through 'Prayers for rain', you're in the wrong gig. Perhaps instead of limiting demand by pushing ticket prices ever higher, we should make concert-goers sit exams about the bands they want to see? After all, we consider it reasonable to make people sit exams for schools, universities and jobs, where there's far more at stake. Who could possibly object to five multiple choice questions on Disintegration before being allowed to buy a Cure ticket?

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University of Death: Author interview at Mass Customisation blog

20 March 2008

Book cover: University of DeathIn my novel, a major record label conspires to sell computer-generated music, tailored for each customer's taste, by using spyware on fans' computers. Over the course of the writing project, it seemed the story was slowly coming true: first Sony BMG was caught putting software on music CDs which was widely considered to be spyware, and then I found Trust Media's ecommerce system that enables fans to create and buy unique mixes of songs.

Mass customisation, or industrialised personalisation, is something I've been following with interest for many years. When I first wrote about it in 2000 for Personal Computer World magazine, a lot of the applications were quite gimmicky. You could have a few letters of your choice put onto training shoes, for example. In some cases, you got the impression that the web was used as an interface for specifying the product, with mostly manual work going on behind it later.

Now, mass customisation technology is widely used and highly automated - if you buy a Dell computer, or a t-shirt from cafepress, or upload photos for printing and delivery by post, you're using a kind of mass customisation. Indeed, my novel is printed using a mass customisation technology, where each copy is printed on demand, even if they're not personalised for each customer.

Frank Piller, professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, has been documenting and defining the area of mass customisation and co-creation for over ten years. I'm delighted that he's conducted an interview with me about the customisation aspects of my novel for his blog. The interview reveals more about what happens in the story than previous interviews have, and also looks at how mass customisation has been applied in the music industry already.

While you're there, check out the other stories on Frank's site: he reports regularly on new applications for mass customisation, and publishes a free email newsletter.

University of Death:
Download the first two chapters | Author interview | Buy now

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Making (non)sense of the budget

12 March 2008

I know that when I want sound financial advice, I turn to the likes of reality TV star Jade Goody, daytime TV host Trisha Goddard and record-breaking hurdler Colin Jackson. Congratulations to the BBC for inviting them to comment on today's budget.

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Sponsor my friend to run 10km

11 March 2008

My friend John is running 10km on April 6th, which is an awfully long way given that he doesn't particularly enjoy running. It's going to hurt. But it'll hurt him a bit less if you send a few quid to Oxfam and/or Amnesty International through his sponsorship form. Remember, John's running so you don't have to. A few quid from you (yes, you! even, or perhaps especially if you don't know him) will make his day, quite apart from possibly saving somebody's life somewhere in the world. See John's blog post about the run here, and a piece from Leamington's local paper about the 10km event here. It's worth reading that newspaper story just to confirm that the race really is sponsored by a solicitors' firm called Wright Hassall. Crazy name, crazy guys.

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Last chance for discount shipping rate on University of Death

05 March 2008

Just a quickie to say that Lulu will be ending its EU Saver Promotion on shipping on Monday 10 March. At the moment, it costs £2.75 to have your copy of 'University of Death' packaged and delivered to your door, anywhere in the EU. From next week, it'll cost £3.50 to have a single book posted to the EU. Lulu will ship your book in a protective cardboard wrapper and this new rate is still good value.

New shipping discounts apply for buying multiple copies. These new postage rates will apply to all books published on Lulu, and you can benefit from the new shipping discounts by buying different books together. It will cost £4.50 for two books, and £5.25 for three books. After that, you'll probably want the Express shipping at £6.30 which is valid for at least ten books.

Funny how we say 'shipping' when it goes by car, and 'cargo' when it goes by ship, eh?

University of Death:
Download the first two chapters | Author interview | Buy now


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Nine Inch Nails in the coffin of the music industry

04 March 2008

N.I.N: Nine Inch NailsNine Inch Nails (NIN) has taken Radiohead's digital distribution model and improved upon it.

NIN leader Trent Reznor has created a 36-track instrumental album called 'Ghosts I-IV'. The official website is providing the first nine tracks as a free download, and taking orders for the full album at a range of price points. If you're a hardcore fan, you can spend $300 on a signed edition that includes artwork prints, vinyl LPs and even the WAV files for each track so you can make your own remixes. If you just think the first nine tracks sound kinda interesting, the full album's yours to download for $5.

Some of the same problems remain: as with the Radiohead album launch, the website's fallen over. If bands want to take on digital distribution, they need to have web hosting that can cope with massive spikes in demand. Having a closer relationship with fans is great, but let's not forget that ultimately they're customers and they'll get angry if they can't download the stuff they've bought.

Some things are better this time around than with Radiohead: Firstly, there's much more clarity about what you're getting. One of my gripes with Radiohead was that they didn't tell people what file formats or DRM they might have to cope with in advance (MP3, and none, as it turned out). NIN offers several different download formats (MP3, FLAC and Apple Lossless), and is clear that there are no technical restrictions on copying or use.

Also, the band has put some real effort into making the download a desirable option. When you opened your zipped Radiohead album, all you got was a bunch of MP3s. When you open your NIN zip file, it's a bit more like the experience you have when you buy a CD. There's artwork there. There's stuff to read. Every song has its own photographic artwork, and there's a bunch of graphics you can use for wallpaper, or avatars or plugging the new album (see above). As someone brought up on records, tapes and CDs, the artwork and sleevenotes are an important part of the music experience for me. NIN understands that.

What about the music itself? Some of it (including the superb siren song at the start) works much better than other bits. Instrumental stuff is hard to pull off, and at first I thought that some of tracks didn't have a strong enough melody to be songs and didn't sustain or develop the ideas long enough to be considered ambient pieces, either. But it's growing on me, and third time through, I'm really enjoying it. I'm curious enough to hear the other 27 tracks that I'd consider buying them now. So it's been a successful promotion for me, then, considering yesterday I hadn't ever heard a NIN album and the only song I knew was Johnny Cash's heartbreaking cover of 'Hurt'.

The distribution model matches the creative work perfectly here: NIN can give away an album's worth of material, and still have something to sell. And selling the source tracks for remixing is a great idea: it's valuable content, that the band has already created, and which will encourage fans to have a more interactive relationship with the work. It will lead to fan remixes, which will in turn promote the original album.

The band sold out of its super-special $300 edition in under two days. That's $750,000 worth of business the band has taken without any of it going through the conventional music industry. Clearly, there are significant costs involved in creating these lavish box sets and that's not all profit. But as with Prince and Radiohead, NIN has shown that it doesn't need the music industry to sell music. Or, at least, it doesn't need the industry any more.

UPDATE: You have to go through the ordering process to discover that the $10 CDs cost $13.50 in postage to the UK, which is a lot more than I'd ever pay for P&P at Amazon. The CDs are cheap enough that the double album still only costs about £12 including postage to the UK, but that's more than I'd usually gamble on an album I'm just curious about. The postage makes the CD a significantly less attractive option than downloading the lot for £2.50, so perhaps I'll do that instead.


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Why I called my book 'University of Death'

02 March 2008

Book cover: University of DeathOne of the most challenging things about writing my novel was coming up with a title for it. While I was writing it, I didn't even have a meaningful working title. I just filed everything under 'grumpy underpants' or more often tagged it 'grumpy'. 'Grumpy underpants' was an idea I had for an appalling band name, but even as I was writing the story in a folder with that name, I knew the name was too awful to include, even in passing.

The best idea I had for a title for the book was to call it 'Limited Edition'. That would sum up the central concept of creating music on demand, and would also be a friendly nod to the way CDs have been marketed in the past. It would also mirror how each book is printed on demand. Research suggests figurative titles sell better too. In short, it's the perfect title.

But from a business point of view, it's rubbish. If you type 'Limited Edition' into Google, you get all sorts of stuff. I'd be up against the likes of Virgin and a magazine of that title. And since this book is only available online, it was important that people could find it easily.

'University of Death' is the band at the centre of the my story. The book doesn't relate where the band got its name from (perhaps Dove will enlighten us on his Myspace blog soon?), but I always thought of it as a pun on 'University of Life' and liked it because of the theatrical stage show it inspired.

Some people appreciate the title but others have been put off by it. I tried hard but I really couldn't think of anything else that could label the book and would enable people to find it relatively easily. If you've got any suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments. Not that it can be changed now. Changing the book title in the middle of its distribution would be like renaming a child - not really the done thing. Even if you've called him Griffon.

University of Death:
Download the first two chapters | Author interview | Buy now


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