Last Updated: December 7, 2020

It’s night in New York City. Lightning flashes in the background as a teenage girl stands on the roof of a skyscraper, and a dramatic voiceover explains that the girl has the power to save the world—just as she sprouts an enormous pair of black wings and falls toward the ground.

No, it’s not a trailer for the latest paranormal thriller movie—it’s a commercial for the third novel in author James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series. These types of commercials, aired on television and sometimes in movie theaters before the previews, deliver the message that books are just as exciting as your favorite movies or TV shows.

Successful novel marketing requires an understanding of consumer psychology, especially when there are so many immediate forms of entertainment competing for the attention of the consumer. It’s essential for marketers to understand why people read fiction, and what makes a novel compelling to their target demographics.

The Psychology of Marketing Novels

Novel(s) and campaignExplanation of AdvertisementPsychological Response Elicited
Penguin Classics – typewritersIn an effort to draw attention to their newly launched Classics line of novels, a marketing team for Penguin in Brazil placed typewriters in among the computer and laptop displays of the electronics sections of several bookstores. They were loaded with paper bearing a typewritten message to “Meet the Classics,” along with a website address.Nostalgia: This campaign reminded people that there were still books to be read. For many, the messages invoked memories of favorite books—and the marketing efforts also introduced new generations of readers to the classics.
Harlequin – niche marketingHarlequin is a publishing company specializing in romantic fiction—in fact, that’s all they do, and they’re very good at it. Through their various single-title and category lines and imprints, sales of According to the 2011 ROMStat Report, Harlequin romances make up more than 80 percent of the $1.36 billion a year the romance fiction market generated in 2011.Brand recognition: Readers who pick up a Harlequin novel know exactly what to expect—a good love story. Harlequin’s marketing efforts have concentrated on female readers looking for romance from the very beginning. Since romance readers are often voracious, Harlequin makes sure to oblige their appetites by publishing more than 120 titles every month.
Eragon – costume tourChristopher Paolini made headlines and achieved best-selling success, complete with movie deals, for his Inheritance trilogy of fantasy novels. However, his explosive career was kick-started by a grassroots marketing campaign, described in the Notable Biographies writeup for the author. After writing the first book, Eragon, his parents published it through the small publishing company they operated, and 16-year-old Paolini set out on a tour of 135 schools and libraries. For these appearances, he dressed in medieval garb that matched the clothing in his novel.Familiarity: Paolini was a teenager himself, marketing a novel he’d written for teens. The students he visited could readily identify with him—they not only admired his accomplishments, but could imagine themselves doing the same thing.

How novel marketers grab consumer attention

Marketing novels is a challenging field. With most consumers having less free time than ever for entertainment, fiction has to compete with movies, television, and the Internet. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of novels published every year—so these campaigns have to make the books stand out from similar novels, while going head-to-head with other forms of entertainment.

Effective Media for Marketing Novels

What makes consumers aware of novels? Here’s how today’s readers are finding their next book purchase:

  • 67% are reading reviews online
  • 54.8% rely on Internet ads to find new books
  • 24.8% use retailer emails (such as Amazon) for recommendations
  • 15.7% rely on ads or reviews in newspapers and magazines
  • 21% of fiction purchases result from online awareness through online book reviews (6.2%), online ads (4.8%), authors’ websites (4.6%), retailer emails (3.2%), publishers’ websites (2.9%), or online forums, blogs, and search engines (1.1%)

Source: Bowker, official U.S. ISBN agency and catalog reference of Books in Print.

Traditional marketing for novels

With big publishers, much of the marketing for a novel begins before the book is available for sale. Book covers are an essential marketing tool—in fact, from a survey of 300 booksellers by the American Booksellers Association (ABA), 75 percent reported that the cover was the most important aspect in consumers’ decisions to buy books.

Another traditional pre-publication marketing strategy is trade reviews, such as those that appear in the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and USA Today. Novels are submitted to these publications for review at least five months in advance of publication. These review sources play into consumer psychology because they are trusted, expert sources. Prestigious reviewers are seen as opinion leaders, defined by journalist and social psychology expert Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, as major influencers of consumer buying behavior. As a result, novels that are favorably reviewed through the trades typically enjoy increased sales.

The psychology of marketing novels

Marketers may apply several different psychological strategies for advertising novels, depending on the target market. When they are marketing directly to readers, these professionals often rely on the psychology of popularity. Many consumers make purchases based on what the majority of others are buying. This is why the ability to place the words “New York Times Bestseller” on the cover of a novel can guarantee better sales. The phrase tells consumers that a significant number of people have already bought the book.

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Another aspect of popular psychology in novel marketing is the relative celebrity of the author. Readers buy books from well-known authors because they have strong brand identities attached to their work. For example, once the first novel in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling became a tremendous bestseller, sales for subsequent books in the series skyrocketed.

However, this strategy can also work against marketers in the field of publishing. Rowling’s first release after Harry Potter was an adult novel, and many consumers purchased the book because they enjoyed her previous work—only to be disappointed by the violence and adult themes of The Casual Vacancy, as evidenced by a flood of poor consumer reviews on websites like Amazon.

Offering free samples is a common marketing technique for advertisers involved in publishing. The idea is that by offering to let consumers read portions of the novel for free, usually through an excerpt that is posted online or published in a print magazine, they will want to buy the novel to read the rest. This strategy is rooted in a technique called operant conditioning, explained by USC Marshall Professor of clinical marketing Lars Perner, Ph.D., to include positive reinforcement and future promise. Free samples make the promise that if readers enjoy the sample portion, they will also enjoy the rest of the book.

The connection between marketing and psychology

Any effective marketer knows that sales are achieved one person at a time. Consumer psychology is inextricably linked to advertising, because a sales transaction is not so much about money, as it is about the person making the purchase. Marketers must have a concise and thorough understanding of the emotions that drive consumers to speak with their wallets. To learn more about how marketing and psychology work together, click here.

Related careers in the field

Book Publicist

As the title implies, the job of a book publicist is to publicize books. Book publicists may be employed by a book publisher, or may work on a freelance basis to build their own client lists. In either case, these professionals are responsible for raising awareness and interest in the books they work with by applying knowledge of consumer psychology to their target demographics. This typically includes both readers and booksellers through various media channels. Learn more about book publicists.

Promotion Consultant

These professionals may work as freelancers, or can be employed by advertising agencies. Promotion consultants are responsible for creating and managing comprehensive, cross-channel marketing campaigns, and usually work directly with a client to implement these campaigns. They use various strategies to appeal to consumers’ emotions, most commonly the psychology of popularity. Learn more about promotion consultants.

The demographics of book readers

Consumers spend an average of $126 annually on books. However, this average represents a wide range of readers—some who buy one book or less per year, and others who buy dozens or more. Novel marketers focus their efforts on those who are likely to buy more than 10 books a year, which includes:

  • 37% of people ages 18 to 31
  • 30% of people ages 32 to 43
  • 24% of people ages 44 to 62
  • 31% of people ages 63 and up
  • 22% of men
  • 32% of women

Source: Harris Interactive Poll #37, April 2008 and U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Abstract, 2008, Table 1205

Ebooks and Novel Marketing

Most published novels are now released in electronic book, or ebook, format along with their print counterparts. Ebooks represent a growing portion of novel sales:

  • From 2010 to 2011, ebook sales jumped from 6 percent ($869 million) of total book sales, to 15 percent ($2.074 billion)
  • Novels dominate ebook sales—more than 90% of ebooks purchased are fiction
  • 70% of ebook buyers are women
  • “Power buyers”—those who purchase at least four ebooks per month—represent 35% of the total ebook buyer market, but 60% of the sales

Source: Bowker, official U.S. ISBN agency and catalog reference of Books in Print.