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Do Book Ads Work?

Book publishing is rife with conventional wisdoms that are vigorously doubted but seldom overturned. That’s partly because book data is treated like some kind of family secret. This is changing a little bit with the recent advent of Bookscan, a subscriber service that provides industry-wide sales figures; in the past, publishers and bookstores and distributors did not feel compelled to share their numbers.

Here’s one slice of conventional wisdom in which we suddenly have a vested interest: the fervent belief that a big ad in The New York Times (or elsewhere) leading up to Christmas or Fathers Day will sell a ton of books.

So, do book ads work? Here are the people who believe they do: authors’ agents (who want the publisher to spend money as a sign of support); authors themselves (who hear nice things about the ad from their friends and families, and assume therefore that strangers are running off to buy the book); some book editors (who generally want their writers to be happy); and the newspaper people who sell the ads (who … well … want to sell ads).

Here are the people who believe that book ads don’t work: many bookstore employees (who might see a trickle of response); the publishing company’s sales force (which actually sees daily sales figures); and some book editors (who, while they may want their writers to be happy, don’t think that spending tens of thousands of dollars on a one-day ad is the wisest way to do so).

In today’s New York Times, there is a full-page color ad for Freakonomics. We think it is beautiful. My kids saw it this morning over breakfast (they are 4.5 and 3 yrs. old) and rejoiced in a manner usually reserved for a new dinosaur or makeup kit. I’m guessing that Steve Levitt’s kids will also like it. But, aside from those six prepubescents, will anyone else care?

At HarperCollins, our publishing company, there is a wizard of sales named Frank Albanese. Frank is pretty sure that ads don’t really sell books. He was looking forward to measuring the effect of this particular ad on sales. But things got complicated when we got booked on The Today Show for tomorrow (Thurs.) morning. (See “Naked Self-Promotion” box, above left.) Now if there is a sales spike in coming days, Frank will not be able to tease out the effect of the ad vs. the effect of The Today Show (vs. the effect of Fathers Day, of course, which is a big book-buying holiday for non-fiction).

So, to be deeply scientific about it, I hereby ask you readers: do book ads work? That is, have you ever bought a book based on an ad? If not, why not? If so, how aware were you of that book already? Did the ad serve as a reminder of a book that you might have wanted, or as raw information? Etc etc etc. Comments welcome.