Last month a fellow bibliophile, someone with whom I work at a bookstore in Portland, Ore., described one of Kindle's newest TV commercials. In it, a woman in red struts past her friend who asks where she's going. "I want to get a book that came out today," she says. When he tells her that he does too, she suggests he join her at the bookstore.
"I'm good," he says, then pushes a button on his Kindle. "Got it."
"It made me want to run out and buy one," my co-worker said, "and then want to cry." I know exactly what she meant: Even to a devout bibliophile, the ad is so effective that it arouses conflicting urges to own a Kindle and resist it on principle.
Another issue the commercial raises is one so obvious that I am shocked I haven't heard it before: Why hasn't America's publishing industry launched an ad campaign as seductive and aggressive as the Kindle's? Not to market front-list titles or authors, but to market the paper book form itself? In other words, sell consumers on the exclusive pleasures and qualities traditional books offer that e-books cannot. That's exactly what Kindle's TV commercials have been doing, saying here's what we can do that regular books can't.
Kindle ads are ingeniously engineered. Through a string of images (Kindle in your back pocket; Kindle withstanding licks from a dog), Kindle advertises itself as thinner, lighter and more durable than a book. And with a number of memorable taglines like "Books in 60 seconds," Kindle boasts its unique advantages: 900,000 titles available on Amazon; rapid downloads; able to hold an entire library in the space occupied by a single paperback.
How can paper books compete with that? If traditional book publishers want to survive, then their marketing departments better think of a way. And fast.
TV commercials have a successful track record of changing public opinion. To combat pork's reputation as unhealthy, blue-collar food, the National Pork Producers Council launched their memorable "Pork. The Other White Meat" campaign in 1987 and fashioned the meat's image into something lean, versatile and fit for fine dining. Pork sales rose 20 percent by 1991.
Publishers need to take the same tack.
For too long, American trade publishing has taken the path of least resistance. Sure, Harper Perennial, Riverhead and Grove/Atlantic advertise in widely distributed literary magazines. You see indie and university presses in these journals too. But such ads preach to the converted. Because they're up against such tech-savvy, deep-pockets competitors as Apple and Amazon, publishers should run funny, visually stimulating ads in less insular venues. Publishers' marketing budgets have grown tight; staffs cut and commercials aren't cheap. But e-books account for as much as 5 percent of total American book sales, and counting, so if publishers don't find a way to get consumer attention, then their fate is that of a lazy dog sunbathing in the street.
Publishers should tantalize consumers by evoking books' sensory pleasures: the smell; the feel in your hands; that crisp, appealing crinkle of a turned page and smooth snap of a dust jacket. Publishers should elicit the joys of "curling up with a book," the satisfaction of seeing your library on a shelf in your bedroom — the years of your life marked by rows of colorful spines, the pages covered with marginalia. To do this, publishers could borrow vinyl enthusiasts' lines like, "Records have a certain smell. You can't smell an MP3," and, "I associate certain records' smells with a certain summer, a particular girlfriend." Audiophiles also discuss fidelity, how records sound undeniably better than MP3s. Surely there's a book analog waiting to be developed.
Another element that record people talk about is album art and inserts. Sorry, but no matter how many pixels it contains, an iTunes "digital booklet" just isn't as appealing as a large booklet printed on shiny, firm card stock with a velum page inside. Maybe there's a TV tagline in there somewhere: "A digital book could never do this …"
Taglines are powerful. Consider all the clever catchphrases that have embedded themselves into popular culture: iPhone's recent "There's an app for everything" slogan; GEICO's " … so easy, a cave man can do it"; Budweiser's "Whassup?"
I'm not suggesting that commercials are going to save print media. I'm saying that New York publishing's apathetic approach to advertising is not only an indignity to its rich history, it's financial suicide. Maybe fighting a turning techno-cultural tide isn't so easy a cave man could do it, but if there was a sudden 40 percent drop in taco sales, would taqueria owners simply throw up their hands and grumble, "Guess we'll have to sell the restaurant"? No, determined owners would enact a campaign that combined increased advertising, better signage, maybe limited-time offers and coupons. This isn't to suggest that publishers have to dress books up in a taco costume and wave to passersby on the street, only that they have to make a stronger effort. This isn't Fitzgerald's or Steinbeck's eras. People aren't lining up at bookstores to buy newly released novels.
I have no formal business training. I'm just a guy who reads a lot, works at a bookstore, and knows the power of advertising. I studied evolutionary biology in college, though, so I see this in Darwinian terms. Meekness and apathy aren't traits evolutionarily selected for in survivors. Physical prowess, problem-solving, risk-taking — these are survivors' traits. Occasionally, aggression works too. Meaning, publishers could remind customers that, no matter how much pulpwood paper books require, a book's ecological footprint is far lighter than an e-reader's, which is the literary equivalent of a cellphone. Kindles and iPads will experience the same pattern of upgrades and obsolescence as iPods, computers, cars and iPhones, so expect to see new models continuously replacing last year's model until they themselves end up in the landfill. Have you seen photos of China's smoldering cellphone landfills? Or read about the toxins seeping from them into the soil and water table? Unlike paper pages, how many thousands of years does it take e-readers to decompose, if they ever do at all? Sure, Kindles are convenient, but in environmental terms, they're the cellulose acetate cigarette filter of the reading world.
See? Bookish types can play dirty too.
Aaron Gilbreath is a clerk at Powell's Books in Portland, Ore.