The Winning Formula

November 2, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Hi Margo,

Well, finally. After years of touting TV and entertainment types for their dedication to reading, the Association of American Publishers has decided to do the right thing and honor someone other than a celebrity for advocacy of reading and books. Enough already with giving all the credit for inspiring readers to Oprah, Charles Gibson, and Dolly Parton, whose interest in literacy put her front-and-center on the publishing industry’s stage. Eye candy, be gone! To be announced this week: The “AAP Honors” award, given annually to an individual or institution for promoting books and reading, will be bestowed on a newspaper.
And the winner is — drumbeat roll — USA Today

This choice may come as a surprise to the average book geek poking around in the stacks. The ubiquitous USA Today has never appeared to be a literary beacon in our crass commercial world, maybe because it has always seemed to represent it. As the antithesis of elitist journalism, the newspaper has an industry reputation for leading the way toward an emphasis on visuals over text. In its feature pages, it has showcased the cult of celebrity and the jingle of the box office. For old-time journalists, its success with this formula only proved that the world was coming to an end. 

Of course, the publishers’ association doesn’t honor literary journals. Its eye is fixed on outfits that move books, not the ones that simply adore them. But let’s not diminish the significance here: By bestowing the award on USA Today, it not only shows how books can be covered with mass appeal in mind, but also that print media are still in the game when it comes to making books have wide appeal. 

Over the past few years, while book editors at most newspapers have paddled twice as fast to keep their heads above water, USA Today’s book coverage has been on an expansion kick. Under editor Carol Memmott and with, among others, assistance from our former National Book Critics Circle colleague, critic Bob Minzesheimer, the weekday focus on books has jumped from one to two days a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays). 

Memmott’s strategy has been to keep reviews short in favor of trend stories and publishing stories. Recent examples were a piece on door-stopper novels (at a time when everyone was saying that nobody had time for fat fiction anymore) and the evolution of the damsel in distress to kick-butt tough girl. Striving to be newsy, the paper also broke the story about Wal-Mart banning the Jon Stewart book. So what if Jon Stewart wouldn’t talk to them? They got this scoop, instead.

Other book editors may be doing trends, and some do informative, timely weekly columns (I’m thinking of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Karen Sandstrom and The (Raleigh) News & Observer’s Peder Zane, but I’m sure there are many more). But what these other editors will have a harder time duplicating is the basic equation that has boosted book coverage at USA Today

In a word, it’s advertising — publishers’ money plunked on the page in support of book editorial.  Publishers, notoriously skinny advertisers when it comes to print or any other medium, have bestowed their monetary blessing on USA Today, and since 2000, their ad lineage has climbed 17 percent — in spite of generally tough times in the book business. 

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised: Smart coverage leads to advertising, and vice versa — and then comes the praise.  

Hey Ellen,

Kudos to USA Today, which I happily read when I’m traveling.

It is time that print journalism gets a pat on the back for good book coverage. But other newspapers can’t really take a page from what many journalists — unfairly, I think — still insist on calling McPaper. Read on the run, USA Today not only has the country’s highest circulation rates among daily newspapers, but also reaches an audience which is spread across a vast geographical area. A national reach didn’t used to be the criterion for a successful newspaper. Regional giants were the norm. But now the three newspapers with the highest circulations in the country are USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, all publications that are distributed nationally.  

And guess who gets most of the publishing industry’s advertising dollars? Yes, regional newspapers could try to follow USA Today’s lead in approaching books more like a beat and do more reporting (even reviews — the editorializing side of covering books — would be strengthened by more reported information). But that takes resources that most book sections aren’t given because, of course, they don’t attract those advertising bucks.

If the formula really is “more publishing ads brings more book coverage and more book coverage brings more book sales,” why don’t publishers tap into more markets? I can understand that any business wants to reach as many customers as possible with its limited publicity budget, but wouldn’t carefully targeted markets also yield results? Southern books in the South? Western books in the West? There are a lot of readers out here — and not all of them are skimming USA Today.

Dear Margo,

As you know, the economics of the book business, unlike that for toothpaste, leave relatively few dollars for marketing and promotion. And even though it sometimes makes sense to dip into regional markets, what I’m hearing is that publishers, like their cohorts at Procter & Gamble, increasingly want national reach. This may not bode well for metro papers, when the Big Three — USA Today, the NYT and the WSJ — can now blanket the country (and in particular its most affluent and mobile members) with a single buy.  

This doesn’t come cheap, of course. An ad in USA Today can cost $25,000, although regular customers receive a contract rate that gives them a better deal. But the rationale for spending what publishers regard as big money is that the ad reaches not only a book’s potential readers, but also the middlemen and retailers who will put the featured book in the pipeline. 

The double-whammy effect is why, for example, Simon & Schuster chooses the paper for its Pocket Books. According to Mark Speer, the company’s director of advertising and promotion, “USA Today speaks to our sellers in the Heartland, especially the big accounts, like Wal-Mart and Costco.”

Of course, this is not the only way to “speak to the Heartland” — newspapers from St. Pete to Toledo to Portland (from a New York perspective, we’re all in the Heartland) do the same. But what I keep hearing from sales and promotion people is that, given their limited budgets, there’s no room for trickle-down economics. They need to see direct correlations between advertising and sales. There’s no question that Oprah and NPR deliver the goods (those broadcast people, again). The New York Times under Sam Tanenhaus is trying to re-establish its once-glorious track record as an advertising vehicle. USA Today, meanwhile, is perceived as delivering the goods.
Journalists often resent the ad department and, rightly, keep the firewall high. Fortunately, this time, the delicate dance between advertising and news has helped turn book coverage into a winner.