Stop Selling Books And Start Selling Benefits

selling books

When selling books, it’s important to remember that readers do not buy the tangible elements of a book, they buy the intangible benefits they receive from reading. They buy what your book will do for them.

Most products, including books, are comprised of a combination of tangible and intangible elements. Readers do not buy the tangible elements of a book — the paper and ink that make it up — they buy the intangible benefits they receive from reading. With fiction, it might be a vicarious feeling of fantasy, romance, adventure, or mystery. With nonfiction, they are buying information, motivation, and help.

As an independent author, you will become more successful at marketing when you stop selling your books and begin selling what your books do for the people who read them. That is the difference between marketing a feature, an advantage, and a benefit.

A feature is an attribute of your book. It could be its size, binding, title, or number of pages. An advantage describes the purpose or function of a feature, and a benefit is the value the reader receives in exchange for purchasing your book. People buy value, not generic books.

One way of distinguishing among these three definitions is to use the “So what?” test. When thinking of a reason why someone would purchase your book, put yourself in the place of the prospective buyer and ask yourself, “So what?” Keep doing that until your imaginary customer says, “Oh. Now I understand.” Then communicate that concept in your promotional literature.

Feature: A four-color cookbook with a spiral binding. So what?
Advantage: It lays flat while you are preparing the meal, making it easy to read. So what?
Benefit: It contains recipes that are healthy, easy to prepare, and guaranteed to please your guests. You’ll have more time to socialize and enjoy yourself at your parties. Oh. Now I understand.

Impact on marketing strategy

Just as individuals have a variety of reasons for purchasing your books, businesses also have diverse reasons for buying them. For instance, think about the companies in your channels of distribution.

People at each level of the distribution network have a unique reason for buying your books, and marketing an irrelevant benefit will not motivate them. The key to persuading each to carry your books is to show them why it is in their best interest to work with you.

For example, when selling to the buyer at a retail operation, you would demonstrate that your superior promotional plan will bring more people into their stores, increasing their inventory turns and profitability. However, an appeal to profitability would not entice a librarian to purchase your book, nor would it persuade a college instructor to buy it as a textbook. The key is to match the appropriate benefit to each prospective customer’s reason for wanting to own it.

To demonstrate this concept, assume you are selling a job-search book containing tips on writing resumes and cover letters and information on how to interview effectively. Choose the benefit in the right column that corresponds to the customer in the left column.

1. Retail-store buyerA. Help Patrons
2. DistributorB. Increase inventory turns
3. College studentC. Help students learn
4. LibrarianD. Make sales people more productive
5. School teacherE. Help me find a job

Answers: 1B, 2D, 3E, 4A, 5C

You can organize this information by condensing it into a guide that will remind you of your book’s benefits. To create this useful plan, align a page horizontally and divide it into four columns. In the left-hand column, list the different market segments that are potential targets for your title. In the next column, define the decision maker for this segment. Use column three to describe the benefits your title provides this group, the potential you need to communicate. Column four lists the general marketing strategies you will implement to describe the respective benefits to each decision maker. The example below demonstrates this technique as it applies to the book, It’s Showtime. This describes to authors tips for performing more successfully on TV and radio interviews.

NicheTargetBenefitsMarketing Strategy
PublishersDirector of PublicityAn author who is media-trained will perform more effectively on the air, selling more books, making the publishing firm more profitableCommunicate via direct mail and meet with them at BookExpo
Writers Groups & AssociationsPresidentUse It’s Showtime as a fundraiser, a way to entice new members, or as a gift for those who renew membership; this will increase membership and renewals, making the group more profitableUse direct mail followed by personal telephone calls, with personal visits to those nearby
AuthorsAuthorYou will relax on the air, be a better guest, and sell more booksReach members of APSS and other publishing groups

People do not buy features, they buy benefits. They buy what your book will do for them. Each decision maker has a unique reason for buying. Know what that is and communicate that benefit to them. Keep this in mind when you are creating your book or convincing people to buy it and you will sell more books, have fewer returns, and become more profitable.

Oh. Now I understand.

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  1. “With nonfiction, they are buying information, motivation, and help.”

    Yes, I know, “self help” and “personal development” are the mother lode of non-fiction. And lots of other genres, such as “finance,” “relationships,” and “career” can arguably be grouped with PD in the fact that they can be described by “how to make yourself a better ____.”

    A lot of people talk like SH/PD and NF are one and the same, but there’s a lot more NF than SH/PD. I know; I write there.

    I’ll grant that all NF provide information, but not all NF have the objective of providing any more than that. How much “motivation” do craft instruction books provide? What kind of “help” do you get from narrative history, or true crime, or coffee-table photo books?

    It’s very frustrating when I sign up for “nonfiction” webinars and they start talking about creating sub-products from your book like checklists and “one-page products,” e-courses, and speaking at live seminars when you’re writing about things that happened 50 and 100 years ago!

  2. A very interesting article. However, it seems to apply to non-fiction books only. Another limitation is a more serious one, as some people already remarked: this sound advice works only if you invest loads of money in becoming visible. I did exactly what you suggested with my own book (Greek mythology for children): one sentence of book description plus an explanation of the benefits for the young reader – 134 words altogether (I’m a child psychology professor so, trust me, I know how to do that). In almost three years, not more than thirty-something e-copies were sold on Amazon and several other bookstores. On the other hand, with a good traditional publisher (in a small market covering its original language) the same book was sold in 32.000 copies, with practically no marketing whatsoever.

  3. Interesting.
    I have thought of some of these things and make a lot of sense.
    However, as many indie authors out there, selling your work is a struggle even if you do everything by the book.
    After 2 years of self-publishing and discussing with publishing houses, I come to understand that investing loads of money in the publishing process, brings you money in return. The same principle applied in many businesses.
    There are those who make it after trying and those who keep trying versus those who are slightly luckier and don’t have to try that hard.

    I wish you all best of luck.
    Thanks for the post.

  4. Blow my mind. This seems to contradict every “how to write a blurb” webinar I’ve listened to. Please add some fiction examples. Are you talking about descriptions? advertising copy? How can I use these ideas (they’re different! fresh! maybe will make me stand out!) in my Amazon book descriptions?

  5. Stop Selling Books and start Selling Benefits is one of THE best articles I have read…it was so informative…and truly did give me information that would benefit me as an up and coming author…It makes so much sense…Thank you so much…

  6. Great wisdom you have trying to get us introverts off our rears and enter the game of selling our works by selling ourselves to potential buyers. But from my view it is a money game and we that do not have it will be left out. So into Kindle we go and our works gets lost within the billions. I sometimes wonder when I see a writer sit at a TV show selling his works how much it cost him to do so. It is not that I’m crying but what you wrote does make sense in preparing to sell and giving a person what they seek in good reading Novel. Visit writer groups and shows and have fun. But it does seem that on Novels it is not the Book title that is in large print but the writers name.

  7. Brian – Thanks for a quick, helpful orientation to the subject. My publishing date is pretty far out there, but I know that this missive will help a lot along the way, from the writing to the advertising and sales.

  8. I’d have said people buy information. But—my real question is an alternative to publishers who control the market and dictate whether your years of work gets on a page. And, no, self-publishing is not the answer.

    • I’ve said it before: “traditional publishing” and “self publishing” aren’t two sides of a coin, they’re two points on a spectrum. There are big houses that can be very selective about who they publish, niche publishers that offer more opportunity to underrepresented genres, little houses that have better query-to-acceptance ratios simply because fewer people know about them, vanity presses, “assisted” self publishing companies (most PoD publishers), bare-bones PoD publishers (where the author is responsible for everything but the actual printing), printers that do books, and self-printed authors. Lumping all non-traditional publishing as “self publishing” is like saying “apples” are “oranges.”


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