Intentional Controversy: Information Age Marketing Tactics

“The school system is teaching people to be poor. The school system will never teach you about money.”

“The government tells us what we can teach and what we can’t teach.”

These quotes come from Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad Poor Dad, in an interview he did with London Real.

Decisive claims, like those above, feed controversy, prompting large groups of people to respond. Readers, teachers, government officials, and worried parents of children in public schools will hear these quotes, share clips from the interview, and either defend them or argue with them.

A marketer’s job is to spread awareness of a product or service. But, in the Information Age, that job takes less effort. Instead of creating all the necessary marketing content themselves, a marketer can create a movement that gets readers to attract other potential readers.

The ease of information exchange has created a social ecosystem full of words, images, and videos. People react to books they love, or books that make them mad. They will join a conversation about what they are passionate about, so controversy around a title is good for attracting true fans and for attracting those vehemently opposed to the content. Both will buy the book.

Quotes like those above were successful in promoting Rich Dad Poor Dad when it was published in 1997 because some people disagreed with Kiyosaki and others agreed. Joe Biel, the founder and CEO of Microcosm Publishing, discusses Kiyosaki’s controversy in The People’s Guide to Publishing. According to Biel, “Kiyosaki explained that his publicity strategy for the book was to intentionally make divisive statements and create controversy around his work. He explains that you want 33 percent of people aware of your work to love it, 33 percent to hate it, and 33 percent to be indifferent. He insists that the strategy of making public statements to elicit reactions, creating controversy by sharing polarizing opinions, and being prepared for public media appearances will drive your work to the correct audiences.”

Another example is the publicly challenged children’s picture book And Tango Makes Three, published in 2005 about two male penguins raising an orphaned chick in New York’s Central Park Zoo. According to “Banned Books Week Library Guide: Defining Banned/Challenged Books,” a challenge on a book is “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.”

Since 2005, And Tango Makes Three has appeared on the list of challenged books almost every year. In 2009 it made Amazon’s best seller charts. The top complaints about the book, according to the ALA are, “homosexuality” and “unsuited for age group.”

If I was discussing the possibility of purposefully fueling controversy within a marketing meeting, the major caveat I would bring up is personal belief. The opinions and mission of the publisher and author should inform every statement made about a book. Kiyosaki made statements he believed in to fuel controversy. He was excited for the believers and disbelievers alike because he’d have a chance to change readers’ minds and provide legitimacy to proponents of financial education.

Mean what you say, but if what you say is controversial, you’ll have a better chance of building a big audience.

Experiential vs. Educational Learning

My friends and family were naturally curious when I shared my plans to start a master’s program in book publishing. Many asked why I needed further education to enter the publishing industry. Is a bachelor’s degree in English literature just a fun way to spend four years and thousands of dollars? So I applied for internships before I dove headfirst into another educational commitment. Microcosm Publishing of Portland, Oregon, was gracious enough to offer me an internship, and my personal experiment began. Would this internship be sufficient to teach me everything I wanted to learn about the industry in order to eventually get a full-time job?

As it turns out, the answer is not a clean yes or no.

This post is about the differences and similarities between experiential learning (e.g., my internship) and educational learning (e.g., the publishing program) within the publishing industry and why both have value and complement each other. It will focus on my experiences as an intern at Microcosm Publishing and a first-term student at Ooligan Press and give examples of how what I’ve learned in my classes has directly transferred to my internship and vice versa.

Expertise vs. Infrastructure:
At Microcosm, I’ve gotten my hands dirty. I’ve proofread two manuscripts, worked on Photoshop projects (with which I have very little prior experience but with which they trust me, amazingly), stuffed envelopes with Microcosm’s “witchy” catalog before sending them to hundreds of book retailers across America, moved many, many boxes of books, and gained some incredible insight into what it means to be a small independent publisher in the big pond of publishing.

But without the expertise I’ve been getting from my classes, I would have very little context in which to understand my experiences. How would I know that Microcosm’s decision to do their own distribution and part ways with Ingram was a bold move for an independent publisher? I spent an entire day unpacking all the books that had been sent back to Microcosm, but I didn’t even know what Ingram was prior to starting the program.

Another pertinent example of the way in which my learning has positively impacted my job is my approach to book descriptions—you know, the summaries that entice readers and get them excited to purchase books and read them.

The instructions from my Microcosm supervisor were to read the back cover, skim the first couple chapters, then write a short description and avoid sounding like an Amazon review. I’ve learned from my marketing class that a book purchase is an emotional investment for the average consumer, and this has directly impacted the way I approach my book descriptions for Microcosm’s online catalog. I now understand that I’m not just regurgitating the back cover; I’m helping people find the right book by detailing not only what the book is about but also why someone would want to read it.

Undergoing both the educational and experiential learning processes has given me the benefit of being able to immediately apply concepts and theories to real-life situations. Further, I am able to filter my experience as an intern and contextualize it within the larger arena of the publishing industry.

So in short, the answer to the question of whether my internship would teach me everything I needed to know for a career in publishing is no—not on its own. However, this internship has been hugely beneficial for applying and contextualizing all the wisdom and expertise that is being taught in the publishing program at PSU.

Get Your Book Out There: Five Tips for Self-Distribution in Publishing

Microcosm, an independent publishing house in Portland, announced in July 2018 in Publishers Weekly that it will be taking back control over its distribution for the press. The book and zine publisher, which was previously distributed by PGW/Ingram, decided to keep distribution efforts in-house and off the shelves of the large chains, starting in 2019. After building extra storage space near their headquarters and offering up bulk sales (such as the superpack: thirteen random books for twenty dollars) to reduce inventory quickly, Microcosm readies their thirteen-person team to tap into what they refer to as the “underground” market. Noting that their current biggest account is a taco stand in Tokyo, the publishing house plans to forgo the highly-competitive bookstores and find a home for their zines and books at comic and music stores instead.

In the spirit of self-distribution, as inspired by Microcosm, here are some tips for hand-to-hand sales in publishing.

  1. Carry a few copies of your book with you everywhere.

    You never know when you will run into your next customer. Whether they purchase one copy or one thousand, a sale is a sale is a sale. If you happen to be caught without a copy, write the name of your book and where to purchase it on the back of your business card or a scrap piece of paper (be sure to include your own contact information as well in case they want more copies in the future).

  2. Get a booth at a street fair or farmers market.

    Setting up a booth at your local street fair or farmers market is a great way to get the word of your book/press into the hands of those in your community. Be open and friendly to all potential customers that walk by and be ready with a quick, catchy synopsis that clearly communicates the audience and draws customers in.

  3. Partner with a local company relevant to your book.

    Partnering with local shops can help curb some of your sales costs, such as renting a booth at a street fair. The partnership can be mutually beneficial, sharing old and potential customers in cross-market sales. If your book is a children’s book about a mouse who ate a cookie, partner with a local bakery and sell your book alongside some freshly baked cookies to smiling children and moms at the local farmers market.

  4. Tap into those specialty markets.

    Think of your customer and where they shop other than the bookstore. Do they frequent record stores or gift shops? Are they a history buff and love visiting museums? Do they love plants and flowers and can’t seem to stay away from their local nursery? Reach out to any and all stores that may be interested in selling your book.

  5. Use social media.

    When it comes to reaching customers outside of your local community, the (mostly) free social media platforms can get your book a more national reach. Find your audience through groups, influencers, and pages that your potential customers frequent. Knowing your audience and customer is key to both social media and specialty sales. Be sure to include a direct link to purchase your book with any post on social media. You can do this on your website with the help of PayPal or another third party payer.

(Legitimate) Crowdfunded Publishing: Two Cases

Prior to attending PubWest this past February, if I heard anything about crowdfunding to publish a book, I thought “Gee, that sounds like a really illegitimate cop-out method of getting a book published.” It seemed just short of panhandling to your friends on Facebook for a vanity writing project. I figured the title of the PubWest session “Transformations on the Publishing Horizon: How Will Crowdfunding and Hybrid Authors Affect Publishing?” would be a criticism condemning the practice of publishing books via other people’s donations. How wrong I was.

The panel consisted of local author Laura Foster (author of Columbia Gorge Getaways and many other Portland and Oregon travel books); Suzanne Paschall, the ambassador of the National Crowdfunding Association of Canada; Avalon Radys, Director of Marketing and Publishing Operations at Inkshares; and Elly Blue, co-owner of Microcosm Publishing in Portland. It was quite the lineup. I left the session feeling very inspired and decided to look into the inner workings of Inkshares and Microcosm more deeply.

In a nutshell, here’s a breakdown of how Inkshares and Microcosm work. Inkshares is an audience-curated book publisher based in Oakland, California. Avalon Radys described the process thusly: “When interested in getting published through Inkshares an author comes to our site and launches a campaign to accept pre-order. If they reach the pre-order threshold of 750 copies we publish the book. Alternatively, we run contests with ‘imprints’ (brands like Legendary Entertainment) and publish the top three performing books in a contest dependent on the highest number of unique readers (not pre-orders).” One of their most popular titles, the marijuana cookbook Herb, had exceeded sales of 15,745 units in February 2017 since its pub date of November 2015. The success of each project weighs heavily on the author(s) having a strong, stable, and intact reputation as well as a social media presence and following. The subject of the book also needs to possess a strong niche following (conservation, cannabis culture, Trekkie culture, “weird sci-fi,” etc.). Check out more about Inkshares on their website.

Microcosm publishers Elly Blue and Joe Biel start crowdfunding campaigns for books and zines that possess a clear niche-following. In other words, the book has to fill a very special space on a very specific topic, or as Elly Blue put it, “It fits with a market that is the niche-ist niche that ever niched.” Since 2010, Microcosm has successfully used Kickstarter to raise over $100,000 for twenty-five books and zines. For Microcosm, crowdfunding is not a litmus test to decide whether a book is worthy of publication; each book is thoroughly researched prior to the crowdfunding process. Microcosm uses crowdfunding as a way to bolster a book’s audience and lighten production costs. For a complete list of their titles, visit Microcosm Publishing.

In addition to Kickstarter, the most frequently used crowdfunding platforms include Patreon, Indiegogo, FundRazr, Publaunch, Unbound, and Publishizer. Crowdfunded publishing or “authorpreneurship” is clearly changing the game of publishing for both publishers and writers.