(Excerpt from Overdeliver, Build a Business for a Lifetime Playing the Long Game in Direct Response Marketing. Check out the P.S. for a special offer to get the e-book for $1.99)
During my first decade at Boardroom, creating offers and products—mainly for books and newsletters—was relatively easy.
We were publishing some of the most useful newsletters in the world at the time, including Boardroom Reports, Bottom Line/Personal, Tax Hotline, and Health Confidential. We created best-selling books by taking the “greatest hits” of our newsletters and putting them into huge volumes, indexed and categorized, and sold millions of copies of those “new” books.
I never lost sleep over not being on the New York Times bestseller list . . . we were much happier selling millions of books and helping millions of consumers without needing to get involved with bookstores or anything that resembled trade publishing.
We had a wonderful formula for creating these books and then had the best copywriters at the time (including Gene Schwartz, Gary Bencivenga, Jim Rutz, Mel Martin, Clayton Makepeace, and others) work their magic on each one.
We priced our books higher than anything similar you would find in a bookstore; we also created higher value than anything we could have done in a traditional bookselling environment.
It worked like crazy for years.
But then we were faced with a moment of truth in the late 1980s: we started running out of content doing these greatest-hits volumes.
Our bestsellers were often over 500 pages. They were encyclopedic, and we joked that we sold books by the pound. These kind of books sold much better than our niche titles (although we had a lot of success with some large niches, such as our diabetes book).
Simply put, books by the pound was what our core customers wanted . . . but it was getting tougher and tougher to deliver those kinds of books without duplicating content.
The Book of Inside Information, or what I called Bottom Line’s Greatest Hits, sold vast numbers of hardcover copies over many years, at $30 a book. We had offshoots of that book, including The Big Black Book and The Book of Secrets, and they all sold well.
There was also our book Healing Unlimited, which sold over two million copies; our big tax books; and even a title on estate planning, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Even “vertical” books, including the estate planning book and the diabetes book, became a little more “horizontal” when direct mail targeting was involved.
But how were we going to expand this formula?
We had a hungry database waiting for more big books and nothing to sell them.
Enter Gordon Grossman, the man who was the architect of Reader’s Digest in the 1960s and 1970s, and who I hired as a consultant in the 1990s.
He looked at what we were doing and said, “Brian, what makes you think that all the content for your books has to be your own stuff?”
That simple question changed everything for us.
I realized at that moment that I could buy our new books instead of having to make them all.
Gordon had been involved in the practice of buying trade books and converting them to direct mail books at Reader’s Digest and also for his other big consulting client, Rodale Press.
I put this lightbulb idea, invented by others, into action—and added my own twist.
It started with a trip to Barnes and Noble when I asked to borrow a hand truck. Thus armed, I trundled around the store to every category that fit with the interests of the millions of names in our database.
I got a good workout running all over the store, piling the hand truck higher and higher with books. I visited every category that made sense, including health, fitness, finance, investing, taxes, personal development, food and nutrition, retirement, and so on. There were so many amazing books in those categories, most of which had an inch of dust on them because no one was picking them up. I knew many of them just needed a marketing makeover.
I also realized that if any of those dusty volumes had sold 10,000 copies in their lifetime, they would have been considered bestsellers by the trade at that time. Although most of them had not hit anywhere near that level, I was confident we could change that with our direct mail formula.
Thinking ahead, I knew I could propose a windfall opportunity to some old-school trade publishers, who knew we were better equipped to take their books from the store to the mail. My master plan was to approach those trade publishers and secure the direct marketing rights, then blow their minds with how many books we could sell with direct mail when the title was selling virtually nothing in bookstores.
Five or six trips to my car later, after purchasing 40 or 50 books and weighing down my 1985 Toyota Camry until my tailpipe was almost dragging on the ground, I had the candidates to rival our current direct mail bestsellers.
The next step was to go through the books to see which ones had the most useful information from the most credible sources.
Many books got nixed by the editors: “We can’t put our name on that!”
Others got nixed by the copywriters:“There’s not enough juicy information for compelling copy.”
But the books that got through this gauntlet were put into the new product pipeline.
We also had to come up with an amazing pitch to the trade publishers for the direct marketing rights (which took some doing), and we had to create a system to reposition any appropriate trade books to direct mail. Now, this was before we had started doing surveys to previous buyers so fortunately our approach worked well.
The books we added to our direct mail lineup were often in paperback in the bookstore already, selling for less than $20. But our direct mail version of the book would always be hardcover (which has a higher perceived value), and we would add bonuses and premiums to make the new version drastically more appealing than the one in the bookstore.
This repositioning made the offer for direct mail unrecognizable to what it was before. It was this “apples to oranges” comparison of offers that also got all the trade publishers to give us the rights to sell the books, and justifiably so.
They saw the book as a single title on the shelf at a bookstore; we saw the book as part of a treasury of information (in hard cover, branded to us).
Our price points, which started at $30, eventually rose to $40 plus shipping and handling. All the while the same book was still sitting on bookstore shelves at half the price and with none of the attention.
That’s how we created a whole book division with content we didn’t have to produce.
I didn’t invent the idea of buying the rights to books to sell in other channels. But without these direct mail offers, these books would have died on the vine (or shelf) without helping an enormous number of people who needed that information.
The way we did it enabled us to both bring fantastic content to the world and have multiple outside titles that sold in the hundreds of thousands. A few even sold more than a million copies.
There are a few lessons here for any marketer, offline or online:
- Look everywhere and anywhere for undersold or underutilized assets or products right under your nose that could be of interest to your audience. I’m not talking about doing another affiliate mailing—I’m talking about buying the rights to those products and making them your own. This same principle applies to digital products as well, not just books and physical products.
- Know the power of your name and your brand to your audience and look for products that you would be proud to put your name on.
- Nothing gets sold without a great sales message, regardless of your medium, but the offer has to have legs of its own. Think about whether it has real credibility before you fall in love with your new product idea. Have seasoned copywriters look at everything you are considering so you can get an objective view on it before you try to get them to write anything.
P.S. My publisher extended the offer for the e-book of Overdeliver at $1.99 …get your copy today at any one of these vendors: