May 22, 2022

With my Titans Mastermind being held this week…followed by a short vacation (and I know you’re thinking, “why do you need a vacation, Brian when you don’t even work anymore?”)…I went to my blog archives and pulled one out that has been a favorite of many of you…originally published in 2015 or 2016…and the lessons still apply today. 

I’ve updated it a little but not the core concepts. 

And as far as my comment above regarding that I don’t work anymore, that comes from my definition of retirement, courtesy of Dan Sullivan (the top coach for entrepreneurs in the world):

I’m retired from things I don’t do well; I’m retired from things that I don’t like to do; and I’m retired from people I prefer not to hang out with anymore. 

Obviously, this weekly blog qualifies under my requirements for retirement although I will leave it to you whether you think I write them well.  

I certainly like writing them…and you, my online family, are folks I love hanging out with every Sunday. 

This particular blog post is the written form of one of my “three most guarded secrets” from the interview you might have received when you initially signed up to be a part of my online family. 

When someone challenged me recently with, “I listened to the interview and couldn’t figure out what the secrets are,” I knew I needed to revisit this particular post. 

I guess the secrets…and the lessons…may be hidden in plain sight? 

Let me know if you find any. 🙂 

Some years ago, I attended a conference where an expert in digital books talked about physical books still being what he called a “perfect product.” 

And although the ways we consume books, market them, and use them for fun and profit has changed considerably over the years, books are not going away anytime soon…and there actually seems to be a resurgence in the enthusiasm for reading and writing them. 

It seems like everyone I come in contact with these days is either writing a book or has written one (or several). 

Which inspired my post last month, “You can’t judge a book by its funnel.” 

It’s always a good idea to be sharing your wisdom…and books are a fundamental way to share. 

After writing two books myself, Overdeliver and The Advertising Solution, and reading books my entire life, I am constantly reminded of my love of books that goes back to my childhood…then during college (where I was an English major)…to my career at my company home for 34 years, Boardroom, where I was able to create marketing programs that sold tens of millions of books, mostly through direct mail. 

One of the crowning achievements for the marketing team at Boardroom was creating a book division that included titles that we created from our own content; but we also published books that were sort of “lost classics,” fantastic, useful books, that were never widely distributed because no one knew how to market them properly. 

The story of how we brought those lost classics to life is a story worth telling again. 

While I know that the best “use” of a Barnes and Noble (that’s the name of a bookstore chain if you have never heard of it before) is free WiFi and maybe a cup of cappuccino, there was a time when bookstores actually served more than that. 

Yes, they sold books. Or at least pretended to. 

This was during the Jurassic period of bookselling, well before Amazon roamed the earth. 

What follows is the story of how I used a local Barnes and Noble to do “new product development” for the Boardroom’s 9 million name offline database (i.e. postal addresses) …and created a $50 million per year franchise selling the best books written by other people…for over two decades. 

I believe this story has some lessons that apply to new product development today…since choosing the right products for your particular audience is a critical step to the success of any direct marketing operation. 

I recall conversations I had with Joe Sugarman and Greg Renker, two marketing Titans, while planning the epic event, Titans of Direct Response, in 2014. 

Those guys in particular taught me a thing or two that I didn’t know about “product selection” (Blublocker sunglasses and Proactiv skin products are not flashes in any pan). 

The fact that they thought my “hand truck at Barnes and Noble story” was worth sharing with more people motivates me to share it with you today. 

During my first decade at Boardroom, creating products–mainly books–was relatively easy. 

We were publishing the most useful newsletters on the planet at the time–namely Boardroom Reports, Bottom Line/Personal, Tax Hotline,Breakthrough (technology/investments), Health Confidential (and there were others). 

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 books. 

I never lost sleep over not being on the New York Times bestseller list either. 

We were much happier selling millions of books and helping millions of consumers while not being involved with bookstores or anything that resembled “trade publishing.” 

Direct mail scaled then as it does now…and we had a wonderful formula for creating these books and then taking them to the best copywriters in the world (like Gene Schwartz, Gary Bencivenga, Jim Rutz, Mel Martin, Clayton Makepeace and others) to work their magic. 

We charged higher prices than any books similar to ours in a bookstore; and we created higher value than anything we could have done in a traditional book selling environment. 

But then we were faced with a moment of truth in the late 1980’s: 

We started “running out of content” doing these greatest hits volumes. 

Our best sellers were 500+ pages, encyclopedic, and we often joked that we sold books by the pound and we could “slice the salami” in multiple ways. 

These greatest hits books sold much better than our niche titles by single authors, which were also good, but we had to find a way to do more “big books” to feed the monster (i.e., our database of buyers). 

Simply put, selling books by the pound was what our core customers wanted…and it got tougher and tougher to deliver those kinds of books. 

For example, we had one book called The Book of Inside Information (BII) or what we called “Bottom Line’s Greatest Hits,” which sold 3 million copies over many years, hardcover, at $30 a book. 

We had offshoots of that book…daughters and sons of BII…including The Big Black Book and The Book of Secrets…and they all sold well. 

In fact, The Book of Secrets did ONE mailing on a single mail date of 9 million pieces of direct mail which I spoke about in last week’s post. 

That was the single biggest mailing we had ever done in our 40+ year history. 

The book mailed over 25 million pieces in its lifetime. 

And there was also our book Healing Unlimited which sold over 2 million copies. 

In addition, we sold big tax books and we even had a vertical title on estate planning which sold over half a million copies.

Lesson: Even vertical books in tight niches became a little more “horizontal” when direct mail targeting and expert list segmentation was involved.

Read this for more color on that topic. 

But how were we going to expand this franchise/formula? 

We had a hungry database waiting for more BIG books. 

Enter Gordon Grossman, the man who was the architect of Reader’s Digest in the 60’s and 70’s…who I hired as a consultant around that time…and he looked at what we were doing and said:

“Brian…what makes you think that all of the content for your books has to be your own?” 

Now that may not sound so earth shattering to you but at the time, it changed everything…I took it as both a challenge and a key to our ongoing success, dare I say survival, in the rough and tumble world of selling hardcover books in direct mail. 

And don’t think that because all the books and content you might sell today is mostly or all digital that the lessons coming up don’t apply to you. 

I realized I could “buy,” and didn’t have to “make,” all of our new books. 

However, how would I find books that had high integrity (i.e., good enough to put the Boardroom/Bottom Line name on them), that were congruent with our mission…and edgy enough for our world class copywriters to write world class copy about? 

Here was my light bulb idea: 

Go to Barnes and Noble (I don’t even think there was a coffee bar in the stores back then…it really was a BOOK store…what were they thinking?) …borrow a hand truck…and walk around the store to every “category” that fit with the interests of our 9 million name databases…and go on a shopping spree. 

It helped that I am a whiz with a hand truck…I worked in a liquor store in high school and college…and working the hand truck here was easy because books don’t break. 🙂 

I got a good workout running with that hand truck all over the store. 

I visited every category that made sense including health, fitness, finance, investing, taxes, personal development, food/nutrition, retirement and more. 

There were so many amazing books in those categories, most of which had an inch of dust on them, and I knew many of them just needed a marketing home. 

I also realized that if any of those dusty volumes had sold 10,000 copies in their lifetime (none of them came close to that number mind you), they would have been considered bestsellers by the “trade” at that time. 

Thinking ahead, I knew I could propose a “windfall opportunity” to some old school trade publishers…who didn’t know much, if anything, about direct mail or direct marketing. 

My master plan was to approach those trade publishers and secure the “direct marketing rights” …and then blow their minds with how many books we could sell in direct mail of a title that was selling virtually nothing in the bookstore. 

Five or six trips to my car later, after purchasing 40 or 50 books, weighing down my 1985 Toyota Camry until my tailpipe was dragging on the ground, I had my “candidates” to rival our current direct mail bestsellers. 

Next step: We went through the books to see which ones had the most useful information from the most credible sources…got them “approved” by our editorial staff…and then we started matching up books with appropriate copywriters. 

Many books got nixed by the editors (“can’t put our name on that crap!”) …others got nixed by the copywriters (“not enough juicy information for compelling copy!”) …but the ones that got through this gauntlet were the ones we put into the new product pipeline. 

There was more to this of course…we learned to “concept test” through questionnaires later on, we came up with an amazing “pitch” to the trade publishers for the direct marketing rights, and we knew how to re-position any appropriate trade book to direct mail (i.e., what we termed “Boardroomizing”). 

That included adding bonuses and premiums from our own content to create more congruency and consistency with the material our customers wanted most. 

Another nice twist: The books we ended up taking into direct mail under our brand were often in paperback in the bookstore already, selling for less than $20. 

But our direct mail version of the book would always be hard cover (higher perceived value) and we would add bonuses and premiums that made this new version not directly comparable to what was collecting dust on the shelf at Barnes and Noble…a good thing. 

Our price points started at $30 plus shipping and handling and we eventually got the price point up to $40 plus shipping and handling. 

And that’s how we created a book division with books “not just of our own stuff.” 

We created multiple outside titles as a result of this methodology that each sold in the hundreds of thousands…one or two over one million copies…with no dust accumulating on any books in our warehouse. 

The publishers were also happy because we took their non producing assets and turned a tidy profit for them with no risk or cost on their end. 

I think there are a few lessons here for any marketer, online or offline: 

1. Look everywhere and anywhere for undersold or underutilized assets or products right under your nose that could be of interest to your audience…and I’m not talking about doing another affiliate mailing. I’m talking about buying the rights to those products and making them your own. 

2. We are not just talking about books and physical products…this same principal applies to digital products as well. 

3. 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. 

4. Nothing gets sold without a great sales letter/promotion/e-mail/ad/whatever…think about how you will be able to position and sell any new product before you fall in love with it. And preferably to an existing audience you already have rather than a phantom audience you’d like to reach. There will be time for that later. 

5. Have seasoned copywriters look at everything you are considering taking to market. If they can’t sell it, it might not be worth the time and effort to develop. 

6. In the words of the great Jay Abraham, “Get everything you can out of all you’ve got.” That includes, but not limited to, the audience you own or can get, the content you own or can get and the merging of both. 

I remember seeing an online marketer speak at a conference over a decade ago, telling everyone that the deep, dark secret of marketing online is to start using “physical products.” 

It was nice to hear someone else in the online world making sure we don’t underestimate the power of using almost anything in your product mix if it’s a good fit for your audience (especially on the back end of your digital sales) …even if you have to ship it. 

It’s one of many ways you can become a more expert, precise and disciplined marketer simply by printing something and paying for the postage. 

I can assure you it will be money well spent.   



P.S. If you are curious about how Titans Mastermind went, I will fill you in with some highlights in the weeks ahead…stay tuned. 

Speakers included copywriting giant Paris Lampropoulos, live experience (not just events) curator Jayson Gaignard, online marketing engagement specialist Alex Mandossian, e-commerce entrepreneur Ryan Lee…and much more. 

If anyone would like to interview for one of the available and prized seats in this illustrious group, just email me and we can set up an interview. 

In the meantime, “Go forth and multiply!” 🙂 

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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