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Book promotion: Do Private Eye adverts work?

29 March 2008

I'm a keen reader of and subscriber to Private Eye. Given that my novel 'University of Death' has a subplot involving politics and uses a lot of humour in telling its story about the music business, the Eye's 798,000 readers could be an ideal advertising target. Adverts start at £26 for 10 words, which is within the reach of self-publishers.

And indeed, many self-publishers do promote their works there. But I had my suspicions the ads don't work. There's relatively high turnover of advertisers in the Eye Read section compared to some other sections (eg speechwriting), which suggests advertisers aren't seeing results. Additionally, the margin on book sales is such that I'd need to sell more than 13 copies directly attributable to Private Eye to break even. You only need to sell one speech per advert to make your money back, maybe even less if you're booking a series of ads.

I did a spot of market research and emailed five authors who have recently promoted their books in Private Eye and who had a website address. Four were kind enough to reply in some detail, and there was a clear consensus.

Lazz Hewings is a cartoonist researching a book about British Pub culture. He advertised to ask for responses to his questionnaire. He told me:
I was very disappointed with the response, considering the publication has a circulation of close to a million - I had 4 replies! Yes that's right - four! This, I thought, was interesting in its own right.
Chris Snowden has written a book documenting the war against smoking and liberty. He said:
I actually got very little response from that advert although I have used Private Eye for business ads before and found them to be quite good. What the response would be for your novel I really couldn't say.
Kevin Duffy, author of the novel 'Anthills and Stars' and small press manager, placed a couple of adverts for different books in the same issue. He said:
To be honest, for £120 the response wasn't that great, but that could be my ad, they went to the website and thought what was on offer was a pile of shite...however, glad I did it, I have had some great responses, e mail converstaions etc, but if you're thinking was it cost effective the answer is no it wasn't.
Ian Poole used Private Eye to promote his 'radical interpretation of the events in Jesus's life'. He told me:
In answer to your query about the efficacy of Private Eye adverts, I can report that, sadly, it was a waste of £52. As far as I can make out not a single copy sold because of it. Obviously they tend to circulate for a while so it may produce a few, but it certainly has not been a success. Worth a try I suppose. The book has rather narrow appeal, so I think that it may have been the wrong place.
I was particularly interested to see that Chris Snowden had found the business ads effective and Kevin Duffy's statement that it had generated some interesting correspondence. That suggests people do read the adverts, so for the right kind of book and right ad copy, there might be an opportunity there to pick up sales. But the experience of recent advertisers should be taken as a warning to authors and publishers that 798,000 circulated adverts does not necessarily translate into even a handful of sales.

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I have to say, your conclusions don't surprise me. 798,000 readers (and add some, for all the shared copies in the toilets and waiting rooms of Britain) - but how many pore through the small ads?

Have you considered Google AdWords?

Of course, this only reaches online people, but for UoD that might be appropriate. You only pay per click, so you'd at least know that for every penny you spend, someone's seeing your Web page.

Well chosen keywords + well chosen copy + sample chapters - could be a winner.
Hi John. Thanks for your idea.

I am planning to experiment with Adwords but haven't started yet. The problem is that Adwords is reactive. It works well for non-fiction, where people are searching for answers and your book provides them. But I'm not sure it works so well for fiction, where people kind of stumble across a book they'd like to read and rarely search for 'what shall I read next?'. I need to give some thought to the right kinds of keywords that might deliver my prospective readers, and at a time when they're interested in finding out about my book.

If anyone's got any ideas, please let me know.
I was about to say I've never bought a book because of an advert, but then I remembered I once bought a book that I saw advertised on the escalators in the Tube. It was Geoff Dyer's 'Paris Trance', and I'm glad I did, because it's one of my favourite novels.

I bet advertising on the escalators of the Tube costs a fortune, though. I think there's a subconscious thing where you think 'well someone has spent a lot of money advertising this, it must be worth it'. Which I guess you don't feel when you're looking at small ads in Private Eye.

Have you looked into advertising on Facebook? I don't know what the rates are, but as far as I'm aware you can target things pretty closely. (Someone keeps trying to sell me an Elliott Smith t-shirt, because I've got Elliott Smith in my musical tastes list.)
Hi Patroclus

Thanks for your response. I'll take a proper look at Facebook ads. The good thing is you can find the right kinds of people when they're basically at a loose end, playing on Facebook. That concept I think will be stronger than search engine keywords, when people are probably looking for something else. I'll take a look at report on what I learn...

I think there is a subconscious recognition of the investment behind an advert. If you look at the other ads in Private Eye, it's not quite at the spam level, but there is a lot of crap in there among the good stuff, and that's got to tarnish the good ads a bit. You don't see crude greetings cards and dodgy Lordships advertised on TV, or the tube.

I suspect there's an element of PR and advertising in the vast majority of book sales, but sometimes it's too subtle to trace to the source. Even recommendations from friends, I usually check reviews before buying.

Hi Sean,

I've decided to take a quick look with Facebook ads after reading this post. Unfortunately the royalties on
Drive to Nowhere
aren't great if people buy them off Amazon, so depending on the cost per click I end up paying, I may need to tweak my website so that people are directed to buy it from Lulu instead (and Amazon plans to stop fulfilment of POD sales on its website anyway, which is another story).

The minimum amount you can set as your maximum daily budget is $5, which means I need to sell twelve books per day on Amazon (yeah right) to even make a tiny profit if that maximum budget is reached!

It doesn't seem like a viable alternative but I'm going to stick with it for a week and see how it goes.
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