Selling the Unsellable

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by: Roger Dooley

Can you imagine a more difficult marketing task than selling books written by long-dead authors like Plutarch or Pliny the Younger to middle-class Americans? To make the challenge even more difficult, the books are priced well above most hardcover books, and you have to sell not just a few volumes to each customer but dozens and dozens.

On its face, that seems like a nearly impossible task. Suprisingly, one firm that has been doing this successfully for decades is Easton Press. The firm offers the library of “100 Greatest Books Ever Written”. This series seems to be a successor to the famous Harvard Classics, also known as the “Five Foot Shelf of Knowledge” (originally sold by Collier, but now also offered by Easton). This publishing company has taken groups of classic books by authors like Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, and Homer and put them in attractive leather bindings accompanied by high quality illustrations. Their key to success, though, has been their approach to selling these books. Rather than offering them individually, or as a single set, they sold these books on a subscription basis. Their first book, naturally, is discounted to nearly nothing; subsequent volumes cost $40, and are shipped monthly. How do offers like the 100 Greatest Books (or the Harvard Classics, even pricier at $64 each) manage to keep selling year after year?

There are a lot of elements that make offers like this work. The appeal to the desire for self improvement is powerful, and both of these series cleverly imply that learning isn’t all that difficult. You don’t need to read thousands of books – just these few that will take up only a shelf or two in your home. Easton goes out of its way to make the books attractive and distinctive, too – these finely bound and well-illustrated books would be a status symbol for many people. Whether they knew it or not, though, Easton incorporated a couple of important neuromarketing principles into their offer.

First, the continuity program reduces the pain of buying. The initial book that costs only a few dollars actually looks like a huge bargain. We know that a key element in buying pain is the perception of value – an item that seems overpriced to the subject triggers the brain’s pain center. While $40 (or $64) for a book sounds expensive, it’s a lot less likely to cause a pain reaction than the full price of one of these libraries – about $4,000 for the 100 Greatest Books series. And by getting the consumer a sample book that is clearly quite different than what one will find in the local library or Barnes & Noble, the high per-book price tag seems more reasonable.

The second element of these offers that plays to our brains is the want vs. should strategy. These classic books are definitely should items. The Harvard research we reported on in “Want” vs. “Should” – It’s All in The Timing showed that time of consumption was critical in determining whether a consumer chooses want or should items. By using a continuity program and pushing the time of consumption for reading the great books into the future, Easton takes full advantage of our propensity to buy these should items.

Will most of these books even be read by their purchasers? Who knows? The want/should divide, though, explains perfectly why you’ll find mainly bestsellers and potboilers at airport newsstands (books for immediate consumption) and why you can sell books by dusty philosophers using a subscription model.

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