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How this Canadian publisher scored a New York Times Best Seller

"The Hidden Life of Trees" became number one & Greystone Books tells us how they found success.

Is the digital age killing off traditional book publishing? Not in this story.

Vancouver-based Greystone Books is one publisher that’s cashing in on a worldwide book resurgence. After suffering a setback in sales early in the digital age, many book publishers like Greystone are enjoying an industry-wide resurgence as readers seek out the old familiar feel of a hardcover book rather than a tablet.

Their new book, The Hidden Life of Trees by author Peter Wohlleben, had its debut this fall in a top spot on the New York Times Best Seller list and it’s now riding that tide to become one of the most popular books around. But it’s no accident that The Hidden Life of Trees came out of the gate so strongly.

Greystone Books treats each book as a niche product and develops a strong marketing plan to help find its audience. According to Jennifer Gauthier, Director of Sales & Marketing, social media is a key strategy that publishers use to build word of mouth – along with more traditional marketing tactics – and their efforts provide some great best practices for marketers to follow in every industry.

Identify your target audience

“Greystone publishes non-fiction books on an array of topics, including nature and the environment, health and wellness, travel, adventure and sports,” Gauthier explains. “We publish our books internationally and market them to English language readers worldwide.”

The Hidden Life of Trees

The subject matter of The Hidden Life of Trees, which explores how trees feel and communicate with one another, hit a sweet spot for them. Then it became a matter of helping the book find its audience.

“Each marketing plan is designed to build awareness of the book and ultimately to generate sales,” explains Gauthier. “In the plan, we determine our key marketing assets for each book — sometimes that is the author, sometimes it is the content, sometimes it is the package and often a combination of all of these. We define our target market, determine where they are located geographically and/or online, and determine the best way to use the book assets to make that market aware of the book — and to buy it.”

Capitalize on positive press

In this case, Gauthier says they were able to seize upon positive press about the author to help kickstart their campaign.

The Hidden Life of Trees was a best seller in Germany where a Berlin-based writer for the New York Times interviewed the author, Peter Wohlleben,” says Gauthier. “The New York Times published a Saturday Profile on Peter nine months before our English translation was available. The article was shared widely on social media [resulting in] 360,000 Facebook engagements alone, and helped established Peter’s brand early on, both with readers and media.”

“The content of the book wasn’t totally new, but the author’s engaging way of explaining the science was. The author became our key asset and we built our marketing plan around getting him out there talking about the book in media interviews, Q&As and in-person on a North American tour.”

The Hidden Life of Trees

Screenshot of The New York Times profile article

Sniff out any hidden target markets

Clever analysis of social media played a key role in helping to define the target market, Gauthier says. “Twitter was very useful in defining the target markets for this particular book. By monitoring who shared the New York Times profile, we were able to determine a few different markets.”

“It is about trees, so nature lovers were an obvious one, but we also determined a number of secondary target markets including people engaged in new age spirituality and science readers. We even discovered there was a religious market after the National Catholic Reporter wrote about the author and tied the ideas in the book to the Pope’s encyclical.”

That helped them develop a sales strategy that could target additional prospects.

“We then built our media pitch list to include top outlets covering each of these areas. We pitched online and print publication editors [as well as] broadcast producers; targeting each pitch to the interests of their particular audience,” Gauthier explains.

Social media sites promotion including Greystone’s Facebook and Twitter page played a key role in the marketing strategy.

Building word of mouth in the digital age

Gauthier and her team learned many inside secrets to promote their products using social media marketing over several years of trial and error. The following are her ‘top five tips’ for using targeted social media and Internet ad buys.

1. Go niche. “The Internet is a vast place. You are better served by a strong connection with 10 people who are truly interested and will share and talk about your content/idea/product than by a weak connection with 100 people who may or may not be interested at all. This is especially useful for Facebook ads where you can refine who you reach based on location, demographics and similar interests.”

2. Find the influencers. “For every interest, there are a few people online that a lot of people listen to. Find and engage them, and your work is cut in half. One Brainpickings article on The Hidden Life of Trees was shared 145,000 times on Facebook.”

3. Don’t try to create a social platform overnight. “It takes years to build a social media presence that people will actually follow and trust. If someone is not already established and comfortable on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or another platform, starting [a profile] three months before a book or product comes out is a waste of their efforts, and will not feel genuine. However, if they are on a platform they are comfortable with, encourage them to start following and engage with people interested in their subject matter, preferably a year or more in advance of the book’s release.”

4. Monitor your social shares. “Use a few simple tools to monitor how and where your book, product or subject is being shared online, and amplify those shares on your own social media channels. Google Alerts, Warble Alerts and BuzzSumo are my top three.”

5. Don’t ignore traditional media. “In addition to reaching an audience offline, these days many have a strong online presence as well and give you the benefit of both worlds.”

As a result of Greystone Books’ efforts, The Hidden Life of Trees debuted on the New York Times Best Seller List and has gone on to be a number one best seller on Amazon as well as in dozens of other retailers. Recently, the National Post named it their best book of the year for 2016.

Up Next: Take your social media strategy to the next level with these five tips.

Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy is a Vancouver-based television producer, writer and development consultant. Through his company Perfect Day Productions, Robert works with leading producers, writers and networks to help create innovative new television series, digital media and documentaries.

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