Discovering SEO:
A Publisher’s Guide

Following what was for many (perhaps depressingly) a revelatory talk at the Bookseller’s Marketing Conference in June, Chris McVeigh here outlines the ‘immeasurable benefits’ that SEO tools can offer.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the declining sales of publishers’ print backlists as the popularity of eBooks continues to rise.

David Shanks, CEO of Penguin GroupUSA, laid part of the blame for their recent steep drop in profits on the declining value of backlist print sales:

“With literally millions of titles available online, the chances that someone will find your book are decreased immeasur­ably,” Shanks explained. “There is just too much to choose from. How many screens do you browse before you get tired and just pick something that you have seen.”

Perhaps one answer to this issue of backlist discoverability is for publishers to learn a simple truth that most other industries in the business to consumer sector (B2C) learned many years ago – effective Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) coupled with a well thought out Inbound Marketing strategy is the key to visibility on the web.

The publishing industry is almost unique in its’ widespread failure to grasp the benefits of SEO and inbound marketing. Pretty much every other consumer-facing sector, from property, personal finance or travel through to the automotive and consumer electronics industries – all rely on sophisticated SEO & Inbound Marketing strategies in order to ensure the discoverability of their brands and products in the online environment.

So what exactly is Inbound Marketing and why should publishers use it?

“Inbound Marketing is a marketing strategy that focuses on attracting prospective customers by offering useful information in contrast to outbound marketing where brands “buy, beg, or bug their way in” (via paid advertisements, issuing press releases in the hope they get picked up by the trade press, or paying commissioned sales people, respectively).” – Wikipedia

Who has more ‘useful information’ to base a well thought our inbound marketing campaign than publishers? Publishers have buckets of the stuff. Millions of words of well edited, well researched, well written content that could be placed in front of consumers for their consideration. When this content is coupled with an effective SEO strategy it becomes possible for publishers to draw consumers into their websites in greater numbers, much more easily and with much greater effect than a ‘like’ on Facebook or a ‘retweet’ on Twitter.

How can this help boost backlist sales?

One of the problems of falling backlist sales is that publishers (and to a lesser degree, consumers) are almost drowning under the sheer weight of books now tumbling into the digital sales environment. Understandably most of the marketing effort goes into promoting new titles but often that means that backlist titles struggle to gain any useful degree of visibility. The irony here of course is that traditionally it’s often the backlist that keeps publishers profitable in lean times.

Here’s a real life example of a non-fiction publisher who had begun to notice a year on year decline in the value of their backlist sales.

This company published approximately 80 new books per year and had around 400 titles in their backlist. Over a period of 3 years their turnover had stalled at around £1.2 million and the proportion of backlist sales had fallen from around 58% to 42%.

There were many reasons for this change, many of them structural – in fact the two main reasons – growth of online book-selling and changing stock holding policies in terrestrial book stores – were both beyond the control of the publisher.

The simple fact was that although online book-sellers listed all the backlist titles on their sites, the serendipity had been taken out of the book buying process and the backlist titles (without the promotional budgets of the frontlist titles) were sinking into invisibility. The fact that this was happening at the same time as terrestrial bookshops were savagely cutting the number of titles they kept in stock, only added insult to injury.

How then to raise awareness of these backlist titles without assigning large amounts of (unavailable) promotional budget? The answer lay in SEO & Inbound marketing.

  • We took small selections of content, no more than 10 pages or so from 100 of the publishers most successful backlist titles.
  • We used this content to increase the extent of the publisher’s website to include a ‘Guides’ section.
  • We augmented this content by applying tried and tested SEO techniques to ensure that these new website pages figured highly in search engine results pages.

After 6 months, the results were astounding. Website visitors had risen from around 6000 per month to just over 100,000 per month.

After 12 months we could see the full results of this experiment.

Website visitors had risen to over 200,000 per month (an increase of 4000%) and sales had increased by 12% (£146,000). Crucially most of this sales increase was focused on the backlist titles featured in the trial.

Within 12 months, the proportion of frontlist/backlist had shifted significantly.

2009-2010       58% Frontlist / 42% Backlist

2010-2011         49% Frontlist / 51% Backlist

This publisher is now continuing to add to their inbound marketing strategy with more content and latest figures are backing up and even improving upon the original experiment.

These are real numbers from a real publisher. There is no need for complicated analytics or metrics to measure the success of this sort of campaign. Actual double digit growth on the balance sheet and a ROI over 12 months of 1360%.

It seems clear that publishers underestimate the real value that is locked in to their content libraries. Value that is easily unlocked by applying tried and tested techniques which have been in wide use by other industries for almost a decade.

Obviously SEO and Inbound Marketing are not magic bullets. These techniques on their own won’t solve all the problems of discoverability and visibility faced by publishers but they can help immeasurably. In addition, as things stand at the moment, so few publishers have genuinely engaged with these tools that the ones that do will be almost certainly be rewarded with enormous first mover advantage.

Find out more on, or you can get in touch with Chris via Twitter on @SEOforBooks


Chris McVeigh spent a decade working within major publishing corporations, notably Elsevier and Thomson. In 2003 he established himself as an independent consultant assisting publishers on marketing issues and emerging technologies. During this time he became a vocal advocate on the benefits of SEO for publishers and is regarded as a pioneer in this field. Now based in Los Angeles he acts as a business analyst advising media and technology companies on opportunities in the publishing sector.


4 Responses to “Discovering SEO:
A Publisher’s Guide”

  1. Peter Urpeth says:

    Chris McVeigh is leading a two-day workshop on SEO For Books on 27th & 28th September 2012 in Inverness. Full details at:

  2. Steve says:

    Hi Chris,

    I can see this being really beneficial for non-fiction, as the reader will be searching for, say, “guide to knitting with cat hair” or “book on roosevelt’s tailor”, and it’s essential for your book on that topic to rank highly in their search.

    My questions, however, if how you apply this to fiction – on the assumption that it’s hard to get your book listed on the first page of results for “best sci fi book” unless it’s won a dozen awards and already sold a bunch of copies, and people just don’t search for fiction in the same way they search for non-fiction. I for one have never searched for a new novel by googling a description of the story (“new sci fi novel unicorns cthulhu”, perhaps?) and so am struggling to think of how to use SEO to increase discoverability of the fiction I publish.

    So what do you reckon? How can fiction publishers use SEO given that novels don’t set out to solve specific, SEOable problems?

    Very interested to hear your thoughts!


  3. Chris says:

    Hi there,

    There is no doubt that these principles are more straightforward to apply to non-fiction, that said they absolutely can be applied to fiction very successfully.

    The beauty of effective SEO when applied for books is very much the fact that you have the opportunity to attract people who (a) Don’t know your book exists and (b) Don’t know they’re even looking for a book.

    SEO allows you to insinuate yourself and your product into informational transactions that were previously closed off. This can be applied just as much to fiction as to non-fiction – the main difference is in the choice of the type of keywords you target.

    Non-fiction keywords on the whole suggest themselves, for fiction the keywords are often more ‘conceptual’ – yes you need to be a little more creative with your targeting but get it right and the results can be equally astounding.

    I gave a talk at one of the Bookseller conferences where I delivered two case studies, one for fiction, one for non-fiction. Actual numbers from actual publishers you can see the charts here.

    Feel free to email me

  4. Thomas says:

    Hi Chris, enjoyed reading your article Discovering SEO. Can you see this strategy being useful to textbook publishing where the goal is to secure adoptions?


  1. Links for 4 November 2012 - Chris Unitt's blog - [...] Discovering SEO: A Publisher’s Guide is a good case study of a publisher using content from its backlist to increase…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *