I’m reading Patrick O’Brian’s historical novels at present.
This is a series of twenty books based on the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars.
They’ve sold around three million copies so far.
The Times describes them as “The greatest historical novels of all time.”
They are compared variously to Proust, Tolkien, and Dickens.
But for me, they’re more like the Discovery or History Channel.
Full of facts and information, but written in very elegant language.
Sort of Jane Austen for blokes.
So I really like these books.
I read them on the tube every day, and sometimes I miss my stop.
When I really like a book I tend to miss what’s around me.
I once took ‘Damned United’ to Berlin with me, and missed Berlin.
Earlier this year I took Cormac McCarthy’s ‘All The Pretty Horses’ to Hawaii, and missed Hawaii.
So, obviously, I think Patrick O’Brian’s books are terrific.
But there’s something else I like about them that’s cleverer than any other book I’ve read.
And it’s nothing to do with the writing.
Here’s the really clever thing.
They’ve got Chapter One of the next book printed at the end of each book.
So, just as you’ve finished the story, you think you’d like to know what happens next.
You think you’ll just read that extra chapter, as a sort of epilogue.
But before you know it, you’re into the story of the next book.
You’re hooked again.
You have to buy the next book.
If you’ve ever worked on newspapers, this is what they call ‘pull-through’.
When we worked on the Independent it was critical.
Some newspapers have a largely ‘captive’ readership.
The Telegraph, The Mail, The Guardian.
In the case of the Telegraph and Mail, lots of the sales are home delivery.People have it on order from the newsagents, so they automatically get the paper 5 days a week.
In the case of the Guardian it’s a matter of political persuasion.
If you work for the state, and apparently one in four of us do, you’ll get the paper that supports that agenda.
But The Independent suffered because its readers were just that.
The Indy had the highest incidence of occasional readers.
They were younger, upmarket, city dwellers.
They tended not to live according to routine.
They didn’t get their papers delivered at home by the newsagent.
They wouldn’t usually decide what to read until just before they got on the tube every morning.
This meant they’d often get distracted and forget to buy it.
Or they’d take a book or a magazine instead, or listen to their iPod.
So the Indy readers might only buy one copy a week.
In that case the issue isn’t about attracting new readers.
The issue is about getting the readers you’ve got to buy it more often.
If they could get half of their readers to buy it two or three times a week, sales would go up 50%.
So the brief becomes about pull-through.
Everyone automatically assumes advertising is always about trial.
But that isn’t necessarily true.
In newspapers, it’s no good getting someone to buy the paper once.
You’ve only sold one copy.
Newspapers are all about repeat purchase.
Newspapers have to be about building up a purchasing habit.
A trialist buys one copy, finish.
A loyalist buys 5 copies a week.
That’s what’s really clever about Patrick O’Brian’s books.
They don’t do the conventional thing.
They don’t let me finish the story, and risk me moving on to whatever else is convenient.
A newspaper, a magazine, or worse – another book.
They give away the first chapter of the next book free, with this one.
But, of course, they’re not really giving anything away.
They’re getting me to swallow the hook.
Because they don’t see it as a freebie.
They see me as a captive retail opportunity.