Great Expectations: Book Advertising

By Richard Curtis

If the discontent of authors could be likened to a pie, the largest slice by far would represent resentment about the failure of publishers to advertise, publicize, and promote their books. Although I'm fairly articulate when it comes to explaining to my clients why publishers do or don't do certain things, I'm all too often at a loss for an answer when they ask me such questions as, "Why would my publisher spend $25,000 to acquire my book and $1.25 to advertise it?" Or, "How could they spend $100,000 to advertise that dreadful piece of pornography and not a dime on my book about nuclear disarmament?" Or, "Why is my book the best kept secret since the Manhattan Project?"

We live in a world in which it is universally acknowledged that the most effective way to move merchandise is to hype it to consumers. In the publishing industry, however, most of the product goes un- or under-advertised, and even books that publishing people consider to be heavily pushed are ridiculously underboosted by the standards of most other business enterprises. A few years ago, I handled a book by a leading business executive, and one day I proudly announced to him that his publisher had decided to allocate $75,000 for advertising and publicity for his book. "Great!" he exclaimed. "And how much are they going to spend on the second day?" In his field, $75,000 could be thrown casually into a single-page ad in a magazine.

Something is definitely out of whack here. In their own defense against author complaints, publishers respond that writers cherish unrealistic expectations, that even modest promotional campaigns are too expensive, that many books sell themselves without any publicity whatsoever, that many investments in this sector are unproductive or actually counterproductive, and that authors are not always aware of the efforts their publishers make to promote their books.

I don't think it's unreasonable for authors to hope that their publishers will try to stimulate consumer interest in their books. Nor is it unrealistic to suggest that publishers might benefit as much as authors from the publicizing of their products. But after countless discussions with publishers on this issue (not all conducted sotto voce, you may rightly guess), I have to admit that it is more complicated than we may think. Before you rush to judgment, listen to what your publisher has to say.

* Some types of books are going to sell whether we push them or not. A great many routine paperbacks sell and sell well with little or no help from their publishers. The reason is that paperback publishers have learned that there is a hard-core audience for romance, science fiction, western, horror, and other genres. These readers will buy just about any book in their favorite category whether it is good, bad, or indifferent. In certain male sectors like action-adventure or science fiction, for example, a paperback publisher can anticipate 15-25,000 guaranteed customers, and he would have to work very hard to sell fewer copies than that.

But, you ask, don't publishers want to sell more than this minimum? You'll be surprised to learn that the answer is: not necessarily. The cost of stimulating sales beyond the minimum support level may not be balanced by the profits. Some publishers are content to take a small profit on each title, rather than risk a loss going for the bigger profit.

Paperback publishers have also discovered that popular authors will naturally separate from the pack as a result of such factors as word of mouth, viral publicity, good reviews, feature stories in the press, and consumer demand in bookstores and other points of purchase - all with little or no money spent to create that demand. When those sales figures begin drifting upward, a wise publisher will consider ways to elevate that author even further. At that point advertising and publicity may come into play. Which leads to a second truism that publishers hold dear:

* Advertising can't make a book successful; it can only keep it successful. The fate of most books is sealed long before they are released to the public. The critical period is when the sales staff solicits orders from bookstore buyers and distributors. The enthusiasm or lack of it will determine the print run, and if the support is feeble, as likely as not little or nothing will be spent to advertise. Nor will ads necessarily send buyers flocking to the stores, even assuming the publisher feels that ads are a wise investment. If, however, a book meets with high popular demand, publishers may spend money on advertising and publicity to reinforce that demand. A new book by a popular author will probably get advertised, even if it's a lousy book. A new book by an unknown will probably not get advertised, even if it's great. Which leads to the very next rule of thumb, to wit:

* Very little midlist fiction benefits from heavy investment in advertising and promotion. Publishers are, understandably, reluctant to invest a lot of money to push serious, literary, experimental, and first novels. With hardcover sales projected in the low thousands, and with no guarantee of book club or paperback reprint revenue to underwrite the cost of publishing such midlist books, publishers prefer to let them make their own way on the strength of free advertising such as reviews and feature stories or word-of-mouth praise, or low-cost advertising such as catalogue announcements, publicity releases, or house ads that tout many of the publisher's books in one display package. As we've seen, though, there is some reason to believe that even if publishers spent heavily on ads for midlist fiction, it wouldn't compel consumers to buy, because the authors' names are not familiar to most of them. I believe it was Alfred A. Knopf who said, "We know book advertising is fifty percent effective; we just don't know which fifty percent."

As for promoting the authors themselves, it almost never works for midlist fiction, and for a very simple reason: it is extremely hard to express effectively the virtues of a work of fiction on a radio or television program, especially if the audience has never heard of the author. Which leads to the next item:

* Star authors are exempted from all of the above rules. If midlist fiction is so hard to promote on talk shows, how come bestselling authors show up on them all the time? One reason is that the subjects of their novels may be discussed as if they were nonfiction. While the plot of a novel is impossible to summarize entertainingly and the characters are too complex to capture in a pithy one-liner, there is usually something in the subject itself that serves as an excellent launching pad for stimulating discussion. "Tell us who your drug-crazed starlet heroine is in real life . . ."

Even more significantly, in the world of bestsellers, people are often more interested in the authors than in the books themselves. Bestselling authors are celebrities like movie and sports stars. Publishers who promote them stress the charms of the writer as much as they do the charms of the writer's work. If you'll listen carefully when a star author appears on radio or television, you'll notice how superficially the book itself is discussed. Attention focuses on such questions as: "Where did the idea for your novel come from? Did anything unusual happen to you when you were researching your novel? How much money did you get for your book? Is it true you're: getting married, getting divorced, having a baby, having another baby, buying a yacht, buying a castle, buying a nation?" These are precisely the same questions that might be asked of a film star hyping his or her latest movie.

Bestselling authors are also exceptions to the rule that print advertising can't make books successful. While ads seldom make consumers visit a bookstore to buy a midlist novel, they will attract them in droves to purchase a new novel by Stephen King, Janet Dailey or John Grisham. Why? Because these fans are predisposed to buy the books to begin with. It's a sad truth, but far more people are interested in how Oprah lost three pounds than how a righteous person rescued five thousand people from the Holocaust.

* Nonfiction authors are easier to promote than novelists. The subjects of many nonfiction books are, as we've seen, much more appropriate topics of conversation than the themes of novels. Nor must the author enjoy immense celebrity to quality for an invitation to a talk show. An interesting subject about which you feel passionately and speak articulately is often good enough to score a hit on radio or television. Terrific buns, washboard abs, big bazooms, and doe eyes are not necessary to furnish an entertaining fifteen or twenty minute chat about the current state of bioengineering or the destiny of wildlife on Alaska's North Slope.

I don't suppose they do any harm, though.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

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