Can You Sell Your Novel?

About advertising a book Maxwell Perkins once remarked, “If a book is absolutely dead, all the advertising in the world isn’t going to help. But if it’s got a glimmer of life, if it’s selling a little bit maybe in only one or two spots, it’s moving enough to be given a push.”

Today, books have become more difficult than ever to market. You may feel the battle won when your manuscript is accepted, but from a publisher’s standpoint, such factors as the inflation of book advances, the tightening of corporate budgets and an intensely competitive marketplace have made marketing as vital a function of the publishing process as the editorial acquisition itself. Marketing plans are now often outlined even before a book is acquired, as the traditional approach to publicity of mailing out bound galleys and hoping for good word-of-mouth gives way to lavish Hollywood-esque PR campaigns. But there are no formulas for success and marketing alone can rarely jump-start a book without that “glimmer of life.”

Last March, Douglas Kennedy’ first crime thriller, The Big Picture, roared into bookstores on an enormous wave of advance hype.  In the preceding months, Hyperion had invested $750,000 in publicity and advertising; advance readers editions, disposable cameras, and press kits meant to look Like photographic portfolios were sent to hundreds of reviewers; the book was advertised on billboards and movie screens. Though Kennedy did appear briefly on The New York Times bestseller list, says one source at Hyperion, the novel was only one of a number of last year’s much bruited books, from various houses, that failed to meet high sales expectations.

bmb“In general, there are some campaigns that work and some that don’t,” says Maryann Palumbo, who as Dutton/Signet senior vp/marketing, oversaw the $2 million promotional efforts in behalf of Stephen King’s serial paperback novel The Green Mile Advertising Age called the six-month publicity blitz one of the 100 most outstanding marketing campaigns of 1996, and more than 23 million Mile paperbacks have sold.

“You must create excitement and do different things to get people into bookstores,” says Palumbo. And no house can simply buy a blockbuster. “The book must deliver, too. The public is very savvy and if the book isn’t good they’re just not going to tell those other ten people to buy it.”

Rob Weisbach, publisher of Rob Weisbach Books, a William Morrow imprint, says: “I think people are actually distrustful of advertising and would rather have someone other than the publisher saying this is the next big thing.”

Publishing insiders often contrast the disappointing sales of The Big Picture with those of The Tenth Justice, a first legal thriller by Brad Meltzer, and a major hit for Rob Weisbach Books last spring. Meltzer’s novel was also the subject of a well-orchestrated marketing campaign, including postcards mailed to members of the American Bar Association and ads on Late Night With David Letterman and the X-Files. But Weisbach contends it was not the advertising but the favorable reviews in Vanity Fair, Publishers Weekly, Glamour, Booklist and People that sold the book to the public.

Weisbach cautions that a sophisticated marketing campaign must begin with a compelling read. “Every book we publish we have to believe we’d go out and buy ourselves. People run in to trouble when they try to anticipate the desires of someone else.”

The competition for a larger piece of a publisher’s marketing budget has led some authors to demand a publicity guarantee in their book contract; a kind of insurance policy that their book won’t fall through the cracks when it’s published months after it’s acquired. When Tibor Fischer’s latest book, The Collector, went to auction last winter, Metropolitan Books underbid at least one other house, but managed to snare the author with a contract that outlined a specific marketing plan.

“We’ve started to do that more often because help us when we’re b with the agent,” says Megan Butler , director of marketing and publicity at Metropolitan. “It shows the author and the agent that we’re not just throwing money at it, but that we really want to do what’s best for the book.”

Crown president and publisher Chip Gibson notes that a such strategy doesn’t guarantee that a book. Most of the time our reaction in the marketing has to make spend. If anything, my marketing budget at a Crown as a percentage of sales is much higher than average. Without the stricture of a contractually guaranteed expenditure, I’m already over the moon. I don’t have to incentivize that.”

What should matter to an unsigned author, says Gibson, is not simply the size of the advance r publicity commitment, but that a publisher demonstrates a creative approach to the book, a grasp of its nuances and possibilities, which then might translate into truly felicitous and effectual marketing campaign. “A good writer might ask not about the money, but what have they done with this kind of fiction, for instance. Let’s get a taste of your creativity. No one ever asks that. And why not?”

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