The other day as I was driving my daughter to a doctor’s appointment, a woman pulled up alongside us, leaned over and held a book up to the passenger-side window. I gave her a friendly wave, because I’m always up for a good book recommendation. But she continued to hold it there, staring straight ahead, as we both edged forward in the traffic.

Gosh, I thought. She really likes this book. And seems to think that it’s just the book for me!

I took a closer look: the title was The Marketing of Evil, and on the cover was an apple being temptingly proffered. Later that day, I looked the book up online and read the description:

* at the beginning of a list

* on the vanity license plate of a traveling campervan

* to your dog, followed by a beef-and-cheese-flavored snack from pocket, counting on word of mouth to spread from there

* to your demons

* to your high school guidance counselor


JE: Yeah, I plan on reading Freedom, and no, I probably won’t read Jodi Picoult‘s next book, but you know what? She’s totally right about the industry ghettoizing a lot of female fiction.

Exhibit A: Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters. JC, I think you specifically mentioned in your coverage how bad the cover was. Soli writes a gritty, dark, thought-provoking, badass Viet Nam novel that is “literary” by any standard, and St. Martin’s puts some hot chick in a red blouse at the beach on the cover. What the hell? The galley I received had the menacing silhouette of a helicopter on it—what was it the Vietnamese called those copters, whispering death? What happened to that plan? How did we go from whispering death to some MILF on the beach? Who’s the marketing stooge that convinced everybody this change was a good idea? The prevailing wisdom seems to be that women (80% of everybody’s readership) don’t like gritty, they don’t like dark, they can’t handle thought-provoking. Well, who the hell is buying Freedom, or The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, and why don’t they have covers that look like spa brochures?

Exhibit B: Maria Semple’s dark, hilarious, acerbic debut, This One is Mine. Is that a pink bon-bon on the cover? Really? Is that a fucking joke? I read that book twice–where did they get a pink bon-bon? Seriously, marketing people, what’s with the double standard? I know a TON of writers, and almost every female author I know has got a crappy cover design– either it’s wispy, or floral, or it looks like a tampax ad, or there’s a MILF in a red blouse on the beach. Really, how far have we come since the Bronte Sisters?

DH: Yeah, book marketing is primitive. They don’t know their audience and, guess what, they don’t WANT to know their audience. The big houses all want to appeal to the same crowd, the great unwashed masses, no matter what the book is, because that group is BIG. And they want that group to actually exist because that group is easy.

But people aren’t that simple. Novelists know that. Once you really pay attention to readers you realize that they break down into all sorts of diverse types. Indie bookstores already know this.

But I’m in a fighting mood so I have to fight even JE’s assertion that he’s a white guy. Out in the material world, that JR loves to depict in his fiction, yes, that’s true. But in the imaginative soul of the book reader, you can be anybody you want. And that’s one objective of reading: become who you aren’t.

But you have to have the skills to do that. You have to know something about how plots are paced and character presented. You have to own some of the skills of a writer, even as a general reader. The best way to learn to read is to learn to write.

When you work with book clubs, or blogs, you realize that you can encourage my favorite mythical animal, the “general reader” to leave their comfort zones and explore.

But for all my talk about telling JE to read like he’s not a white guy, or not even a guy, I have to admit that we are all in our personal orbits either as writers or readers. I won’t read Freedom. I know Franzen is a distinguished artist but I don’t feel inspired to read him. I would read him like it was my duty to literature and I can’t read like that. Another reason not to read a book? Because the writer is on the cover of Time magazine. Read what you like.

Some advice that I haven’t been asked to give to marketers: Treat the “general reader” like they are a special market. There is a whole field in marketing on selling to the affluent, on appealing to what that market is looking for.Well, the general reader is affluent too. But it’s their minds that are affluent, maybe not their pocketbooks. But that’s a more interesting kind of affluence.

JR: The argument JE presents is old news. The lowest common denominator is being marketed to, simple as that. What appeals to the masses? 5 million copies of Lost Symbol went on sale in one day, how do you get into the mainstream? You print 5 million, and you buy the market, like The Passage. Doesn’t matter if the book is good or not, it’s everywhere. Girls? AM Homes, Dana Spiotta, Deborah Willis, Zadie Smith, all enjoyed kick ass covers for their books, look at White TeethMusic for TorchingEat the Document, fuck, those are great covers, and great books, probably some of my favorite ever, (except I think On Beauty is a masterpiece, and it has a gilded flowered look on the cover, but that speaks to the underlying theme of the book). Emily St. John Mandel, both books were great, and had good, not great covers, but she’s at Unbridled, so…Atmospheric Disturbances has a great literary cover, and all of the books I’ve just mentioned, have sold well, in the crowd their meant to sell in, what Philip Roth calls “the literary 85k”, that’s who publishers market to when they sell a literary novel. The rest, the books that are supposed to be movers and shakers and get reviewed in People magazine, well, they’re going to get the Tampax look. Soft, and easy to slide between your legs while you sip that $9 latte.

I don’t give a flying fuck about the mainstream, it’s meaningless. Literary novels is where I sleep, and those books are essentially “mine”, and I own the bragging rights, because in general, they don’t get reviewed. The Imperfectionists and Mr. Peanut, they’re from two great writers, and had weird covers, but shit, Rachman’s book is about the death a newspaper, why wouldn’t it sell? Oh, right, I know it sold, like fucking hot cakes. No one knew about that book, I mean no one, before it went on sale. Franzen has written two great books in my estimation, the sister part in The Corrections is one of the finest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Period. Freedom is about people who suck. If you want to escape, read Jodi Piccoult, she trucks in the masses, she tells stories about sick kids and people with cancer, over coming odds greater than themselves. Rachman talked about the death of a historically vital venue for passing on information and the funny people who made it. Who can identify to that? I didn’t feel sorry for them. I felt like I was there with them in Rome, I don’t sign on to Jodi Piccoult’s books because I’m not looking to get on the fucking sympathy truck and watch someone prevail over the tough shit that life doles out. Boo fucking hoo…tissues are in aisle six, next to the diapers and tampons, just down the aisle from the dump of Jodi Piccoult’s latest mashed potato sandwich.

JC: JE, I was stuck on The Lotus Eaters for a couple weeks before I finally cracked it, and then only because I had said I would. I mean, the book arrives in the mail directly from Tatjana Soli, who is very nice and a brilliant writer, btw, and I think Christ what have I gotten myself into. Back when I was a buyer, if a rep had put that cover in front of me, I would have said things that would have made them blush. So uncreative – like a leftover cover from Polynesian Vacation – … and ultimately, such a betrayal of the book that it represents. I would have liked your galley Jonathan, because the book is a hell of a lot closer to Hemingway (note her WWFIL from this summer) and Tim O’Brien, than towhatever book cover they “modeled” to get this one. It’s a war novel, and a good one. I must have missed the beefcake on the cover of Matterhorn.

That’s the thing about covers. Cliches aside, everyone is affected by a good bookcover. I’ll wager everyone reading this could list at least a handful of books they purchased exclusively for the cover, not knowing a thing about it. I’ll bet even marketers do that! So why would you publish a book that you are supposedly proud of, that is a unique product, that you want to find its audience and give it a cover that already dots the shelves, or that doesn’t reflect that story’s unique proposition. If you think it’s just like a thousand other books out there already, then why bother? You can probably be as inspired designing and marketing cereal boxes or baked beans.

Women authors, a lot of them anyway, do get pigeonholed. The success of chick lit has ghettoized them into genre books. Pretty soon they’ll have their own section in the stores, like mysteries, sci fi, etc. The question is, do you want your books there or fiction? What if the books in chick lit sell better? Does that change the equation?

The thing is – it won’t break my heart if the NYT doesn’t review and front cover Franzen and Chabon’s every book – and I like those guys. I’m perfectly happy to have those books replaced by novels by women. There are lots of books worthy of marketing and publicity. I’d be pissed if they were replaced by Jodi Picoult.

Dear Corporate Publisher,

Since last year was the worst year in publishing history—that is, the worst year since the year before—I’ve got a few questions for you (along with some unsolicited advice):

Are you publishing all of your authors, or are you just printing most of them? Because if you’re just printing most of them, why bother? Why not re-allocate all those printing and shipping costs into marketing the books you’re actually publishing? Just a thought.

Does the reading public really need a million titles per year? Wouldn’t it be a little easier to sort out the growing demand for a hundred thousand? Don’t get me wrong, I like eclectic, I like many voices, but it seems to me a hundred thousand is a lot of voices. You only published fifty thousand in 1990, and as I recall, the industry was in better shape.

Instead of acquiring books at the budget deadline (books which you have no real intention of marketing beyond a little co-op for 90 days to fill table space at the chains—where your titles are gathering dust in a warehouse, as the demand stacks up at independents), why not re-structure?

Why not give all your titles the benefit of marketing support, publicity budgets, tour budgets? Do you think they might sell more than a thousand copies? Do you think you might have less returns?

Why not make your sales reps lives easier by cutting your catalog in half? Maybe that would allow your reps to push your backlist—after all, you’ve already printed the books, already paid the advances? Hey, and that’s another way to fill those invaluable brick-and-mortar stores without publishing a million titles per year. Maybe if you marketed your books, instead of letting them sit heavy in the chains, you wouldn’t have to pay all that postage on all those returns? Just a thought.

Why not teach your publicists to take bloggers seriously? Have you noticed that newspapers are dying out? Have you noticed that a lot of book blogs are generating serious traffic in the maven market—the one market most helpful in creating advance buzz? Oh wait, and it doesn’t cost you anything! The bloggers come to you, offering to promote your books (because they already know about them because their ear is more to the ground than your publicist), and yet, often as not, you don’t even reply to their e-mails, or interview requests. Maybe you should be aggressively profiling these people and offering them swag? Maybe you should be pitching them. Just a thought.

Why not hire better graphic designers? Most cover designs suck. I’m sorry, but if I have to look at the sweaty withers of another horse running into the sunset, another vintage lampshade, another goddamn dog, I’m gonna’ shoot myself!

Why not boldly target new audiences, instead of mourning the loss of the ones you’ve already alienated? The reason I ask is this: I wrote a book, it sold modestly well due to the forces of luck and a lot of sweat, but I must’ve heard a thousand times: I gave your book to my niece so-and-so, and she loved it—and she /never/ reads. I’m serious, I hear it all the time.

Maybe we could make books cool again. There’s a lot of cool books being written, but nobody’s making them cool (see sweaty horse withers, and publicist with no faith in blogs).

Maybe “Reality Hunger” is more like a “Big Mac Attack.” Maybe you shouldn’t publish books that feed this hunger. Maybe you should just stick to your guns and believe in the tried-and-true novel—put your best foot forward, so to speak, and quit pandering.

Maybe you should start dictating markets again.

I know, I know, you’ve got answers for all these questions, corporate publisher. You’ve got your best practices, you’ve got your market research, but you haven’t got any balls.

XOXO,

je

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Mike Tennant is the co-author of The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture with Terry O’Reilly.

***

A few decades back, Texan Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson gazed down the highway and didn’t like what she saw. Billboards blocked her view of the plains, of the distant hills, and of her beloved wildflowers. So she complained to her husband, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who prompted Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act, which placed limits on the spread of posters— or billboards as they’re popularly known— and preserved the views that Lady Bird Johnson loved so well.

So what makes this the Age of Persuasion, and why write about it?

Advertising — like it or not — is the mightiest, most pervasive culture force of the 21st Century. It’s infused in every aspect of life today. Ads are on condoms, in space, in churches, and stamped on the sand at public beaches. Ads are written into books (not ours!) movies, even stage plays. I think we need to start a meaningful dialogue about how all that affects our culture.

 

You and co-author Terry O’Reilly are both functioning ad men- doesn’t that make you biased when you write about advertising?

We love what we do. Make no mistake there. That said: we think a majority of the ads people see and hear on a given day fail. Speaking for myself, I believe 95% of ad creation is garbage, strewn carelessly across the culture landscape. 4% might actually earn people’s time and attention.

 

Okay, ad-guy: are there places you believe ads should not go?

I wish newspapers and news broadcasts were not ad-driven. It forces editors and reporters to look over their shoulders. Imagine reporting on the Gulf spill when you know BP is a sponsor. Or any other oil giant? Trouble is, I can’t think of another economic model that works for delivering news.

Personally- again I speak for myself here- I also believe there’s no place for ads in public schools, no matter how cash-strapped they are. It crosses a line from serving kids to using them- literally selling their time and attention to advertisers.

 

Yikes. So what good is there in advertising?

More than people give it credit for. It underwrites the cost of so much of our media- TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and yes, websites. It helps pay for our public transit. And every now and then- maybe once in every umpteen thousand ads- there’s are ads that actually inspire: rare gems that leave the cultural campsite better than they found it.

 

Name three.

Terry put me onto the magnificent Volkswagen ads of the early 1960s, by Doyle Dane Bernbach of New York, including print ads headlined “Think Small” and “Lemon,” and sensational TV ads such as “Funeral” and “Snow Plough,” which live on today on YouTube.

More recently, the fantastic TV ad for Old Spice, and the “World’s Most Interesting Man” campaign for Dos Equis are better entertainment, to me, than much of the broadcast content they sponsor. There are always a few great ads out there; ask anyone who goes to a revue cinema to watch award-winning ads from Cannes or the London International Ad Awards or the New York Festivals.

 

Gusty day, isn’t it?

Yeah. But then, these are gusty times.

 

The biggest problem I’ve always had with Western philosophy, especially in the wake of the neo-Platonic Humanism that fueled the Renaissance, is contempt for crowds. Pericles’ famous comment about “hoi polloi,” hailing the masses as the fount of Athenian greatness, has somehow been transmogrified into a symbol of contempt for crowds and crowd behavior by Western intellects. I’ll none of that¹. Crowds, like individuals, are capable of intelligence, and of stupidity.  Yet bigotry against crowds seems a common affliction of modern intellectuals, especially progressive ones.

Wow.

Really? Really?

This is where we’re at?

We’ve had so much fun with the 50 Things Writers Shouldn’t Do post (currently up to roughly a gazillion things writer’s shouldn’t do), that we decided to turn the tables, and solicit your help in creating a list of things publishers shouldn’t do.


JE:

  • Don’t try to capture lightning in a bottle—just promote your authors instead.
  • Don’t publish “the next” anything.
  • Don’t look for “the sure thing.”
  • Don’t overpay debut authors—nine times out of ten, you’re ruining at least one career.
  • Don’t publish debuts in HC—TPO is the way to go!
  • Don’t pretend that Bookscan is in any way prescriptive in negotiating author advances.
  • Don’t send royalty statements six weeks late.
  • Don’t publish so damn many titles!
  • Don’t put a dog on the cover of a book as a means of persuading consumers.
  • Don’t put a dog on the cover at all (it’s over, okay, O-V-E-R, dogs are 2006)

JC:

  • Don’t pad the advance print run to buyers to try to get them to buy more. If you’re printing so many of them, I won’t have any trouble getting them later, will I?
  • Don’t use props in author photos. (except hats. I’ll accept reasonable hats (i’m looking at you JE), but nothing that belongs in mardigras, and no indiana jones hats for thrillers about archeologists.)
  • Don’t let poorly copyedited books go out the door. This is a huge annoyance to me. Half the books I read seem to have typos or punctuation errors in them. Christ, give the intern one last go at it.
  • Don’t make the blurbs and blurb authors more prominent than the author or book they are promoting.
  • Don’t publish books you aren’t interested in promoting.
  • Don’t do what everyone else is doing.
  • Don’t pay an advance the book has no chance of recouping.
  • Don’t over-distribute to one channel while underselling another.
  • Don’t tell accounts who can sell your book now that you are “waiting for returns.”
  • Don’t be afraid to edit books by big authors. I love great big doorstop books. 500 pages, 800 pages, whatever, but a lot of books would benefit from a little slicing and dicing, even the big guys.

JR:

  • Don’t publish a well known literary author, and never reprint the book, even after it gets glowing reviews.
  • Don’t sell that well known author in at the chains, leaving almost nothing for the independents, which have to wait for a reprint that will never come.
  • Don’t depend on a talk show host to sell your books.
  • Don’t pretend like you’re too good to read a query letter. You’re a publisher of books. That’s what happens when you hang out your shingle.
  • Don’t publish anymore books about Vampires or Pirates.  I don’t care who has died and left a manuscript unpublished.
  • Don’t pay comedians six figures to write about their life, unless it’s Jim Norton. That last book was some funny shit.
  • Don’t publish a second book from an author whose first book sold well, when the second book is the same thing as the first.
  • Don’t publish books that you can’t distribute.
  • Don’t pretend that the chains will be here forever.  Just because they have all that space, doesn’t mean you have to fill it.
  • Don’t pretend like bloggers don’t exist. When we ask for a review copy it’s because we want to talk about how great the book is. Not sell it on Ebay.

DH:

  • Don’t say in your publicity that you will be working with literary blogs to promote your author and then blow off the bloggers. You have to actually do it if you say that you will.
  • If you want to do an interview between your writer and a Blogger, then step out of the way and let the writer and the blogger talk to each other. Why? A good interview depends on the establishment of trust. Two people can’t trust each other if they have to have a go-between in their conversation.
  • Every legitimate email to a publishing house should be answered. What amazes me is that most so-called marketing departments don’t want to talk. You want word-of-mouth for your book? Doesn’t that mean that you have to open your own mouth? I dunno…but it doesn’t seem like rocket science to me.
  • Now that I got that off my chest…I understand that no one describes a book as “wise and witty”anymore. Thank goodness. But the substitutes for this phrase that involve a double alliteration aren’t any better. Don’t do it.
  • Jump into the pool if you want to use social media. If your writers are beating you to the punch, then what are you there for? I just learned that a writer I like has written enough of a new novel to give some preliminary readings. Now I even know what the title of the novel will be. For a fan this is great. But did I learn this from the publisher? No. I learned it from the writer’s Facebook page. Does Facebook mean that publishers don’t need to have marketing departments anymore? You tell me.
  • Richard Nash has talked about this: Don’t neglect the fans. Don’t hold them in contempt like you do. What are you afraid of? That they won’t kiss your ass? They won’t. Become a fan yourself if you want to please them. Your smartest writers know this better than you do.
  • Don’t inflate announced print runs. Ha…ha…ha. I meant that as a joke.
  • Don’t encourage your reps to read galleys that you won’t distribute to your accounts. I don’t want to hear that my rep has read a galley that he can’t get for me. I also don’t want to hear that he had dinner with a writer that I wasn’t invited to meet or that he went to a great movie tie-in screening that I wasn’t given a ticket for. The bigger the house, the more they do this.
  • Don’t get afraid if writers decide to talk to their fans and vice versa. No harm will come from this. Fans are good, not something you have to stamp out at all costs.
  • As for Jonathan and dogs…I don’t know what’s going on there with his no dogs on the cover. But here’s my cover rule: avoid dark covers, they usually don’t work. They tend to turn off the casual bookstore browser. I am greatly looking forward to seeing the cover of West of Here.


I normally refuel my car at QuikTrip, a regional convenience store chain that differentiates itself from others with clean facilities and prompt, friendly customer service. I mean, I don’t really give a shit about the customer service because I always pay at the pump, but on the occasion that I do have to go inside for something, it’s not an unpleasant experience the way some of those places are. It’s clean and brightly lit and the employees aren’t scary.

QuikTrip probably breaks even on us pay-at-the-pumpers, so in order to make a profit they try to lure us inside to buy goods and services. The way they try to convince us is to advertise these goods and services near the pumps, and usually the ads involve food. Because we’re all in a hurry and usually hungry, right? One recent ad was for some kind of breakfast confectionery concoction,  like a cake or a biscuit or a strudel (I don’t really remember exactly) that I presume is manufactured in a giant plant somewhere. And since QuikTrip marketers realize most Tulsans are overweight, that many of them probably feel a constant, nagging guilt about eating too much of the wrong foods, the tag line they chose was:

“Because you have all day to burn it off.”

They know most of us won’t burn it off, but that doesn’t matter because the profit margin on the breakfast is large in comparison to gasoline. And besides, if no one was overweight, the exercise machine business would dry up.

I realize that in order to sell something you often are forced to market it. But at what point does the sheer gaudiness of advertising gall us enough to ignore it? And what about the quality of the product? When do we finally put our foot down and say “no” to the McRib? Pressed pork in the shape of a rack of ribs? Bones included? Really?

Where I live, when you drive down any of the main city streets, the curbside advertising is often downright ugly. Businesses fight for the attention of your eyes with nothing less than their survival at stake. When you’re looking for a tailor shop, for a Greek restaurant, for a salon, you welcome those many-colored signs hoisted high into the air, but when you’re just driving home from work, caught in traffic, when you actually look at this marketing with a more critical eye, it almost seems sad. Desperate, even.

Over the years, Tulsa has gradually expanded southward, and traveling from north to south is like driving through time. The farther south you go, the worse the problem gets–except in planned, affluent neighborhoods–but even those residents are forced to drive into the commerce to buy the things they want.

Advertisers have become more brazen over the years, I suppose, because there is more competition than ever for services rendered. More companies offering more services means more ads competing for your attention. Everyone speaks a little louder until the conversation on what to do with your money becomes a roar imploring you to spend.

But on what? Unique, durable items that wow you with their innovation and quality? Or cheap, soulless shit stacked twelve feet high at your local Wal Mart Supercenter? It’s your choice, really. After all this is America.

I find it telling, though, that the best restaurants in Tulsa employ modest, even subtle signage. Advertising isn’t a priority because apparently word of mouth does the job more effectively.

The reason I mention all this is because on Saturday I stopped at a convenience store that wasn’t QuikTrip. This one is called (I am not making this up) Kum & Go. And while filling my car with gas, you know what I saw on the nozzle? An ad for NEW BANANAS FOSTER CAPPUCCINO!

On the oily nozzle of the gas pump.

At Kum & Go.

Doesn’t that sound delicious?