Don’t just blame the marketing

The great Maxwell Perkins
Maxwell Perkins, Library of Congress
Mike Hyatt is fond of saying that good marketing makes bad books fail fast. The logic is pretty straightforward: If the marketing works and people swarm to a book only to discover it’s lousy, what happens? Blog posts, email chatter, coffee-shop eyerolls — scads of people saying that the book stinks. The better the marketing, the faster they find out, and the quicker the book goes down like the Hindenburg.

But most authors whose books bomb don’t see it that way. If a book bombs, a common author complaint is that the marketing was off: not enough of it, not enough money spent, etc. I don’t think that’s always the case.

Lots of books with incredible marketing campaigns sputter and fail. Lots of books with poor marketing campaigns take off and thrive. There’s no direct link between marketing and successful publishing.

Marketing can announce a book. It can draw attention to it. It can connect it to readers. In these things, it is essential and helpful. What it can’t do is make a book move when it doesn’t already have the potential to do so.

Max Perkins, the famed editor of such luminaries as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe, addressed this in his letters from time to time. Here’s one to Arthur Train:

Authors generally have a completely unjustifiable faith in what book-advertising can do, and they get it generally from knowing what advertising in general can do. . . . The fact is, as all publishers believe, that advertising will greatly help a selling book, but that it will have no effect . . . on the sale of a book which lacks the mysterious selling qualities. This has been proved over and over. In one case an author of ours . . . insisted on spending three thousand dollars, on top of about two thousand of ours, because he was certain that his book would sell if advertised enough. It had already sold some four or five thousand copies by the time he put in his money, and it never sold more than three or four hundred beyond that.

And here’s one to Sherwood Anderson:

As to the advertising, publishers all think the same way about it. It is like getting a stationary automobile into motion. The advertising is like a man pushing it. If he can get it to move, the more he pushes the faster it will move and the more easily. But if he cannot get it to move, he can push till he drops dead and it will stand still.

These letters were written in 1938 and 1940, respectively. Nothing’s changed. If a book doesn’t have what readers want — those “mysterious selling qualities” — then it won’t work no matter how much time and money a publisher pours into marketing.

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