30 January 2010

James Patterson and the Argument for Advertising

After my remarks about the weakness of book publishers’ advertising last week, I feel obliged to acknowledge this passage from Jonathan Mahler’s profile of thriller writer James Patterson that appeared in the very next day’s New York Times Magazine:

When Little, Brown was preparing to release “Along Came a Spider,” Patterson tried to persuade his publisher that the best way to get the book onto best-seller lists was to advertise aggressively on television. Little, Brown initially balked. Bookstores typically base their stocking decisions on the sales of an author’s previous books, and Patterson’s had not done particularly well.

This was going to be the first of several novels about an African-American homicide detective in Washington, D.C., named Alex Cross; the prevailing wisdom was that the audience for a series built around a recurring character needed to be nurtured gradually. What’s more, large-scale TV advertising was rare in publishing, not only because of the prohibitive cost but also for cultural reasons. The thinking was that selling a book as if it were a lawn-care product could very well backfire by turning off potential readers.

Patterson wrote, produced and paid for a commercial himself. It opened with a spider dropping down the screen and closed with a voice-over: “You can stop waiting for the next ‘Silence of the Lambs.’” Once Little, Brown saw the ad, it agreed to share the cost of rolling it out over the course of several weeks in three particularly strong thriller markets — New York, Chicago and Washington.

“Along Came a Spider” made its debut at No. 9 on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list, ensuring it favorable placement near the entrance of bookstores, probably the single biggest driver of book sales. It rose to No. 2 in paperback and remains Patterson’s most successful book, with more than five million copies in print.
So here’s an example of advertising bringing a mass audience to a book with a black protagonist. But what else does this story tell us?

First, the publisher didn’t come up with this advertisement. Patterson did, and he “ran J. Walter Thompson’s North American branch before becoming a full-time writer in 1996.” So the campaign started with the free services of one of the country’s leading ad executives. Most publishers don’t have that luxury.

Second, this campaign (like the book itself) was piggybacking on an established hit: Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, published in 1989 and adapted into a blockbuster movie in 1991. Harris hadn’t written anything since, so Patterson offered his book instead. Notably, he didn’t invoke his own record as winner of an Edgar Award for best debut mystery; he sought the fans of a more popular author.

Third, this ad wasn’t selling a book with a black hero; it was selling a thriller. The ad showed a spider instead of Alex Cross, and the dust jacket was (like most thrillers of the time) mostly type. The fact that Cross is African-American becomes as clear as a claxon in chapter 1:
“Sometimes I think the same thing,” I said, “but we’ll probably tough it out.”

“Yes, black people always do. We persevere. We always suffer in silence.”

“Not always in silence,” I said to her.
And by that point most readers have already chosen the book.

Finally, this TV ad campaign in only three cities—minuscule by the standards of other entertainment fields—was seen in publishing as a huge investment of dollars. Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus all alluded in their advance reviews to how Along Came a Spider was getting a big marketing push. (Only Library Journal actually recommended the book.)

Along Came a Spider represented Patterson’s turn from being an author of respected but not very lucrative mysteries to being a thriller-writing machine with constant bestsellers and as many collaborators as Alexandre Dumas père. I doubt anyone thinks of the Alex Cross series as an incisive look at African-American life; it’s a form of escapism. So advertising may be effective at selling thrillers that happen to have a black hero, and that’s not a bad thing, but such marketing might be less effective at promoting either serious literature or interracial inquiry.


Anonymous said...

Erm. Why does the book have to have "an incisive look at African-American life" or be "either serious literature or [promote] interracial inquiry?" What's wrong with escapism? That's a huge portion of the reader market. I haven't read the book, but I give Patterson points for having pushed to bring to a mass market a protagonist of color--and being hugely successful at it.

I have other thoughts about this post, but I need to digest them and I'll post them on my blog.

J. L. Bell said...

Nothing’s wrong with escapist literature as such, as most of the books discussed on this blog might imply.

But, I’m asking, can this approach work for books that aren’t escapist or genre fiction? Will it work for depictions of ethnic minorities who don’t fit so comfortably into the majority’s existing cultural frameworks?

Entertainment of this sort can make large mainstream audiences pleased to read about African-American characters. But will that pleasure carry over to literature that’s more challenging, artistically and socially? Does it affect everyday behavior, or politics, or is it a way to escape real choices about interracial understanding?