7 remarkably inventive ways authors have promoted their books

salesperson

The book market’s a tough one: with supermarkets and online retailers driving down prices and publishing houses looking to their marketing teams rather than their editors for acquisition advice, it’s getting harder and harder to for writers to sell fiction to publishers and for publishers to shift books – especially more literary titles – to the public. But that means that writers, publicists and bookstores are getting ever more inventive in their sales techniques: here are seven real-life tricks that have been used to catch the customers’ attention – some formally and intellectually innovative, and some, well, just plain old audacious.

patterson

Just this month, James Patterson, the world’s biggest-selling author – who delegates most of the actual writing to hacks-for-hire and has brought out three books already this year (at the time of writing: late January!) – launched Private Vegas, a book that will be available to download to 1000 readers only and will self-destruct 24 hours later. Better read fast!


Even weirder, one print copy is being flogged for $300k, which will buy you the book, a weekend in a fancy hotel, dinner with Patterson, and the chance to watch the physical book actually explode, in an undisclosed location, accompanied by a SWAT team. Um, if money’s no object…

murakami

On a level that’s more art and less mess, we’ve got Haruki Murakami, Japan’s biggest international literary export, whose most recent hardback, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, comes with its own set of stickers with which you can jazz up your copy. ‘Tsukuru’ translates as ‘to make’ or ‘to build’, so it makes sense, and hey, it’s fun!

ali smith

Ali Smith’s latest, How To Be Both, comes in two different versions: the book’s split into two segments, both of which are labeled ‘One’, each narrated by a different character, and, according to which version of the book you end up with, either one could come first. Like the Murakami, this fits the book’s theme, but whichever way round you get it means you could have quite a startlingly different reading experience to the next buyer.

freedom

Now, this next might not a marketing gimmick per se, it certainly stirred a certain amount of release-day hype. When Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom, came out in 2010, the version that hit the UK shelves was ‘the wrong file’, containing, Franzen said, a whole bunch of typos and errors. Come to the launch, come to the shop, and exchange it for the proper one, cried Harper Collins, and they even set up a ‘Freedom Recall Hotline’.


Intentionally or otherwise, they got quite a lot more press than you might expect a literary novel to gather, even a long-awaited Franzen novel. (On the same book tour, a fan famously stole the author’s glasses. Way to make the headlines, J-Franz!)

7 year bitch

Enter novelist Jennifer Belle, who, disappointed at the lack of stir created by her publisher’s publicity department for her novel The Seven-Year Bitch, took on the job of promoting the book herself: she hired a bunch of actresses at $8 p/hr to laugh publically while reading her book on the NYC subway system. Over 600 actresses applied for the roles and the stunt got her national coverage. Mission accomplished!

jpod

Bonus material: taking inspiration, perhaps, from McDonald’s Happy Meals, Douglas Coupland gave free toys away with the initial run of his 2006 book JPod – there were six in total, to match his six main characters. Thinking about it, actually, it’s more Pokémon than Happy Meal…

hannibal

Vegetarians, look away now: when Thomas Harris’s Hannibal came out in 1999, not only did one London bookshop serve up broad beans and chianti as an in-joke to the fans who’d queued for the midnight release, but the publishers passed out bacon sandwiches to commuters at Euston station the following morning as a classy homage to the man-eating pigs in the book itself.

If you’ve got a better book-marketing anecdote than this lot, let us know!


ValerieOriordanValerie O’Riordan is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. She edits both The Manchester Review and Bookmunch, and her chapbook of microfictions, Enough, was published in 2012. She runs regular workshops on fiction writing and also works on a freelance basis as a video editor for Belle Vue Productions, following half a decade as an editor with the BBC. She blogs at not exactly true and can be found on Twitter too.

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12 replies
  1. Lilly J
    Lilly J says:

    Bacons sandwiches is inspired! But James Patterson’s is just dumb. Not that i’m surprised he’s a dumb “writer”

    Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Agree with you on both points. In fact can’t think of anything more likely to get me interested in a book than a bcaon sarnie 🙂

      Reply
  2. Wordsworth
    Wordsworth says:

    Shows how times have changed. Can you imagine Hemingway or Orwell doing stunts like this? Makes you kinda of sad they have to go through such a circus but if it sells more books so be it.

    Reply
    • poop
      poop says:

      They dont have to do this. This apears to be money/ego motivated. I dont know the guy but thats what it looks like. He’s already selling books and has a staff doing his writing. And I gsuantee after time it will be released again to the public again for round two of profits. I’m not saying this as a bad thing. Its capitalism and I support it. All im saying is that you don’t need to white night this guy.

      Reply
  3. Jason
    Jason says:

    Not exactly marketing, but in keeping with the theme of the book, the author of Ready Player One hid a link to a newly commissioned old school style arcade game in the book. The first person to beat it and follow the other clues would win a fully tricked out De Lorean.

    Reply
  4. Aldamato
    Aldamato says:

    I’m half convinced that “James Patterson” is just a pseudonym used by his publishing company to promote books that would otherwise be lost in the noise of the commercial bookselling world. He publishes a staggering amount of books under his name, targeted to almost every possible demographic. There’s no way he’s actually personally writing over a dozen books every year.

    Reply
  5. Helen Fuller
    Helen Fuller says:

    Very interesting article. I can’t say I’d go along with any of those ideas myself. My editor has suggested that as my novel, The Internet Party is about internet democracy and the impact of political ambition on family life, I should send a free PDF copy to Members of Parliament. My first reaction was ‘How could I give my book away free?’ However, upon reflection, I’ve decided that I’d rather people read it than not, even if I don’t get paid. Wish me luck!

    Reply
    • Joel Willans
      Joel Willans says:

      I think the great thing about each of these ideas is that they showcase the themes of each of the books so well. I’m a especially a fan of the bacon sarnie angle, but then I’m a big fan of bacon sarnies. As for your Editors idea, I say why not. Although, I’d be interested to hear how your Editor thinks that will help your novel gain more publicity in the real world.

      Reply
  6. Elaine Chiew
    Elaine Chiew says:

    Nikesh Shukla, an author in the U.K., who uses a lot of humour in his writing, launched a piece of steak into the sky during (yes, you guessed it) the launch of his book, Meatspace. Gimmicky, I guess, but it got him coverage in the Daily Mail. I don’t know about marketing stunts, but I do think it is harder and harder for writers to compete with television and other entertainment mediums, such as video gaming, apps etc. At the risk of having popcorn thrown at me, I would contend that it is no longer enough for writers to go along to his/her book reading and simply stand there and read an excerpt of his/her book in a boring, deadpan voice. Just think, in the future, there might be an app that can actually do this in far more interesting ways, maybe even spoof the writer’s own voice. So if we were going to stand in front of the public and do something, should we not step up?

    Reply

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