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.
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…
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’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.
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!)
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!
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…
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!
Valerie 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.