The rolling premise in this series of posts is that marketing and selling should prompt internal as well as external debate. Unless you give your entire brain over to the demands and preferences of the market I believe you have a responsibility to protect the part of you that cares about what you write, because it’s your authorial neck on the line. If you don’t want to accept that kind of risk, or you’d like to have others to blame for any failure while you share the credit for any success, then you should quit writing and become an agent, editor or publisher.
Marketing and Selling: a Case Study
The forces at work when taking a book to market are intrinsically complicated. Managing motives and expectations can be as important to the reception of a title as the work itself, and it’s always beneficial if the author, publisher and audience are on the same page. Quite often, however, they are not.
As an unknown author you’re not going to be able to dictate terms to anyone. But even celebrated writers can have trouble avoiding the machinations of those who are determined to profit from their labor. To see what I mean, consider the case of Steve Martin, who appeared in person late last year at the 92nd Street Y in New York City to discuss his new novel, An Object of Beauty.
As a famous celebrity in his own right, the draw on that evening was not so much Martin’s book as Martin himself. That’s one of the advantages of celebrity, and the main reason publishers are willing to sign almost any D-list notable to a book deal. Celebrity can always be repurposed to draw attention to other things, including worthy charities, thigh-building exercise devices, or books you’ve written or had written for you. From a marketing and sales perspective celebrity is a product in its own right apart from whatever product a celebrity might be hawking, and the 92nd Street Y certainly understood that when they sold tickets to Martin’s appearance.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons the evening did not go well. Audience expectations, marketing expectations, celebrity expectations and author expectations all clashed, leaving many feeling as if the event had been a failure. Here’s the Y’s executive director, Sol Adler :
“We acknowledge that last night’s event with Steve Martin did not meet the standard of excellence that you have come to expect from 92nd St. Y,” he wrote in an e-mail to ticket holders. “We planned for a more comprehensive discussion and we, too, were disappointed with the evening. We will be mailing you a $50 certificate for each ticket you purchased to last night’s event.
From the point of view of the 92nd Street Y and some members of the audience, Steve Martin was a disappointment worthy of a refund. What’s particularly interesting about that appraisal is that the Y tried to influence the course of events in mid-stream by collecting feedback (marketing data) from the audience and delivering that information to the stage:
Midway through the conversation, a Y representative handed Ms. Solomon a note asking her to talk more about Mr. Martin’s career and, implicitly, less about the art world, the subject of his latest novel, “An Object of Beauty.”
According to Mr. Martin, viewers watching the interview by closed-circuit television from across the country sent e-mails to the Y complaining “that the evening was not going the way they wished, meaning we were discussing art.”
It was, he said, “a little like an actor responding in Act III to an audience’s texts to ‘shorten the soliloquies.’ ”
The big difference between Steve Martin and whatever else the 92nd Street Y sells or hopes to profit from is that Steve Martin is a person, not a thing. And because he’s a person — albeit a successful, famous person — he gets to weigh in on how he is packaged, marketed, sold, folded, spindled or mutilated. Fortunately, for history’s sake, Martin decided to respond to the charges of the 92nd Street Y, and the points he made were a devastating critique of the marketing impulse.
I have no doubt that, in time, and with some cooperation from the audience, we would have achieved ignition. I have been performing a long time, and I can tell when the audience’s attention is straying. I do not need a note. My mind was already churning like a weather front; at that moment, if I could have sung my novel to a Broadway beat I would have.
But I can’t help wondering what we might have said if we hadn’t been stopped. Maybe we were just around the corner from something thrilling. Isn’t that the nature of a live conversation? It halts, it stutters, it doubles back, it soars. We might have found a small nugget, something off topic or unexpected, that wouldn’t have warranted the refund that was offered.
More importantly, Martin also recognized what he himself could and could not live with:
Regardless, it was hard to get on track, any track, after the note’s arrival, and finally, when I answered submitted questions that had been selected by the people in charge, I knew I would have rather died onstage with art talk than with the predictable questions that had been chosen for me.
Despite the 92nd Street Y’s real-time marketing data, despite the way in which they packaged and sold Martin to the audience, and despite the audience’s expectations that the evening wold be tailored to their needs, Steve Martin the human being, author, actor, comedian and musician — who, in his day, was bigger than Lady Gag will ever be — decided that wasn’t okay.
And you know what? He was right. As I later wrote:
Bottom line for me: I’d rather see what Steven Martin decides to do than what somebody else thinks he should do. #includingpinkpanthermovies
From the point of view of the 92nd Street Y, Steve Martin was a product to be shaped by marketing. That’s the same point of view any publisher will have regarding your work. From Martin’s point of view, however, his appearance and his book were to be sold, not shaped to the appetite of a particular market.
On the evening in question I’m sure Steve Martin got handshakes and smiles before he took the stage, and that nobody pulled him aside and threatened to kneecap him if he didn’t give the 92nd Street Y what it wanted. Those are the same handshakes and smiles you’ll get when you sign a book deal. After that it will be up to you to decide how to reconcile your publisher’s objectives with your own ideals if the two conflict.
Despite Martin’s celebrity, the 92nd Street Y expected to have considerable say in what Martin presented to the audience. That’s the same point of view any agent, editor, publisher will have about your work and career. You’re the only one who will be able to decide how much influence they get to have, because their default preference will always be for one hundred percent compliance on your part.
When the evening did not go as planned, the 92nd Street Y showed no reluctance in blaming Martin for the audience’s dissatisfaction, completely omitting any reference to the way in which the Y itself mismanaged the packaging and presentation of Martin’s appearance. This is what your publisher will do to you if your book doesn’t sell. Personally, I think there’s a difference between failing on the merits and selling out, but neither is a guarantee of success. Like Steve Martin, if I’m going to go down in flames I’d rather do so knowing I stayed true to my vision.
You’re not a famous celebrity. You’ve got no leverage. What you do have — or should have — is a sense of who you are and what you want to say. If you’re not willing to protect that aspect of yourself it’s going to be replaced with a programmable chip under the control of the same kind of people who had no problem throwing Steve Martin under the bus when he didn’t do the monkey tricks expected of him.
If you want to be somebody’s monkey that’s your business. What you need to remember in your writing life is that you’re the only one who will ever be against the idea.
— Mark Barrett