My Evolving Theses About Silly Advertising; or, What Would the Love Child of John Grisham and J.K. Rowling Look Like?

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This past Christmas break, I was sitting in the local bookstore quite a bit, and every half-hour or so John Grisham would come over the loudspeaker and tell me about his new book with a lead character that was unlike any character he has ever written about before. There was a big cardboard sign on the way in to the store advertising the book (The Somethingorother [I can’t remember which noun Grisham chose this time]). The movie-like cardboard cutout said something along the lines of: “Grisham: The First Name in Blockbusters”.

I’m not hating on Grisham here. I haven’t read one of his books in a long time (probably back in The Pelican Brief era), but I do owe a lot to Grisham — namely, he was probably the first writer I read without being told to read. So, all you Grisham lovers just hush up now. My beef with his advertising over the loudspeaker and with huge pieces of cardboard (aside from the annoyance factor) is why, oh why!?, does John Grisham need to advertise a book. I have a sneaking suspicion that if he wrote a new book and didn’t tell anyone about it until it arrived in bookstores it would still be a #1 bestseller. He has a large, loyal fanbase. I assume he still writes a good story. People will buy it. Even if he doesn’t still write a good story.

Okay. So just to come on out and be blunt about everything, this is my thesis statement (or actually, thesis question [and no one give me crap about my thesis being a “question” because it “weakens” my point or because it actually makes it not really a thesis at all — I’m a writing teacher and therefore am entitled to play fast and loose with the whole “thesis” idea]): why are his books so heavily advertised? Is his publisher worried the book isn’t going to sell?

Of course the book is going to sell. So, it must be more a matter of who is going to sell the book. Is it going to be Wal-Mart or Borders or Barnes and Nobles or Amazon? Knowing nothing about the arena of the competitive market, maybe its the person in the middle who must prostitute themselves in an attempt to secure the purchases of the buying public (okay, so now I’m not sure if my thesis is the why of the last paragraph or the who of this one, so we’ll go with a sort of evolving thesis here — keep us on our toes and what-have-you).

Quick experiment. Call the local store of your choice (could be a gas station for all it matters, as this experiment is scientifically guaranteed to work if you call any For-Profit business) and quickly after thanking you for calling they will inform you that you can at this very store PRE-ORDER your very own copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at 40% off. That’s really the end of the experiment, but just for kicks lately, I’ve been asking them what it means, exactly, to pre-order something.

Oh, and they’ll also tell you that you can-absolutely-NOT get the book faster from anywhere else.

I understand that the publishing industry relies on writers like Grisham and Rowling to sell books in order to a) make a profit and b) enable them to publish lesser known writers who do not reach as big an audience. I don’t understand why they would spend a lot of money with a media blitz, for months on end, for a book that will without a doubt be the bestselling book of the year.

Good money says that sometime in the next month or so there will be an article in some major publication lamenting the fact that people don’t read anymore, that the publishing industry is in shambles because people watch too much television and movies. Etc. (Quick aside and what will be an unexplored thesis in this post: I think people probably read more now than 50 years ago, but I’ll just leave it at that as too many theses spoil somethingorother.) Yet, millions of dollars (I’m making that up, but it’s got to be a lot) are being spent to sell A book to people who don’t read.

So, again, why the media blitz? And, (okay, I’ll go ahead and combine the two theses), who is driving the blitz? Is it the publishers or the stores? Maybe this is a chicken and egg question, as the two are obviously in bed together, but for some reason this bothers me. Not because I’m a snob who doesn’t read Grisham or a purist who thinks of books as art and that art should not be advertised. I’m sure the promotions for pre-orders in bookstores and gas stations are largely symptoms of the I-want-to-make-some-money-off-of-this-too factor, but I’ll not let these theses off the hook that easily! Unless the buying public really is silly enough to only buy books they know other people are buying, unless they somehow are unable to find out when their favorite author’s newest book is to be released, unless they are in such a hurry to get this book faster somehow, someone’s (publisher’s or bookstore’s) resources could be reallocated into a more strategic area, no?

All this advertising bothers me because it seems money wasted (money that could be used to publish other books, lower book prices, pay other writers [my roommate would let his book be published for a six-pack of PBR, he claims]), and it bothers me because it seems to mirror Hollywood promotions too much.

Some agent somewhere read the manuscript for the first Harry Potter and for A Time to Kill and convinced some editor that the book was worth taking a chance on and the books were published without much of a hoo-hah. And they sold. And sold. Yet the publishing industry (which tries to give people an alternative form of entertainment than movies or television or radio) and bookstores (which try to provide a different environment in which people can be entertained), have decided to advertise in the exact same manner as movies and radio. Maybe all entertainment industries are more alike than I’m comfortable with. Or maybe I’m wrong about the goals of publishers and bookstores. Either way, I’d like to see bookstores and publishers (whichever is responsible) take some different approach to promoting books and writers and reading in general. Something that I can’t see on television or at the theater.

Next week I’m going to try to say something intelligent about the author China Mielville. I’m doing research and everything. Or at least reading an interview.

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3 Responses to “My Evolving Theses About Silly Advertising; or, What Would the Love Child of John Grisham and J.K. Rowling Look Like?”

  1. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Quick point of order on Grisham. Although it was his first novel (published in 1988), A Time to Kill didn’t see much success until after he made his big splash with The Firm in 1991.

    Don’t ask me how or why I know this. I’m not a huge Grisham fan. I will say that A Time to Kill is his best work even if it does steal rather clumsily from Harper Lee.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I have to agree with Mikey.

    I think publishers are to blame. For instance, go to http://www.centerfieldpublishing.com to see a first-class publisher that goes against the grain. No mention of Harry Potter there!

    While you’re there, order 100 copies or so of their main (only) selection. Let’s start a movement! Stand up for starving writers!

  3. Michael Lasley Says:

    You’re right Joe, although I was hoping that little tid-bit would go unnoticed in the article (and it’s my favorite, as well, of the three or so I’ve read). Way to call me out, though. Thanks. Actually, I’m glad you did, as it gives me an opportunity to brag about my book collection, which contains a first edition hardback of A Time to Kill which I found in a used book store with no price tag on it and the person running the counter said, well, it’s a Grisham book, so how about 50 cents? Seems like it was a small press that originally published it. The Firm, I assume, wasn’t heavily advertised and everyone seemed to be reading when it was released. For whatever reason, it sold without lots of press.

    As for you, Al, I’m actually planning a two-parter on small book presses (or a particular independent book press, to be exact) and how they are bucking the traditional publishing industry. But that’ll be in a couple of weeks.

    Also, I do plan to buy Harry Potter, but I would have done so without the advertising.

    Mikey

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