When it comes to launching books, timing is (apparently) everything.
With book publishing in an existential struggle in the wake of the digital revolution, marketing has only gained in importance.
I’m not talking just about mastering social media or search engine optimization, but sometimes just plain old savvy in understanding how the market works.
Case in point: A good friend, James McGrath Morris, is publishing a new book this week, Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, a biography of a pioneering African-American journalist with a career spanning decades.
Morris, who had written two previous biographies and founded an international organization of biographers, had essentially finished this book two years ago. But the publisher, HarperCollins’ Amistad imprint, could not get it ready in time to release in February 2014 and felt it was essential for the book’s success to publish it during Black History Month, so they pushed back publication until now.
Say, what? Wait a whole year just to get the release timing exactly right?
It was, of course, frustrating for the author, but he moved on to the next project and waited it out.
Was it worth it? Were the marketing mavens at HarperCollins right?
Well, the book was prominently displayed on the front page of the New York Times Arts section last week — before its official publication date Feb. 17th. The story pictured the book’s cover, and the jump covered half a page with several more photos of Ethel Payne and a photo of the author.
“Books of the Times” reviewer Dwight Garner gave it, despite some caviling about clichés, what anyone would have to say was a very positive review, from an opening that included “In [Morris’] important and often absorbing new book,” to the flourish at the end, where Garner says “it’s a deep pleasure to meet Ethel Payne…her own soul beams from this book.”
According to Morris, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other papers are all planning reviews. [Read the Independent’s review here.]
Not to take anything away from my friend’s accomplishment — it is a work of prodigious research, terrific empathy, and, the occasional cliché notwithstanding, fluid prose — but would even a book as worthy as this necessarily attract the same amount of attention if editors weren’t looking for content to observe Black History Month?
Perhaps. But Morris, having waited out the extra year’s delay to see his book in print, was quick to capitalize on this interest, posting a riveting piece in “The Daily Beast” about the personal challenges of reporting across the color line from his own experience in writing the biography.
Marketing is becoming, for books, what it has long been for film: the key to success. Those of us who cherish the idyllic notion of idiosyncratic editors championing writers against the advice of the business side may bemoan this development.
But as Mike Shatzkin, a publishing veteran of nearly 50 years, said in a blog post, book publishing has undergone successive evolutions as sales departments with their armies of reps gained ascendancy and replaced editors as the driving force in publishing, and now, “marketing has largely usurped the sales function” and “will probably before long usurp the editorial function too.”
Good or bad, it’s the world we live in. But as the case of Morris’ new biography illustrates, smart marketing can really help sell a good book.