Around the Internet I often see a perception among readers and commenters that the sole reason certain books become wildly popular is because the publisher made them popular. This, presumably, is meant to discredit the success of the book by attributing its popularity not to the book’s merits, but rather to the efforts of a publisher to foist the book onto a gullible public.
Here’s the thing. If it were actually possible for publishers to market the heck out of a book and guarantee that it became as popular as Twilight, well, don’t you think they would? All the time? With every book?
To be sure, marketing helps a book’s popularity, and a publisher can work wonders when they bring all of their resources to bear to give a book a boost. But that just gives a book a shot. What happens from there depends on the book itself and whether it catches fire with its readers.
People who follow the movie industry know that studios are usually pretty good at advertising their way to a certain opening weekend box office draw. In the words of the president of Sony Screen Gems, “Most of a movie’s opening gross is about marketing.” After that, though, what happens is a result of that all important and elusive “word of mouth,” which as this fascinating New Yorker article details, can often be about reaching multiple market segments with the concept of the film itself. Even the very best advertising can only do so much. At some point the movie itself has to sink or swim.
Lots of books get marketing dollars. Not all books become Twilight or The Da Vinci Code or The Help or Harry Potter or insert insanely popular book here. One or more of those books may not be your cup of tea as a reader, but it doesn’t mean that your fellow readers were duped into buying them. Better, I think, to consider what it was about the book that inspired such dedicated readers than to ascribe that special zing to outside forces.
Photo by Zack Sheppard
Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe says
Well said Nathan. May we as authors create something that can touch people as those big sellers have.
I agree with the comment that *story trumps everything*.
When I first read TWILIGHT, I wasn't really trying my hand at writing my own novel, so I didn't really know all the 'rules' of good writing at that time. Needless to say, I fell headlong into the series and didn't resurface until I'd finished it. It wasn't because of 'supurb writing' or the hype surrounding it. It was because Ms. Meyer has the knack to weave an intriguing story. The general reader doesn't care about the nitpicky things we (those involved in publishing in any form) seem to. They care about being entertained and throwing themselves into another world and experiencing said world.
Since I've become more familiar with the ins and outs of 'good writing', I've gone back and reread TWILIGHT, and indeed noticed many things we writers are told not to do. Does that make me like the story any less? Nope. It still draws me in. So really, what's most important?
You said, "What happens from there depends on the book itself and whether it catches fire with its readers." Ah, thank you for mentioning my favorite recent literary phenomenon. (I'm eagerly awaiting the release of Catching Fire, 3rd book in the Hunger Games series.)
I was interested to see that one or two of your readers don't like The Book Thief because I bought it based on all the fabulous word of mouth, but I'm having a hard time getting into it because I'm finding all the narrator's interjections ("An Observation: blah blah blah") to be a distracting and somewhat cutesy device–usually the interjections could easily be integrated into the story, and they keep jarring me out of it instead. I'll still give it a chance, though. But apparently I'm quite a literary snob, because I also found The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society trite and predictable, with flat characterizations. (It *was* a fascinating setting, though.) I have my fingers crossed that "The Help" lives up to the hype.
Anyway, I agree with what others here have said, that nobody can create a phenomenon but that good marketing is an important and usually essential starting point. (Also, I disagree with the comment about Patterson's books, because although they may sell well, they aren't what I think of as a "phenomenon." But I suppose that's a very subjective measure. But let's just say I didn't see any Patterson-book-themed quilts at a local quilt show, whereas I did see two Twilight quilts.)
As a new visitor I'd like to say great blog in general and this entry in particular.
Nathan is now the third industry professional to express this. Someone already mentioned Donald Maass. I also heard the same from Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Maybe nobody will care but I had to come back and say that I did realize later that, oops, Catching Fire is actually the already-published 2nd book in the Hunger Games series.