Publisher’s Big Publicity Gamble

Publisher Henry Holt invested heavily in a new author’s book promotion plan, hoping to create a bestseller, instead losing money.

The true story behind The Interpretation of Murder, a book by Jed Rubenfeld.

Most book authors think that “if only” their publisher would do more to promote their book, it would be a big success. And so they blame the publisher if their book sales are lackluster, or even if their sales are good, believing that they would have been a better, “if only.” Authors dream of book publicity guarantees from publisher-backed promotion efforts including author-tours, radio interviews, TV appearances, and a special website full of high-tech enhancements.

Of interest to every published book author or aspiring writer is an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Dream Scenario: In an Era of Blockbuster Books, One Publisher Rolls the Dice.” Although describing the publication of a novel, the story could easily have been about nonfiction book publishing as well.

Here are the details:

Henry Holt & Company (a reputable house which puts out 150 adult titles per year) paid an $800,000 advance to publish first-time novelist Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder, believing it had the potential to become the next Da Vinci Code.

Holt initiated a $500,000 marketing campaign to promote the book, including paying for the author’s 12-city tour and $10,000 for a website. A dozen large newspapers as well as magazines such as Entertainment Weekly were doing reviews or otherwise mentioning the upcoming book.

Because of the publicity and strong interest from book sellers, the publisher set the first print run at 185,000 copies, an astounding amount for a first-time author, perhaps costing the publisher a million dollars.

The book came out in September and landed at number 18 on the New York Times bestseller list after its first week of sales, dropping to number 20 in its second week and number 30 in its third week. The total number of copies sold is in the low five figures. Normally, this would have been a great showing for a first time author.

Instead, it was an expensive gamble that failed.

The publisher has probably lost about two million dollars on the book, money it is unlikely to recoup even if the title remains in print for years. The best hope now would be for the book to become a successful Hollywood movie.

John Sterling, President of Henry Holt, compared book publishing to a “roll of the dice,” in the Wall Street Journal article: “I still marvel that despite everything we do, we just don’t know,” he said. “It’s the wonderful thing and the agonizing thing about the business.”

Lessons learned

The truth is, publishers know that spending a lot of money promoting first-time and mid-list authors usually does not result in enough sales to justify the investment until the book is already selling well enough to climb the bestseller lists. Then, putting money behind the title might create a blockbuster.

Advice for writers

Authors and publishers can do to many things to create a successful book without a big promotion budget. We’ll discuss these in future articles.

In the meantime, if you like murder mysteries, please consider helping Henry Holt by buying a copy of The Interpretation of Murder from your favorite bookseller.

Copyright 2006 by Barbara Doyen. All rights reserved.

“Dream Scenario: In an Era of Blockbuster Books, One Publisher Rolls the Dice.”

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