Can Slick Marketing Sell Bad Books?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Kris titled her post last week “Naked Came the Stranger,” and slyly didn’t give us the story behind the title. I’d like to do that now, because I well remember one of the most famous literary hoaxes in publishing history.

This was back in the 1960s, the halcyon days of big, trashy novels like Valley of the Dolls and The Love Machine. A Newsday reporter by the name of Mike McGrady, over drinks with some pals, posited that a novel with no social value and even less literary quality could sell, if it was about sex and had a titillating cover.

To prove it, he got a couple dozen of his newsroom colleagues (19 men and 5 women, including two Pulitzer Prize winners) to conspire to write a lurid tome. The simple concept was a housewife having a series of adulterous flings, one per chapter. As the New York Times put it in McGrady’s obituary, “She has sex with a mobster and sex with a rabbi. She has sex with a hippie and sex with at least one accountant. There is a scene involving a tollbooth, another involving ice cubes…” You get the picture. The conspirators wrote one chapter each, trying their darndest not to make the writing too good.

McGrady edited each chapter, blue-penciling anything even approaching a modicum of literary quality.

The project’s original title was Strangers In The Valley, a cross between Valley Of The Dolls by Jacqueline Susann and Strangers When We Meet by Evan Hunter. But a female colleague, Beulah Gleich, told McGrady that the title was no good. He asked why. She said it needed the word Naked. McGrady suggested The Naked Stranger. Gleich said that was too blatant, that the title should have “more class.” Well, you be the judge.

McGrady decided on the pseudonym “Penelope Ashe” and had his sister-in-law pose for the author photo. (On the back of the dust jacket, “Penelope Ashe” is described as a “demure Long Island housewife.”)

He then submitted it to publisher Lyle Stuart, known for “edgy” books. They accepted it (not knowing it was a hoax) and proceeded to design a salacious cover. If you want to see the entire cover (a rather oxymoronic term considering the context) you can go here. (The photo was purloined from a Hungarian magazine, and when the book became a phenomenon, the photographer and model demanded compensation, and got it.)

When Naked Came the Stranger hit the stores, the reviewers hit back. The Village Voice said the book was “of such perfectly realized awfulness that it will suck your soul right out of your brainpan and through your mouth, and you will happily let it go.”

It became an instant bestseller.

After the book reached the 20,000 sales mark, the hoaxers, perhaps feeling a collective pang of guilt, decided to come clean on The David Frost Show. So the joke was over, right?

Um, no. The book sold even faster, spending 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It has lifetime sales of over 400,000. Open Road Media has the pub rights now.

I remember my mom and dad laughing about all this while looking at a Life magazine story on the hoax, with a group photo of the co-authors. You can see that photo, along with some others (including one of the cigar-chomping McGrady) by going here.

Takeaways:

1. In the staid publishing world of the 60s and 70s, if a book was about sex, even if poorly written, slick marketing and a suggestive cover sometimes led to heaving, tumultuous, luminescent waves of febrile, smoldering, incandescent sales.

2. That may happen occasionally today, though it’s much more difficult, primarily because of the roiling sea of content now available.

3. If a book is not about sex and is poorly written, slick marketing and a great cover might drive some initial sales, but with a major drop off afterward. This will be of no help to an author’s career.

4. On the other hand, a really good book will always be held back by a bad cover. That will also be of no help to an author’s career.

5. So if you’re self-publishing, don’t skimp on covers. Where do you find designers? Check out 99Designs and this article by Joanna Penn.

6. A great book with a great cover, all other things being equal, is the best driver of what is far and away the most effective marketing: word-of-mouth.

7. Book after book following #4 is the only sure-fire way of building a writing career.

So, writer, don’t play fast and loose with a one-book stand. Commit to a quality relationship with your work, and take a vow to make that a life-long bond.

Okay, Zoners, let’s have your naked opinion. Don’t be a stranger.

10+

25 thoughts on “Can Slick Marketing Sell Bad Books?

  1. Followed by Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry et al’s “Naked Came the Manatee”. Living in Florida at the time, married to a marine mammal scientist, yes, we bought a copy.

    For covers, hold in the reins on your ego. A professional designer (I’ve been using The Killion Group) knows what sells, what the genre expectations are, and should work with you, but you have to remember the cover isn’t going to tell the book’s story. It should let readers know what kind of a book it is, not what the plot is.

  2. Thanks for the links to 99Designs and Joanna Penn’s article. I’m looking forward to exploring them.

    I enjoyed reading FRAMED this past week. I hope there will be more in a series. And I would love to see more in the Mike Romeo’s series.

    • Thanks, Steve. Yes, Romeo 4 is in the works. And Romeo 5 is on my mind!

      FRAMED I conceived as one of those nice, self-contained mass market paperbacks you used to be able to get off a spinner at the drug store. One and done.

  3. Fifty Shades… ?

    I have tons of examples of best-selling books that are poorly written, but I know some of the authors personally (sort of), so I won’t list them. I’m sure that many of your followers can provide their own lists.

    So, yes, it’s possible for crap to sell with slick, or even not-so-slick, marketing campaigns. It’s also more common for such books to fail miserably.

    What’s the writer to do?

    We’re taking a chance no matter the quality of the work we foist on the public. For me, the only choice is to produce a product I can feel some pride in, to be professional, to make each book better than the last.

    For some, however, the choice seems to be to treat the business like a lottery, and hope like heck their book(s) will win the lottery. They either don’t care about quality, or they simply don’t recognize how poor their products really are.

    I can bemoan this situation all I want, but my moaning (unless I put it into erotic fiction) is highly unlikely to produce any change. All I can do is try to make my work the best it can be, and to encourage those who may listen to do the same.

    For the good of the order.

    • Great comment, Sheryl. I applaud it all.

      Re: Fifty Shades … the print version had a decidedly unexciting cover … a necktie, monochromatic. But as I recall this was done after the ebook was a sensation, so people could read it on a plane without being embarrassed by a more, er, graphic representation of the plot.

      The whole “cover as a come on” transaction was turned upside down!

  4. Hi Jim,
    Happy Sunday! Absolutely slick marketing can sell bad books. Perhaps more’s the pity, but still true. These days, slick marketing for indie authors (especially those in Kindle Unlimited) requires a great cover and an attention grabbing description. Those two things tempt KU subscribers to borrow the book, but they won’t be enough to get the reader to read the book. Now, even more than ever, quality will win out in the long run. Quality defined here as a compelling, emotionally engaging story for a particular genre.

    I’m focused on marketing what I hope are solid books that build a dedicated readership. Not a fast process. My designer creates fantastic covers for my books They are a key part of attracting readers for sure, but what’s behind the digital cover is even more important. The occasional fan mail from a reader tells me I’m connecting with at least a few dedicated readers.

    • Right on, Dale. Not only will said reader not finish a book, it’ll be doggone hard to get that reader to take another flyer on a subsequent book.

      This fiction-writing thing is not for the faint of heart. Those fan emails are good for the heart.

  5. Each month, Joel Friedlander over at The Book Designer runs a review of ebook covers. What’s good, what’s not, and why are covered. He covers the full gambit of genres. It is a great education on getting the right cover. It’s not just interesting if you think you can buck reason and make your own, but also to help you judge the work of pro designers

    • Good tip about the Friedlander site, Brian.

      I like to scan thriller bestseller thumbnails on Amazon, and save screenshots of the ones that grab my attention. These are good to review every now and again, and also come in handy if you want to give a designer a feel of what you like.

  6. Hi Jim, How are you?

    We all know that in any creative field sex sells (movies, music, commercial fiction).
    The question is does it underpin long-term viability/sustainability, and it usually doesn’t.

    In the book world “50 Shades Of Grey” has sold tens of millions of copies with horrendous fan-fiction level writing, because of the sex. As you noted the cover was monotone and bland, so the cover had nothing to do with it in this case.

    Coming from the music business I can tell you that ultimately the long-term viability of careers and success has to do with the quality of the work. Hype will kill a career fast if the work doesn’t stand up to word of mouth on the quality. Word of mouth is the single most powerful force in selling a creative work. This makes 50-Shades that much more confounding, as people found out the writing was bad and still bought it by the millions. But that is an outlier.

    I don’t get into a brick and mortar B&N that often but I always scan the front bestseller rack to see what covers jump out. I also do this in the grocery store. One of two will always jump out. The cover conversation is an interesting and important one.

    Nice to see you bringing these topics up.

    George

    • Thanks, George. I recall a massive outlay of cash (by a rich husband) to try to jump start a semi-celebrity’s music career. Glitz and glam and music video and billboards and talk shows.

      The only problem was her voice was mediocre.

      The sales — not to mention the career — did not last long.

  7. Oh, I have always wanted to write a ’60s/’70s style, huge, trashy novel, just like the ones I grew up reading. (My parents had an open-bookshelf policy, and only after I was older did I think, “My parents were reading this stuff?!) Valley of the Dolls was my favorite, and I read several Harold Robbins novels, too. There is no equivalent now to those books because we were in the midst of culture-busting sexual revolution, and now even many young teenagers say, “Been there, done that.” As far sex goes, there are no more revolutions, but only niche developments, i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey.

    My publisher put a gorgeous cover on my debut novel. The colors are oversaturated and vibrant, and the woman in the image is walking into a deep wood, but everything around her is warped and distorted. It is unsettling, but the message is vague. It gives no clues about how truly dark the subject matter of the book is. Half the reviews complain loudly about the language, sex, and violence–and there is plenty of each in the story. I think that if the cover had been more Harold Robbins With Ghosts, and less Vaguely Disturbing Novel Aimed at Women, it would have better found its audience. Water under the bridge, but at least a cautionary tale.

    Terrific post!

    • I’ll bet you read Scruples. When I was a struggling actor in New York, I worked as a temp typist, and remember going to Crown Books to do some work on the Scruples project.

      • Lucky you! God bless Judith Krantz (who is now 90!). I definitely saw the Scruples mini-series with Lyndsay Wagner, and I adored her novel, Princess Daisy. What a treasure trove of drama. Now I’m tempted to pick up old DVDs of the miniseries of both.

  8. Believe it or not, a bad book can sell without a lot of sex, cheap or otherwise. I know someone who built her base before publishing. Still today after 4 books, she spends as much time online —Twitter, Facebook, other media sites—as she does writing. She always comes off as an expert, and everyone believes her. People buy her books because she has made herself famous (regionally, that is). Many people don’t read the books; lots of others don’t finish. She is constantly frustrated that with so many sales, no one ever rates them on Amazon. But they still sell. Ka-ching.

    • The keys here may be “expert” and “regional.” Are these books non-fiction?

      Someone who is considered “expert” is read for information. Might be true for regional fiction as well.

  9. Fifty Shades sold by the truckload. And it hit the used bookstores by the truckload. Something about the way the book was manufactured meant they wouldn’t take it at the landfill. I’ve seen pictures of used bookstores who built playhouse-sized forts out of stacks and stacks of Fifty Shades books that they can’t dump and nobody will buy. What a legacy.

  10. Thank you for a great post James!
    Every time a new writer asks about the essentials of marketing a book I tell them this:
    Write a great story and polish your craft( Read Larry Brooks and James Scott Bell)
    Get an awesome cover for your genre…do NOT skimp on this. It’s an investment.
    Get your book professionally edited. Also an investment.
    The best way to sell your current book….write the next book.

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