Case Study: Failed Star-Studded Book Promotion

A Case Study: Determining What Went Wrong to Get the Future Right
This is a case study from the last decade that still holds some lessons for writers today.

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of the multi award-winning The Frugal Book Promoter

Once upon a time, way back in the last decade, author and researcher Sylvia Ann Hewlett's publicity predicament illustrated to the world of books what we authors suspected all along: Huge amounts of publicity surrounding a release don't necessarily translate into massive sales figures.  In fact, the result of a major publicity coup could turn out to be the most bitter dose of rejection we ever encounter. That may be true even when the publicity is the stuff of which dreams are made-in Surround Sound and Technicolor.

It is reported (variably) that Hewlett’s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children sold between 8,000 and 10,000 copies. Many authors would be ecstatic with sales figures that look like that but everything is relative. Talk Miramax paid a six-figure advance for this title and projected sales in the 30,000 range for hardcover alone. Considering expectations for the book, the figures do appear dismal.

Therefore, smart people in the publishing industry searched for reasons for its less than stellar performance, especially with the kind of publicity this book received and I mean biggies like Time magazine (the cover, no less),"New York" magazines, "60 Minutes," "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," and "NBC Nightly News" lined up behind this book, for heaven's sake. Even Oprah's magic book-sale-wand was not effective.

Hewlett’s book made great news! It warned young career women that they have been mislead by petri dish miracles reported in the press. She pointed out that women have come to believe that they can put conception after career and be reasonably sure they can have still have both. She attempts to exorcise that notion in Quest.

So, just what did go wrong?

The title is not scintillating, many said, nor is its cover. Those in the know wondered if that influenced book sales. But that’s a huge burden to put on bookcover or title choice under the circumstances.

My 37 year-old-daughter who had just returned to college to embark on a career in anthropology suggested that women don't want to hear the dreadful news. She says, "I just flat out don't want to hear this bad news in the middle of something rewarding, exciting and new! Why would I slap down the price of a book to get depressed?" Another unmarried friend who is also caring for an aging mother said, “I wouldn’t buy it. What am I supposed to do with that kind of information once I have it?”

All this searching for answers may reap results, may help publicists and publishers and authors determine cause and effect so that this syndrome can be avoided in the future-or not.

I figure that all this soul-searching and hullabaloo is misdirected. As an example, the media that chose to feature my novel may not have been as stellar, the publisher not as dazzling, the expectations not as astounding. But when I spend a half hour being interviewed by a host syndicated on more than 300 radio stations and do not see the figures on Amazon rise even an iota the next day, I get this inkling that it is not all that unusual for a book to languish in spite of the tumult that surrounds it.

When my novel won its third award or was honored by my publisher for sales and I still did not see evidence of my title on the LA Times bestseller list, I have to assume that sales are not necessarily affected by such news. The rejection feels every bit as tangible as a polite “Not Quite Right for Us” message.

Of course, my book is a novel and Hewlett's is nonfiction. That alone could account for a discrepancy between what results in sales and what doesn't.  This kind of convoluted reasoning allows me to sit back on my laurels and say, "That's the way the ball bounces." This kind of examination is no more fruitful that those exercised by Hewlett’s publisher and publicists.

Even Hewlett says, "I don't know what to make of this absence of huge sales." One can see her shaking her head in disbelief. If someone with her research skills can't figure it out, can anyone? It may be the economy, stupid. Or retailing. Or the book biz. It's surely something completely out of the author's control unless someone had thought to run the idea by a focus group of career women the age of the book’s expected audience.

But there are more lessons to be had. I think the most valuable lesson that can be learned with this kind of rejection—any kind, really—is that it is not personal, and that it does pay to search for the lesson. For me the lesson is that I must keep the faith. I must keep writing and keep publicizing, because if I don't, I’ll never know if I gave my book—or my career—the best possible chance at success. If I don't see direct or immediate results and my faith should slip just a tad, I don't have to feel too bad. Thanks to Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

This Is the Place was published. It is my first novel and the one that taught me a whole lot about book marketing as opposed to general marketing. It is now out of print and only available using Amazon’s new and used feature. There are at least two more lessons in this latter day situation: 1. Because of the Internet and online bookstores, books can stay alive much longer than they once did. 2. Authors who are more interested in readership than selling books will find it easier to persist through the ups and downs of publishing and eventually build a writing career. Find my HowToDoItFrugally series of how-to books for writers at


Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, what an interesting article. It's amazing that Hewlette's book, with all the 'right' promotion, didn't make it. While book marketing is an absolute must, you wonder if time and chance play a factor.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

It seems to me she and the publisher also missed on the psychology behind the book--for this specific demographic! We in the publishing industry should always consider our targeted audience.

Karen Cioffi said...

You're so right. Like your daughter, my daughters' friends who aren't married and in their 30s wouldn't want to read this type of book. After being told for years you can have it all and at your own time, this book is certainly a let down. A focus group would have been a wise move.

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, Carolyn, for such an insightful post, helpful in so many ways as we wade through the right choices to make in promoting our books. It is amazing at the low sales given the best kind of publicity for Hewlett's book. Good point on not taking low sales figures personally. I enjoyed this article very much.

Kathleen Moulton said...

Wow. This was an incredible article and so very helpful. I learned so much. "Target audience". Yes. So important.

Considering Both the Downsides and Upsides of Writing Reviews

Dear Writers on the Move Readers,   I am busily rewriting my  How to Get Great Book Reviews Frugally and Ethically  for a second edition fro...