Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, March 29, 2010

You Can't Make Something a Phenomenon

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


Francis said...

We can however conclude that the literary value of quality of writing isn't so important either, TWILIGHT isn't much in that department.

All the people care about is the story. Good storytelling.

Anonymous said...

Very well, however, I think the readers often assume "great things" from a book if given special attention from marketing. But yes, word of mouth and quality will prevail in the end.

LurkerMonkey said...

Wow. I'm the first ...

I'm glad you posted this. You had a previous commenter who made some remark about TWILIGHT's success being due solely to marketing. But that book was a word-of-mouth thing among girls long before it picked up a marketing budget.

And a lot of times, books with major marketing pushes don't do well at all. I'm thinking of certain follow-ups to enormously successfully debut novels.

It strikes me that marketing is just one piece of the puzzle, but as always, the thing is the book.

p.s. My word verification was "tryst." Honestly, now ...

Christine Macdonald said...

Well said. As long as we stay true to our work, and write something worth reading - who knows. The public may gobble it up, or not. Phenomenon is the gravy, our work is the meat.

Serenity said...

Love this.

Emily White said...

It's funny you say that because I never even heard of Twilight until the movie came out (yes, I was living under a rock) and even then, I wasn't interested in reading it until I heard all the bad reviews around writers' groups.

I must say I loved the series and have been trying to convince everyone I know to read it. Word of mouth from readers is a wonderful thing. If the feedback about Twilight had not been so passionate, I never would have given it a read.

Tracy said...

Word of Mouth will always be the most popular marketing tool ever ... and publishing companies have no control over that. If I see or hear something I like, I talk about it. It's human nature.

Now, if my publishing company would like to pay the money to have my book set in a place of honor at B&N so more people are tempting to pick it up, I'm not going to argue. As a writer, it's my job to make people unable to stop talking about it when they're done reading.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think even that depends on the book itself. THE BOOK THIEF is beautifully written and "literary" and has reached phenomenon status.

I don't think there are any hard and fast rules about which books become phenomenons. They just tap into something.

Candyland said...

Just goes to show, you never know what will sell, until it sells.

Kate said...

So true. I've seen many movies advertised like crazy, for months in advance of release, only to watch them flop. Advertising only gets you so far! And every one of those books on your list has its naysayers, in fact, I've only read one of them! (Twilight, book 1.) That doesn't diminish the amazing achievement of each writer to reach to public in such a unique way.

To say that marketing is the ace takes credit away from writers and their ability to write great books that inspire people to pass them along.

I have to admit, thought, that mega books make me skeptical. I honestly lose interest. And this doesn't come from a resentment toward said writer's success. I don't really know what it's about. But I do know that my book club is talking about reading The Help and my response is 'snore.'

reader said...

True, but placement on tables and displays WILL make people buy books -- I'm guilty of this myself as a reader. I can only pass by a table at so many bookstors so many times before I feel compelled to see what all the fuss is about.

I'm usually disappointed, but the pub got what they wanted, my 25 bucks -- I didn't have to like it for them to make a profit. Mission accomplshed.

Also, I think it was Jeff Klein who said in an interview (he gave a specific example from a client) that a book of his with table placement was selling a thousand or more copies a week -- after it was taken off the table it plummeted to 200 or so. Tables matter. Displays matter. Pub push matters. It's not everything, but hell, it matters more than most want to admit.

I know of writers who've written series books and a big chain only carried the second book, not the first or third. What is the chance that a reader will seek out the other books, if they don't even know they exist?

Thomas Taylor said...

Publishers have a vested interest in promoting the idea that their efforts can are responsible for given bestseller's success. But word of mouth is many times stronger than marketing, and the amount of books being pulped is clear proof that shouting at people from billboards doesn't always work.

Kate said...

Also, 'literary value' has become a pretty pointless concept to me. And I was an English major in college. It's like only listening to the movie critics. If I did that, I'd have missed out on tons of movies I love. Or only buying expensive wine--because it's expensive. My favorite sauvignon blanc is 13.99.

I recently learned that my Victorian lit professor taught Twilight in her gothic class last year (we're friends on Facebook. Go figure.) Trust me, she'd have plenty to say about its merits in terms of craft, themes, etc.

But what book without literary value would find a place on a syllabus for a university-level literature course? At a progressive lib. arts college no less? It makes me wonder if cultural impact elevates a book's "literary value" status.

Josin L. McQuein said...


You OBVIOUSLY know nothing about how real publishing works. Therefore, I shall never read this blog again!


Silly agents thinking they know more than everyone. Like people actually need to LIKE something for it to be popular. Like is needs to resonate and reach the audience. PFFT. It's all smoke and mirrors.

Don't you know anything???

There's only ONE popular book out there and every ten years, they rerelease it with a new name and hunt and replace the names of the characters. Then they foist the same stupid recycled mess on the public and refuse to put anything else out until they buy it!

Some unsuspecting author is chosen by random draw to be the next hit. Like the lottery.

It's all perfectly logical...

Anonymous said...

All good points, but I can see where this perception comes from. Stephanie Meyers herself in many interviews has made the whole process seem simple.

She has said that she dreamt the plot, took 5 months to write the book, sold it quickly and it became an overnight success because of help from her agent and publishers. She made it all sound so easy and simple. Maybe for her it was, who knows.

But I think word of mouth along with a good marketing plan and strategic placement in book stores all make an impact in sales.

Margaret Yang said...

Nathan, are you channeling Donald Maass? He says that all the time, but apparently he has to *keep* saying it because nobody listens.

I wonder if they'll listen to you.

I find the concept of "it's all marketing" insulting to the writer. As if her writing/storytelling ability means nothing. Excuse me, but I like to think we're better than that.

Matthew Rush said...

It seems that like most things there has to be a kind of perfect storm which cannot ever be completely understood.

Anonymous said...

This is such a basic - not stupid, but overlooked - observation.

That said, how does the thesis that marketing opens the movie / launches the book and word-of-mouth pushes book/movie to success square with the drum beat message of an author being expected to do everything to promote a book?

Basically, how does publicity figure into this equation? ie., marketing + publicity + word-of-mouth

Sangu said...

Nathan, I agree. Many of my favourite books haven't been iconic, superstar bestsellers, but books that have done fantastically well on their own merits rather than pure marketing. Think of 'The Time Traveler's Wife', which by and large came out of nowhere, was not publicised unduly, and became stupendous.

Jess said...

I think it's rather silly to assume that publishers can make anything a phenomenon just through marketing. That's like saying a meteorologist can make it rain just because he/she says is should.

As someone with marketing experience, I know that you can do all you want to sell a product through various techniques, but if the consumers aren't interested, they're just not going to buy it.

But at the same time, good marketing practices help them make more "educated guesses." I think that as much as rejection hurts and makes us feel a little bitter towards those in the publishing industry, it's unfair of us to assume that these people can just wave their magic wands and make one book more popular than another. That discredits the years and years and years of experience these people have had. They may not be able to "make" a book become a phenomenon, but they have been around long enough to recognize the little clues that tell them that something has a better chance of making it big. And what do you think they're going to spend marketing money on? The book that is well written but will likely only attract a small leadership, or a book that is a little lower in quality but will be read by more people?

I'm not saying the publishers are driven entirely by money. I honestly believe that most of them are genuinely interested in producing quality literature. But the sad fact of life is that money makes the world go 'round, so money is going to play a big part in what makes it to the shelves.

And how great is it when a book that IS written well becomes that phenomenon? In cases like those, everybody wins.

abc said...

Word of mouth can be amazing. Two years ago I was wandering around the teen section of our local library when a surprisingly outgoing goth girl inquired as to what I was looking for. (She thought I might want prom themed books. As if!). I asked for her recommendation and she said, "OH MY GOD YOU HAVE TO READ TWILIGHT! IT'S SOOOOO GOOD". Then she stuck a copy in my hand and wouldn't let me leave without it.

She didn't even work there.

Mira said...


Love your point that if publishers (or anyone) could make a phenomenon they would.

I think publishers may be able to recognize a book that will sell well, and put marketing into it. That might help.

But you have to have the book first!

You can't just make any book into a phenomenon. You have to have the book, and the timing in terms of the culture.

Peter Dudley said...

Lipstick on a pig doesn't change that it's a pig. You can't market true trash to phenomenon status.

Blaming Marketing for the lipstick is jealousy wrongly placed. People who grouse about THE DA VINCI CODE and other phenomena believe that The Industry put through a book that is not as good as the one I wrote. If THAT can be a phenomenon and mine can't, then clearly it's all because of Marketing.

Everyone wants their book to be the Heidi Klum of publishing. But Phyllis Diller with a good marketing department doesn't get on the cover of SI's swimsuit edition.

ryan field said...

Maybe it's about luck and timing, too.

D. G. Hudson said...

Marketing is a tool for introducing the product, and making its availability known. After that, as you said, Nathan, the book sells itself (or not) via word of mouth, or sometimes strictly because of the subject matter.

IMO, wizards, magic, vampires & the occult (Da Vinci Code)usually have a dedicated audience of readers. Other subjects may not garner such immediate attention, without the marketing push.

I think some of the books which are hailed as the latest 'must read' fall miserably short of expectations. This could be due in part to the reviewer's estimation of what comprises a 'great' book.

Phenomenons happen when everything fits together in the right order, at the right time, and the subject matter has that magic ingredient that resonates with the readers. That is the elusive golden key we pursue.

Mark Terry said...

I suspect it comes down to lightning in a bottle. I've been reading Rick Riordan for years, really enjoying his Tres Navarre mystery novels written for adults. In terms of awards and reviews those books were phenomenally successful, but as far as I can tell he never approached bestseller lists. He continued teaching middle school during their publication and seemed happy with that.

But when he wrote The Lightning Thief, something else happened. Same writer. Same skill set. Different story, idea, market, publisher, etc. And no pun intended on the "lightning in a bottle." It's not like Rick's the first person to write about Greek gods. Right story, right writer, right publisher, right audience, right time.

Kimber An said...

Well-stated, Mr. Bransford.

I think when people hate a certain book they simply cannot imagine how anyone else can love it, so they come up with something which has nothing to do with the book's merits.

Or they call the readers stupid.

If they're aspiring authors themselves, this makes absolutely no sense.

1) You learn nothing as a writer.

2) You insult your own potential readers.


Here's the thing, these same people read the books and then make a lot of noise about them.

Stephanie Meyers and J.K. Rowling DON'T CARE if you bought the book because you hated it. They only are that they're getting paid. And all that noise you're making is *Free Publicity.*

So...if you want to write and get paid too, it makes a lot more sense to just LEARN and then PRACTICE instead of hate.

Kristi said...

I actually tend to distrust strong word of mouth recommendations -- I'm not sure what that says about me. Maybe it's because I've read a few strongly recommended books and didn't see what all the fuss was about. However, after reading THE BOOK THIEF, I can't even tell you how many people I've recommended it to and many of those people have told me they loved it as much as I did. I tend to recommend things that I have a strong emotional reaction to (regardless of genre). For instance, THE HELP was an entirely different book and I loved that one as well.

I'm guessing both those authors (Markus Zusak and Kathryn Stockett) weren't trying to 'make a phenomenon.' They just wrote the book that was inside them and people responded to the passion in them. We should all be so lucky! Great post, Nathan! :)

Nick said...

I feel like I ought to have known what The Help was and not had to have googled it just now.

Julie said...

Nathan - I agree 100% about your take on THE BOOK THEIF. Its just great.

There's also books like 13 REASONS WHY that send a strong message about something high concept and have done extremely well.

Nathan, is there a different type of marketing for books like 13 REASONS WHY or GO ASK ALICE, edgy but deliver some kind of message?

Anonymous said...

Is that Blackwell's in Oxford? Yikes what an awesome picture!

Bane of Anubis said...

Excellent post, sir.

Lisa Schroeder said...

It is true, though, that publishers will work hard to get a book they think WILL generate a lot of word-of-mouth buzz (and which they paid a lot of money for) on the NYT list when it comes out, right? They send the author on a pre-pub tour, do a huge first print run, tie in school visits with the regular tour the first week out, etc.

Now, whether the book *stays* on the list is then out of the publisher's hands. And that's your point, right? That the things a publisher, and an author too, can do only go so far.

sewbissy said...

At first glance, I thought that was a photo still from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You know the part where they're in Veruca Salt's father's office, looking down at the the crowd of employees opening chocolate bars? Talk about an example of (fictional) marketing that sparked (fictional) rampant buying. In publishing I suppose readers are so used to being told by ads that the next book out has the veritable "golden ticket" of transporting story or prose that we must rely on word-of-mouth to really go into our "chocolate"-buying frenzies. Wouldn't it be nice if book stores were as fun as the candy shop in Willy Wonka, complete with singing shopman?

Kristin Laughtin said...

Exactly! Sometimes publishers will back a book very strongly and it does take off and become a phenomenon. But if this strategy worked with every book, there would never be any flops.

And of course, some books build up slowly over time before becoming huge, either by word-of-mouth or an astonishing review...

Anonymous said...

I think a book that gets shelf space as your walk in the door has a better chance to be a bestseller than a book that you have special order.

John said...

Just as we have evolved dietary instincts that will make us eat more sugar and fat than are good for us in our new environment of plenty, we have psychological instincts that make us want to devour stories that are just as destructive to our psychological metabolism over the long term.

Mmmmm, sparkly pedophilic vampire purity-pledge boys... this is good literature because it's popular? Then gummy bears must be health food.

Dawn Maria said...

Hmm... are you putting THE HELP in the same category as TWILIGHT or DA VINCI CODE? I thought it was making it by word of mouth. (Not that I don't think it deserves to hit that level of success.) The book's launch seemed rather quiet, but as the months wore on, it keeps gaining ground. I can see why; I'm a third of the way into it and I can barely put it down.

Francis said...

@Nathan: You're right of course. However, there was a thread on your forums recently discussing TWILIGHT, and I distinctly remember reading some snarky comments about it, as well as some arrogant ranting about how badly written it was.

The point I was trying to make is that if a book is superbly written, but is so boring that THE REJECTIONIST is likely to dedicate a rant on it, it might not be successful. Splendid writing isn't enough to sell a book these days, in my opinion.

So, while people might forgive clumsy or lazy writing (which some people say TWILIGHT is. I'm still on the fence), they will know forgive a bad story.

We would all do well to write the very best novel we can, stylistically and grammatically speaking. Unlike Stephen King, who in his memoir ON WRITING said plot isn't important, I do think story is of massive importance. Robert Mckee dedicated an awesome book to writing story and plot (which I think you even recommend somewhere on your blog). I think TWILIGHT, HARRY POTTER or THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE were all massively successful because of the authors's talent with storytelling.

Everyone seems to agree though: what really sells books is the word to mouth.

Terri said...

An author acquaintance of mine told a rather bizarre story of how a mega-marketing campaign nearly did in his career.

Someone in the publishing company zoomed in on his debut novel as 'the next big thing.' They threw the kitchen sink at it in terms of marketing and exposure.

It didn't meet their sales expectations. Now, don't get me wrong, it was far from tanking. In fact, for a debut novel, the sales should have had his agent/editor/publicist doing a little happy dance.

It was a success, but not a blockbuster, and someone decided that this was the writer's fault. Cue the scapegoat! I think you know how the tale goes from here.

Don't feel too sorry for him though, the advance he received was borderline obscene.

In self-deprecating style, he says it took him over ten years to recover from his publisher nearly loving him to death. He is now with a different publisher, happily and comfortably ensconced at the high end of the mid-list and enjoying his career instead of defending it.

PS: I didn't pick up a Harry Potter book until all the crazies condemned it for promoting witchcraft. I figured any book that the wingnuts hated had to be all right by me, and I was right!

Ginger Simpson said...

You do have to agree though, that books (ghost) written by celebrities do acquire much more media than say... me for example. *smile* The "stars" receive unheard of advances and their sales skyrocket over night. It may not be a "phenomenon", but "who" you are does have some measure in your future.

My word verification was Micsist. If that's a new dish at McDonald's. I'm passing. Yuk!

Susan Quinn said...

I agree that, generally speaking, story trumps everything (marketing, craft, etc). While it's fascinating to ponder the mega-hits (and I know that's important because that's where the industry makes so much of its money), I have to wonder more about the spectrum of books. TWILIGHT and HARRY POTTER are the outliers at the far edges of the distribution of books sold, with sad books selling a hundred copies or less at the other extreme.

I'm curious about the ones in the middle, and what makes them popular. Does marketing have a significant effect on these "middle road" (in terms of popularity) books? Or is it all right place, right time, word-of-mouth success?

I like the example cited above of Rick Riordan. Great book! Lousy movie. Devotees of the book were disappointed, so even there it kinda fizzled. And the marketing on that was HUGE. But something was lost in the translation (my guess: humor) that deflated the popularity bubble that boosted The Lightning Thief into the stratosphere.

Anonymous said...

I think we'll see books end up like movies: direct to video, indie, and blockbuster. And each will get the appropriate marketing dollars. Of course, some will tank under each category.

M Clement Hall said...

I'm hoping someone will explain the reason for the success of the daVinci code. It certainly has escaped me. In no way am I trying to demean its success, I'd just like to see the reason for it analysed.

Lisa Desrochers said...

I agree with everything that you said, Nathan. But the thing NOT marketing a book will surely do is guarantee the book is NOT a phenomenon. There are a few books (very few) that have clawed their way to the top solely on merit and/or word of mouth. (think The Shack) But if a publisher doesn't back a book with marketing $$$ it sends a clear signal to the industry (reviewers, media) that they don't expect it to break out big, and therefore the book gets NO review/media attention. So, whether a book has a shot at being the next Twilight or not does depend on marketing to a large degree.

Anonymous said...

@reader: but placement on tables and displays will NOT make people buy LOTS of books.

Erica75 said...

I'm a little late, but I ditto Emily. I hadn't read the Twilight series until it got bad press. And then I liked it (like how I started the sentence with And? Bet that got some of you going!). AND I now feel like me reading my novel over and over in a darkened closet accompanied only by my hanging ballroom gowns isn't going to do it.

Ah, marketing! Wherefore art thou marketing?

Stephen Prosapio said...

Good post and good to remember. I was going to mention the negative side to a big mkt plan, but that was already mentioned. To further that point, I read a much hyped book a couple years back that had an okay story but very poor characterization and writing. There actually seemed a backlash (speaking of Amazon ratings) for the next book in the series as it was trashed in reviews much harder than those for the original novel. I was on the fence on buying it and decided against it.

I take exception to books that get a lot of hype AND phenomenal reviews (Dan Brown's latest comes to mind) but are widely trashed by those "duped" into reading them. The problem is that the buzz generated was that powerful word of mouth based on his *prior* work. Hardly seems fair, but what's that saying, "The Customer is always right."

Anonymous said...


Da Vinci Code had a nice controversal plot, which people talked about. And this generated plenty of word-of-mouth.

Scott said...

Loved the Palen article, Nathan. And it relates: my job is to tell an agent how successful my book will be with a certain audience. Trying, still trying...


Francis said...

@M Clement Hall: Easy. Brown used the power of myth and religion. He took historical facts and twisted them into fiction to make them work within the mythos he had created.

This amazing book (it's really great) explains it in a lot of details:

Religion has always been a controversial subject, but used for the premise of a mystery/thriller, it was bound to work.

Anonymous said...

Nathan needs to read the New York Times article on James Patterson to know that it IS true that marketing can push bad books into the hands of a gullible public.

Patterson doesn't even write his own books any more -- he is 100% marketing muscle at this point.

If they put 50% of the marketing behind other good books as they do Patterson's crap (TV commercials anyone?) then they could create the next Twilight.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Thank you. I actually said this in the forums, albeit without the flair that you have for diplomacy.

Maybe it's because I'm "new" to this industry, but why does it not seem obvious to people that if they want to write a bestseller, they should look at the current bestsellers and see what it was about those books that helped them make it, instead of slamming the books and the authors for "selling out" and not writing anything with "literary merit"?

There sure are a lot of bitter writers out there these days.

Anonymous said...

There sure are a lot of bitter writers out there these days.

What about bitter readers? I'm a reader, not a writer, and I hate all the mass market BS that gets front-of-store placement and little cardboard standees and multi-million dollar contracts for books whose writing is complete crap.

I shouldn't have to dig through a mountain of garbage to find the gems.

There are a lot of industry people who are making bad decisions about which authors and which books to push out toward the public.

Like authors who are 'too close' to their books to see where it needs editing, I think publishers are often too close to certain authors and certain books to make good decisions about how and were to market it.

Nathan Bransford said...


If you don't like mass market books then don't read them! Do you go to the multiplex and just walk into whatever movie has the longest line?

Francis said...

@Ishta: It's interesting what you said about reviews. Donald Maass said in his book that for certain genres, most literary agents will expect reviews to shred the novel apart no matter how well written or how good it is. I also distinctly remember a blog entry on Kristin Nelson's blog mentioning this.

Certain publications will rip most books apart and getting a positive review from them (K. Nelson mentioned one magazine in particular, but can't recall its name now) will be considered a miracle. No amount of money will change that.

If you REALLY think about it though, how much power do critics really have? In my opinion: bar to none. A rave review might convince libraries to order bigger stocks, however, those reviews will barely affect the opinion of your average joe (like me and you, who are probably 90%+ of the general readership).

Personally, I feel critics are usually full of it and rely one wine snobbery and 50$ words to look smart. I find it truer for movie reviews, but it applies to books too. I don't really care if Mr. X from the NYT found the book shallow, filled with simplistic metaphors and inappropriate similes... is this book going to entertain me, at least on some level? What are other readers saying about it, those who read in the genre I like?

I remember reading reviews of AVATAR who gave it rotten press because the story was "clichéd" or "simplistic". Are you frickin' kidding me? I'm sitting in a theater with popcorn, a container the size of a lake filled with Diet Coke, and am sporting some ugly and goofy looking glasses. AM I HERE FOR THE LITERARY VALUE OF AVATAR?

Only reviews that count are Amazon reviews, SADLY. Recently an author had its book go from 4.5 stars to 2 stars because angry customers were given it 1 star reviews due to a lack of Kindle version. What a shame.

I really don't think reviews from literary critics have any bearings on the success a book will have with the general public. None at all.

E. F. Collins said...

I think this is a wonderful post, sir. I myself have talked badly about Twilight, but not because of the popularity. That isn't a factor. I'm a horror/dark fiction writer and to have those... books... considered horror-ish in any way grates on me. As it does many, many others in my chosen genre.

However, I've come to terms with the fact that because of what I write, I have a million in one chance of hitting the big time. I know this. Stephen King or Dean Koontz, I am not. Bashing of books that have made it big for no other reason than their popularity is like begrudging a super-genius (and I do not mean Wyle E. Coyote here) his/her PHD. There's no point. I think we should aspire to that, as writers we should always strive to make our work the best we can. But as professionals, we should know better than to begrudge popularity. Something in those book(s) strikes a chord with its readers.

I don't have to like a book, or its delivery or characters, to know that *something* made it sell big. I'd have to be an idiot not to respect someone who can touch so many in that way. Doesn't mean it touched me, but hey... I'm twisted and run against the grain.

MJR said...

I'd have to disagree with anon above about reviews. I bought THE HELP because of positive reviews. I didn't even know it was a bestseller when I bought it. It just sounded like a book I would love (and I did). I still don't know anyone else who has read it (unlike, say, DA VINCI CODE, which everyone was talking about at the time, and was put directly into my hands by a friend who insisted I read it).

Neil said...

I don't particularly care for a lot of what I read these days and find myself saying either "what makes this so popular?" or "I can write that good." But as I read I discover that no, I couldn't write that good (or is it well?) Anyway, popularity these days really is the story these and the turn of phrase and imagination. Need to keep working. Good job, Nathan.

The Red Angel said...

I'm glad you posted this. I definitely don't believe that the marketing is the bigger factor in determining a book's success rather than the content. That's a pretty negative perspective to me...

Advertising definitely plays a huge role in familiarizing a certain book to the public, but word of mouth, personal reviews, and the content always prevails. :]

Donna Hole said...

I so agree with this sentiment.

I want an agent, and a publishing house, for the effort they put into promoting an author and a work they are enthused about. But, in the end, it is the public that determines if the publishers expense was worth the end product.

I've seen movies that flop at the box office and don't earn out their expenditures or live up to the reviews. Some big name authors fall prey to this problem also. They capitalize on their name, and forget the quality of work needed.

Who can tell what John Q really wants of us.


wendy said...

Yes, good point that if it were possible to sway public thinking/buying - big time - with media and publicity everyone would be doing it. Everyone is marketing as much as possible, but the huge successes do seem to tap into something that people want - as you said, Nathan.

I think with Twilight, the younger female market who focus on finding that elusive Prince Charming was tapped into. I've heard that males also read the book, but maybe it's more curiosity with them. With Harry Potter, perhaps it's wish-fulfillment for the younger readers? It's interesting that neither sagas have gratuitous violence or sex,so perhaps this is what the mainstream audience want? If this is true, how ironic would it be when many film producer-types seem to think the opposite. Well, it has become a cliche that sex and violence sells.

worstwriterever said...

High concept, did I read about it on this blog?

Sophie Kinsella is really good at it, obviously Stephenie Meyer with Twilight etc.

I think a good high concept is that extra sparkle that combined with a good book and good marketing can start a fire.

I don't think that's where I originally read about it though...I think it might have been this blog.

june said...

I never heard of Twilight until the movie came out and a woman in the theatre told me about it. I went straight to Barnes & Noble after the movie concluded and bought that book. I loved it and insisted on everyone in the house leaving me alone while I read it.

I was shocked at the negative things people have said about it. It's an insult to the reader; as if you don't have good sense to like this book-a lot!

It's just jealously pure and simple. Stephanie Myers tapped into a fantasy that a lot of women/girls have and it resonated with them. Get over it people. She thought of the idea (or dreamed it). The bottom line is, she got there first and you didn't. You have to live with that.

Ishta Mercurio said...


I must not have been clear enough in my post. I wasn't referring to reviewers slamming the book, and I understand completely where you are coming from in your post. I think that when we think of a "critic" or a "reviewer", we think of someone who is going to pick something apart a great deal and find a lot wrong with it. Full 5-star reviews are very rarely given out by professional reviewers, because to offer high praise to almost everything devalues the praise. And you are right to say that these reviews might mean a lot to people who share similar tastes with the reviewer, but they won't mean much to anyone else. When I lived in the UK, I became familiar enough with a couple of the newspapers there that I knew which movie reviewers shared my tastes, so I read their opinions but ignored the rest.

In my above post, I was talking about other writers, specifically people who comment in the forums here and on other blogs. There are a number of people, mostly with limited (if any) publishing experience, who comment (a lot) that they hated this book because it didn't meet their standards of "good literature", and thought it was basically unpublishable schlock.

My attitude is: You don't have to like it, but you do have to realize that this is what the market is actually demanding right now. If you don't want to write this type of thing, that's fine, but don't blame anyone for passing your manuscript up in favor of something that you consider to be unfit for publishing. What gets published is all about what publishers think will sell - this is a business. I'm not published yet, but I'd like to be, and I consider reading bestsellers to be an important learning exercise.

And I agree with your first post too, by the way - I enjoyed Twilight, but I wouldn't shelve it with Tolkien. BUT, I did enjoy it, and that says something.

Virginia Woolf has her place. So does Jane Austen. So does Tolkien. So do Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. Different people want different things.

Kate Evangelista said...

"Word of mouth" can sometimes be a trap too. It's the kind of trust you put into the taste of a friend or a family member that gets you to buy a certain book or watch a certain movie.

I also believe that the bloggers are a powerful force to be reckoned with. Sometimes all it takes is a good review from a popular blog to get the ball rolling.


The only thing we can do is write a great book that people love. We're in the business of pleasing people. The more people love our work, the more they'll tell others, and so on. We're in the age of Information; people can smell stinkers from a mile away, but they also find out about a great book pretty fast. And then it becomes a phenomenon.

Anonymous said...


Ian said...

I totally agree with you Samuel.
I know luck plays a part, but the bottom line has to be - if it's a good book then it's more likely to be a hit.

Josin L. McQuein said...


That's far too simplistic. People can dislike something - for valid reasons - without it being jealousy.

The simple fact is that when something reaches Twilight/HP/DaVinci levels of popularity, it's going to rack up HUGE numbers of people who hate it just because that many more people have read it and found it not to their taste.

Imagine if a typical "good" seller is something like 5,000 copies - and all 5,000 people who buy it still won't like it. Now, multiply that to "phenomenon" status.

If you look at the percentage of people who dislike it, compared to those who like it, it's not much different than any other book.

Somewhat ironic sounding ver. word considering the context of this post: feforker

Elie said...

When the first Harry Potter came out, I was in a bookshop in Islington (London)looking for picture books. Harry Potter had its own cardboard display unit, and without that I wouldn't have noticed it.
I read a child's review of Philip Pulman's The Subtle Knife in the newspaper, and knew I'd love it too.
It's easier to find books now because of the internet. For books to succeed due to word of mouth they have to be visible and around for long enough for word to get around. IMO.
(Apologies if this is here twice - error on page)

Samuel said...

Nathan, The Book Thief is not 'literary'. Please, people. Let's not pretend.

Simon said...


re: Multiplex analogy.

Sorry, but that's a pretty glib response in my opinion. The natural force of a capitalism will, and has, lead to the homogenisation of popular culture; whereby the lowest denominator dictates the markets for everyone. And yes, there is an inevitability to this, but to deny people who fall outside of the central demographic the right of a protest voice (beyond their dollar value) is to condemn them to only further marginalisation.
People's whose tastes fall within the mainstream vote with their wallets and get what they want/deserve. I think that people who's tastes fall outside that should be applauded and encouraged in demanding 'better'(whatever their own personal definition of 'better' may be.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be interesting to discuss just what is the compelling factor on a number of Phenomenon Books.

(We hear sour grape and lofty opinions about why such and such a book should not be a phenomenon. But it is.)

Why not hear more about why a book worked so dynamically.

Scott said...

I wasn't a huge fan of The Book Thief either, but it was accessible and sentimental. Are we surprised it hit it big? In fact, similar to all "popular phenomenons", big-selling books scratch those basic itches of so many because they're not literary masterpieces.

I've always found arguing levels of sophistication of popular phenomenon to be an exercise in circuitous frustration. I feel it's all about the reader, viewer, and listener. If you know how to relate to them, you've a better chance of success. Think "campfire", not "lecture".

Anonymous said...

One of the things that publishers do that I find hard to take is to follow a phenomenon with a million and one copycats - copycat book covers included.

I went into browse Barnes and Noble Booksellers Sunday only to see almost EVERY YA book had a color theme after Twilight, if not everything else. I mean they even had a copy of Jane Austin's book in Twilight black.

I'm all for Twilight's success. But a hundred Twilights? There can be more than one way to write and sell a great teen vampire romance.

I wanted to buy a new book and couldn't find one that looked like one.

(I had to order the book on my list - apparently, not a black cover and not about supernatural romance = not stocked.)

Nathan Bransford said...


So by not having certain at the front of the store the industry is denying people a protest dollar? What about the books in the back of the store? And millions online?

Sorry, the multiplex analogy stands. There are good outside-the-mainstream movies out there you might just have to drive farther to find them or seek them out. Same goes for books.


And re: THE BOOK THIEF and "literary," it all depends on your definition and threshold. I personally think the voice and prose elevates it to literary, even if it's still accessible. A modern-day ULYSSES probably isn't going to be a mega-bestseller and the biggest sellers will probably have a certain degree of accessibility, but it's not as if very literary books don't make the bestseller list and sell in huge quantities. They do.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'd blame readers not publishers. People who loved TWILIGHT walk straight back to the bookstore and say, "I want something like that."

If it didn't work to have books in the same genre and style waiting for them they wouldn't be there.

Eileen said...

There is no doubt in my mind that in the end it comes down to the writing. However, don't underestimate the power of a sizeable print run. If a writer has a smaller print run- word of mouth has to be not only good, but amazing. It has to convince someone to write down the title (not just remember it when they see it in the store) and potentially order it as it won't be in the bookstore.

Anonymous said...

No, marketing cannot make a phenomenon. Only word of mouth can do that.

But marketing sure as hell HELPS.

The only reason I'm posting this is not to disagree with you, Nathan, but to keep readers from drawing a false conclusion based on your post, i.e., that publisher/marketing support is ultimately meaningless. It's so, so not. If your books get (a) bright shiny well-designed covers instead of the third retread of some popular stock art, (b) prominent placement in major bookstores throughout the country and (c) some special attention from your publisher's sales team, the chance of your books finding enough of an audience to gain that precious word of mouth is SO much higher.

I think it's important to remember that the story and the audience are the final determinators of any phenomenon. But I think it's important to know what to ask for with your publisher, and to realistically assess/improve your novel's chances.

Simon said...


sorry if I was unclear. I wasn't suggesting that those of us who look for more sophistication (for want of a better word) than the mainstream model provides, are denied a voter's dollar. On the contrary. I was trying to make the point how that dollar alone will not be enough to slow the capitalist machine's inexorable drive toward low-brow, low-challenge, popular culture.
There's a responsibility upon readers to want 'better', to want originality, to want sophistication, and to be vocal in our demands for it, and militant in encouraging others to do the same.
It's great that people read books, regardless of whether they're books that are entirely to my taste, and I'm not interested in denigrating anybody's work. But I make no apologies in actively encouraging people I know read the books I consider to be great.
My brother used to read and enjoy the likes of Dan Brown; fine - it got him reading, but I saw that as an opportunity to try and get him to read 'better'. Entirely selfishly I weened him onto Murakami, Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, because these are the writers that deserve to be in the mainstream on merit. My brother would not read Dan Brown now. That makes me pleased.
And that is the crux of my point, and why I took exception to your 'don't like it, turn over' response. Apathy from the reader will only retain the status quo. We can't expect the publishing industry and literary agents to be cultural guardians. Why should they? Their purpose is to make money. The responsibility is with us the readers.
Rant over. Sorry if it sounded heavy. I prepare to have these discussions over a beer and a laugh.

Anonymous said...

Nathan said:

I'd blame readers not publishers.

I don't really blame. Marketing what works is a business.

It's more a lament about the loss of individuality when the majority of the books in a section start to resemble each other.

In my perfect bookstore, there would be shiny pink covers and different themes standing out.

I loved the Twilight Saga. I have just had enough of what looks like the same. Viva la difference.

Anonymous said...

In the late twentieth century it required a marketing effort -- even for a good book -- to see the light of day and rack up the big numbers. That required spending money, and the big pockets were the big publishers.

Now, thanks to the internet, it's easier for a good book to achieve success on a small (or zero) marketing budget. An earlier poster mentioned the power of blogs, twitter, etc. Word of mouth is 100 times more powerful than it was 20 years ago. My single-voice post about a book on a reader forum can be read by hundreds -- our individual voices can have much greater reach, and it's free.

Yes, you can make something a phenomenon, BUT the writing must be good enough to have an audience (someone will always hate your book).

Today we all have the tools to make it "go viral". You, a few friends, and a hundred blogs and tweets can kick it up a notch. Look at JA Konrath. He's a model for using the internet VERY effectively to make a name and build a readership for his books. He IS making a phenomenon, in my opinion. Before his internet adventures he was a midlist author (I'd never heard of him). Sure, his books are good, but they are what they are -- genre fiction. Now he's doing a bang-up job of cover art and blurbs on a low budget, handing out freebies, blogging, glad-handing his way around the net on virtual book tours, etc.

Marketing can't do it all, but it sure as heck gives it a huge kick start.

Nathan Bransford said...

simon and anon-

I think I may have initially understood - I've been describing how things are, you're describing how you wish they'd be. I definitely agree that we should strive to support the types of books we want to read with our dollar, and supporting a diversity of choices is a worthy goal.

Simon said...


to be clear, I wasn't disputing the point of your original post at all. It was pretty much irrefutable.

Broadly speaking I think a lot of the marketing spend comes after the other forces have determined that a project has, or will have, momentum.

I'm aware that Twilight gets huge marketing now (it's impossible not to) but I'm guessing that's on the back of its initial success, rather than the other way round. Am I right? genuine question.

Nathan Bransford said...


TWILIGHT was one of those books where there was quite a bit of attention and marketing even with the first book, though it wasn't until the third or fourth book that it really achieved phenomenon status. They were definitely big books, but the gradually became more and more popular until they were practically inescapable.

Other phenomenon books, like HARRY POTTER, were not overly heralded, and just sort of happened.

I agree with the people who have chimed in to say that marketing and print runs are important - they definitely are. A book has to reach a certain saturation point before it starts taking on a life of its own. And I think that saturation point probably varies from book to book.

Nathan Bransford said...


Oops, in my last post to you I meant "I may have initially MISunderstood" - I see now what you meant with your initial comment and don't think we disagree.

Simon said...

Thanks Nathan.

I think it would be daft of any us to think that the industry doesn't throw more weight behind certain projects than others, and when they do it improves that book's chance of success.

But as you say, it can't guarantee it. And at the same time I'm sure the books they choose to get behind aren't picked at random (nor on absolute quality, if there's any way of determining such a thing) but because they have the inherent potential to be big.

SImon said...

No problem, Nathan.

I read it as 'misunderstood' anyway.

Arik Durfee said...

I think word of mouth is huge. As a teacher, I went out and bought ten copies each of THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN, WINTERGIRLS, and THE MAZE RUNNER without having read any of them. But I had heard so many raving good reviews from people that I wanted to have my students read them.

And I think publicity work on the author's part can be just as powerful as anything the publisher can do. I've seen books become word-of-mouth phenomenoms within my school just because the author came and talked to the students. There's something about meeting the author personally that helps transform people into hard-core loyal fans.

Mira said...

You know I think people may be under-rating The Da Vinci Code, a book which makes very strong political and sociological arguments and wraps it up so beautifully in a page-turning story that it became a mainstream phenomenon.

Most books that argue so strongly against the use of religion by politicians for social control and the brutal violent oppression of women would not make it to the NY Times Best seller list.

Mira said...

Oh, I want to add another comment.

Literary fiction does not appeal to me. It's too much work, brings up sad feelings and it gets under my skin. That's not what I'm looking for in a reading experience.

I look for entertainment. I think those who like literary fiction are looking more for an experience.

So, I think it's not accurate to rate literary fiction as 'better' than commercial. I just think those who read each one are looking for something different from their reading experience.

I also think the market does not cater to the LOWEST common denominator. I think it caters to the COMMON denominator.

Nathan wrote a great post awhile back about archtypes. Phenomenons speak to those archtypes in a powerful way, so much so they touch literally billions of readers. They tend to be on target with whatever archtype is actively present in the culture at the time - which is why some wonderful books that also deal beautifully with archtype may take longer to catch on - even post-humuously - because of where the culture is at in any given moment.

It is very hard to control whether you, as a writer, are personally struggling with archtypes that the entire culture is as well. I don't think this is something anyone can control - it's timing and your own personal path.

So, personally, I plan to just write my books, do the best I can put them out there and let go of the results.

Ha! I could barely write that last paragraphy with a straight face. In actuality I'll freak out at every stage of the process, I'm sure, but that last paragraph sure sounded good.

Anyway, my long post and two cents for what it's worth.

Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado said...

There's not much new under the sun.

You've certainly heard the old children's song? DRY BONES...

"With the finger bone connected
to the hand bone,
and the hand bone connected
to the arm bone,
and the arm bone connected
to the shoulder bone,
Oh mercy how they scare!"

***The message is that nothing works alone and of itself... a book phenomenon doesn't either***

A truly great idea springs from the author's brain bone
It moves on down to the finger bones
That tap, tap,tap on the PC bone
For a long, long time...

More ideas, energy and $$$ must come from other bones...
Like Dedicated Agent and Powerful marketing bones...
Cooperative retail bones and those
Affluent consumer bones...

And oh Mercy how they sell!

howdidyougetthere said...

Excellent examples. They've all risen to the top for completely different reasons. Considering how many different writers--and writers' voices-- there are, this should give hope.

Da Vinci Code: fascinating treasure hunt

Twilight: unwavering fate driven love story, popular since the beginning of time

Harry Potter: take me away fantastical adventure with humour

Book Thief: non-preachy literary poignancy

(The Help haven't read yet.)

Adam Pepper said...

It's true that publishing can't manufacture hits like Twilight or Di Vinci (we know they try!) but let's not dismiss the power of advertising and a great big marketing push either.

Anonymous said...

I don't think a publisher can *make* something become popular, but they can set a stage so that it *can* become popular.

When my YA got pubbed from a major publisher, in hardcover, my pub didn't even have ARCs of my book available at the Book Expo or ALA. Despite good reviews, B&N declined to stock it, citing "not enough publicity." So, yeah, um, without a publisher's support -- something as simple as having ARC's around -- led to a snowball effect of no one thinking it was impoortant. Not bloggers, not bookstores. Saddling my book with a hardcover price point rather than a paper back one, sure didn't help, either. Who is going to pay a hardcover price for something they've never heard of?

So a pub can't make something successful, but they can give it a shove in that direction, certainly.

june said...

To Anonymous whose YA didn't get publicity: That's terrible. I'm so sorry to hear that happened to you. It took the joy out of what could have been an awesome experience. You did your best, which is write the best story you could. Some things are just beyond your control. I hope you keep writing and get the notice you deserve.

To Josin,
You've made a valid point and sheer numbers probably do impact the responses. That said, I suspect jealously plays a bigger role than people would like to admit :-)

june said...

To Anonymous again:

What you've said is so true. I've been at writer's conferences where the publishers were clearly excited about a YA book and were going all out to promote it. They had me salivating for the ARC and I couldn't rest until I had one in my hot little hands. Then what do I do? Promote it on my blog just the way they hope I will.(If I like it of course)

So, yeah. How strong a publisher gets behind a book, can make a huge difference. I hope you'll be on the recieving end of such a push in the future.

Robert A Meacham said...

Thank you for a valuable post on marketing. I can speak to the retail ( real estate piece). As a retailer, we look at the marketing value. Did it create a buzz, timely in what is popular, and that is about it. We look at the exit strategy we have with publications, the how the heck can we move through this product at store level and we have already done this with the contract with our distributor and their contract with Ingrams.
Let's take the Twilight Series. When it came out with book and DVD, we gave it prime location in our stores ( prime real estate) and made a big deal of its release. Other titles may warrant shippers placed in the book section with hope attached.They also get upfront visual with the old #1 best selling author status and so on.

Mayowa said...

Well done sir. I've keep seeing these posts on the many issues/failures of the publishing/bookselling industry. Why are writers handing over 90% of profits to them again?

Pens With Cojones

Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe said...

Well said Nathan. May we as authors create something that can touch people as those big sellers have.

ajcastle said...

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?

myimaginaryblog said...

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.)

Margo said...

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.

myimaginaryblog said...

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.

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