On Publicity in Publishing

There’s a joke in financial planning circles that if you ask a number of people about their plans are for retirement, some percentage will say something like “I’m gonna win the lottery.” The joke of course is that you’re far more likely to die in a car accident this year than you are to win the lottery. Ever. Winning the lottery is not a sound financial plan. It’s a wish. And yet, a lot of the marketing advice I get follows the same line of thinking.

“I know what you should do. You should strip naked and have people write lines from your books in permanent marker all over your body, and then you should run naked through the streets and get on the evening news.”

That was actually a suggestion. I pointed out that, even if I did get on the evening news (which wasn’t up to me), that still probably wouldn’t net me many sales.

“Yes,” they said, “but you never know who’s in the audience. All you need is that one person who makes all the difference.”

I imagine a lot of creatives get that advice. They must, because the makers of the film “La La Land” actually lampooned it with the second musical number, “Someone in the Crowd.” In the song, Emma Stone’s character is urged by her friends to go to a Hollywood party because, they said, you never knew who would be there and she might get “discovered.” Of course the only people she actually meets are dweebs and other wanna-bes.

Importantly, she DOES actually get a break from “someone in the crowd.” A casting director attends the one-woman show she self-stages. In other words, the makers of the film seem to be saying you get “discovered” by actually going out and doing what you do — in the case of acting, by actually acting — and by taking risks, not by going to parties or running through the streets naked and covered in permanent marker.

Thing is, I wasn’t even totally opposed to the idea! I merely pointed out, first, that there was a cost. For one, I’d likely be arrested, which had lasting consequences, not least on job applications. There’s also probably be a fine associated with that, and some risk of jail time. And given that I live in a small city, it would probably be smarter to shell out for airfare and hotel in a major metro, which would net me more eyeballs.

I also suggested that it wouldn’t work if it were just me. There would have to be a group of authors, because a group of people doing something makes it seem more serious, and — because there’s not just one nutjob — puts the focus on the activity itself, including what it’s for. In this case, as a publicity stunt to sell books.

But there’s an important question to be asked. Do publicity stunts work on you? Do you actually go out and buy what they want you to buy? Or do you just laugh at the funny bits and go on with life?

Yeah. Exactly.

In fact, I’d suggest the times you did go out and buy were almost exclusively times when you were already interested in the thing being advertised. Publicity stunts work with films like “Deadpool” because they tie well into the subject matter and because that character already has lots of fans. It’s not the stunt that nets new ones. Its the existing fans talking excitedly about the stunt to non-fans that gets them to take note.

And then there’s the fact that people only engage, if at all, on a very narrow level. There was a young author a few years back who was also a cast member on a reality TV show. Someone asked her after, did you sell a lot more books? The answer was, not really. A little, yes. All publicity is good publicity, after all, in the sense that it doesn’t hurt. But that doesn’t mean all publicity is sufficient publicity. It’s probably not even going to cover the costs of a stunt!

You know this to be true from your own experience. When you read an article about “Area Man Mauled by Bear,” or when some person in the news becomes an internet meme, do you stop to see what that person’s job is? Do you even care? If you happen across the name of the company where man-mauled-by-bear works, do you stop what you’re doing and go look it up? Of course not. Which is why that young author didn’t sell very many more books. A few people checked her out, sure. But for the most part, that she was an author was not any different than if she’d been a model or a computer technician. The audience was engaging with her as a reality TV participant, not as someone whose books they might buy.

And then there’s the fact that, of all the publicity stunts that you do see, there’s oodles and oodles that you don’t. This is survivorship bias. That you’re even aware of the stunt means it was in some way a success, so extrapolating from your personal experience, you’re basically extrapolating from a (false) 100% success rate and concluding that publicity stunts must be a really smart thing to do. It’s like saying “You should go home and make a meme that goes viral.”

Yeah. Good idea. I’ll get right on that.

Just as winning the lottery isn’t a retirement plan, a publicity stunt isn’t a marketing plan. It’s a wish. It’s not that such things never work. It’s that they’re very unlikely to, and the time and money spent producing them is probably better spent elsewhere.

Here some science to get you thinking: http://nautil.us/issue/5/Fame/homo-narrativus-and-the-trouble-with-fame


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