So a couple of weeks ago, Monday, September 14 to be exact, my 56th birthday, I was sitting in a restaurant in Raleigh with my husband, daughter (whom we were visiting), and her roommate who had just arrived late from her job at Barnes & Noble where they had been unpacking––but not yet unwrapping––copies of the new Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol set to go on sale the following day. Apparently none of the employees was allowed to so much as nick the cellophane wrapper, on pain of death, and they were required to show up at the store in the wee hours to prepare for the onslaught.
To show how clueless my family is about popular culture, both my daughter and my husband said, "Who's book?"
At least I could reply, "You know The Da Vinci Code guy." Though I did not know the to-be-released title."
"You mean Tom Hanks wrote a book?" my husband asked.
At that point the roommate winced and, except for seeing The Lost Symbol sitting in a rather lonely display at the airport the next day, that was the last I heard of it until Thursday night when they did a piece about it on the The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. In addition to the editor of The Scottish Rite Journal who was interviewed at length, a woman representing the DC tourist bureau or chamber or something went all rapturous about how the book was boosting tourism.
Wow, I can see a city like Philadelphia doing handstands for literary-tourism, but was the US capital (and Capitol) really hurting that bad for tourists? Then again, look what The Da Vinci Code did for Rome. I hear that was a real backwater before getting the Brown Bump. (Wait a second, Da Vinci Code, DC, was Dan trying to tell us something in that first book?)
Later they interviewed a literature professor from George Washington University, which happens to be my alma mater and may be the reason I naively found Washington to be a pretty okay city already. This woman too was very excited, not because of what the book could do for her fair city, but for what it was doing for the book industry that, in most other ways, seems to be faltering. She noted how blockbusters like The Lost Symbol keep publishers like Doubleday Books afloat, and, by implication, allow them to publish perhaps "better" but less popular writers? I'm guessing at the last part since she is a professor of literature after all, and GW is no slouch institution (if I do say so).
Now my thought is, what if Doubleday or some other publisher did that big roll out for other books? The marketing plan, if you think about it, was just the opposite of the standard. Instead of sending around a mess of review copies in advance, the story was kept under wraps, figuratively and literally, until it hit the shelves. Why? The answer is simple, no one wanted to take the chance the book would be panned. Instead, you build a desire by making it the "forbidden fruit." It really doesn't matter if half the people who buy the book don't finish it or think it downright sucks, they can't return it. Add to that some branding, like book tours––not book tours as in the author doing signings and interviews––but tours centered on visiting the sites and following the clues in the book.
Of course they can't do it with every book without risking burn out, but if they took the next short story collection from, I don't know, Rick Bass (just a name I picked out of the air), and wrapped it in cellophane and said no one could reveal what stories it included until the release date. Then they put out a whole lot of press hoopla about all the anticipation and how there was this new sudden interest growing across the country in short story collections. It wouldn't be true, of course, but that's how mob psychology works. Then they could link it with tours to Montana where everyone attends a Halloween party in the bar where Bass set "Antlers" with everyone given free antlers to wear for the evening––natch––and maybe bow hunting lessons.
I'd go, but I like Montana, and I also like reading Rick Bass a whole lot better than reading Dan Brown, which I tried with Da Vinci, but couldn't finish since I find bad writing as excruciatingly boring as a bad story.
I get the professor's point about being grateful and all, but wouldn't it be nice if, just once, these big publishers put all that marketing power behind something really good?