Literary marketing & advertising…

This is a blog I probably should not write.  And most assuredly shouldn’t publish if I do write it. 

Because frankly, I’m in the mother and father of a bolshie mood.  Grumbletonian doesn’t come close. 

But I think I’m going to do it anyway.  And probably lose friends and de-influence people in the process.  Or something.

The thing is, you see, I am completely and utterly fed up.  

Yes, this is about advertising.  The advertising of books. 

I’ve got so that I loathe and despise it.  Because it’s got so infernally fatuous, so whiningly shallow, so full of charlatanism it could pass for one of those miracle-competitions in 7th century Canterbury. 

There I was last night, fossicking about on the internet, and I come across a thing which says, “Like Downton Abbey?  Then you’ll love Dinglehoppers on Moonbeams… (Or whatever the title of this thing was.) 

(I think that may not have been the title, but you see, I do have a problem with names–I’ve had it for decades–I can’t always remember them, so I substitute one of my own invention.  There was a shop on South Street in St. Andrews when I was at uni there.  It had a name.  It was Mrs + an ordinary surname.  Only I could never remember the surname.  So I always referred to it as Mrs Smith-Taylor-Brown’s.  It may have been one of those.  I can’t recall…I’m digressing.  Sorry.)

Anyway…

I am not ashamed to say I like Downton Abbey.  I like it fine.  I also liked Julian Fellowes’ novel, Snobs.  I liked that very much–found it most insightful.  And I find Downton Abbey a perfectly enjoyable way to seque into the coming week on a Sunday evening. 

Do I like it as much as A Tale of Two Cities?  No.  I do not.  As much as War and Peace?  No.  As much as Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia?  Not Pygmalion-likely.  And not as much as Hapgood, either. 

But this inference that if I liked Downton Abbey, I’m going to lurve this other thing is just plain drivel…and a bit, I don’t know, crawling.

Does this other thing have Jim Carter as Carson, the butler, that pillar of human granite with a voice like roughed-up dark velvet?  No.  It does not.  (Well, I don’t imagine it does.) 

Does it feature Hugh Bonneville walking his grounds with his yellow lab?  Doubtful. 

Does it showcase Julian Fellowes’ pointed, perfect wit, silkily delivered by the sublime Dame Maggie Smith?  Unlikely. 

In fact, there is no way this thing about Peachblossoms or Thingymebobs is going to measure up, is there? 

Julian Fellowes is at the top of his game.  He’s unrivalled and unrival-able at what he does.  And he’s pulled out all the stops for Downton.  And he’s got an award-winning cast that can deliver the goods right on the money.  Every time.

So…there I was, faced with this dubious claim of similarity with a work of great telly-drama…

Hence, I decided to have an eyeball-full of Thingymebobs…I wanted to see what’s being peddled as “like” Downton Abbey

(Yes, yes, I do have a problem with morbid curiosity too…) 

I’ll just say it now, it’s nothing like.  Not anything.  Not in any way, shape or character.  It’s got that claustrophobic, suffocated, semi-hysterical tone one finds in Victorian melodrama.  The overwrought prose is as dense as poured-in-place concrete, or, to borrow a apt phrase from Edgar Allen Poe, “turgid pretension”.  And not a Maggie Smith nor a Jim Carter in sight…

 So it’s an entirely bogus comparison.  It may even be–dare I say it or is this heresy–a lie. 

A big fat whopping lie designed to cozen the consumer into thinking they’re acquiring the literary equivalent of a large box of Fortnum and Mason’s rose creams.  (Yum!)  But they’re not, are they?

So why say it?  Why make a comparison by which one can only look shabby and foolish? 

Moreover, why can’t an author or a publisher or advertiser just say what the thing is?  Tell me what it really, genuinely is?  Why must they tell these absolute clankers?  Because it’s not just dishonest, it also smacks of desperation. 

Or delusion.

And why do people have to measure themselves by some other author anyway?  I don’t get that.  Not only that, I don’t like it. 

Why can’t they be happy to be themselves?  To write well and beautifully, but in their own individual style and voice?  Yes, if there are flaws (and there will be), do the work that corrects them.  But stop claiming to be someone you’re not. 

Stop comparing altogether. 

Because I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not going to buy a book just because it’s been compared to something that’s popular.  (I’m stoopid, but I’m not that stoopid.)

Authors, enjoy who you are.  Find the strengths within and use those.  Learn the weaknesses and master those.  

And for heaven’s sake, don’t tell me you’re on a par with Jane Austen or Julian Fellowes, the Brontes or Charles Dickens or Tom Stoppard.  I know I’m not.  And I’m fairly certain I don’t know anybody who is.

That’s not an insult, it’s a statement of fact.  I also don’t know anyone on par with Dorothy Dunnett or Mary Renault or Patrick O’Brian either. 

I mean, frankly, it’s all a bit like marketing a Wimpy burger as 100% sirloin from an organically-fed herd of Angus cattle, isn’t it?  Which, by the by, is against the law, and Trading Standards would be down on you like a ton of bricks if you tried it.

And these comparisons are not for the author to say.  They’re for the literary critics of this world to judge and say.  They’re the ones who’ve studied these works ad nauseam.  And they actually do know their stuff, bless ’em. 

(And whatever happened to that hallowing virtue of modesty anyway?)

So, what I want to say is if you want to market your book successfully, tell me what the book is.  The real thing. 

Is it a simple love story set against a backdrop of Restoration England?  If the writing’s good, if the detail work is interesting, the characters engaging, why would I not enjoy that? 

Is it a tale of conflicting Scottish clan loyalty set against the early years of James VI’s reign?  Sounds good!  I’ll read that one.  And why would I not?  It doesn’t need to be compared to Dorothy Dunnett.  Dorothy was a one-off and a brilliant one.  (And I adored her!)  But that’s just the point.  She was a one-off! 

We all are.  And that’s a good thing.  Not a weakness.  It’s a strength.

And one more thing I’d like to say and this concept goes all the way back to Aristotle.  

If one lies, if one tells porkies in order to sell one’s work, not only will I not believe you, I will become–as countless people have done and are even now doing–more and more cynical towards all forms of advertising and doubt every single superlative, every phrase of high-sounding praise.  Even, unfortunately, when they are the truth.

Think about it. 

Righto.  Rant done. 

And since the Olympics are now finished there’s an outside chance that I shall get some real work done today…

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27 comments on “Literary marketing & advertising…

  1. Well said. It won’t change things, but glad you wrote and posted it. And just in time for the sing-along with Eric Idle, “Always Look on the Bright Side”, and then we all whistled our relief.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      One of my favourite tunes! And it has a funny story attached to it, too.

      A friend of ours, a whizz of an organist, was playing for another friend’s wedding. So he was playing along the prelude type stuff for a bit. But the bride was late. And when I say late, I mean late. So our friend began improvising and this went on for about twenty minutes, and eventually when, as he put it, he’d “built up some nice fugue-like Bachy textures…” he introduced the theme of those variations. Yes, you guessed it, “Always look on the Bright Side of Life…”

      Don’t think the groom thought it that funny. Everyone else did, though.

  2. Gregory House says:

    Once more into the breach dear friends, MM Bennetts again delivers the goods with this amusing piece of literary advertising critisism, maybe a hint of Tom Sharp, perhaps a dollop of Tom Holt but nevertheless still the incomparible MM Bennetts as biting and erudite as usual. Ps good to hear team GB did so well.

  3. cavalrytales says:

    I’d like to know who decides a story is ‘like so-and-so.’

    The author? That’d be a bit arrogant. Publisher? They think they have the ‘next so-and-so’ and need readers to believe them. And who takes notice of advertising blurb?

    Reviewers I forgive, because plenty need a frame of reference to ground their own views.

    Anyway, if you liked ’50 Shades’ my book’s nothing like it, so I’ve heard.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I regret to say I believe there may be quite a lot of arrogance in this business, JH. That or, as I mentioned above, delusion.

      And I liked your book.

  4. I think people who don’t really know what they’re doing (and this includes plenty of authors as well as publishers, agents & publicists) push comparisons as a kind of shorthand, often in the supposedly titillating “____ meets _____” format (after all, who wouldn’t be piqued by “George Eliot meets Anthony Burgess” or whatnot).

    This of course presumes the reader will be familiar with the references. But to paraphrase Lady Bracknell, nowadays that is no guarantee.

    In short, I agree. It is a far, far better thing to have your work stand on its own legs than to claim it as the twin of another.

  5. In all the many years of being a computer owner I have never felt the urge to install an ad blocker…until I began spending time on Goodreads and other book-related sites. I believe it was a bright red flashing banner that had me running to the download site, but it may have been the orange one.

    In the age of internet maturity, when most advertisers have realized that subtler is better, the book industry is decades behind. Book ads are gaudy, irritating and worst of all, animated. They slow down pageloads to an unbelievable degree. Do they work? I have no clue. But then, I can’t see them on my browser any more.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      So where do you think book ads would work? And how? I’m fascinated! Because I think most of us are groping in the dark with boxing gloves on and haven’t a clue. So where would you go and whom would you trust to recommend new titles?

  6. Even though I wrote a booklet on author marketing, I completely agree with your frustration and now, on my second book, I’m WAY toned down on my efforts…I think we do have to get people to take a look somehow, and then build on that.
    It’s all evolving, and right now is at a pretty annoying and ugly stage..I hope we can each find our niche…and yours is most definitely in the classy section.
    Aloha and friendship,
    Toby Neal

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Bless you, Lovely. And I agree that it’s now at the “pretty annoying and ugly stage”. Can we hope therefore that this is basically the equivalent of teenage blahs, and that like good wine, all will improve with age and patience?

      I don’t know…I think I’d just like to see a modicom of integrity and a soupcon of modesty in marketing these days. For modesty is such a winning and attractive quality, in my estimation…And why should anyone wish to be considered a blaggart–which is what these excessive claims about one’s own work make one. (Unless one is Beethoven, and then, obviously it’s nothing but the truth.)

  7. You haven’t lost a friend here, MM, I bless you for writing this. I spent my usual time on Twitter tonight trying to promote others but found slim pickings. I’ve frankly had it with all the in your face tweets from authors about their awesome books.

    Apparently many authors aren’t listening to advice of social media coaches about building relationships and platforms, not annoying the you-know-what out of people so they quit following. No. 1 reason people stop following. And I’m no exception. I promptly unfollow spammy authors. They’re in for themselves with no thoughts of supporting their colleagues.

    Then there’s the trend followers – vampires, erotica, fantasy et al – jumping on the wagon. First of all, they’re trying to emulate crappy writing and, secondly, they’re just slapping this stuff up and giving indie and self-pubbed authors a bad rep. You’ve written the best advice an author can receive: write beautifully and well with your own individual style and voice. Oops, sorry, kind of took over your blog. Rant done.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Just so you know: I’m just sitting here, nodding in approval everything you’re saying…

      Maybe we should call this a heated agreement?

      And feel free to take over my blog comments any old time–that’s what they’re here for. *wink*

  8. Worth ranting about indeed, and you do it with flair. Equally awful are the crits you see all the time, like “Two thumbs up” – what the devil does that mean? Up where? Another style is the comparison such as “makes Lolita look like a retarded campfire girl”. I don’t remember what book it was describing but it did Nabokov a great disservice.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ha ha ha ha! Do not get me started on those kinds of comparisons! Just do not!

      An agent once compared my Of Honest Fame to Georgette Heyer–I assume because it’s set in the early 19th century–and after I finished gawping, I realised that what she’d actually just told me was that she’d never read Heyer herself and only knew about it because of when it was set. At which point I thought, I don’t think we can work together–you haven’t read Dickens and you haven’t read Heyer and you haven’t read Dorothy Dunnett–I’m not certain there’s any common ground here… And eventually I came to view the whole experience as a lucky save.

  9. Sounds like a lucky escape. I haven’t an agent but you would need to have every confidence in his or her knowledge and ability or you would feel that the agent wasn’t worth the commission.

  10. reb says:

    I have always hated that author advice. I think I tried doing it years ago, and it made my flesh crawl.

  11. M Fahrenheight says:

    Dear M.M.: I was looking forward to reading your new post on literary marketing, esp. if it was a bit ballistic in nature, but alas! I cannot READ anything. After I hit the link, Read More of this Post,  All I see is a great interesting map and some blue highlights that look like links, and a great running imprint in black all over the darkly woven map –all of which is–er–unreadable.  Hope it clears up. panting for ranting, Mignon

    ________________________________

  12. Rappleyea says:

    I’m a bit late, but a wonderful rant all the same! I think almost all advertising and promotion these days have gotten more overblown over time. Besides loving books, I also love perfume and follow a few perfume blogs. The ad copy accompanying new perfume releases is so bad that my favorite perfume blog has a yearly competition called the Prix Eau Faux in which contestants submit egregiously purple ad copy for made-up perfume releases. The irony is that some of the real ad copy is worse!

    I’m hoping that this is cyclical and that humility and understatement will come back into vogue.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I’m laughing about the perfume. Yes, those adverts really are way over the top. And you read or watch them and think, “As if…”

      The whole reviewing/advertising/marketing world has been completely devalued though, in my estimation. Chiefly because of the proliferation of ‘customer’ reviews. In the case of books–all those Amazon reviews–what honestly are they worth? I don’t know the criteria by which a book is being judged, I don’t know the writer’s credentials other than that they’ve definitely bought a book from Amazon at some point. And 3/4 of them seem to be written by friends or relatives, with the chief aim being to boost the book’s sales, not to properly analyse or evaluate the work in question. And the claims that people make for these books…hahaha.

      It reminds me of that film with Dudley Moore where he’s the advertising exec who suddenly starts telling the truth and he proposes a campaign for Volvo with the line, “Boxy but safe.”

      • Rappleyea says:

        Oh so true about the Amazon reviews. If I read enough of them though, I can usually tell the “real” reviews vs. friends and relatives. With that said, I recently bought a book for my Kindle that had 86 (out of 87 I think) five star reviews! I obviously had checked my disbelief at the door that day because I fell for them. And… the book was awful! After a couple of chapters I quit. I think the author must have been a pre-teen!

        I wish one of my very favorite authors, **coughMMBennettscough** would get another book out soon! 😉

  13. M M Bennetts says:

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

    “Ehem!” says Bennetts, clearing throat.

    You’re a horsey person, you’ll understand. About the next book, let’s just say at the moment, I’m walking the course–measuring my distances between jumps, the sharpness of the turns, that kind of thing…

    It’s coming on…

    • rappleyea says:

      Okay, walking the course is good. At least the course is set up and the event is close enough that it’s time to be out walking it in preparation. I’ll stay optimistic.

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