It was a rainy night on the outskirts of Philadelphia that I saw it, a huge billboard advertising a book.
On the left was what had to be a thirty-foot tall photograph of a middle-aged, smiling, and well-accessorized female author. To her left, beneath some kind of breathless blurb, was the cover of the book.
I guess what most surprised me about it was a) I’d never heard of the author, and b) I’d never heard of the book. I craned my neck while committing the author’s name and the book's title for later Googling, but it had been a long day, I was tired, and the information was gone from my head in about eight minutes.
But here’s what I suspect it was: a self-published author with money bought herself a billboard overlooking I-95. Or maybe, it was the husband who had the money, and he was helping his wife fulfill her lifelong dream.
Alas, it didn’t work in my case. Further, I suspect they never earned back the money it cost. But I bet it sold more than a few books.
I suppose I remember it for a few reasons. First, you don’t see a whole lot of billboard advertising for books. In fact, you don't really see a whole lot of any advertising for books. How is it that people buy books anyway?
That got me thinking about how I buy my own books, and who were the authors I’d never heard of but gave a chance to anyway. In my case it’s mostly from browsing bookstores and word of mouth from friends. Very occasionally, I’ll read something in the paper that will get me intrigued enough to buy something.
For example, back in the early nineties, a business columnist for the Boston Globe named David Warsh used to write often about a writer named Floyd Kemske. According to Warsh, Kemske had created a new genre of fiction called the “Corporate Nightmare,” which used fiction to lampoon the modern workplace.
On Warsh’s recommendation, I bought Kemske’s then-current book “Human Resources” and never looked back, devouring everything Kemske had ever written. (If you’ve never read Kemske, start. You'll be glad you did.)
Even before that, back in the early eighties, Time Magazine had a blurb about a mid-level bureacrat in the Social Security Administration who had recently tried his hand at fiction and had Washington all abuzz. Some suggested he had to have used classified material to write so in-depth on his subject.
Intrigued by that blurb, I immediately went out and bought the hardcover edition of "The Hunt for Red October" by an unknown named Tom Clancy.
It was my buddy Dan who turned me on to Carl Hiaasen, lending me a dog-eared copy of “Skin Tight.” Not only did I become a Hiaasen fan, buying all his previous books and breathlessly waiting for new ones, but while waiting for those, I began looking for authors who also wrote humorous Florida Fiction.
I stumbled upon Laurence Shames in just this manner, when a book called “Florida Straits” caught my eye at the bookstore. Didn’t take me long to devour his entire output. One day, at Kate’s Mystery Bookshop in Cambridge, another title caught my eye, “Florida Roadkill” by Tim Dorsey.
Could there be, I asked myself, yet another author who writes uproarious Florida Fiction? Yes. Yes, there could.
At any rate, I could go on and on:
Stumbling upon Christopher Moore browsing my local Barnes and Noble.
Discovering George Pelecanos browsing Spencer’s Mystery Bookshop on Newbury Street in Boston.
Buying a remaindered hardcover of a book called “Usher’s Passing” by someone named Robert R. McCammon at Lauriat’s. Plot looked intriguing. Thought I'd give him a try.
An old boss giving me a dog-eared copy of “The Charm School” by someone named Nelson DeMille.
My brother turning me on to Ken Follett by way of “The Pillars of the Earth.”
My sister turning me on to Stephen King.
My point is that I don’t get books marketed to me, and most book advertising simply goes right over my head. In fact, maybe it’s not just me. Maybe that’s why there traditionally hasn’t been much “book advertising” outside of the Times Book Review.
Though now that I think of it, years ago (well before the Internet) Lauriat’s was giving away pamphlets containing the first chapter of a book by an unknown author. I remember taking one off the counter, but don’t remember if I ever read it. But I do remember the book was called “A Simple Plan” by Scott Smith.
I remember too years ago, one of the radio shows I listened to heavily marketed a new author using the Rolling Stones “Heartbreaker” as a backdrop. I heard that commercial a lot, but never investigated the author.
Probably ten years later, I was browsing my local bookstore and took a chance on a paperback by Robert Ferrigno, then read everything else by him. Turned out one of his earliest books was called . . . “Heartbreaker.”
Anyway, I don’t know why I’m writing any of this. Just been thinking a lot about book marketing lately, something I am demonstrably not very good at and don’t have much interest in. There are a few places online to market your self-published books, creating a thread and bumping it every now and then so folks have a chance to see it.
But that’s not for me. I’m not comfortable with self-promotion, and frankly, I’m not very good at social networking either. Then again, social networking doesn’t sell books. Word of mouth sells books. Browsing in bookstores sells books.
I guess finally, it was a few months ago when I saw a commercial featuring James Patterson. Now that IS unusual, I thought, a television commercial selling fiction. And in this commercial, in which Patterson was flogging his latest Alex Cross novel titled “Cross,” Patterson threatened to kill Alex Cross if people didn’t buy the book.
This is a man who has sold more than 25 million copies of his books and recently signed a $100 million dollar contract for 22 more in the next three years. This is a man who doesn’t even write his own books anymore, and who crowds out far better books by far better writers.
But he damn well knows how to market.