Book publishers exploit stars

These may be hard times for publishers, but using a star author to sell another less well-known writer’s book is lazy marketing

The word “deadline” tends to catch my eye. As a journalist, it’s the term that defines your weeks, days and hours. So browsing in WH Smith recently, I was intrigued to see that Dan Brown, author of megahit The Da Vinci Code, had written a book called Deadline with the intriguing (and horribly familiar to all writers) tagline: “Time Only Matters When It’s Running Out”.

I didn’t think The Da Vinci Code, which is a crime-thriller-cum-religious-tale, was a particularly well-written book when it first came out in 2003. But nobody can deny it has mass appeal and its racy and pacy plot has spawned a whole set of imitators. With more than 81 million copies sold so far and two hit films based on Brown’s novels, it’s one of the publishing successes of the century.

So I picked up Deadline. Would it be the story of a young female journalist struggling for the scoop of the decade against the odds? At which point, I noticed someone else’s name on the cover beneath Dan Brown’s: Simon Kernick. “Aha,” I thought, “The title is actually ‘Simon Kernick: Deadline.’ Perhaps Kernick is the fictional detective starring in this novel?”

But as I looked closer, it dawned on me that in fact, Brown had not written this book at all. And Kernick is not the detective hero of the piece. The front cover, which proudly boasted that it was “exclusive” to WH Smith, bears the legend: “Dan Brown. If you like your thrillers as fast, furious and unputdownable as Dan Brown, then we thought you’d enjoy…Simon Kernick. Deadline.”

I had got it entirely wrong. Kernick is, in fact, the author of Deadline. Brown is not.

This is selling one author’s book with the name of another author as the hook to draw in the shopper. Rather than simply referring to Dan Brown on the cover notes, suggesting similarities between the authors’ styles, at first sight it seems that Brown is the main writer.

The whole top two-thirds of the book is dedicated to Brown, rather than Kernick. Careless shoppers, like me, could quite easily buy it thinking it was Brown’s own work and only realise their mistake when they’d parted with their cash.

This marketing confuses me. Naturally, I understand the pull of a superstar brand in the world of publishing. Dan Brown is clearly a star of the book industry. In a way, he’s a little like pop star Madonna. The Brown name has become a brand which tells readers that a novel will be fast-paced and exciting. When Brown’s genuine new work comes out later this year, it will be bought by millions, regardless of how it is reviewed.

Kernick, by contrast, is your up-and-coming starlet. He clearly has to be content with a supporting role; he hasn’t yet defined a brand to rival Brown’s. This is not to say he has no profile; Kernick has already had a reasonable amount of success with books such as Relentless (“They want you and they want you dead”) and Severed (“One night stand. One dead girl. One bad day”). But his brand doesn’t yet rival his fellow author’s.

Some people might argue this is merely an extension of the type of recommendation campaign that online retailers have been doing for years. If you buy a Dan Brown book on Amazon, the site might well recommend a book such as Kernick’s Deadline. It stands to reason that if you’re picking up a crime thriller by Brown, then similar writers might also appeal. Big deal.

You can also argue that in a world where many celebrities become “authors” with the help of ghostwriters, it is no surprise to see one person’s name selling another’s book. After all, when David Beckham created an autobiography called “My Side”, it was ghostwritten by an author called Tom Watt, who ensured the footballer’s words made sense on paper. Beckham’s name was still the one on the front cover.

But I’m not the only person who has felt fooled by the association between Deadline and Dan Brown. One review on Amazon from an L. Dormon states: “This was advertised by WH Smith as ‘if you like Dan Brown, you’ll love this’. Well it’s nothing like Dan Brown. If it hadn’t been given to me free when I ordered his new novel, I wouldn’t have brought it, and feel cheated I spent time reading it.”

Most reviews are extremely enthusiastic, praising Kernick’s work for being gritty and tense. These are not the reviews for a man whose style is so indistinct that he deserves to gets his name printed three times smaller than someone who didn’t even write the book.

Most reviews, though, are extremely enthusiastic, praising Kernick’s work for being gritty and tense. One man says only having to attend work kept him from reading it all the time. Many also say they enjoyed getting to know the novel’s main character and look forward to reading other works by Kernick.

These are not the reviews for a man whose style is so indistinct that he deserves to get his name printed three times smaller than someone who didn’t even write the book. It might not be the type of writing that appeals too much to me, but clearly Kernick has a healthy fanbase waiting to rave about his work.

I think Kernick’s publisher, Corgi, has missed a trick. Rather than piggybacking Kernick’s work on Brown’s brand, it should have tried to develop the author’s own distinctive style and reputation more carefully. I appreciate it’s trying to shift copies in a difficult climate but there is more than enough room for another star brand on the bookshelves. So come on, Corgi; there is never a deadline for innovative marketing.

Readers' comments (12)

  • Even more surprisingly, Deadline was published over a year ago, so why do this now? Surely an example of a bad assumption - readers are not that daft, and most will see it for what it is before buying. If I was Mr Kernick, I'd be somewhat annoyed. There again, if it sells another few hundred copies...

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  • I couldn't believe that Dan Brown's name was so much larger, surely that should be a right reserved for the hard work of the author who produced the book.

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  • Google image search doesn't find this cover, and it's not on the WH Smith site. Is it a new edition? Could you post the ISBN?

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  • Is there even a Dan Brown blurb, or just his name? I assume he had to approve this, though in some way I hope he didn't.

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  • Extraordinarily sad that the publishing industry is failing so hard - and readers are reading so infrequently - that a publisher has stooped to this level.

    Were I Kernick, I would be beyond annoyed that another writer's name were being used to sell my work.

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  • I'm confused... is this the back cover or the front cover? On first read it seems you're talking about the front, but then the picture seems to be showing the back, since the spine appears to be on the right. Then you specify that the "If you liked..." legend is on the front, which I can't spot in the picture (though it is a small image and much of it is hard to make out.)

    If it's on the back then it's considerably less eye-catching and objectionable. Was it shelved back-to-front?

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  • This is utterly ridiculous. Talk about lazy marketing. Not to mention blatent lies! It's enough to make you lose faith in the wonderful world of publishing...

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  • This is a wholly disingenuous article and one that needs some clarifications, explanations and some facts that have been conveniently ignored.

    Firstly, Deadline, in the format Ruth describes, is being given free to those WHSmith customers who have pre-ordered Dan Brown’s latest book. It is an exclusive edition, which is not sold at any other retailer. No one with even an ounce of sense would think it was a new Dan Brown, considering it has a huge FREE sticker on it and an explanatory blurb to explain both the book and the promotion.

    Secondly, there is two sides to this promotion, which Ruth fails to mention: one from the publisher and one from the retailer.

    The new Dan Brown will be the biggest book since the last Harry Potter. Unfortunately, like Potter, only a few people will make any money out of it. Retailers have all rushed to reduce the price to almost loss-leading levels, meaning that there is little price-wise, to choose between Waterstone’s, Borders, Smiths and Amazon. So how do you attract people to order it from you rather than a competitor? Give something extra – which is exactly what a canny WHSmiths has done.

    People who like Dan Brown – and there’s a fair few –have to wait until September to get their mitts on the latest tome , so why not give them something to read right now? It adds value to Smiths’ proposal and differentiates them from everyone else. So they go to Brown’s publisher (Transworld) and say “Do you have an author you’d like to put in front of a massively wide demographic to which they wouldn’t ordinarily have access?” Transworld thinks about it for less than a second and says “Oh go on then.” If they hadn’t, another publisher would have, and the whole department would have got the pole-axing of a lifetime – and deservedly.

    Thirdly, Ruth portrays Kernick as having no brand identity of his own. Which is just plain wrong. Over the years Transworld has invested heavily in national advertising, in-store promotions and innovative web campaigns to build him into a crime novelist of some repute. He is hardly a greenhorn, nor a stranger to the bestseller lists. What he isn’t yet is in the massive leagues of say James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, Ian Rankin (all considerable star brand names that share shelf space with Dan Brown, incidentally, Ruth) – but then again very, very, very few authors are. This opportunity to reach a much wider readership could help him achieve this much sooner than any other method.

    Fourthly, this promotion has cost Transworld a paltry amount, compared to the exposure Kernick will get – particularly as the promoted book is a backlist title. Kernick also has a new book out so the added recognition of his name may also fuel sales of his other books. What Transworld has done is put Kernick in front of a vast new readership, with minimal lay out. This is a textbook example of how to build and capitalise on brands in an industry where it can take years to start making money on your authors, and which has very few sure-fire winners.

    Two phone calls to Smiths and Transworld might have given you a bit of perspective (and insight) into this promotion, rather a cursory glance at comments left on Amazon. Lazy marketing? Sounds a touch pot-kettle to me.

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  • Thanks for putting across your point of view! I appreciate you taking the time to make the comment and you make some good arguments (even if you don't agree with me!).

    Best - Ruth

    Ruth Mortimer
    Marketing Week

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  • If I were you I would be concerned about the Amazon reader’s response cited in Ruth’s article which seemingly mirror’s Ruth’ Mortimer’s own feelings that Corgi’s tactic is potentially misleading . I too agree that Kernick is an author of sufficient ilk who surely didn’t deserve such a remarkable act of charity as to have his name printed three times smaller than Kernick’s on a book that Kernick wrote, in the name of marketing. Unless of course he’s grateful for small mercies and has given Corgi his blessing. But here’s the bottom line. As a reader I don’t like to think that any promotional activity by publishers, or any company, is a veiled attempt at taking me for a ride. Now this may not be their intent but as long as I – the Almighty Consumer – feels so or gets that perception I’ll be pissed. And if I’m pissed off enough the world is going to hear about it – by word of mouth, Facebook, Twitter and wherever else I can to get to sound off. Imagine if there are more readers like me around. That’s’ not good for business.

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