Right now is not the time for authors to settle for traditional ways of book promotion, i.e. hoping and praying that their newest book on offer will be noticed and magically sell copies. Publishers are also trying to figure out creative and unorthodox ways for their titles to garner attention when there is simply too much competition for reader eyeballs. Most of the time, I applaud unusual promotional practices, because everybody needs an edge, a way to stand out. But when I first heard what UK retail chain WHSmith was doing with special editions of Simon Kernick's thriller DEADLINE, which Corgi originally published in paperback last year, my reaction was, shall we say, rather pointed: "Wow. Talk about a jaw-dropping, epic, book marketing fail."
As Marketing Week's Ruth Mortimer discovered, WHSmith is stocking a special, promotion-only version of DEADLINE - which can be obtained for free as long as the customer also pre-orders THE LOST SYMBOL -- with Dan Brown's name prominently displayed on the cover. And she did not like what she saw, not at all, not after initially thinking that DEADLINE was written by Brown because of the name placement:
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.
Pace J. Miller, who scanned in both front and back covers of the WHSmith edition of DEADLINE, was similarly outraged: "[This cover] designed to mislead and deceive the careless book buyer, or at the very least cause what is commonly referred to as ‘initial interest confusion’. The danger is exacerbated when this book is placed right next to Dan Brown’s books, which it was when I found it in WH Smith (a UK bookstore chain). The thing is, Kernick is not some crappy first time author who can’t sell a copy. His previous novel, Relentless, was the 8th best-selling paperback, and the best-selling thriller in the UK in 2007."
What surprised Mortimer, Miller and me was way in which Dan Brown's name was cross-promoted with Simon Kernick's work. UK publishers, especially of crime and thrillers, have a long history of using cross-referencing - specifically the specialized hardcover dust jacket slipcovers that proclaim "As good as [bestselling author X] or your money back, GUARANTEED" or the like -- and blanketing their top titles (and the books they want to sell like top titles) in tube and train stations. But this appeared to venture beyond over-the-top territory into misleading readers.
After I posted the article on Twitter yesterday afternoon, others followed suit with reactions ranging from disbelief ("What is wrong with you, publishing industry?!) to clarification ("it's actually a marketing success - but an ETHICAL fail") to coming up with rather resourceful ideas, like the Simon Kernick is Awesome Photoshop Contest currently going on at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. But Jason Pinter, who saw the promo edition of DEADLINE in the flesh while on tour in London last month, had a far different, and much more positive, reaction, ("most US thriller writers would kill for the same marketing [and sales]") which he expanded on in an email to me yesterday evening:
I've seen so many advertisements and so much marketing material that is bland beyond belief and likely doesn't sell a single copy. When I saw this promotion in the UK a month a go, my first thought was, "Wow, good for Simon." The bottom line is that this will sell boatloads of Kernick books and elevate his status and recognition. So from a bottom line marketing standpoint, it's one of the most effective promotions I've ever seen.
As for Kernick vetoing it--why on earth would Kernick would he ever do that? He gets his name on a book cover with arguably the biggest author (book for book) in the entire world. Tons of his books get prime placement in one of the country's biggest booksellers. It will introduce him to thousands of readers and likely sell thousands of copies. And when you see the book in person, it's a whole lot easier to 'get' what they're doing. Plus it ties in to Kernick's latest hardcover, which is even better for him. I don't think anybody really considers Dan Brown a brilliant writer--from a thriller standpoint you can argue more that he is a good storyteller--so I disagree with anyone saying Kernick's rep will be hurt by this. If anything, it puts him on par with a global phenomenon. So for every person who thumbs their nose, they'll be drowned out by a whole mess of people who now consider Simon Kernick's name when thinking of Dan Brown.
I think some of the backlash stems from slight (or perhaps major) animosity towards Brown from a segment of the literary community that thinks that either a) he's not a good writer, b) the book wasn't that good, or c) a combination of both. But one thing that's abundantly clear is that there is a massive disconnect between the literary community and the rest of the book-buying world. I think people forget just how massive Dan Brown is--it's like a YA author being compared to J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. On the adult side, Brown is the biggest author in the world, and sharing a cover with an author of that stature, from a sales standpoint, is worth its weight in gold. Whether Brown's name takes up too much of the cover is a point that could be debated, but all I can say is that when I saw these copies with my own eyes, I 'got' what they were doing immediately.In the U.S., it's a similar situation to how Andrew Gross began his career. He co-wrote several novels with James Patterson--one of the world's biggest selling authors and someone else with a spotty 'literary' pedigree--and when Gross's own book came out he was immediately recognized, bought and read to a far greater degree than 99% of debut novelists. When people read Gross's books they saw that he had talent, and all it did was give a shot in the arm to an author whose talent warranted it. The same goes with Kernick. The most important thing, bar none, is to get readers to pick up your books. And beyond once-in-a-blue-moon opportunities like a movie adaptation or an Oprah pick, linking your name in such strong fashion to a massive bestselling author is perhaps the most effective marketing an author can get.
"I sincerely hope that no one feels duped in any way," said Kernick this morning by email in reference to Mortimer's article, "[but] to be honest, I'm still not a hundred percent sure what all the fuss is about. This was always a one-off promotion to promote my books by giving away DEADLINE with pre-orders of the new Dan Brown book in WH Smith. THe book with the new cover is not, never was, and never will be for sale, and DEADLINE's still in print with its original cover and available in Smiths and elsewhere. I also knew about the whole thing from the start, and it seems to have worked because my backsales have gone up very substantially in the weeks since it begun, and both Transworld and Smiths are very pleased. I guess, in conclusion, I'm fairly relaxed about the whole thing since anyone who got the book as part of the promotion, got it free and should have been told that it wasn't by Dan Brown but my me."
Seliina Walker, Kernick's longtime editor at Transworld (which is also Dan Brown's publisher) concurred on both the promotional elements and resulting sales: "As far as we're concerned at Transworld, this was a WHSmith initiative aimed at driving pre-orders for The Lost Symbol while giving a high profile front-of-store promotion to Simon who is, as you know, one of the UK's most popular thriller writers. All parties, including both authors, are fully briefed and gave approval for the promotion, which was always perceived as a short-term one. As a result, advance orders for The Lost Symbol have rocketed, and there has also been a huge uplift in Simon's backlist sales. As for the 'misleading' element in the article, we took care to signpost clearly all elements both at point of sale and on the book itself."
Unorthodox, or even blatant, as this particular promotion was, the bottom line is that so far, it's working for Simon Kernick - which means similar gambits may well be employed more often in the future, and might work just as well for crime & thriller writers in need of a marketing push.