The Value of Promotion vs. the Value of Story

First, the announcement. After our first CSFF Top Blogger Award run-off, Rachel Starr Thomson garnered 55% of the vote to secure the April Tour honors. Congratulations to both her and Brandon Barr for superb posts during the Blaggard’s Moon tour.

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In case you missed it, on Friday Novel Journey posted an interview with contributor Jessica Dotta and uber-agent, Donald Maass. Half way through, the discussion turned to promotion.

Jessica noted that Mr. Maass is credited with saying that promotion and marketing play a small role in the success of a book. In fact, in Writing the Breakout Novel he calls these ideas about promotion and marketing myths authors continue to believe. When Jessic asked (in question five) if authors shouldn’t strive for the best marketing possible, Mr. Maass replied with a succinct analogy:

Great stories are the engine. Promotion may be the gasoline but gasoline won’t propel a two-cylinder putt-putt very fast–or push a broken engine very far down the road.

Jessica expanded the discussion, pointing to a handful of successful debut novels that snagged reviews in elite media sources and then went to the top of the best selling charts. But Mr. Maass insisted that great storytelling explained the success:

Why does media get excited about a novel? What starts the bandwagon rolling? Publisher hype? That’s a prod, obviously, but media far more often than not take a pass. What gets them excited is the same thing that gets word of mouth going: a great story. It all comes back to that. Up and down the ladder it all starts there.

As you might expect, Mr. Maass also believes that a writer should take the time to get the story right. Apparently this is a point he strongly makes in his new book The Fire in Fiction (which I am anxiously waiting to arrive from Writer’s Digest), prompting this exchange:

[Jessica] One of the elements I loved about The Fire in Fiction was your encouragement to work until the book is right. As writers, we often hear that in order to survive we must be capable of producing one or more books a year—lest we lose our audience and future contracts. But what if it takes an author two to five years to craft a good book?

[Donald Maass] Writing a great novel at a book-a-year pace is extremely difficult. I watch clients struggle with that challenge. One empowering thing to know is that the bigger the impact a novel has, the longer readers will wait for the next one.
– emphasis mine

I have to admit, that last line might be my favorite. Well, what do you expect from a writer of a four-book epic fantasy? 😉 I mean, isn’t it important for readers to have time to spread the word if book one gripped them? Even in this technological age, that doesn’t really happen over night. Or necessarily in three months. I didn’t read my first Harry Potter book until the third one was out, and they were not flying off the presses every six months.

For the most part, the word builds and the promotion builds because the story demands it. Yes, there may be some mysterious exceptions. I think of G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer which burst on the scene in 2004 as another book coming out of the UK with a huge following. Americans dutifully lined up and bought the book, and it did indeed hit the best selling list.

But today the lifetime sales on Amazon of the Creation House edition is over 450,000. What’s worse, the book that followed, Wormwood, is 250,000 places higher. Since I haven’t read Shadowmancer, I am going by the reports I’ve heard from writer friends (but the lion’s share of the Amazon reviews bear out their opinion)—this was not a good story.

Maybe this is the exception that proves the rule. On occasion the media will jump on a book bandwagon built by hype not substance. The result may be great sales, but the public, when fooled once, won’t likely be fooled twice by the same author.


  1. I think media listens when a publicist pushes a book, because they know that publicists are representing lots of books, and to hear them tote one book in particular, means it must be a very good book.

    In my opinion, it’s a lot like literary agents and editors. When an agent says, “You’ve really gotta look at this one.” The editors do.

    But you’re right . . . if the book can’t stand up under it, it won’t amount to a faithful readership.

    Interestingly enough, I rarely give authors a second chance. They get one chance to impress me. I think it’s that way for a lot of people.

    Thanks for blogging about the interview. I had a lot of fun picking the brain of a top agent.


  2. I really wish Maass were totally right. But I have read some excellent, excellent books that remain virtually unknown. Promotion, or lack thereof, has got to be at least part of the problem.

    I didn’t think Wormwood was that great either.


  3. Jessica, thanks for stopping by. I really appreciated that interview so much. And my copy of The Fire in Fiction arrived on Monday! 😀 I thought I would read it through without marking it up (save that for the inevitable second read), but that lasted through the prologue! LOL

    I suspect there are some agents who can start the whole promotion ball rolling. It’s a little like what I see on the CSFF Blog Tour. Some people rave about any and every book. Others are much more cautious, so when they rave, it means a lot more. They really liked the book.

    So if an agent with clout also has the reputation of being particular in what he gets wholeheartedly behind, then I think it could generate some media excitement.

    But in the end, I think that still means the story has to be there or that agent wouldn’t have responded to that book in that way.

    There’s one other factor, I think. It’s what William Young did to get the buzz going about The Shack. I think I’ll need to post on that.



  4. Janet, that’s the thing that bothers me the most about what Mr. Maass said, I think. Sure, publicists and marketing pros will get behind the books that they’re alerted to that are special, or that they think are special.

    But there are some good books that never make it to a wide audience. How does that fit in with the good books make it theory?

    I suppose that’s why Mr. Maass says it takes five or so books before an author hits the breakout category. Yes, there are exceptions, but after five great books, won’t someone start noticing?



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