Trapped in the Fire and Fury of the World’s Greatest Book Launch

by | Jan 8, 2018

Like you, I’ve been trapped in what seems like a book marketing fantasy gone mad.

Look, I’ve been publishing and marketing books for a long time, and enjoy watching the really big book launches that still dot the cultural calendar.

Politicians launching much-awaited books like Bill Clinton’s 1000 +page My Life was a pretty big deal. Every book launch by Tim Ferris uses tactics no one else has seen. Guy Kawasaki has conducted numerous launches for his best selling books over the years, grabbing publicity with a remarkable series of innovative efforts.

Even on a smaller, indie-author scale, we see book launches that succeed because they manage to get some media attention for the book, for the author, or for the ideas being presented.

Attention: that’s what marketing is all about in the end.

How to get it, how much of it you can get, and how to direct it to your book.

That’s why this fantasy has hit with such force. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Last week news broadcasters started talking about a book that was going to launch soon.

book marketingThe publisher, knowing they had a book that would make an impact, had ordered a print run of 200,000 copies and arranged a book tour of news and talk shows.

Sitting at an Amazon rank of about 48,000 during preorders before the planned January 9 publication date, everything looked ready for a decent showing.

But that’s not what happened.

Once excerpts started to appear in New York Magazine, everything changed.

I watched as television news anchors started breathlessly reading from the excerpts.

(Excerpts, by the way, are a great way to stoke anticipation for a new book, and are similar in that way to movie trailers.)

By this time advance review copies had also made their way into the hands of these same anchors. I watched in awe as one anchor after another would hold up the book, sometime clutching it to them, and announce, “I’ve got my copy!”

Do you know how difficult it is to even get your book cover shown once on national television? It’s really hard for most authors.

Now, as I clicked through the channels, the cover of Fire and Fury was everywhere, on every news show on every network. Wall to wall publicity.

Then the President attempted to stop the publication of the book.

As anyone in the book business knows, this is the easiest way to ensure a huge readership. “Banned? Must be good! Where do I get a copy?”

Jill said, “I’d love to read it, can you get me a copy?”

That’s when I discovered the pre-order status, and that the book wouldn’t be out until the ninth. I put in a pre-order for the Kindle edition so she could get it right away.

As we watched all this going on, I mentioned that the publisher would probably be much happier if the book was on sale right now to take advantage of all this publicity. After all, another story might push it off the top of the news tomorrow.

Then Henry Holt (Macmillan), the publisher, responding to the threat of a lawsuit, moved the pub date up by 4 days. Kudos to them for moving quickly to capitalize on a truly unusual situation.

The next day we awoke to pictures on national news of people standing in line to buy the book, something I haven’t seen since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows launch in 2007.

Photos of stacks of books, people paying at the register, all the visual cues that would tell you something was going on.

Later in the day we got word the book was #1 on Amazon and had sold out everywhere. Some stores in New York and Washington said they sold out in minutes.

I could almost hear the thrum-thrum-thrum of the presses at big book printers firing up to start printing the millions of copies that will be needed to fill this unexpected and unprecedented demand.

Back on cable TV, every show was now about THE BOOK. The cover was everywhere. Photos of Michael Wolff, the author, were everywhere. He gave an interview, and some cable shows pre-empted their own programming just to show reruns of his interview.

One anchor gave voice to the action stirred up by this book, saying “This is the biggest book in American right now,” holding her copy, with bits of paper sticking out everywhere, up so the audience could see it.

Even in the wildest fever dreams of book marketers everywhere, this kind of coverage isn’t a possibility. And yet, every day so far it rolls on, with no signs of letting up.

At this point it’s pretty easy to predict, less than 10 days into the year, that Fire and Fury will undoubtedly be one of the biggest sellers of 2018.

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Lessons for the Rest of Us

It’s unlikely a self-publisher will ever achieve a book launch like this one, but it’s just as unlikely for anyone else to achieve it either.

Nevertheless, there were some interesting lessons to be learned from Fire and Fury, even now, just two days into its official launch.

  • Print books still rule—Without exception, all the talk by all the folks I saw on television during this extraordinary phenomenon referred to Fire and Fury as a print book: they showed pictures of the books stacked up; videos of bundled-up folks on the East coast lined up at bookstore registers to buy the print book; and discussed the availability—of the print book. Not once did I hear anyone mention the word “ebook” or “Kindle” even though you could download the book instantly. I’m not sure what to make of that, and I did yell at the TV once or twice, but it remains a fact in our culture, and especially for nonfiction books like this one.
  • Your book needs to stand out—Every book needs to have a reason to be published. Wolff’s book had details and stories not available anywhere else about the most captivating political figure of our time. What makes your book stand out? Does it contain information or a viewpoint or expertise only you can provide? Does it do something better, more completely, or in an easier to understand format?
  • Get your book into the hands of influencers—Any author can do this with a bit of research. Get your book and your pitch to the people who have the best chance of amplifying your message because it speaks to the interests of their audience. This alone has been a powerful force propelling Fire and Fury to its current position.
  • Controversy sells books—Disagreeing with a person who has a huge following, or putting forward a controversial viewpoint, or taking exception to the usual way of doing things are all ways to get attention for your book. But make sure you have your facts straight, and you can back up your arguments because a controversial book will be examined closely for any defects in citations or logic.

Because the original pub date isn’t until this Tuesday, you can guarantee that as the scheduled promotion starts to roll out, including interviews and articles on news shows and in magazines, the Fire and Fury phenomenon will continue to burn brightly.

And would someone tell all these news anchors about something call an “ebook”? Please?

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marketing

14 Comments

  1. Harald Johnson

    Very timely post, Joel, and really excellent of you to include the Lessons Learned at the end. That’s makes it even more valuable.

    I only quibble about one point: “Print books still rule.” Well, yes and no. You do address the ebook availability nicely but the conclusion needs more nuance, in my opinion, and your last sentence (“…especially for nonfiction books like this one”) is the key.

    Based on everything I’ve read (including studying the Author Earnings data), ebooks dominate print FOR (Indie) FICTION. Depending on genre, of course. Romance readers just gobble up ebooks over print. Not sure about historical fiction (my genre), but I’m about to launch my consolidated saga in both print and ebook, so I’ll have a direct comparison to gauge the value of print (for me). Stay tuned. And keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Harald, genre novelists have done very well with ebooks, and many romance, fantasy, and thriller readers have moved to ebooks, as you say. What was startling to me was the complete identification of “book” with the print edition. Granted, a vampire romance is probably never going to get the blanket media coverage that a “tell-all” work like this is getting, but your point is taken, thanks for the input.

      Reply
  2. Jonathan Gunson

    Joel, when it comes to Trump, some people seem to lose all perspective, whether they support him or not.

    The fundamental point you’re making has nothing to do with politics. Instead it’s all about the practical reality of marketing. i.e. Attract the attention of potential buyers, and direct them to what you are selling. The president’s ‘ban’ does exactly that.

    Great insight Sir.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Jonathan, that’s exactly my point.

      Reply
  3. Alex

    Any thoughts about the cover?

    Reply
  4. Bill Peschel

    Drawing marketing lessons from an anti-Trump book of doubtful veracity (Wolff has admitted this) being pushed hard by the anti-Trump press is silly.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Bill, thanks for your comment.

      The content of the book played no part in this article, which is about book launches. It would be just as remarkable a book launch if it was about dog sledding or bricklaying. The point is the media attention, not who is on which side.

      Reply
  5. Michael W. Perry

    This is hilarious, absolutely hilarious. Apparently, no one in the publishing world or journalism has the sense to realize that Trump, who is enormously skilled at sell-promotion, understands that controversy sells. They assume he wants to halt the sale of this book with his last-minute legal threats.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. Note what you said to the author of such a book: “But make sure you have your facts straight, and you can back up your arguments because a controversial book will be examined closely for any defects in citations or logic.”

    Trump isn’t a do-nothing cypher like Obama. He has been in high-stakes real estate his entire adult life. He is brash and risk-taking. There are no doubt aspects of his life that in skilled hands could be portrayed in unflattering terms. But now, thanks to the “fire and fury” surrounding Fire and Fury, such a book with either not be published or will sell poorly. No one will want to repeat its disaster. Once burned, twice shy.

    Trump is, I suspect, deliberately creating a situation much like one that happened accidentally when CBS and Dan Rather attempted to derail Bush’s campaign with allegations about his National Guard service. Having little nothing more than alleged extracts from NG memos, they fell for what was supposedly an actual copy of one from the early 1970s. It proved to have peculiarities that demonstrated it had been typed in a version of Microsoft Word that did not exist until 30 years later.

    The major networks no doubt wanted to dribble out a long series of low-level charges against Bush in the last weeks of the campaign, ones whose end effect would be to do what they wanted most—elect a Democrat. Instead, by going for something outrageous, they created a controversy that dominated the last weeks of the election, drowning out any other charges the networks might want to make. That’s why what Dan Rather did infuriated CBS officials. It wasn’t his lies. It was his lie that failed.

    You’ll see something similar with this book. Already, Tony Blair, a former Labor PM and thus no ideological fan of Trump, has denounced its inaccuracies. You’ll see more and more of that in the weeks ahead. That’s what Trump is depending on. That is why he wants to puff this book.

    I just put a hold on a library book about the military tactics of Gen. George Patton because he and Trump not only share the same genius for tactics, they’re both well-known for their controversial “tweets.” During WWII, Patton regularly made statements about Russia that created firestorms of controversy, particularly those he about the USSR. And you know what? Within a few years after the end of WWII, Patton’s remarks had become established as the foreign policies of U.S. and Western Europe.

    Will Henry Holt/Macmillan learn from this disaster? I doubt it. The publishing world lacks the ability to think strategically. That’s why Amazon is eating their lunch. It’s why they can’t think beyond the immediate sales of this anti-Trump book to the loss of credibility that will follow.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Leaving aside the issues you raise, which are primarily political, and not about publishing, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that the publication of this book is a “disaster” that resulted from an inability to “think strategically.” What would a success have looked like?

      Reply
  6. Ernie Zelinski

    A great article.

    I particularly like this part: “Print books still rule—Without exception, . . .”

    I recall the mad rush into self-publishing 5 years or so ago when all the so-called “newbies” and “indies” (two terms I despise) rushed into self-publishing making delusional claims about how they were going to prosper in the field of self-publishing ebooks and put traditional publishers out of business. A lot of these delusional crackpots were also making the claim that “Print is dead.” Tens of thousands of these delusional wannabes have since left the field altogether which I find very satisfying. As for me, at the age of 68 years old, I have had the three best years ever insofar as pretax income from my creative works. In fact, as a Canadian, I have been a one percenter in regards to income for the last three years — by only working one or two hours a day!

    The main reason is that I have placed most of my efforts in print sales and not in ebook sales. Sure, I have ebook versions of my books on Kindle, iBooks, and Kobo (not on Nook because they won’t allow Canadians on their platform). But my pretax income from my print sales was well over $200,000 in 2017 versus about $30,000 from ebook sales. Here is why I will continue to prosper. I am creative enough to come up with totally unique methods of marketing the print editions of my books that 99 percent of writers and so-called “marketing experts” are not able to come up with. Of course, these creative methods will involve your other three “lessons to be learned” from the “Fire and Fury” case.

    Your book needs to stand out.
    Get your book into the hands of influencers.
    Controversy sells books.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Ernie, once again you nailed it. Thanks for your comment.

      Have you thought of writing about your approach to book marketing? I bet a lot of authors would be interested.

      Reply

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