July 19, 2010

Anatomy of a marketing campaign, #8: Galleys

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How do you market a book written in a foreign language by an author who’s now dead, that was originally published 60 years ago, and has been overlooked by mainstream publishing ever since? This series takes an ongoing, insider’s look at the campaign to get Hans Fallada‘s Every Man Dies Aloneon the bestseller lists, by Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson.

A galley of Every Man Dies Alone

For all the elaborate ends we’ve gone to in our marketing efforts for Every Man Dies Alone, it all began with the simple thing with which all book marketing campaigns begin: galleys, also known in some quarters as advanced reader’s copies (aka ARCs). They are simply early versions of books that maybe are quite done yet — usually, the writing is essentially done, but the text isn’t copyedited yet. (Which is why galleys always have a “do not quote” warning on them.) And as such, they are typically the thing that kicks off a marketing campaign.

As to what you do with them, it seems a simple chore — get a copy of a book out early to critics, booksellers, whatever — but of course, it gets complicated. For one thing, publishers are more and more competitive about getting attention for galleys earlier and earlier in the process. But that just means that, as a result, there’s a good chance the book isn’t done in time, or isn’t edited in time, or isn’t laid out yet.

Then there’s the fact that, as I say, more and more galleys are out there these days. So many that little houses can’t keep up: Printing galleys represents a significant cost for little indies, and we can never print as many as the big houses do. Plus, the flood of galleys means that it’s difficult to get overwhelmed critics and booksellers to pay attention to yours.

So for Every Man, we decided to try something different. Normally, galley covers are a simple affair. Often enough, the cover isn’t finalized yet, and galleys covers are all text. Or they’re not-quite-finished versions of the cover — often enough, rendered in black and white in order to keep costs down. (Galleys are typically printed digitally, which is far more expensive per book than offset printing.)

But we decided to do something dramatically different: Not to put the typical information on the front of the book — not even the title. Instead, we used a quote we had about Every Man from Primo Levi. He called it “The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” It was an amazing testament, from an important writer who happened to be a Holocaust survivor, rendered in large white letters on a stark black background. There was nothing else on the cover.

Thinking back to my own days as a book critic, I couldn’t imagine how I could have not picked up such a galley. Still, it was a gamble. Critics and booksellers prefer as much information as quickly as they can. If they can’t learn what they want to know by scanning the cover, they might be annoyed — not a mood you want people in when they first encounter your book. I remember telling myself that at least we kept it to black and white, and didn’t incur the extra expense of color.

It wasn’t long before we heard back from several critics (Liesel Schillinger, who reviewed the book for the New York Times, for one) that the cover was striking and did give them some crucial information, after all. And our sales reps and booksellers were equally enthused. One wrote to us “that galley completely made a statement and stood out in the towering pile of galleys …. it also made a statement that you were serious about the book and putting some creative energy behind it ….”

We still hear about this from critics a year later when we’re trying to talk to them about other books. It’s another lesson in paying attention to the small things. As simple as this cover seems in retrospect, it got an unprecedented reaction, and turned out to be a key part or building an intense, early enthusiasm amongst booksellers and critics … which we’ll discuss in future installments ….

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives

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