July 28, 2010

Anatomy of a marketing campaign, #9: Official spokespersons


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.

The cover for the initial, hardcover release of Every Man Dies Alone

The cover for the initial, hardcover release of Every Man Dies Alone

It’s almost impossible in modern book marketing to have a successful book without someone acting as a public spokesman for it, preferably the author. It’s something authors like to complain about in public (while hectoring their publishers behind the scenes to for god’s sake get them on Oprah!) but there you have it. The author’s role in the blurred land between marketing and publicity has become more essential then ever. For example, there’s the infinite world of outreach — speaking to book clubs, visiting booksellers — which can go on for years. Then there’s the fact that so-called “off-book” features — essentially, anything that isn’t a review, such as author profiles or interviews — are de rigeur nowadays, and have grown to the point where they usually have more of an impact than even a great review.

And yes that includes reviews in the New York Times — a review there, like almost no place else, can still have a big impact. But a feature there, in my opinion, trumps even that. (Getting both leads to what’s known in indie publishing as a “heart attack.”) Every Man Dies Alone got a wonderful review there that made the many booksellers who put stock in Times reviews take notice and put us on display. But I could never convince the Times features editors to take my call. (Let’s just say they don’t pay attention to indie publishers the way the Los Angeles Times does.)

Okay, so in the case of Every Man Dies Alone, we knew that we had the most amazing off-book author of all time: a fascinating ex-con who had substantial substance abuse issues, was involved in duels and embezzlement and wrote books in code while incarcerated in a Nazi insane asylum, who stood up to the Nazis and was blacklisted and helped sneak money to Jewish writers — what’s not to love? What’s more, by all accounts Hans Fallada was a warm, chatty, friendly guy, quick with a joke and a smile — perfect for speaking to reading groups. There was only the one hitch: He’s dead.

Combine this with the tendency of places like the Times to ignore indies and favor authors who are beautiful, young, blond and related to staffers and you’ve got a problem.

What to do?

Normally, a publisher in this situation would have called in the translator (think of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky out shilling for Tolstoy). But in this instance, we had a translator who wasn’t inclined or available.

But then we thought of something better when I saw that Hans Fallada’s oldest son, Ulrich Ditzen, had recently published a book about his relationship with his father. From there, we got lucky — it took me weeks to track him down, but when I finally got him on the phone, he gave me precisely the right answer to the question: “Do you speak English?” We brought him over for the launch.

It turned out to be one of our smarter moves. The 79-year-old Ditzen was deeply touched by our efforts to resusciatate his father’s work in English, and although not in the best of health he did a series of interviews on behalf of the project that, given how moved he was and the tragic nature of his father’s life, were truly stirring events.

Still, we weren’t able to generate as many interviews as you’d think — although we’d had a terrific Times review, as I say they don’t necessarily carry the weight they used to and we did not immediately generate all the great press we eventually got.

Which means we had a long effort in front of us with no ready spokesman.

It was time for some more improv. I was, at this point, probably the leading expert on Hans Fallada in the US. I was also more genuinely passionate about his work than perhaps the author himself was at the end. We took a page from Barney Rossett taking the stand on behalf of D.H. Lawrence and offered up Hans Fallada’s publisher — yours truly — as a spokesperson for the absent author. We decided to also try and broaden the appeal of that by pointing out there were interesting tangential story lines — for example, discussing what this story says about modern publishing or works in translation in the American or British market, say.

Surprisingly, there were some quick takers. For example, there was a great, in-depth interview with Kevin Sylvester for the CBC. More recently there was my talk with Leonard Lopate at New York’s local NPR affiliate, WNYC. There were interviews with newspapers — such as my recent talk with Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune. And as time goes on, I’ve been speaking — both remotely and in person — with more and more book clubs and reader’s groups.

My favorite appearance, though, was when I appeared on a television show with an exhausted Ulrich Ditzen at the end of his American visit. Tired, not feeling well, and weary, too, I think, of speaking in English, it was a thrill to sit next to him as he held on to do a very difficult thing: speak in another language on TV. But I think his steely effort came across, and in the end, this was one of the most successful things we’ve done to support the book. Filmed the day after publication, but not aired until over a month later, it lifted us onto the Amazon bestseller list within hours of its broadcast. You can see it here:

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.