April 15, 2015
What can book marketers learn from Satanists?
by Liam O'Brien
We at MobyLives have never been shy about asking the big question to which so many people already seem to know the answer: namely, are publishers bad at marketing? And if so, how specifically?
And while the answers range from the glib (“totally, otherwise the publishing industry wouldn’t be dying!”) to the nuanced (“sometimes!”), there’s no doubt that the book industry takes longer to engage with new marketing platforms that other industries have embraced. Yet so much of marketing isn’t successful due to technology, but due to sheer hustle; the endless hemming and hawing when punching up copy, the creation of the ideal sales line, the tough choices of where to place one’s efforts or advertising on a limited budget. Successful book marketing is nowhere near as simple as having the cash to buy ad space; it’s about knowing as much as possible about different audiences, the media landscape, shopping habits, cultural trends, and regional interests.
When I read the report that the Satanic Church is pushing their “activity book” in Oklahoma, my initial reaction was cynical. We’ve reported on the Satanic Church’s shameless publicity stunts involving this book in Florida multiple times, each with the same series of events: the Satanic Church slides into a debate over religious materials (read: Christian materials) being distributed in schools by arguing that any school allowing Christian books and pamphlets on the grounds of religious freedom should allow the free distribution of the Satanic Activity Book as well.
Cue the wan burst of local journalism and subsequent community Satanic panic. The Activity Book is a free PDF; the imagined spectacle of Satanists posted up by a schoolyard handing out physical copies is just that. It’s a non-story every time. Or is it?
I was one of the many who watched the recent HBO’s Scientology expose Going Clear, based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name. Scientology’s ethos was and is spread via massive free distribution of Dianetics, an unreadable ingot of a book written Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. Including the books he wrote after he died, Hubbard’s literary output is shockingly vast. Scientology’s approach to direct-to-consumer marketing for Dianetics relied on giveaways and word-of-mouth, all with a helpful underpinning of brainwashing and extortion. Most publishers don’t have the structure or legal team to allow them to use those last two things.
But the target demo for Dianetics isn’t that of the Church of Satan, which espouses independent thought as a central tenet. Anton Szandor LaVey’s founding text of the Church of Satan, The Satanic Bible, survives in the broad popular consciousness, in part thanks to regular challenges by groups seeking to ban it (fun fact: it was the most requested book by prisoners who wrote letters to the former publishing house for which I briefly worked). Very little effort needs to be expended by the Church to market itself, because it can piggyback on the defensiveness of the Christian American majority. If you’re already skeptical of Scientology and you aren’t a professional deprogrammer, you likely won’t buy Dianetics. But The Satanic Bible has a readymade, apparently newsworthy opposition at all turns and is distributed by a major publishing house. Any subsequent Satanic publications can draft on the Bible’s momentum, and moral panic arguably helps keep the Satanic Bible in print.
Controversy isn’t a perfect marketing strategy, and the Oklahoma and Florida Satanists likely don’t expect to win too many converts (or sales) in the towns where they mount their protests and file their suits. But it’s hard not to admire their marketing efforts as a by-product, intended or not. The Satanic Activity Book is readymade shareable content, a winning combination of the cute and profane, perfect fodder for sponsored content or listicle-driven ad traffic or a link on your mom’s Facebook wall. And for every community spurred into manufactured outrage, the Satanists gain the attention and command the outrage-journalism echo chamber, however briefly, of anti-censorship advocates, religious freedom hardliners, parents, teens, and even this humble reporter alike—all for the price of designing and producing a ten-page ebook.
Publishers always consider the potential readership for their books when constructing a marketing plan. The Satanic Church is an avowedly atheistic organization that constantly works in the space where preaching to an audience becomes actual literal preaching. If they ever start publishing a broader variety of books, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were successful. Hell, I’d buy one.
Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.