Money can buy you lots of things, but it can't buy you love and it can't buy you a spot on the best-seller lists. That's the lesson now being SK,1 SW,-1 taught to a gentleman named Victor Kiam, who believed that if only he spent enough money promoting a book he had written about entrepreneurial success, the book would attract a large national following and make even more money for its author. But it is one thing to be an entrepreneur and quite another to be a publisher; the book business doesn't work the way other businesses do, and the axiom that you spend money to make money just doesn't apply.
Kiam's book is called "Going for It!" It was published last spring by William Morrow, a respected firm that knows how to sell books, especially books with commercial appeal. Morrow has advertising, promotion and publicity people whose job it is to produce the maximum possible sale for each title the firm brings out and who are experienced in the peculiar customs of the book market. But Kiam, being himself a successful businessman, decided that he could do more. He offered to spend $1 million of his own money promoting the book, an offer that Morrow quite understandably accepted.
Much of that money has gone to advertising spots on television and radio, but the results have been mixed. So far 136,000 copies of the book have been printed, according to The New York Times, which is an impressive figure in the hard-cover market; the problem is that Morrow needs to sell 350,000 copies merely to recover expenses. According to Kiam's agent, "we are disappointed that it has not done as well as we had hoped; nevertheless, it has done very well"; he notes that overseas rights have been sold in a number of countries and that the book is a best seller in England.
But it is not a best seller in the United States, and it certainly has not made Kiam a national figure in the manner of Lee Iacocca, whose publishing supersuccess Kiam had hoped to emulate. By the time the auto executive's autobiography, "Iacocca," has run its course in hard-cover and paperback, several million copies will have been sold; no matter how well Kiam ultimately does, Iacocca will leave him in the dust. The explanation is simple, and it has nothing to do with advertising: Iacocca is a celebrity, Kiam is not.
Iacocca is a celebrity, furthermore, not because he has become a familiar figure in Chrysler advertisements but because he is widely admired for his role in the revitalization of that company; he may or may not be an especially lovable individual, but his accomplishment is there to be seen by all and is duly respected by many. Dozens of other corporate big shots have tried to copy him by appearing in their firms' ads, but none has come even close because none was a household word before the ad campaigns began. Victor Kiam may by now be a familiar face, thanks to all those ads, but he is not a celebrity; relatively few people, therefore, are eager to read his life's story.
The lesson Kiam should be learning, if he is paying attention, is that advertising alone does not sell books. This generalization obviously is subject to exception, but it is accepted as axiomatic within the publishing industry and has been proved over and again in the marketplace. Books are very different quantities from toothpaste and automobiles and electric shavers, and they are sold in equally different ways; when it comes to marketing books, most rules of normal business procedure simply do not apply.
But try to tell that to an author -- any author. Ask an author how his book is doing and his reply almost certainly will be: "It's just not selling the way I know it can. I keep pleading with my publisher to advertise it more, but he says he doesn't have the money." Nothing gets an author into a huff more quickly than what he regards as insufficient advertising; when an author quits one publishing house for another, the explanation frequently given is that the first house didn't give him enough advertising support. But what authors don't understand -- what authors will never understand -- is that there is not enough advertising support in the world to make people buy their books.
That is because the decision to purchase a book is made differently than the decision to purchase toothpaste. The latter, like virtually all other products, is sold as a brand name: Colgate, Pepsodent, Crest, Gleem -- the consumer learns to favor certain brands and to purchase them regularly, as a matter of habit. This means that the manufacturer can devote virtually all of his advertising budget to promoting the brand name, so consumers will turn to it automatically.
But the book buyer does not go into the store and say, "I'd like a Morrow" or "Let me have a couple of Simon and Schusters" or "Has the new Random House come in yet?" Rather, the book buyer looks for a specific book and probably does not have the foggiest idea what firm published it. Book publishers, in other words, cannot sell brand names; they have to sell individual books, which means that their advertising budgets are broken down book by book, with relatively small amounts applied to each title. An advertising budget of only $25,000 is considered impressive enough to be cited in Publishers Weekly as evidence of a publisher's strong commitment to a book, yet $25,000 will get you precious little -- certainly not enough to make a visible impression on a national market.
Beyond that, people don't buy books because advertisers tell them to; they buy books because people -- friends, colleagues, booksellers, librarians, neighbors -- tell them to. It may be a cliche', but it's a cliche' because it's true: The most powerful bookselling instrument is word-of-mouth enthusiasm. Nothing matters to a reader like the judgment of someone he trusts, and there is nothing a publisher or advertiser can do to affect that. The classic textbook example is Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October," which was an unknown novel published by an unknown press until a man whom millions trust -- Ronald Reagan -- remarked how much he'd liked it. Presto: instant best seller.
Which leads to the other magical selling tool: the best-seller list. Once a book gets on it, the herd instinct takes over and people rush out to buy what everyone else is buying. It's the mass equivalent of word-of-mouth. But once again, it's something over which publishers have no control. You can't persuade people to buy a book they don't want to read; no amount of advertising can change their minds. Victor Kiam could buy up every minute on the Super Bowl, but if people don't want to read "Going for It!" he's only wasting money. As, it seems, he already has.