Book publishers exploit stars

These may be hard times for publishers, but using a star author to sell another less well-known writer’s book is lazy marketing

The word “deadline” tends to catch my eye. As a journalist, it’s the term that defines your weeks, days and hours. So browsing in WH Smith recently, I was intrigued to see that Dan Brown, author of megahit The Da Vinci Code, had written a book called Deadline with the intriguing (and horribly familiar to all writers) tagline: “Time Only Matters When It’s Running Out”.

I didn’t think The Da Vinci Code, which is a crime-thriller-cum-religious-tale, was a particularly well-written book when it first came out in 2003. But nobody can deny it has mass appeal and its racy and pacy plot has spawned a whole set of imitators. With more than 81 million copies sold so far and two hit films based on Brown’s novels, it’s one of the publishing successes of the century.

So I picked up Deadline. Would it be the story of a young female journalist struggling for the scoop of the decade against the odds? At which point, I noticed someone else’s name on the cover beneath Dan Brown’s: Simon Kernick. “Aha,” I thought, “The title is actually ‘Simon Kernick: Deadline.’ Perhaps Kernick is the fictional detective starring in this novel?”

But as I looked closer, it dawned on me that in fact, Brown had not written this book at all. And Kernick is not the detective hero of the piece. The front cover, which proudly boasted that it was “exclusive” to WH Smith, bears the legend: “Dan Brown. If you like your thrillers as fast, furious and unputdownable as Dan Brown, then we thought you’d enjoy…Simon Kernick. Deadline.”

I had got it entirely wrong. Kernick is, in fact, the author of Deadline. Brown is not.

This is selling one author’s book with the name of another author as the hook to draw in the shopper. Rather than simply referring to Dan Brown on the cover notes, suggesting similarities between the authors’ styles, at first sight it seems that Brown is the main writer.

The whole top two-thirds of the book is dedicated to Brown, rather than Kernick. Careless shoppers, like me, could quite easily buy it thinking it was Brown’s own work and only realise their mistake when they’d parted with their cash.

This marketing confuses me. Naturally, I understand the pull of a superstar brand in the world of publishing. Dan Brown is clearly a star of the book industry. In a way, he’s a little like pop star Madonna. The Brown name has become a brand which tells readers that a novel will be fast-paced and exciting. When Brown’s genuine new work comes out later this year, it will be bought by millions, regardless of how it is reviewed.

Kernick, by contrast, is your up-and-coming starlet. He clearly has to be content with a supporting role; he hasn’t yet defined a brand to rival Brown’s. This is not to say he has no profile; Kernick has already had a reasonable amount of success with books such as Relentless (“They want you and they want you dead”) and Severed (“One night stand. One dead girl. One bad day”). But his brand doesn’t yet rival his fellow author’s.

Some people might argue this is merely an extension of the type of recommendation campaign that online retailers have been doing for years. If you buy a Dan Brown book on Amazon, the site might well recommend a book such as Kernick’s Deadline. It stands to reason that if you’re picking up a crime thriller by Brown, then similar writers might also appeal. Big deal.

You can also argue that in a world where many celebrities become “authors” with the help of ghostwriters, it is no surprise to see one person’s name selling another’s book. After all, when David Beckham created an autobiography called “My Side”, it was ghostwritten by an author called Tom Watt, who ensured the footballer’s words made sense on paper. Beckham’s name was still the one on the front cover.

But I’m not the only person who has felt fooled by the association between Deadline and Dan Brown. One review on Amazon from an L. Dormon states: “This was advertised by WH Smith as ‘if you like Dan Brown, you’ll love this’. Well it’s nothing like Dan Brown. If it hadn’t been given to me free when I ordered his new novel, I wouldn’t have brought it, and feel cheated I spent time reading it.”

Most reviews are extremely enthusiastic, praising Kernick’s work for being gritty and tense. These are not the reviews for a man whose style is so indistinct that he deserves to gets his name printed three times smaller than someone who didn’t even write the book.

Most reviews, though, are extremely enthusiastic, praising Kernick’s work for being gritty and tense. One man says only having to attend work kept him from reading it all the time. Many also say they enjoyed getting to know the novel’s main character and look forward to reading other works by Kernick.

These are not the reviews for a man whose style is so indistinct that he deserves to get his name printed three times smaller than someone who didn’t even write the book. It might not be the type of writing that appeals too much to me, but clearly Kernick has a healthy fanbase waiting to rave about his work.

I think Kernick’s publisher, Corgi, has missed a trick. Rather than piggybacking Kernick’s work on Brown’s brand, it should have tried to develop the author’s own distinctive style and reputation more carefully. I appreciate it’s trying to shift copies in a difficult climate but there is more than enough room for another star brand on the bookshelves. So come on, Corgi; there is never a deadline for innovative marketing.

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