The Secret Life of Marketing?

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about “audience.” By which I mean, who buys what, and why do they buy it? Where do they buy it, and what gives them the idea to buy? I thought about this a few years ago when my book HUNG came out: it got a good amount of placement in bookstores, my publisher bought an ad in the New York Times, I got a great review in the New York Times Book Review a coupla Sundays after it came out. And though it sold decently,  it wasn’t the “HUGE” seller (no pun intended!) that my publisher expected. AND I got emails from people–mainly guys–saying that even though they found the subject matter interesting, they’d never buy my book because there was a naked guy’s torso on the cover. Wow. I was also fascinated by the fact that on Amazon, for instance, HUNG always came up in searches for gay literature. Even though there wasn’t a ton of “gay” stuff in the book. Rarely did I find it coming up in searches I did for African-American lit. Was this because of the naked guy’s torso on the cover? Who knows. All that said, I’ve been curious then, not only about “audience,” but also about marketing in general: why do certain books (or movies or TV shows or records) get funneled toward certain audiences and not others? When do—HOW do—the decisions get made to point interest in certain pop culture projects in certain directions? When does race or sexuality become the be-all and end-all of how companies decide to promote a book or movie or CD? Maybe HUNG didn’t sell as well as expected because of the cover? Because some perceived it as a “gay” book? Because white audiences weren’t interested in a book “about” the cultural ramifications of the black penis? Because it wasn’t written all that well? Because it was “too intelligent,” as one of my Amazon reviewers commented? Who can say?

Of course I’d like to think we live in a world where everything’s culturally equal—of course we do: I recall how “crossover” became a touchstone word back in the 80s, particularly around music. I’ve seen plays with black themes succeed wonderfully on Broadway, and Toni Morrison sell well AND win both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes (and, saleswise, I remember a week in the 90s, I think, when Morrison, Alice Walker, and Terry McMillan were all on the NY Times bestseller list in the same week). I’ve seen Will Smith become the biggest movie star in the world, and hiphop become the soundtrack of suburbia. Yet for all this cultural “equality” there’s still a process of “ghettoization” that goes on in the pop culture sphere (just like in real life, one supposes), and I can’t help but think some of it has to do with who’s getting hired (still) to do the marketing for some projects. I remember when HUNG came out and I had my first meeting at Doubleday, the only black folks in the room were my editor, me, and my agent.  But there’s also apparently this sense out there that black folk like a certain kind of cultural project—and I guess, when Tyler Perry sells the tickets he sells and the street lit sells the books it sells on street corner tables everywhere, that attitude is re-confirmed. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tyler Perry or street-lit; if that’s your thing, roll on. But it’s not everyone’s thing—definitely not every black person’s thing…Aaron McGruder definitely made that point clear a coupla weeks ago…

I don’t know what the answer is. Some black work breaks on through to the other side, finding a wide audience; some black work does well catering solely to black folks; a lot of black work languishes when similar “white” work goes on to wide success. Then there’s the age-old debate as to, not only, whether black folks read or not, but also whether white folks will read a book or see a movie or play with a specifically “black” theme. I was fascinated to find that two articles in major dailies are grappling with this issue in different ways. Author Bernice McFadden wrote a stirring editorial in the Washington Post this weekend about the “ghettoization” of black literature by publishers and in bookstores, and the New York Times pubbed a piece today about how Broadway plays with black themes get marketed to black audiences.  It’s interesting how the concepts overlap, yet diverge in very telling ways.

Bernice McFadden’s essay, click here.

New York Times piece, click here.

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13 Comments

Filed under books, culture, Race, theater

13 responses to “The Secret Life of Marketing?

  1. wfrankm

    Thanks for pushing the conversation along. Wondered about the marketing, display, distribution choices for HUNG. At my favorite indy but mainstream DC bookstore I think it was behind the counter with Karrine Steffans’ book and you had to request it from sales staff. In DC that was maybe not a big obstacle but still an obstacle. Different experience in community bookstores? Different response from black critics and commentators?

  2. Thanks for reading SCOTT TOPICS™, man…and thanks for looking for HUNG! lol…Yup, that’s something I should have mentioned in the post. I got emails from peeps saying they had to ask for it, which hindered some peeps buying it when they went into a store. And probably don’t buy books online, so…

    In Barnes and Noble, however, it had good placement on tables, but less sure, outside of NYC, what other indies did.

    Actually the reviews of HUNG were quite good across the racial/gender/sexuality board; my worst reviews came on Amazon, I think. I got the feeling there were people who were looking for a more salacious read! But at the end of the day, who can say? I’ve been lucky that the book’s been taught everywhere from Mills College, to Harvard, to Duke to Vassar to Sarah Lawrence to Mt Holyoke, to the London School of Economics. So it’s good that the word is still being found, ya know?

    SPB

  3. Pingback: The Secret Life of Marketing? « My Buddy

  4. Joan

    You remain, as always, my breath of fresh air.

  5. When it comes to marketing people judge things by the way they look. That old cliché you can’t judge a book by its cover fell on deaf ears. People rush to judgment all the time based on their prejudices and life experiences. During our childhood our parents tried to get us to eat things they say were good for us, but we took one good look then said yuck. Once our parents weren’t looking we fed it to the dog. In the same way as a heterosexual man I would feel awkward purchasing the book HUNG due to the image if it was on the cover. On the other hand, I would be more receptive of this image if it was on the cover of a fitness magazine for men. The image you choose for advertising and who you’re advertising to makes a difference. Also, I’m not sure if there is such a thing as cultural equality. The show Friends was the European equivalent of Living Single. What was done differently with Living Single that made it go into obscurity? While the show Friends was awarded with such praise. Have black people not generated a body of work that will make people take their work seriously. In fact, black people should create a venue where they can present material outside of what people stereotypically think they should. There is a video about marketing by Seth Godin that you might find interesting. http://tinyurl.com/nswcwx . Finally I have two questions for you. Why did you choose HUNG as the title of your book? Then why did you choose the image of the bare chested man for the cover of your book?

  6. @Alex: Um, there’s a lot to address here in your comment, and i appreciate you taking the time to read and leave a message.

    Your point about Living Single? I agree, and as I think I sorta address that in my point about similar work by white artists gaining more traction than black work.

    I’m sorry you wouldnt buy HUNG because of the cover, alot of brothas did, apparently, some of whom, I guess, differentiate between a book and a fitness magazine, and some of whom don’t. Either way, i get both sides of that debate…that said, there’s a larger conversation apparently that, hopefully, seemingly self-assured heterosexual dudes would feel uncomfortable by a book’s name or cover…and that’s an essay i do NOT plan on writing anytime soon! ; )

    Why the name and pic? Well, don’t know if you read HUNG but the title meant to be a sorta double entendre, playing off the stereotypes and notion of black men’s large endowments and the hanging (lynching) that resulted from said steroeotypes about the beastliness of black male sexuality. Why the pic? It was the general consensus at my publisher, and I agreed, that it was a sexy provocative image for a sexy provocative book. Had I had a sense that the cover would shorten sales because brothas, for instance, might not want to be seen buying it, I would have chosen something else–NOT that authors have a LOT of say in that area. This was discussed before the paperback was released and the paperback a year later just had the word HUNG and a ruler across the front of the book–and guess what? It sold a LOT better than the hardcover. Lesson? People will by a book with a naked black torso if a woman’s name is on the cover or the book is explicitly deemed “romantic” or “gay”….or so i assume.

    Be cool man, and thanks for the conversation!

  7. I bookmarked your blog in my favorites, so I can visit from time to time. I definitely will take a look at your book HUNG. The blog itself is a good piece of advertisement. Take care and I look forward to looking at your other post here.

  8. @Alex: Thanks, and I hope you do return…Can I ask you a question now? How did you find the blog in the first place? Just curious…

  9. If i remember right it was on the main screen of wordpress.com. I was looking at something about Benny Hinn and the I went to home page. I saw your article then clicked on it.

  10. Great post! I wonder how much is out there that I would like to read or watch if I only knew about. I run into the same problem being a women who is very interested in video games and Star Trek. I have to sift though gobs and gobs of mostly naked women and commercials about man products for manly men every time I watch Star Trek. Apparently the only people interested in Star Trek and video games are men age 18-24? I think not.

  11. squirrelsloveacorns

    Marketing is an amazing mental game.
    Thank you for sharing this post, it gave me a lot more to think about!

  12. Quite true, people really pay too much attention sometimes on things look , not thinking and considering the quality and other important fields to consider.

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