The Creative Vision Versus The Marketing Department

If you know anything about the publishing industry, you’d be aware of how significant the marketing department has become in each large publishing house. The more difficult it becomes for publishers to make money from selling books, the more important become the people in publishing houses who work out what readers want (and persuade those readers to hand over some money). Publishers’ marketing departments determine how book covers should look, what time of year to publish certain books, and whether book trailers or magazine ads or blog posts will be the most effective method of attracting particular readers to books. But it isn’t just that the marketing people figure out how to sell a book once it’s been printed. Marketing departments also determine which books will get published in the first place. They (try to) predict whether there’ll be any demand in twelve months’ time for, say, gritty true crime or paranormal romance or travel memoirs, and then they sign up the appropriate manuscripts.

This is especially true regarding books for children and teenagers, because these books are often bought by people other than the intended audience – that is, the books are bought by parents, teachers, librarians and other adults, who may have quite different ideas about what’s ‘appropriate’ or ‘suitable’ for young readers. A publisher’s marketing department has a say in how many words a children’s book will have, how it will look, what its title will be – and, increasingly, what sort of content the book will have. If a manuscript is even slightly controversial, if it doesn’t fit neatly into a publishing genre, or if it doesn’t clearly appeal to a distinct marketing audience (for instance, boys aged 8-12), then that will make the book difficult to market. And why would a publisher take a chance on signing up that manuscript for a book deal, when they can instead publish a clone of whatever’s currently at the top of the children’s bestseller list, something that’s far more likely to make the publisher some money?

Without marketing departments, large publishing houses wouldn’t exist, because they wouldn’t make enough money to survive. Publishers can’t (and shouldn’t ) publish every manuscript they’re offered, and the marketing team helps determine whether manuscripts are self-indulgent rubbish or something that will find an audience and pay back its publishing costs. But that doesn’t mean marketing departments get it right all the time. If they did, all the books they’d worked on would be bestsellers, which clearly doesn’t happen. And sometimes, marketing departments get it spectacularly wrong, such as during the ‘whitewash’ controversy a few years ago. (In those cases, and there were more than one, the publishers’ thinking seemed to go: We want to sell lots of books. More books are bought by white people than by people who are not white. White people will only buy books about characters who look exactly the same as them. Therefore, on the rare occasion we publish books about characters who are not white, we must make sure we disguise the contents by putting white people on the cover.) In at least one whitewashing case, the public outcry led to the publisher changing the cover, but most of the time, people who buy books can’t protest because they have no idea about the decisions being made behind the doors of publishing houses.

I must emphasise that most people who work in the marketing departments of publishing houses love books and literature – otherwise, they’d take their skills to some other, more highly paid, section of the commercial world. However, there’s always going to be some conflict between the creative vision of individual writers and the objectives of publishers’ marketing departments, and the marketers nearly always win. This is why I absolutely love creative people – writers, musicians, artists, performers, whatever – who achieve great commercial success in spite of having the sort of creative ideas that give marketing departments conniptions.

For example, picture the faces of the marketing department at the BBC ten years ago, when two men turned up and said they wanted to make a television series for adults set in a zoo, featuring animation, songs, dancing wolves and a creature made of pink bubble gum. Or consider the marketing department of Mint Royale’s record company in 2003, who, according to director Edgar Wright, wanted him to cast “bigger” names in the video for Blue Song. He decided to stick with his original choice, the ‘unknown’ Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt. Smart move.

Noel Fielding1 and Julian Barratt went on to make three successful television series and sell out Wembley Arena, and they’re the only reason I’ve even heard of Mint Royale. Here endeth today’s lesson.

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  1. If you’d like to see more of Noel Fielding’s dancing, here’s his poignant, heartfelt interpretation of Wuthering Heights. With cartwheels. And bonus Heathcliff appearance.

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