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Bill’s Buzz

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Bill Clinton’s My Life is number 1 on Amazon right now and doing just fine. The Wharton School looks at the marketing plan behind it, getting all racy calling Clinton the “Laydown King” in its intro:

    Laydown denotes nothing salacious. In the world of publishing, the laydown date is a book’s official release day. The laydown date is the focal point upon which a publisher brings to bear all the marketing prowess it can muster in an attempt to create a blockbuster. It’s the day that is announced by a publisher ahead of time to generate pre-publication buzz. It’s the day that bookstores across the country, in lockstep, put a new title on display and the day that online booksellers start shipping pre-ordered copies to customers. It’s the day when the publisher tries to book the author on national television programs, to have him interviewed by the news media, and to have him appear in bookstores to autograph copies. It’s the day, or close to the day, for a publisher to arrange the publication of an exclusive excerpt from the book in a major magazine.

    If J.K. Rowling is the reigning Laydown Queen of fiction – with first-day sales in 2003 of five million copies of her most recent Harry Potter novel – Clinton became Laydown King of non-fiction when his autobiography, My Life, set a one-day sales record of more than 400,000 copies on June 22. That figure, which represents U.S. sales only, is reportedly double the opening-day number sold by the previous record holder, Living History, by Sen. Hillary Clinton.

And you know that beating Hilary was a great motivator for him: “We’ll see who wears the pants around here!”

    Faculty members in Wharton’s marketing department and people in publishing say Knopf Publishing Group, which paid the former president a reported $10 million advance to produce My Life, did all the right things in setting the stage to make the book a mega-blockbuster. They say executives at Knopf actually did nothing special and broke no new marketing ground in launching their marketing blitz. Rather, their success has come from using tried and true marketing tactics – but using them to full effect.

    In addition to making the most of the laydown date, these experts say, Knopf benefited from at least three other factors. The first is that the company published the book in an election year, one in which the electorate appears unusually divided (witness the considerable buzz surrounding Michael Moore’s anti-President Bush movie Fahrenheit 9/11.) A second reason is the controversial nature of Clinton’s two terms in office due to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his impeachment. A third factor propelling the book to such success is that Knopf has made the most of the best salesman that My Life could possibly have – Clinton himself.

    “The key to marketing is having a good pitch man, and there are not many better pitch men I know than Clinton,” says John Pierce, director of marketing for Wharton School Publishing, a joint book-publishing venture between Wharton and Pearson Education. “If he can talk [his way] out of an affair, he can sell anything.” Pierce adds that Knopf took the correct approach in marketing the book as heavily as it could. “His book probably would have sold anyway, but [Knopf] did it right. My read on this is they treated it like they should have instead of just assuming his book was going to sell [a lot of copies].”

    Wharton marketing professor Patricia Williams says Clinton’s willingness to promote his book on programs like 60 Minutes, The Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live – all of which he did in the days immediately preceding and following the laydown date – has been “essential” to its success. “He’s the best marketer for his book,” notes Williams. “During these interviews, we’ve seen him at his best in a lot of ways. He’s always been extraordinarily bright and articulate, able to connect rhetorically with people on every level, and able to communicate complex, nuanced ideas. He’s a very engaging speaker; he always has been. If he had been unwilling to go out and answer Dan Rather’s questions directly [on 60 Minutes], there would be a lot less interest in the book. If you’re on Larry King and Oprah, you’re in front of millions of people.”

    Marketing professor Peter S. Fader … says the book’s success is an example of “pull-marketing.” He explains: “A lot of this buzz is totally organic – people talking to people – as opposed to responding to what they see on talk shows. That’s a real credit to the man, regardless of your politics. He’s just a fascinating character.”

    However, marketing professor David Schmittlein believes that, in assessing why the book is doing well, it is impossible to separate the effects of marketing from the effects of Clinton’s persona. He says Knopf thoroughly understands Clinton’s appeal to millions and has done all it can to put that appeal to maximum use. “It’s not like the marketing stands aside from that persona. They have been insightful about how to tap into it. One of the things about Clinton is the extent to which he connects to people personally.”

    ….Will Lippincott, a literary agent in New York, says the laydown approach has become more common in recent years as publishers seek to create the biggest splash possible for books by big-time authors like Rowling, John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Bob Woodward. He notes that laydowns take on added importance because the faster a book sells – not just the number of copies sold – helps propel it onto The New York Times’ various bestseller lists.

    ….Those interviewed by Knowledge@Wharton say sales of My Life would not be as great if 2004 were not an election year. They say the polarization of the electorate has contributed to sales among fans of Clinton.

    “[Knopf] timed publication of the book to coincide with presidential politics in general; that was certainly a smart decision on their part,” says Williams. “The polarization that has occurred over the last three years also works to their advantage. They can’t control that, but it’s a nice bit of serendipity for them. Bill Clinton’s memoirs are relevant to the state of mind of consumers. Their marketing is about timing and exploiting a natural phenomenon.”

    ….The Wharton experts say Clinton probably runs little risk of being overexposed in the months to come. In fact, they say he could get tons of free media if news editors and producers request interviews with him to discuss everything from the presidential race to U.S. policy in Iraq. Pierce predicts that My Life will sell eight to 10 million copies over the next 18 months as the marketing juggernaut rolls along. As of June 23, there were 2.25 million copies of My Life in print and additional printings are planned, according to Knopf, a division of Random House, whose parent company is Bertelsmann AG, an international media company based in Germany.

    Clinton has indicated that he would like to write other books. Pierce and Schmittlein say it is unlikely that sales of any future Clinton works would top those of My Life. But they say Clinton could do well for himself if he were to try his hand at fiction – perhaps a political thriller – or take a statesman-like approach and churn out books on current affairs or public policy every few years like Henry Kissinger has done since leaving government in the 1970s.

As always, reports of Bill’s demise were greatly exaggerated. He is the true American phoenix, and Clinton in campaign mode is a force of nature.

As usual, the “experts” don’t agree on the why of Clinton’s publishing success, but they sure don’t dispute it.

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