Can slick marketing sell bad books?

As if there’s any question. Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m looking at you. Though that wasn’t slick marketing, was it? It was just a straight up offer of porn in the guise of something permissible to read in public.

Here’s a post from James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog: Can Slick Marketing Sell Bad Books?

Herein he discusses a publishing phenomenon that predates Fifty Shades by fifty years but did basically the same thing, only it was a deliberate joke from top to bottom. I’d never heard of it. Here’s a bit of the story — click through to read the whole thing if you’re interested —

A Newsday reporter by the name of Mike McGrady, over drinks with some pals, posited that a novel with no social value and even less literary quality could sell, if it was about sex and had a titillating cover. …To prove it, he got a couple dozen of his newsroom colleagues (19 men and 5 women, including two Pulitzer Prize winners) to conspire to write a lurid tome. The simple concept was a housewife having a series of adulterous flings, one per chapter. … The conspirators wrote one chapter each, trying their darndest not to make the writing too good.

McGrady edited each chapter, blue-penciling anything even approaching a modicum of literary quality. … He then submitted it to publisher Lyle Stuart, known for “edgy” books. They accepted it (not knowing it was a hoax) and proceeded to design a salacious cover.

When Naked Came the Stranger hit the stores, the reviewers hit back. The Village Voice said the book was “Of such perfectly realized awfulness that it will suck your soul right out of your brainpan and through your mouth, and you will happily let it go.”

It became an instant bestseller.

Well, at least this is evidence that the success of Fifty Shades isn’t due to the modern degradation of American culture.

Please Feel Free to Share:


9 thoughts on “Can slick marketing sell bad books?”

  1. Apparently most of the people who read FSOG were people who didn’t ordinarily read books and thus didn’t realize how truly boring it was because they had nothing to compare it with.

    That’s a generalization, I admit. I do know one woman, college professor, who enjoyed all three books. I tried to read the first one. (I wanted to analyze why it was so popular.) I ended up skimming through it. Say what you will about Twilight (go ahead, I’ll wait) at least Stephenie Meyer cared about her story. The characters were real to her, and she looked at a map before she wrote about the setting. Ms. James didn’t bother. I think she did the same thing as the Newsday reporters, except she was savvy enough to ride on the coattails of Twilight’s success.

  2. Apparently most of the people who read FSOG were people who didn’t ordinarily read books and thus didn’t realize how truly boring it was because they had nothing to compare it with.

    Interesting observation. I didn’t think of that. That’s startling but plausible.

    I admit I didn’t try reading even the first one. I thought possibly I ought to, but everyone was talking about how badly written it was, so…

    It might be fun to try to write a sexy erotic sort of thing, like the Newsday reporters did, only well written (or at least not badly written), and see if you could beat the sales of the ones that are objectively terrible. I bet actual quality of the writing is 100% irrelevant, but who knows?

  3. I’d heard that story about people getting together to writea really awful but titillating book and get it published, but if I’d ever heard the title I’d forgotten it.

    And there’s the more recent example of Atlantis Nights, but I think that wasn’t professionally published. May be wrong, though.

  4. As one of the co-conspirators — Atlanta Nights was self-published at Lulu after PublishAmerica decided to rescind its acceptance.

    Sold well enough to cover the costs of the hoax very quickly.

  5. I swear, I should drop everything and write smut with a tiny bit of a fantasy plot wrapped around it. Maybe it would sell well enough to let me write whatever I wanted after that without worrying about sales…

  6. No you shouldn’t: the odds of success aren’t nearly good enough for the aesthetic (let alone the moral) degradation.

    And the question about whether higher quality writing outsells objectively terrible stuff in the field of porn/erotica/insert-current-euphemism has apparently been answered definitively (“no”) by FSOG. So there you go.

  7. I had not heard about Atlanta Nights and find it more interesting than NCtS, although it does seem like a lot of work to establish something everyone pretty much knew beforehand. Still, if there’s anyone out there who has standing to criticize how people spend their free time, it certainly isn’t me.

    Following the links, it looks like the Naked Came the Stranger only became a bestseller after the hoax was revealed and people wanted to check it out — I guess that’s mildly encouraging. (It eventually sold 400,000 copies, but Mike McGrady said the only sales that really worried him were the first 20K, before the hoaxers outed themselves.)

  8. Eh, Atlanta Nights wasn’t that much work.
    Someone whipped together an outline and we all did our chapters over — a weekend IIRC.

    I realized mine would be short. So I threw in a lot more adverbs and adjectives to plump up the word count. 0:)

    Also, of course, we had been INSULTED. Honor to be avenged and all that.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top