The power of marketing

by Eszter Hargittai on October 24, 2006

Of two books on similar topics with similar publication dates, one is ranked #116 on Amazon (as of this writing, yesterday it was #350), the other is at #1,036,339 (as of this writing).* The former has an official publication date of October 17, 2006 (exactly a week ago) and has zero reviews on Amazon (as of this writing). The latter has an official publication date of July 27, 2006 and also has zero reviews on Amazon. Given zero reader reviews in both cases and the recent publication of the former manuscript, it would be hard to argue that it is its superior quality that has catapulted it to the top of Amazon’s popularity index. So what else differs?

Kati Marton’s book on The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World was published by Simon & Schuster, a trade press with a powerful marketing machine. My father István Hargittai’s book on The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century was published by Oxford University Press (OUP), an academic press notorious for not putting any marketing weight behind its publications naively assuming that quality will yield popularity.

Kati Marton is a journalist formerly married to the late ABC anchor Peter Jennings, currently married to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Her book has blurbs from the likes of Tom Brokaw and has gotten coverage on ABC’s Web site among many other venues. István Hargittai is a scientist in Budapest married to Magdolna Hargittai another scientist, both members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. His book doesn’t have blurbs from the likes of Tom Brokaw (it only does from two scientists, true, both are Nobel laureates) and has not gotten coverage in any major outlets.

Eugene Wigner and Istvan HargittaiBased on their earlier work, both authors are good writers. Both have relevant credentials for writing about this topic. Kati Marton is the daughter of Hungarians and has written about people from that area of the world before. István Hargittai is a Hungarian scientist and knew two of his five subjects (Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller) and has written numerous books about scientists. After OUP commissioned him to write this book in 2003, he spent the next couple of years doing nothing but research and writing on this book and became completely impassioned by the project. It’s worth a read.

I am surprised that Marton’s book has been as popular as it has given the niche topic. It may just be a testament to how easy it is to get a high rank on Amazon, that is, even a relatively low number of sales will get you a reasonable ranking. (Actually, I blogged about this four years ago.) In any case, given a seeming interest in this topic, my father’s book should have a chance as well. But if no one knows about a book, no one can buy it or read it.

A few years ago, Wired Editor Chris Anderson started writing about the long tail, the idea that “the future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.” He explained that a niche market book published in 1988 and soon forgotten got a second chance a decade later when a similar book appeared and resulted in renewed interest toward the first.

Can this case be generalized to two similar books appearing at around the same time? Can such an outcome occur even if one of the books is completely unknown due to the utter lack of marketing on behalf of its publisher and so no one buying the hyperpublicized piece will know about the existence of the other? This blog post is an attempt to make the connection.

It’s also a reality check that traditional positions and organizational arrangements still matter. But I’m happy to be proven wrong. Prove me wrong folks. Can a bit of online discussion lead to my father’s book gaining a bit of traction?

The above picture is of Eugene Wigner and István Hargittai taken in 1969 at the University of Texas at Austin by an unknown photographer.

[*] It turns out, on UK Amazon, the discrepencies are not as large: #72,506 vs #227,172 (as of this writing).

UPDATE: If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of my father’s book and would like a discount, you can use this flyer [pdf]. It requires going through OUP directly, however. Sorry I didn’t post this earlier, I didn’t have a copy.

In other news, the gap in rankings has widened. Now Marton’s book is #80, Hargittai’s book is #1,055,922.

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JR 10.24.06 at 3:37 pm

Eszter, the words “Jew,” “Hitler,” “Escape” and “changed the world” are the trifecta for many middle brow mass market readers. It’s like a book targeted at little girls called “The Baby Sitter’s Club and The Secret of the Magic Pony.”

“Science” and “Physicists” don’t have the same appeal. And “Martians of Science” is confusing. Is this sci-fi? Astronomy? A joke? What? If the reader has to read a blurb to find out, it’s too late.

A book that has no marketing behind it has one chance to get attention: the title. So I think your dad’s publisher did him no favors.


Eszter 10.24.06 at 3:45 pm

JR, yes, I wondered about the differences in titles. I agree that the difference between mentioning Jews vs not (after all, my father’s book is about five Hungarian Jews) is an interesting decision. I don’t think mentioning Hitler was ever part of the plan for my father’s book, but I can see its strategic value. And yes, I guess “science” is scary to many.


Walt 10.24.06 at 4:04 pm

The “Martians” joke is probably not well-known enough to sell any books. I’m practically the target audience for the book, and it took me a minute to get it.


Ben 10.24.06 at 5:12 pm

I think titles and marketing will have a lot to do with it, but Amazon – with their constant ‘if you liked this…’ approach – may actually do your father’s book a favour.


Gracchi 10.24.06 at 5:19 pm

Yeah I agree the title is a difficulty. I also think that there is a big problem with academic books- despite many actually being very readable- I’m no scientist but the books I read in the humanities are and reading say Feynman is a great experience- the expectation of the public is that an academic book will be highly complicated and difficult to read. Strikes me that there should be some presses which are between teh academic and the trade.


PLN 10.24.06 at 5:26 pm

Also, it’s worth noting that your father’s book is more than twice as expensive as the other. $35 is over the impulse-buy threshold for many people.


daelm 10.24.06 at 6:10 pm

eszter, at the risk of repeating others’ comments, one book busies itself (an first glance) with nazism, its effects and consequences, the other with what appears to be a narrowly focussed specialist presentation on some aspect of the history of physics. the former is simply of greater interest to more people.


theorist 10.24.06 at 6:22 pm

As I mention in my blog post in response to to Eszter’s post above, OUP is the kind of press you go with if you want tenure and prestige. Simon & Schuster for sales.


gmoke 10.24.06 at 6:29 pm

I liked your parents’ work on five-fold symmetry but Kati Marton is much prettier than your father and she gets to be on Charlie Rose.


Walt 10.24.06 at 7:12 pm

daelm: Eszter’s point is that the people covered in her father’s book are 5 of the 9 people covered in the other book.


Eszter 10.24.06 at 7:55 pm

I forgot to point out, but is relevant here, that my father did have OUP send copies to the NYT Book Review editor and a bunch of other outlets. These places get a ton of books to consider, it’s hard to get yours book covered. I’m sure it helps if you’re a former contributor to a paper, which Marton is. She was able to get an Op-Ed published that has a mention of her book, that’s got to be valuable publicity.


kid bitzer 10.24.06 at 8:04 pm

well, that’s something else we have in common, eszter–both our dads hung out with Eugene Wigner.

Did you ever hear the story of why he went into physics?
Seems he intended to be a mathematician, but when he got to high school, he realized he didn’t really have any talent for math.

He could tell that because there was another kid in his school, a little younger, who kept outdoing him in math all the time. So Wigner gave it up and looked for something else to do.

The other kid John von Neumann.


lotusgreen 10.24.06 at 8:20 pm

yeah, i’m not disagreeing with all these folks or anything…. but in my case it was almost the same book, several years apart. an anthology from the magazine i edited at the time.

first one i hired a publicist–made the best seller list in a couple of cities, etc. second one, i can’t remember the publicist story but i didn’t, i guess they’d promised they would be completely behind it (was it in the contract?…. one learns….)

another book, the publicist and i had a great relationship, he and my editor and i had all these big plans, and both of them were fired several weeks before the book came out–remember the harper’s massacre?

so from my perspective, i agree with those who say it’s the publicity. and my subject could hardly have been further than these two: it was erotic literature!


Matt Weiner 10.24.06 at 8:49 pm

The “Martians” joke is probably not well-known enough to sell any books. I’m practically the target audience for the book, and it took me a minute to get it.

Explanation for non-target audience? I googled “martians of science” to try to find the joke but all I found was a bunch of references to some book.


Walt 10.24.06 at 8:52 pm

The joke was that they were aliens from a more advanced civilization that were posing as Hungarians. See Wikipedia.


Peter 10.24.06 at 9:50 pm

The high Amazon ranking notwithstanding, Marton might not be making any significant amount of money off her book (not that she needs it).


Eszter 10.24.06 at 11:06 pm

Peter, my father’s not expecting to get rich on this. But after putting in the amount of work that he did and truly believing that this is an fascinating topic, he would like to have some people read the work.

I’ve added an update to the post. If anyone’s interested in purchasing a copy of my father’s book and would like a discount, you can use this flyer [pdf] and get 20% off. It requires going through OUP directly so it won’t improve the Amazon rankings, but it will save you money. Sorry I didn’t post this earlier, I didn’t have a copy.

Another update: The gap in rankings between the two books has widened since I posted this entry. Now Marton’s book is #80, Hargittai’s book is #1,055,922.


Istvan Hargittai 10.25.06 at 1:34 am

The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century

The title of this book underwent some changes during its production. The original invitation from Oxford University Press (OUP) to write this book carried a tentative title, The Martians: Five Friends Who Changed Twentieth Century Science. However, I did not find the word “friends” informative and the Martians did not so much change the science than the history of the twentieth century. At some point the book had the title, The Martians: Five Hungarian-Americans Who Changed the Twentieth Century. At a rather late point in production, I got word from OUP that the term “Hungarian-Americans” sounded as if it had been included for political correctness. In the final stage I came to The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century and OUP gladly accepted it.

I would like to make some further comments here that are discussed in more detail in the book.

The five Martians we Jewish-Hungarian-Americans; they could also be considered (though they never are) Jewish-Hungarian-German-Americans because at some point some of them even assumed German citizenship. Some referred to their periods in Germany as their happiest time and, for some, their German period was the most productive. The decisive departure for their careers was the move from Hungary to Germany, and in Germany did they become part of frontier science. Their next move, going from Germany to the United States in some sense was less dramatic than their transition from Hungary to Germany because in Germany they became well-known scientists. Thus, they came to America not as nameless refugees but as established specialists. From this point of view I believe their being physicist was as important as anything else.

Did their being Jewish determine their fates? Yes, it did in the sense that this was part of the reason why they had to leave Hungary in the first place (the other part was the lack of perspective for people like them regardless of their roots). Then, they were forced out of Germany because of their being Jewish. Some of them initiated their move to the United States before Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933.

It is another interesting question whether they considered themselves Jewish or Hungarian, etc.? In spite of their personal experience in Hungary and their knowledge about the Hungarian Holocaust and the communist dictatorship after World War II, they considered themselves far and foremost Hungarian (with the possible exception of Szilard). This notion may have originated from the fact that most of the time they spent in Hungary, being Jewish was considered a religious affiliation, and the Jews in Hungary could be very nationalistic, Hungarian nationalistic, that is. As the Hungarian history of the rest of the twentieth century showed, this was a mistaken notion, yet this is in which the Martians grew up. So I would think that labeling them as Hungarian or as Jewish, and for that matter, as German or even as American would be incomplete while labeling them, say Jewish-Hungarian-German-American would sound pathetic to me.

I still feel quite happy with the title, The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century.


daelm 10.25.06 at 5:50 am

walt, 11: none of which is apparent (or possibly even relevant) to the in-store browser or to the persons doing a search on amazon for books on WW2, germany or nazi’s. in fact, eszter’s presumption, part of which you highlight, is that books are bought more for their specific contents than their general theme. as a former independent and chain bookseller, and publisher’s agent, i can assure you that this is not the case.

also, to be strict, eszter’s point was that marketing a book affects its sales. what you describe as her point was one part of the argument she introduced in support of that, on her way to making the point that her father’s book should be selling more, when compared to another book. my point is that there’s more required than simple supposition.



Doug 10.25.06 at 7:37 am

20: Actually, daelm, from reading the descriptions of both, I. Hargittai’s book could just as well have the title that K. Marton’s book has, with “Nine Jews” changed to “Five Jews.” Now it may be that the Marton book focuses on the escaping, whereas Hargittai’s book focuses on the science. It seems just as likely, though, that the process at S&S was centered on what title will help sell the book, whereas the process at OUP was centered on what the book is about. Istvan’s comments (pardon the first-naming, but Dr. Hargittai doesn’t distinguish him from Eszter, or indeed Magdolna) at 19 seem to bear this out.

Without reading either book (and from my present perch in Munich, this is unlikely for a variety of reasons), I can’t tell which is better. And OUP is certainly one of the top academic presses, so sales won’t be too slim. But it’s certainly clear which is aimed at the general public and which is likelier to end up on the bestseller lists. That’s a nontrivial difference for the author, and potentially for the publisher, too.

Eszter’s right to say this is a real-time lesson in the power of marketing. Not that the conclusions will be surprising. Now if only Henry would take an interest and sketch out how it shows the differences between the have-enoughs and the have-heaps-and-heaps-and-heaps-and-heaps.


abb1 10.25.06 at 8:14 am

It’s hard to tell how much of it is marketing and how much is kitschy title of Marton’s book. Classifying people as ‘Jews’ based solely on their ethnic origin is, of course, the hallmark of both anti- and philo-semitism — and that’s plenty of potential buyers out there.


Andrew John 10.25.06 at 8:18 am

Instead of just saying that this shows the power of marketing, we should ask a prior question. If, for the sake of argument, we take these to be two essentially similar books, then why do S&S believe that marketing dollars are a good investment for their book, whereas OUP apparently don’t think they are worth spending for theirs? Is the return on marketing spend much higher on one book rather than on the other? (One possibility is that marketing spending is indeed more valuable because it is complementary to the other advantages Eszter cited, such as the fact that the S&S author is better connected.) Or is the problem, as Eszter seems to suggest, that OUP are either lousy at business or uninterested in making profit?


Jacob T. Levy 10.25.06 at 8:42 am

As I recall, Amazon some time ago segmented its sales charts– something like, the top 100 sellers are updated continuously, the top 1,000 daily, and the rest less frequently. (I’m making up the cutoffs but not the idea of the segmenting.) So, unless the CT readership shoots the book up into the next bracket, it could be a while before the additional sales turn up in the ranking. In the meantime, it’ll probably just continue to fall as other new books are published– at the same number of sales newer books are ranked above older books.


John Emerson 10.25.06 at 9:50 am

Coming in late, but I think that it’s all about distribution. In the pop music biz the distributors and other middlemen have almost total control. Some of the most popular bands were constructed by the middlemen using what are effectively hired musiacians who have no artistic control. Others are actual musicians who are lucky enough to be selected by the biz people. And the latter, even if they are musically talented and committed, often have to trim what they’re doing to the middleman’s specifications.

There are a number of mid-level and many low-level distribution channels (for either live music or for CDs), but hard-working musicians at the bottom level aren’t usually able to quite their day jobs.

Furthermore, as I understand, the economics of publishing is such that the authors are lucky to get even 10% of the retail price of the book, so someone might work for two years on a book which gets great reviews and sells moderately well, and not even make enough to live on for two years.


Tom Hurka 10.25.06 at 9:53 am

Question: Did the OUP book come from its trade division or its academic division? (It could also be split, trade/academic.) That could make a big difference to the marketing effort put out on its behalf. Because they’re seen as having greater sales potential, trade books are much more heavily promoted than academic books from the very same publisher.


Martin James 10.25.06 at 9:55 am

How many copies of the Martians book purchased together with the Great Escape book would it take to make the list of “buyers who purchased this book also purchased” list on Amazon?

A little guerrilla marketing might go a long way.


John Emerson 10.25.06 at 9:57 am

I think that a different publisher might have asked the author to change various things to make it more promotable.

A snappier title would be “The Martians: Five Hungarians who Changed the World”. That’s not inaccurate, and it’s a little mysterious and a bit bit of a “hook” — “What do you mean? Hungarians? Martians??”

Not the pull of “Jews”, of course.


rana 10.25.06 at 10:10 am

John – Yes that adds a slight tone of conspiracy that sells so well, these days.

BTW, a colleague has the book and I had a brief glance: looks very interesting (it’s my field). I’ll try to persuade my local – municipal, public – library to purchase a copy. And, in light of the above, I may do so myself…


Daniel 10.25.06 at 10:19 am

[Or is the problem, as Eszter seems to suggest, that OUP are either lousy at business or uninterested in making profit?]

The OUP is always going to find it very difficult to attract really top people to its marketing department, since this is such a Cinderella (which in turn because the economics of OUP revolve around library sales and journal publishing).

There is also a minimum efficient scale in marketing when you think of all the promotion financing, advertisement etc that you need to support, plus a minimum size of marketing department that you are going to need in order to get the books reviewed. If you don’t have a constant throughput of books, then you are probably best off not bothering to try and do it by half measures.

(by the way, call me Alfred Marshall, but according to Amazon one of these books is like half the price of the other?)


Martin 10.25.06 at 11:03 am

I’m reviews editor at Physics World magazine, and this book sounds like just the sort of thing we’d be interested in. I’ll get on to OUP for a review copy!


Nat Whilk 10.25.06 at 11:19 am

The reason no one buys OUP books anymore is because too many people have been stung by the horrendous print quality of the digital technology they’re starting to use more and more often on later printings of a book. Okay, so that’s not the reason, but I wish it were, so that they’d knock it off. I really like OUP a lot–3 of the last 6 books I’ve bought were from them–but it seems like people who appreciate a well-made book are having less and less of a say in running the place. (Not to mention Cambridge University Press and, for that matter, our university librarians, who feel that the existence of low-resolution JSTOR scans of a journal justify relegating the paper version to the landfill.)

[End of attempted threadjack.]


enzo 10.25.06 at 12:08 pm

People don’t want to read good, informative books. The want to read enjoyable books. Most people, that is.

Now I haven’t read either of those books, but I would have thought that (ceteris paribus) a S&S book is likely to be more enjoyable for most people than an OUP tome.

Sometimes it’s hard for academics to come to terms with how un-academic most people are.


novakant 10.25.06 at 12:10 pm

If this entry is amongst other things intended to be a marketing effort for your father’s book, then, from a marketing point of view, I think you have done him a disservice.


Dan Kervick 10.25.06 at 12:48 pm

I did some homework, and found that there are several important differences between these two books that would account for the differences in sales through Amazon and elsewhere.

The most notable difference between the two books is that Marton had a previous NY Times best seller: Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History, which certainly makes it easier to attract the attention of reviewers and their editors, pry more money from the publisher’s marketing budget, and generate pre-publication orders. It also means she has a larger pre-existing readership. Of course, the personal connections and blurbs are also helpful in pushing the book. Frankly, Marton seems to be just about as socially well-connected as any one can be in America, based on this bio.

The second most important difference between the two books is that Marton was the beneficiary of a 1000 word NY Times Book Section feature article on October 7! I’m sure that single article produced a sizeable number of Amazon orders.

The Hargittai book is presented by Oxford as falling into the categories of history of science and science biography. The Marton book, on the other hand, is presented by Simon & Schuster as falling into the categories of Jewish history and Eastern European history. The Marton book has already seen reviews, notes or alerts in Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. I don’t believe the Hargittai book has been reviewed in these major industry publications.

While both books treat the lives of Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and John von Neuman, the Marton book also recounts the lives of photojournalists Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz, film producer and director Alexander Korda, Michael Curtiz (the director of Casablanca) and the famed author Arthur Koestler. The Hargittai book covers the four physicists mentioned above, along with the additional physicist Theodore von Karman. Thus Marton’s book has additional interest for people in the arts who are not much concerned with the history of physics. Her five additional subjects are well-known figures who have already had much written about them. The main target audience for the Hargittai book appears to be those with a particular interest in the history of physics.

My sense is that the Marton book is more broadly targeted at the general reader interested in a bittersweet tale of Hungarian Jews escaping Hitler and overcoming isolation and exile to achieve world fame, ornamented with evocative Old World nostalgia and charm and New World success stories. This is not such a small niche, since it crosses over into many interest areas. (Think of a recent bestseller like The Orientalist by Tom Reiss – what could have been a niche publication on a forgotten figure was turned into a romantic and intriguing mystery story with universal appeal.)

Here is part of the Publisher’s Weekly review of Marton’s book:

“Marton intricately charts each man’s career in the context of WWII and Cold War history. Publisher’s weekly: Herself Hungarian-born, the daughter of journalists who escaped Soviet-occupied Hungary in 1957, Marton captures her fellow Hungarians’ nostalgia for prewar Budapest, evoking its flamboyant cafes, its trams, boulevards and cosmopolitan Jewish community. Marton writes beautifully, balancing sharply defined character studies of each man with insights into their shared cultural traits and uprootedness.”

The Marton book also appears to have had its publication date timed to coincide closely with the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. This probably also helps to generate reviews, because book page editors are always looking for topical new releases to review.


John Emerson 10.25.06 at 1:03 pm

Novakant won’t buy the book, but that may be a good thing.

A lot of what Dan Kervick says (getting reviews placed) is a function of marketing, though some of it may be a function of “writing to market” too. There’s no doubt that the Hargittai book has an intrinsically smaller market, but not that much smaller.

#32: Editing, proofreading and indexing of OUP and CUP books have also gone downhill in recent decades.


novakant 10.25.06 at 2:08 pm

Novakant won’t buy the book, but that may be a good thing.

And why would that be; oh, I see, because novakant has proven john emerson wrong once or twice on this blog when it came to german history …

incidentally, novakant, not being as small minded as john emerson, might still buy the book, despite his view that Eszter’s efforts at marketing it were not optimal


abb1 10.25.06 at 2:13 pm

Koestler, huh. Interesting guy, interesting life, I liked Darkness at Noon, but did he really change the world? I don’t think so. And is his really a “New World success story”? Did he live in the US at all?


Eszter 10.25.06 at 4:15 pm

Novakant, your comment would have been of value had you included suggestions for what you think would be a good approach. Also, it’s hard to see how it would be a disservice to at least start talking about a book and let people know it exists. You just said it’s a disservice, but you didn’t say why.

I have gotten some book recommendations from folks offline. Also, I think people make some very good points about the title and other issues.

I don’t know if the book was published in the trade or academic end of OUP. I do know that some academic presses push a few titles more broadly, but this isn’t one of them.


John Emerson 10.25.06 at 6:01 pm

Considering that this post got the book a review in “Physics World”, Novakant’s comment seems sillier than his usual.

As we see in #34, Novakant has a knack for injecting the maximum pointless unpleasantness into what would otherwise be rather low-intensity communications.


JR 10.25.06 at 6:16 pm

Eszter, I have done a bit of surfing to read about your father, who seems to be a lovely man. May I congratulate you on your good sense in your choice of parents. The participants here might like to read something from the introduction of an earlier book of his:

My mother tongue is Hungarian, but I had no doubt that I should write this book in English. For my audience, I envisioned my future grandchildren who, at the time of writing these lines, do not yet exist. With our children most probably settling in the United States, they should find it convenient to read this book in their own language. While my grandchildren are an abstraction for the time being, my children are the most tangible reality, although they hardly figure in this book; my wife Magdi does not either, to any great degree. They are the greatest gift in my life and I am writing this book for them, for Magdi, Balázs, and Eszter. But it is to the memory of my mother, whose example taught me perseverance and tolerance, defiance and social solidarity, that I dedicate this book.


Doug 10.25.06 at 6:51 pm

38: “Changed the world” is mandatory as part of the subtitle of a certain subgenre if history that aims to sell well. Koestler did not (nor did the photographers and filmmakers); the Martians certainly did.

And the Martian quip is not so obscure; Richard Rhodes used it in his blurb of the Marton book.

Further to publicity, a little Googling shows that Marton has been doing lots of speaking gigs related to the book. Part of that is the advantage of being based in NYC, further parts come from existing media connections and the publisher’s arrangement of such events. All harder to duplicate from Budapest and without a marketing department.


Eszter 10.25.06 at 7:43 pm

JR, that’s very sweet, thanks. Thanks for quoting that bit, I think he wrote it about the book “Our Lives“.

Doug, yes, the Budapest location doesn’t help. However, my father will be in the US January-May and is planning on giving some talks so that could help a bit.


kid bitzer 10.25.06 at 8:01 pm

let’s not forget the adage that all publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell your name right.

Which in this case is no small feat itself.

one point of information I can add re 24:
I have an okayseller book on Amazon (by OUP as it happens), and I can tell you that they very definitely *do* update the sales figures several times a day, even down in the 100,000 range.

I can watch it bounce down into the low five-figures when someone buys a copy, and then drift gradually into the six figures by the following day, and it gets updated several times in between (how many times? Well, I have never checked back *dozens* of times in a day. But I have probably checked three or four, and it changes each time).

Of course there may be a *lag*, in that they may be telling me on Tuesday about a sale on Monday. But they recalculate many times on Tuesday, and I suspect they are not just recalculating with day-old numbers.

I also have some other books that don’t sell often. But once you get down into the million-plus region, your rate of fall slows. Even in the 100,000 range, there is a noticeable slowing, as one would expect. You get jostled from e.g. #30,000 down to #100,000 in less than a day; then it takes about a day to fall into the 200k range, a day and a half to fall into the 300k range, and so on.

Try it yourself–next time you buy a mid-list book, check the sales figures before you buy, and see how long it takes them to update, and then how long it takes it to decay. With titles in the 100k-million range, single sales make a very observable difference.


John Emerson 10.25.06 at 9:22 pm

One thing that can be done right now is to get the book an Amazon review right away. (Not signed by Eszter). Sending review copies to the physics people at Scienceblogs would help too. Internet marketing is still pretty catch-or-catch can, but it can make a big difference.


John Emerson 10.25.06 at 9:24 pm

I don’t know if Chad Orzel is with Scienceblogs, but he’d be one guy to send it to.


Doug 10.26.06 at 2:49 am

Here’s another thought: Anywhere that Marton has given a talk, I. Hargittai has a chance to give one, too, as long as there’s a compelling answer to the statement that they’ve done that already. Hungarian clubs, Jewish community centers, both naturals and potentially sources of multiple sales.

Local independent bookstores may be willing to provide books for any event. (Their willingness will largely be a function of the personnel they have, how many events they generally do, and OUP’s returns policy.) Politics and Prose in Washington would be a great candidate to work with, say, the Kossuth House and/or the JCC.

Getting reviews in regional metro dailies (i.e., not WaPo, NYT) will probably involve finding a local angle for one or more of the Martians: taught there, did significant work there, retired there, etc. Because the space that newspapers devote to books has shrunk so drastically, it might make more sense to approach features editors instead. That your dad actually knew some of the people in question makes him a good source for an interview, and the promotion of the book becomes a soft sell, rather than a hard sell. As for time hooks, their personal anniversaries (birth, death, major achievement, etc) are good for features editors who generally need some sort of temporal connection to run an article.

Regionally, I would guess that northeast and some parts of the midwest are going to be the best places for Jewish and Hungarian groups, while out west there may be receptive groups on the scientific side. Anything in Roswell, New Mexico might be willing to bite on the “representatives of an advanced civilization” angle, which in turn could be used as a lure for other publications.

Piggybacking on Marton’s publicity machine as much as possible is surely advisable; “if you liked such and such, here’s another way of looking at it, from someone who actually knew several of the people.” Maybe your dad can even talk with Marton; if they hit it off, joint appearances are certainly a possibility. She’s also likely getting more requests than she can handle and might welcome the ability to say, well I can’t do X but I know someone who can. (She might not, of course; but I always found the very best authors and top public personalities were generous about that sort of thing.) Her publicity people will likely not see it that way, so the trick will be to talk with her directly.

All of these ideas, of course, depend on how much additional work your dad wants to put in to publicity and such. Marketing departments have advantages in resources and pre-existing contacts, but disadvantages in that they are trying to sell the whole catalog, and individual publicists within a department will have many books on their plate at once. Savvy authors have advantages in passion and directness.

The business has changed a lot in the decade I’ve been out of it, but I’ll bet there’s still room in the system for an energetic author with a good story.

Ah, another thought: Technical universities, and university science departments in general. Another type of place to do talks, where Marton probably won’t go, and the university book stores will be experienced in dealing with OUP. Probably long lead-times on the event schedules, but still worth doing.


novakant 10.26.06 at 4:35 am

You’re right Eszter, my comment was not very constructive in its brevity, so allow me to elaborate a little.

What struck me as slightly counterproductive was that you employed a bit of negative marketing to promote your father’s book, both in the general tone of your post decrying the power of marketing and especially in depicting Kati Marton as an establishment figure relying on her connections (why should we care who she has been / is married to?). And while I’m not denying that there might be a grain of truth in all that, I don’t think this approach is the best way to promote a book.
While negative marketing works well for some select products, it is actually used quite rarely and from the top of my head I can’t think of any example of it having been used by PR departments in the book publishing industry. Granted, as a guerilla marketing strategy to the select audience we have here it might actually work, but in order to reach a wider audience – which is your expressed aim – I don’t think this is the best way to go.



Dr. Minorka 10.26.06 at 8:58 am

Maybe contacting the following professional lists would be helpful:
Mailing lists in history
(each list has a review editor)
H-Judaic: Judaica, Jewish History
H-Sci-Med-Tech: History of Science, Medicine and Technology
HABSBURG: Culture and History of the Central European Habsburg Monarchy and its successor states, 1500 – present


Henry (not the famous one) 10.26.06 at 10:25 am

Two points: it appears that the best selling books in science biography in the past ten years have focused on the mysteries of science, particularly in mathematics: Beautiful Mind, the Erdos biography, the solution of Fermat’s theorem, books about Ramanujan. (Disclaimer: I am someone who didn’t require competition from John von Neumann to realize I was no good at math). They were aimed at people like me who had no chance of every understanding the science or math involved, but who found the story of someone else’s agonies in the search for some transcendent truth (or, in Erdos’ case, exotic strangeness in the search for some transcendent truth) to be romantic.

The title communicates some of the appeal to us non-mathematical philistines; the subtitle undercuts it. Perhaps what we need is some help from Richard Sherman [] to jazz it up. If this were FARK we’d already have ten photoshopped covers (of dubious quality).

Second, as I recall the rest of the joke from the Erdos book, when asked “Why Hungarians?”, the aliens answered “Because they have the prettiest women.”


Doug 10.26.06 at 12:19 pm

Not a joke, just the simple truth. (But don’t let the knowledge spread too far!)


Doug 10.26.06 at 12:59 pm

23: “then why do S&S believe that marketing dollars are a good investment for their book, whereas OUP apparently don’t think they are worth spending for theirs?”

Actually, what I took from Eszter’s post is that OUP doesn’t do that kind of marketing for any book that they publish. So the question at #23 is sorta like asking why Manchester United doesn’t have any good fastball pitchers.

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