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This space and much of this newsletter in general are usually devoted to marketing considerations-as it should be; this is, after all, the Publishers Marketing Association. I sometimes fear, however, that the question of content is in danger of getting lost in all the marketing hoopla. The oldest and maybe the best marketing adage is “You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.” But at least with the books that typically succeed for independent publishers, just sizzle is not enough. You have to deliver the steak too.


What follows (since it is the holiday season) is a parade of turkeys my company has published which failed because of low or no content. These particular turkeys have been selected, from a sizable flock, because they illustrate how a publisher fully intent on producing books with strong content can come up short.

Dial Out/Dine In


The concept seemed very appealing. Wouldn’t it be great if you could have right next to your telephone at home and at work a complete guide to all the restaurants in Chicago that will deliver? The trouble with the concept was clearly revealed by a question asked by many booksellers: “What is in this book that is not in the yellow-pages phone directory which everyone already has sitting next to their telephone?”


Acquiring titles on the basis of a concept is always very risky. If you have an outline, table of contents, and some sample chapters, you will be better able to resist the lure of a clever but empty book idea.

The Meaning of Life

The author collected, over a lifetime, one-sentence statements about the meaning of life from very famous philosophers, novelists, and so on. What terrific names to put on the jacket! And isn’t everyone puzzled by the meaning of life? Unfortunately nothing of much interest can be said on this subject in one sentence. My company had pretty well exhausted the possibilities for Chicago-area guidebooks, and we were looking for a “national” title. We should have looked harder. Don’t ever publish a book just because you need a book to publish.

Impeccable Birdfeeding


This was a follow-up to our very successful book, Outwitting Squirrels, which is all about keeping squirrels out of your bird feeder. When you have a hot book, you certainly should get right to work on a follow-up title; the second one can get a tremendous initial boost from the success of the first. But the second title had better deliver the goods or (I say this with deep emotion) the returns will be awful.

The Farmer’s Market Cookbook


Again, seemingly a very strong concept. You take the warm and friendly feelings many people have about farmer’s markets and connect them to a collection of recipes that make especially good use of the fabulous fruits and vegetables we buy too much of when we visit such places. The problem with our book was that we were not able to find a legitimate connection between the farmer’s market idea and the recipes we had to offer. They looked a lot like the recipes available in books already owned by most cooks. There may have been a way to make this concept work, but we did not find it.


Here are some other common categories that typically suffer from a content deficit:

o Quotation books: The huge success of the “Life’s Little Instruction” series and its many imitators created a glut. If it seems too easy to produce a bestseller that is nothing more than a collection of public domain quotations, that is because it is too easy.o Business consultant books: Every business consultant in America has by now authored a book. They use these books to establish their credibility, to give away to prospective clients, and to sell “at the back of the room.” Most offer the same tired advice, perhaps dressed up with some new buzzwords. They are really just very expensive business cards.o Beautiful child within you books: Every therapist in America has by now authored a book, and for the same reasons the business consultants have. It sometimes makes good sense for independent publishers to work with authors who need a book for profession reasons, but only if these authors will themselves commit to buying enough copies to make their books financially viable. Such titles are virtually impossible to place in bookstores unless the author is already very well known.


I have suggested that lack of content is a disaster. But what does good content look like? Some readers of this article may feel the publisher of a book about how to keep squirrels out of one’s bird feeder is unqualified to speak to this issue, and certainly a book like Outwitting Squirrels does not make as important a contribution to world culture as, say, War and Peace. I would argue, however, that even books on relatively trivial subjects can have strong content if they deliver to their intended audiences what they seem to promise.


This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor December, 1997, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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