May 30, 2010

The influence of promotion on the entertainment and cultural markets


Sellers go to marketplaces to make money by offering goods and services, and the same rules apply to marketplaces the world over. Make, harvest or extract something, price it accordingly and offer it for sale. It seems, though, as in the last one hundred years the ever-increasing role of promotion has profoundly changed the buyer-seller relationship.

Promotion involves more than just advertising and publicity, but those two components, taking advantage of the developments in communication technology, have transformed the marketplace.

In non-durables, advertising and publicity have made quality and price, formerly the two factors uppermost in people’s minds, less important. For many, they are no longer determinant. From hamburgers to clothing, from perfumes to over-the-counter medicines, those who buy an article based on promotional campaigns are at least as many, or perhaps more, than those who consider price and quality the crucial factors.

In durables (homes, boats, jewelry, etc.) the role of promotion is less influential, or negligible.

The effects on human health of decades-long promotional campaigns for cigarettes, liquors and junk foods is substantiated by statistics on the millions of people who have died or are gravely ill as a result of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, obesity and hepatitis caused by the consumption of unhealthy, yet very well-promoted products.  

In the past, imitative consumption and word of mouth made or broke brands. Celebrities smoked, wore the clothing in fashion, bought certain cars, and the man and woman in the streets copied them. Nowadays imitative consumption seems to mushroom ad infinitum.

Word of mouth, however, has lost much of its power. Organized efforts to revive it seem doomed to failure because consumers know or will soon realize that their friends or neighbors are not giving disinterested advice. To make it look that way, those recruited to pitch products are rewarded with points they redeem for prizes, not cash.

Entertainment and culture.

If experiencing pleasure brings happiness, recreation and relaxation, then most cultural products --paintings, literature, concerts, etc. — recreate, relax and may even make people happy. If entertainment amuse and recreate people, then culture and entertainment share some common ground.

The precise moment in which cultural products started being bought and sold is lost in the fog of history. We know that by the Middle Ages painters, goldsmiths and probably some musicians as well, made ends meet by selling their works or performances.

Excluding such components of the entertainment industry as amusement parks, theme parks, discotheques and video games, in First- and Second-World countries the demand for culture and entertainment has spawned a market that includes books, visual arts, radio, television, movies, music, sports, ballet, opera and theater. A segment of this market is cultural. Determining which is difficult.

Concerts, ballet, opera, theater, and most visual arts are considered cultural expressions. For spectators, sports are entertainment. But concerning books, television, radio and music, which works may be regarded as cultural products provokes controversy.

It may be interesting to consider mercantilism in books and book publishing.
Ninety- and one-hundred-year-old copies of newspapers and magazines from the U.S., France and Spain prove that books were reviewed frequently, but publicity and advertising were almost inexistent. Until the 1910s, perhaps the 1920s, the number of copies a book sold and the attendance at cultural events were mostly the result of reviews and word of mouth. Most publishers saw themselves as purveyors of culture; they didn’t want to lose money, but making money was not their raison d’être. Bookselling was considered a very dignified way of making a living.

A hundred years later books are merchandise in the marketplace. In fiction and non-fiction alike, publicity and advertising are determinant.  In mass-market fiction, promotion is indispensable. The big chain stores have a single purpose: to make money. Independent publishers and booksellers, among whom, it seems, many idealists continue to exist, also depend on good- and best-sellers to survive.

The most recent world-wide promotional campaign for a book took place in 2007. In January readers learned that on July 21 the last Harry Potter book would go on sale. Before the last installment, the series had sold 325 million copies in 64 languages. Such phenomenal result made many people imagine that even if the launch date was announced one week in advance, thousands upon thousands of avid readers would have queued up for days around bookstores to buy the book. Promotion seemed unnecessary. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would have easily beaten all previous records and maybe exceed the 80-million mark. Was a seven-month promotional blitz necessary? The answer is: Yes, bottom lines demanded it. Not Rowling’s though. She has made more money than her and her descendants will be able to spend in their lifetimes.

Word of mouth sells copies, no doubt about it, but a fraction of what promotional campaigns sell. In some cases, after the publisher realized that sales were booming with little or no advertising, they immediately started spending as much as they could in a promotional campaign to further boost sales.

Ms. Winfrey’s recommendations prove the point. After receiving her blessing, books that had been forgotten for decades or new ones that had sold modestly, top the charts. Luckily she sponsors noble causes, like reading.

In the current book market, quality and price rarely determine sales volume or the author’s advance. The advance, however, determines how much publicity a book will get. The corollary of mid-sized and big advances is that the publisher will spend as much as possible in publicity and advertising to recoup the advance. The inevitable corollary of very small and small advances is that the book gets just a few reviews. And in the age of publicity and advertising, without tours, ads, radio, TV and posters, irrespective of quality, sales are poor.

Those books recounting something offbeat or criminal that happened some time before publication and gained national and/or international notoriety, are a case in point. For example: less than two years ago a publisher advanced half a million U.S. dollars to a couple for penning a book on why the bride ran away a few days before the wedding and falsely claimed that she had been kidnapped. For most people, such books are neither literature nor entertainment.

Fiction and non-fiction books of questionable literary value sell hundreds of millions of copies as a result of two factors: (1) vast publicity and advertising and (2) a cultural deformation brought about by preceding promotional campaigns of inferior books. On the contrary, good or even great books that have lacked promotion, haven’t sold more than a few thousand copies. Nobel- and Booker-prize winners infrequently top the charts.

The major publishers’ main concern is their bottom lines, as they should. But bottom-line considerations make them risk-averse and literature is risky. In fact, even with good promotion all fiction is risky; examples abound. Fiction lacking promotion spells financial disaster for the author; not necessarily for the publisher.

Extending this analysis to the visual arts, plays, movies, TV series and music, including classical and opera, could be quite interesting. Then we might perhaps reach a fair conclusion concerning the influence that promotion has exerted on the entertainment and cultural markets and assess if world culture is or is not in dire straits.

José Latour

José Latour was born in Havana, Cuba, on April 24, 1940. He started reading at a very tender age, progressing from Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm brothers as a child to Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner in his late teens.

By the time the Cuban Revolution came to power, José, who was 19, had become an ardent supporter. He joined the Ministry of Treasury as a junior financial analyst and translator and later moved on to the Cuban Central Bank. From there he transferred to the Ministry of Sugar, ending up in the State Committee of Finance, where from 1977 onwards he swelled the ranks.

Shuffling papers, however, was not challenging enough. In that same year José started writing crime fiction in his spare time. His first three novels (Preludio a la Noche, Medianoche Enemiga and Fauna Noctura), set in pre-revolutionary Havana, were published by Editorial Letras Cubanas in 1982, 1986 and 1989. The fourth (Choque de Leyendas), was launched in 1998, nine years after he first delivered the manuscript to the publisher.

José also joined the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists and the International Association of Crime Writers (IACW) in1988. Two years later he resigned his position as global financial analyst in the Ministry of Finance to become a full-time writer. In 1998 he was elected vice-president for Latin America of the International Association of Crime Writers.

In 1994 José delivered to his publisher The Fool, a novel based on a real-life case of corruption in the ministries of the Interior and the Armed Forces that was uncovered in 1989. This book was considered counterrevolutionary and José was labeled an “enemy of the people.”

Certain that neither The Fool nor the books he wanted to write would get published in Cuba as long as all publishing houses were state-owned, rejecting ideological subservience and adamant about pursuing a career as a novelist, José took a shot at writing in English.

His first novel in that language, Outcast, was published in the U.S., six Western European countries, Brazil and Japan. It got flattering reviews and was nominated for an Edgar. Since, he has penned Havana Best Friends (2002), Havana World Series (2003), Comrades in Miami (2005), The Faraway War, under the pseudonym Enrique Clio (2009) and Crime of Fashion (2009).

Seeking creative fiction and fearing dictatorial repression, the author and his family moved to Spain in August 2002 and to Canada in September 2004. In October 2012 he released as an ebook Riders of Land and Tide.



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