Launchpad: Marketing on Cruise Control
If you look at “Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography” as an equation—say, America’s most controversial A-lister + one of the world’s most titillating celebrity biographers + a secretive, litigious religion (+ as a bonus, a Writers Guild strike that has much of the entertainment biz on its heels)—you might guess that a publisher needs simply to sit back and let the money roll in.
But that’s just never the case, is it?
Yes, the book’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, is reveling in the eye of what we’ll call a perfect storm of self-perpetuating buzz with the Andrew Morton-penned celeb-bio. Yes, prelaunch reports (denied by Morton) that the author was forced into hiding fed the storm. And, yes, the book launched Jan. 15 with the expected torrent of entertainment-news fanfare and obligatory rumblings of legal action from its subject.
Simply because there was little doubt that Morton’s book would capture the supposed imaginations of a celebrity-
obsessed public doesn’t mean that the marketing department sat back and let the storm unfold.
“No,” laughs Matt Baldacci, vice president, director of marketing and publishing operations at St. Martin’s. “You can never do that. Sometimes it feels like that, but no, you can’t.”
A Cautious Promotion Plan
The marketing plan wasn’t particularly complicated or newfangled—no blogs, social networking or viral video here—but it was well-considered and deftly executed.
“The snowball has been rolling for quite some time,” says Baldacci. “It’s been our challenge to control … how people know about the book. When are we going to catalog the book? Were we going to catalog the book?”
Such is the power of heartthrob actor/Church of Scientology lightning rod Cruise. And such is the power of Morton, whose bios of Princess Di (“Diana: Her True Story,” 1992), Monica Lewinsky (“Monica’s Story,” 1999), and Victoria and David Beckham (“Posh & Becks,” 2000) were best-sellers.
“The decision that we made was basically: It’s going to be a pretty hot topic,” says Baldacci. “We felt that the interest in Tom Cruise [was] going to be pretty high. And we strategized in such a way so that we’d be able to [give] accounts enough time to order the book.”
How close did they cut it?
“The book was going on sale Jan. 15, which means it should have come out in the catalog that we distributed in August of ’07,” explains Baldacci. “And we didn’t do that.”
They weren’t so much scared of the buzz, but that if they included the book in the catalog, they’d be giving other publishers too much time to beat them to market.
“The primary concern with coming out too early is that somebody throws a book together and gets it out there before us,” figures Baldacci. “If we say [in August], ‘In January we’re going to have a big Tom Cruise book coming from St. Martin’s Press, and it’s Andrew Morton doing it,’ and then somebody whips something together and gets it out there in November, the consumer goes to the store and goes, ‘Oh, here’s that Tom Cruise book I heard about.’”
Instead, St. Martin’s put the book in its December 2007 catalog, as well as an October sell sheet. Generally, accounts like a little more time; some even ask St. Martin’s for 10 to 11 months’ warning. “It did cost us a couple of promotions at certain accounts, but the trade-off, we felt, was better,” says Baldacci.
At the same time, St. Martin’s didn’t want to be too secretive. “We didn’t want to pull any shenanigans [with our accounts, by saying something like], ‘We’re publishing a book, you’re going to be really interested, you just have to order it.’ We were up front with what the topic was and who the author was, because we felt like there would be some heat. Our challenge was to just make sure all the heat landed at the same time.”
It seems silly now, but there was deliberation about whether this book would fly at all. After all, ours is a society where the movements of starlets like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are watched more closely than those of our government leaders. Is there any dirt that has not already been uncovered?
“[An] indication for us was Tina Brown’s book on Princess Diana,” says Baldacci, of last year’s “The Diana Chronicles,” published almost 15 years after Morton’s Diana biography, and a decade after her death and the subsequent media storm. “What was interesting was that it didn’t feel like Tina Brown was going to have anything new to say about Diana. And in a way, it felt like, ‘What can Andrew Morton tell us about Tom Cruise that we haven’t already heard?’ And Tina Brown’s book, of course, just exploded. And once we read [Andrew’s] book, we realized Andrew is not necessarily telling you anything you don’t know. … It’s the way that Andrew put the book together. … Andrew has taken a lot of heat for basically painting Tom Cruise with a bad brush, but the book is actually very admiring of Cruise.”
So the success of Brown’s book served as a bellwether for the success of Morton’s new book.
And despite critical reviews that contend Morton’s tome does not add much to the discussion, the purported impending lawsuit from the Cruise and Scientology camps has helped propel the title to the top of the best-sellers list and the Google News queue.
“We wanted as widespread a media coverage as we could get,” says Baldacci. “Any channel. We were looking for some sort of nighttime news magazine, morning show coverage. And we got it all. We wanted radio interviews. We wanted print interviews. And we got all of that.”
And though Morton did make the interview rounds, his availability was put in jeopardy when reports surfaced that Morton had gone into hiding due to threats from Cruise and the Church of Scientology.
“It was reported that Andrew was in hiding; whether that’s true or not, I can’t necessarily say,” says Baldacci. “Let’s just say that we had a plan for Andrew in terms of how to promote the book, and we stuck to that plan.”
It never hurts when media are clamoring to write about you.
“Us Weekly came out prior to the holidays, and they pretended like they had seen the book, but they hadn’t; they were just purely speculating,” says Baldacci. “And then the week before publication, there were a few things that made it seem as if the book was [already] out. So we knew that was kind of coming.”
So with the clouds juiced and the sky ready to open up, the advertising push was pretty simple. “The challenge was to say: The book’s on sale today. [We ran a] big, full page in The New York Times announcing the publication of the book,” says Baldacci, “and we also did a lot of online advertising.”
Baldacci would not comment on the book’s marketing budget or sales projections. He did say that the 400,000 initial printing reported on Wikipedia.com is inaccurate, though he would not say whether the figure was high or low.
Brian Howard is the senior editor at the Philadelphia City Paper. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Orlando Weekly, Magnet, Raygun, Philadelphia Music Makers, Target Marketing and Inside Direct Mail.