30 Jan 2006  HBS Cases

The Case of the Mystery Writer’s Brand

A look behind how professor John Deighton developed a case study of mystery writer James Patterson. From the HBS Alumni Bulletin.

 

As a longtime authority on marketing communications, HBS professor John Deighton has analyzed the consumer-product relationship from every angle. But when he heard the best-selling author James Patterson address a meeting of the Direct Marketing Association, Deighton experienced a completely new perspective.

"I'd never actually heard a product speak," he recalls. "It was like listening to a can of Coca-Cola explain how it would like to be marketed." That initial encounter inspired Deighton to write "Marketing James Patterson," a case that uses the lens of a take-charge author, the publishing industry, and the business of book clubs to analyze the success of various modes of marketing.

Patterson, a former chairman of J. Walter Thompson, published his first mystery novel in 1976 and made fiction writing a full-time pursuit twenty years later. While he doesn't enjoy the same name recognition, Patterson regularly outsells other "brand-name authors" such as Stephen King and Tom Clancy by simply publishing more books, averaging three titles each year with the occasional assistance of a coauthor. Patterson brings an ad man's sophistication to marketing his work, sometimes investing his own money in outlets such as television commercials and billboards that are more frequently used for fast food than books. Whatever the genre (he has also published romance novels, science fiction, and children's books), readers expect a "good read" from the James Patterson brand.

Patterson brings an ad man's sophistication to marketing his work.

"I see his success as a sublime integration of operations and marketing," says Deighton, who taught the case to MBAs for the first time last fall in the elective course Consumer Marketing. "Patterson understands that if you want shelf space you need to publish a lot of books; that you need a production system with more than one author; and that you need to mind the brand." The case also highlights the spread of the blockbuster phenomenon. Ten years ago, a book was considered a success if it sold 200,000 copies. Today, the bar has been raised to 1.5 million copies, thanks in part to the dominance of "big-box" retailers (such as Wal-Mart and Costco) that only stock twenty or so bestsellers yet are responsible for 34 percent of book sales in the United States.

"Something hits as a success and dominates the market," Deighton comments. "It's similar to what has happened in other industries such as movies, television, and sports."

Deighton examines three classic ages of marketing by contrasting the strategies of the publishing industry, James Patterson, and book clubs. In nineteenth-century agricultural marketing, farmers transported their crops to market and waited for people to buy them, much as the publishing industry today ships books to stores and waits for customers to purchase them. James Patterson represents the age of brands, in which a supplier builds a persistent demand and designs production to perpetuate that brand's most enticing qualities. The third age, embodied by the book clubs, is that of interactive marketing, where a company uses individual customer data to tailor its pitch to a customer's interests and tastes.

People don't want to be fed a menu of books based on their past selections.
—John Deighton

One question the case poses is whether Patterson could use the sort of individualized information gathered by book clubs about readers' tastes to his own advantage. Deighton observes that most students would agree that Patterson needs to broaden his reader base, and that the publishing industry should get away from the agricultural or "broadcast" mode of marketing, which provides little feedback on what works and what doesn't. But should Patterson and his publishing company embrace a more interactive model?

Deighton isn't so sure. "People don't want to be fed a menu of books based on their past selections," he says. "They favor serendipity—they want to be surprised and charmed." That highlights the importance of word of mouth and "buzz," a hard-to-track yet powerful phenomenon that keeps even the savviest executives and brand-builders guessing.

About the author

Julia Hanna is associate editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.

Reprinted with permission from "Buy the Book: Building the James Patterson Brand," HBS Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 81, No. 4, December 2005.

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