Media & Marketing: Book Publisher Tries to Stir Up Emotions to Lift Sales
By Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg
The Wall Street Journal September 28, 2006
Just eight days after hitting bookstores, Sam Harris's polemic "Letter to a Christian Nation" is selling so rapidly it has gone into its sixth printing, partly hyped by a marketing campaign aimed at stirring up controversy among the religious right.
The marketing reflects the provocative theme of the book, a philosophical attack on the basic tenets held by all major religions. A self-described atheist, Mr. Harris questions whether the Bible is the work of God. "The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is simply astounding, given the contents of the book," he writes. Since being published Sept. 19, the book has reached as high as No. 2 on the Amazon.com best-seller list. More than 110,000 copies are now in print.
The success of the book reflects a two-pronged marketing campaign crafted by its publisher, Bertelsmann AG's Alfred A. Knopf, aimed at both preaching to the converted and trying to rile the opposition.
Armed with an ad budget of $200,000—sizable for the publishing industry—Knopf is running full-page ads in publications with liberal audiences, such as the New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times and Harper's. But the publisher also has sought to buy space in Christian publications and conservative Web sites, and it sent copies of the book to conservative outlets and commentators, such as Pat Buchanan.
"We're trying to get this book into the hands of as many conservative Christians as possible," says Paul Bogaards, a Knopf spokesman. "They have a vested interest in hearing Mr. Harris's arguments because he's attacking the very foundation of their belief system."
Whether the promotion in the religious community has helped spur sales isn't known. Indeed, some religious outlets refused to run ads for the book. Christianity Today, a monthly magazine, decided the book's content represents the antithesis of the publication's mission, said Brian Ondracek, the magazine's vice president of sales. Also turning down an ad was religious blog TorahMusings.com, which deemed the book inappropriate for its readers, according to Gil Student, an Orthodox rabbi who oversees the blog.
Episcopal Life, the official monthly newspaper of the Episcopal Church, has scheduled an ad to run in November. Conservative Web site rightwingnews.com also took an ad. "I have a policy of running ads unless they are egregiously offensive, say racist or homophobic," says John Hawkins, the blog's owner. Mr. Hawkins says he has donated 10% of the money he has received from Knopf to the Salvation Army. "I love the idea of taking money from a militant atheist and giving it to a Christian charity," he says.
The book is also being promoted on http://www.godweb.org, a Christian-themed blog with an interreligious perspective run by Charles P. Henderson, a Presbyterian minister. "I read the blurbs for the book and didn't see it was out of the realm of what I'd consider legitimate," he says.
The book is the second by Mr. Harris, whose first book "The End of Faith" also addressed religious issues. As he did with the paperback edition of his first book, Mr. Harris helped finance the ad campaign for "Letter to a Christian Nation."
"Whether it's wise for every author to advertise his book I can't say, but it worked for me, and my contributions paid for themselves," says Mr. Harris.