Marketing gurus say the purpose of a book is for the author to initiate a continuing relationship with its readers. Should this be so?
Some of the advice given to me to promote my memoir, What About the Boy?, has pushed the notion that an author should have a "back end." That is, a mere book itself is not the thing that makes a writer really successful. The book just catches people's attention long enough for the writer to sell them another, more expensive product. As Steve Harrison puts it, the book simply opens doors. At that point, if you the writer have something else set up, you can maintain a relationship in which your readers continue adding to your wealth for years to come.
This notion immediately rubbed me the wrong way. I prefer to think of books as literature. But maybe that's naive. Since we all dream of success, I didn’t want to reject the advice out of hand. I’m just a writer, and know very little about the mysteries of getting printed words in front of other people.
Still, in my case, a book is all I have or even want to offer. The books I like to read are also one-offs. On the other hand, occasionally I read something that is so good, or so thought-provoking, that I wish it were possible to have an ongoing dialog with the author. I wish I knew Amy Tan, for example, and Mark Salzman. I wish it were possible to know Alan Watts, but of course he’s no longer with us. In other words, a good book does sometimes inspire readers to want more.
A fulfilling two-way conversation with the author may not be possible, but at least we can go out and buy other books by the same person.
On the other hand, back ends—things that are not even books—are something quite different, I think.
If the book exists to motivate readers to buy another product, then the book is essentially a brochure. Its purpose is not so much to inform (certainly even less to entertain) but to persuade—and not for the purpose of bringing readers to an understanding of truth but to get them to open their checkbooks.
This had been troubling me on an almost subconscious level for a few months, until I remembered a perfect example of a book I’ve read that had a back end.
This book argues against the conventional notions of saving for retirement via things like 401(k) plans, and paying down home mortgages. In bringing it up, I don’t mean to say its content is right or wrong but only to question the dynamic of a book pointing to a solution in which the author stands to make a lot more money. (In this case, readers are encouraged to liquidate their savings and buy a life insurance contract—from the author.)
OK, if an author truly believes what he’s writing, and has not only defined a problem but has figured out a solution, then of course he should present the solution. However, when he stands to benefit if people follow his advice, we ought to question his motives.
By the same token, people aspiring to political office tend to write books (or get ghost writers to do it for them) for the purpose of burnishing their image and rising to power. For them, getting elected is the back end.
No, on second thought, I really don’t like books that have a back end. I’m inclined not to trust them. And I don’t want to play that game. Bucking this trend may not be the path to success, but in the end we writers have to live with ourselves. What do you think?