When Marketing Can't Go by the Book

Bored with the Holocaust, reviewers wouldn't even give my new book a look. So, like any entrepreneur who believes in his product, I've had to make make my own rules

By David E. Gumpert

Last month, I attended a prerelease screening of a German movie, Rosenstrasse, the story of a group of Christian women who conducted street demonstrations in Nazi Germany to win the release of their imprisoned Jewish husbands. While I thought the movie was well done, I was more intrigued by the guest of honor at the event, Meyer Gottlieb, the president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, a New York-based film distributor.

Gottlieb told the full-house audience in Newton, Mass., that the film was very special to him, in large measure because he is a Holocaust survivor who, as a child, lost his father and younger brother to the carnage. It was also special, he said, because it was done from the German perspective, and took the movie's director, Margarethe von Tratta, ten long years to complete.

In light of the movie's personal relevance to him, Gottlieb said, he was shocked when most major media declined to do any prerelease publicity about the movie, such as interviews of its supercommitted director. Many editors and reviewers told his publicity representatives that they likely wouldn't do advance articles about the movie because their readers or viewers were no longer interested in the Holocaust. A few, he said, used the term "Holocaust overload."


  I could relate to Gottlieb's assessment, since I also have just come out with a work about the Holocaust, a book I co-authored with my aunt, Inge: A Girl's Journey Through Nazi Europe. Like von Tratta, I spent 10 years, beginning in 1993, completing the book, in the wake of my aunt's death in 1983. Reliving her experiences of deprivation and eventual redemption as part of a group of 100 children wandering Belgium and France took its toll on my health. While the book has received excellent reviews from an assortment of academic experts and specialty publications, along with five stars from Amazon.com (AMZN ) readers, obtaining any kind of widespread media attention has been a huge frustration.

The temptation in this situation, I can attest, is to throw up one's hands about the unjustness of decisions being made by distant, faceless editors. I hear directly from readers that they find my book a page-turner, yet these "gatekeepers" are preventing the general public from learning about my great life's work -- or so it seems.

Yet when I cool down after a day of media rejections, I realize that the problem both Gottlieb and I are encountering is less a matter of discrimination and collective bad taste than a fairly common small-business challenge: How do you get a product -- one that you, the creator, feel passionately about -- past the gatekeepers and into the hands of end users? It's a problem also faced by makers of everything from clothing to food to software.


  You are convinced that consumers can't wait to taste your new mustard, or wear your high-styled shoes, or load your productivity-improving software. But the distributors or retailers or trade-magazine editors or city newspaper reporters won't give your product the closer look it deserves to get decent consideration by a waiting and likely adoring public.

Of course, what is likely going on is that the gatekeepers have decided that there are already too many mustard varieties, or that your ideas on high-styled shoes are "out," or that the functions of your special software already exist in the marketplace.

In the case of Gottlieb and me, the editors and reviewers seem to have made a similar kind of judgment, that the public has had its fill of Holocaust stories. No matter that neither his movie nor my book have little to do with the extermination camps and mass murder that many people associate with the Holocaust. No matter that the gatekeepers would never protest that we are experiencing "World War II overload" or "diet-book overload" or that the world has had enough of Kennedy family sagas. And no matter that the judgment of the gatekeepers is totally arbitrary. They have ruled that the Holocaust is now "out."


  So I am trying to both live by the new rules -- and make my own rules. In my judgment, an author is an entrepreneur in artistic garb. But his or her reaction should be the same as any rejected entrepreneur who truly believes in his or her product: He or she should push and shove and probe to find ways around the gatekeepers.

I've begun positioning Inge differently for promotional purposes than when the book launched a few months ago. Rather than emphasize the notion of children seeking to survive the Holocaust, I now portray it as more a Biblical-type story, of a group of Jewish children wandering in the desert of Europe, with my aunt and others as heroines who refused to be intimidated by overwhelming force.

To develop new rules, I've sought out less obvious promotional vehicles. I've gone to out-of-the-way airport bookstores to do book signings. In addition to the obvious chain bookstores and synagogues, I've begun contacting churches and assisted-living centers for the elderly -- anywhere there is likely to be a crowd of interested readers.


  I also keep widening the net of possible media outlets, and when I have a hit, I alert other media so as to extend my credibility. I have hounded my publisher to advertise the book, and it has acquiesced, placing ads in a number of Jewish and literary publications. Now, five months after the book's introduction, the efforts are beginning to pay off. I have a dozen scheduled or in-process speaking engagements. I've managed to convince several major newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, and Tampa Tribune to write major feature articles on various aspects of Inge.

And, oh yes, I gave Meyer Gottlieb, the president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, a copy of Inge after his speech at the film preview. My hope is that he'll help me get the book made into a movie. As I said, like any entrepreneur with a good product that the market will go for, I'll try every possible avenue around the gatekeepers.

David E. Gumpert is the author of Burn Your Business Plan: What Investors Really Want from Entrepreneurs and How to Really Start Your Own Business. Readers can e-mail him at david@davidgumpert.com

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