Mark Twain Was a Marketing Genius
Besides writing under my own byline, I also run a ghostwriting business, where I help executives and other thought leaders publish books and articles. While researching a client proposal recently, I came across an intriguing debate about a legendary marketer.
The tale begins with the fact that one of the most celebrated authors in U.S. history, Mark Twain, has long been suspected of having ghostwritten The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Twain owned the publishing company that brought Grant's memoirs to life in 1885 and some historians say the book is just too well-written for Grant to have done it himself. Putting two-and-two together, they suspected Twain did a lot more "editing" of Grant's book than either man would admit.
Regardless, Twain proved himself to be a marketing genius, at least in this case. Grant's book was a fantastic success and reading about how Twain made that happen gave me insights into how to market books and other products almost 130 years later.
Grant's Last Campaign
Twain and Grant first met shortly after the Civil War, when just about everyone in the North--Twain included--idolized Grant for having led the Union army to victory. The two men became closer friends in the late 1870s, after Twain had become a celebrated author and Grant had served two terms as president.
By 1884, however, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer (incurable by 19th Century medicine), and was nearly destitute after a worldwide tour and some bad business deals. Even after selling his Civil War mementos, he was still broke.
Despite his failing health, Grant was desperate to find a way to provide for his family before he passed. So like many modern leaders and celebrities, he planned to land a lucrative publishing deal and write his memoirs.
Twain had started a publishing firm with his nephew so he offered the ex-president advantageous terms. Regardless of whether the actual writing was more of Grant's work or Twain's, the manuscript was finished just days before Grant's death in 1885.
The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant sold 350,000 hardbound, two-volume editions, largely because of Twain's sales and marketing plan. Those numbers would thrill most authors today and they're even more impressive considering that the U.S. population back then was less than one-sixth of what it is now.
Here's how Twain pulled it off.
Hit the Core Market First
Twenty years after the Civil War, the demand for Grant's book was clearly going to be greater in the North than in the South. So Twain put together a network of 10,000 sales agents, many of whom were Union army veterans, and sent them across the states that had fought the Confederacy.
The sales agents sold books first to those closest to themselves and then engaged a broader audience of customers one-on-one. To build a rapport, they referred to a script that Twain himself had written.
To me, this sounds a bit like targeting "early adopters" and using the 1800s version of "social media," despite the fact that Twain was working more than a century before anyone had coined either term.
Timing Is Everything
Northern newspapers wrote story after story about Grant's race to finish his memoirs before his death. By the time the book was published, they were filled with stories of his passing. Whether by design or coincidence, Twain's plan took advantage of people's fondness for the old general and their longing for a way to show their patriotism.
The first editions of Grant's memoirs contained what appeared to be a handwritten note from Grant himself, which made the whole project appear much more personal. Beyond that, many of the Union army veterans he'd recruited as sales agents wore their old uniforms as they worked, which reinforced the connection with their audience.
Twain had to make a lot of money in order to meet the late general's objective of providing enough for his family while still turning a profit himself. Moreover, this extensive marketing and production effort couldn't have come cheap, so he had little choice but to set a high cover price for the book.
Pricing is a huge challenge for most entrepreneurs and marketers, but apparently Twain got it right. He priced Grant's memoir between $3.50 to $12 for each two-volume set (between roughly $100 and $300 in 2013 dollars). Besides adding to the bottom line on each unit sold, this price also signaled to customers that this was a unique and highly valuable product.
An Inconsistent Entrepreneur
Grant's royalties were enough to enable his widow to live a life free of financial concerns. And Twain made a lot of money, though he lost almost all of it later. (As this New York Times article shows--from 1894!-- Twain's publishing firm filed for bankruptcy just a few years after Grant's memoir was published.)
More famously, Twain lost the modern-day equivalent of millions on a publishing invention called the Paige compositor, which never really worked. Eventually Twain filed for personal bankruptcy, after suffering some personal tragedies.
Although he did recover financially, Twain was always a much better writer than he was an entrepreneur and investor. I wouldn't chalk him up as a "good example across the board," but in this particular case, he got the marketing part right.
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BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist
Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.