One unlucky bird

This is a story that has no moral, other than “bad luck happens.” It took place eight years ago. It’s about the marketing of my third book, Nature’s Keepers: The Remarkable Story of How the Nature Conservancy Became the Largest Environmental Organization in the World.

The priority in marketing during a book launch is to give a big push all at once. In the best of all worlds, just as the book comes out, you rocket onto a bestseller list, and your bestseller status boosts sales even more. It’s a virtuous cycle. And if you can get it going, you have a commercial winner.

I wrote Nature’s Keepers as an independent journalist, negotiating a loose arrangement with the CEO of the Nature Conservancy to help market it. The premise of the book was that the Conservancy was a role model of nonprofit management. I wasn’t out to give the Conservancy a black eye. The book was designed to reflect well on the Conservancy.

I made no guarantees, of course. I didn’t know what I would discover about the Nature Conservancy until I did the research. But the CEO felt comfortable promising to throw considerable communications and marketing weight behind an accurate portrayal of the organization’s historic growth, blemishes and all.

So I had what publishers call a marketing platform—a big one. With one million members, a popular glossy nature magazine, a huge mailing list, and a website with thousands of hits a month, the Conservancy had the muscle to supply publicity money couldn’t buy.

When the book came out, everything went as planned in the first two weeks. The book did showcase the Conservancy’s unparalleled record of accomplishment. The Conservancy did give the book a big marketing push in the days after publication, featuring it on its home page (in the era before Twitter and Facebook). Much more was planned.

But an entirely unpredictable thing happened that undercut the Conservancy’s interest in marketing the book. Ornithologists in Arkansas announced they had sighted a bird once considered extinct, the ivory-billed woodpecker. The last “Lord God Bird” had been seen in 1944 in Louisiana, sixty years earlier. The 2004 sighting (not reported by scientists until 2005, as my book was launching) created unbelievable excitement in the nature community.

The Conservancy, involved in protection of land that contained the woodpecker, saw a tremendous fund-raising opportunity—far greater than showcasing my book. Saving the bird’s habitat was a cause the organization could publicize that would tug on people’s heartstrings and in turn loosen their purse strings. The Conservancy could pull in much-needed cash to protect more acres of Arkansas’s Big Woods preserve, where the bird was sighted.

The Conservancy did what any great nonprofit would do: On its home page it featured, instead of my book, woodpecker news, and it began plugging a book on the ivory-billed woodpecker published a few years earlier by a Conservancy staffer. This was an incredible stroke of luck for the Conservancy—and the ivory-billed bird book’s author, who was sent on a book and lecture tour around the U.S.

The Conservancy’s preoccupation with this back-from-extinction story lasted weeks, and then months, and indeed years. In some circles, it still persists, as ornithologists keep searching for the “ghost bird.” This went on in spite of the fact that the 2004 sighting of the bird was never confirmed.

Nature’s Keepers suddenly had a vastly shrunken marketing platform. From a marketing perspective, the book did win some points after launch. It received decent reviews. It was translated into Chinese, having captured the interest of the nonprofit sector in China. The New Yorker later called it “the standard history of the Nature Conservancy.” But sales figures were disappointing.

The lesson is that luck figures strongly in the fate of your book. Events beyond your imagination—if not a bird sighting, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, or some other disaster—can block media attention just when you need it. Indeed, you still need Lady Luck to pull the right strings, no matter how strong your platform.


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