Doc Martyn’s Soul: Riding the Wave of Movie Tie-ins

The Revenant just received twelve Oscar nominations, on the back of success at the Golden Globes for the film and its star, Leonardo DiCaprio. Michael Punke’s book, upon which the movie is based, has rapidly climbed up the Amazon rankings—I know, I know, why did I even look at those incomplete and inconclusive bits of “information?”—and I’m guessing that the publisher, Picador, is enjoying record sales right now. If only the movie had been called Lord Grizzly.

Picador and Punke can state that the book is now a “major motion picture,” and they have done so on the newly designed and branded book cover. This is a no-brainer and we would all do it. But the University of Nebraska Press cannot, despite having a book on our list that tells the same story. Published many years earlier, Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred tells the story of Hugh Glass, DiCaprio’s character in the movie and the biographical subject of Punke’s book, depicting the same life, scenes, bravery, etc., but it wasn’t the direct inspiration for the film so how do we take advantage?

It turns out that, in some ways, we don’t have to do anything to benefit from The Revenant. Sales of Lord Grizzly book have spiked in the last three months, up 250 percent. Comparing positions on those awful Amazon rankings (don’t try this at home), Lord Grizzly isn’t close to The Revenant’s spot—#7,500 compared to #68 at the time of writing—but it’s still well placed for a book that originally came out in 1983 (second edition in 2011). But sitting back and keeping fingers crossed that someone else’s book/movie will help sales of our book seems passive at best. It’s too late now, but maybe we should have updated the cover of Lord Grizzly. Added a tagline that indicated it was the inspiration for the book that inspired the movie? Unwieldy!

Last year, we rode the wave of The Grand Budapest Hotel movie. We publish the Stefan Zweig book, World of Yesterday, that inspired director Wes Anderson. We did some publicity outreach and updated the cover with the words, “By the author who inspired Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Sales jumped.

Swarthout_cvr.inddOther recent “Hollywood” opportunities have come in the form of The Homesman and Hell on Wheels. Glenn Swarthout, author of The Homesman, from which came the eponymous movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank, also wrote The Shootist. One of the main characters in Hell on Wheels, the AMC series that began in 2011 is Eva, who is loosely based on Olive Oatman, the subject of The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. These two books on our list, but neither one saw a demonstrable increase in sales as a result of these cinematic productions. Again, we’ve attempted to use the attention on the movie/series to market our books, but in these cases, not much happened.

In each of these examples, we’ve been reactive rather than proactive. Once the movie comes out, or when the buzz is starting to build, we’ve tried to tap into that conversation to boost our sales. Proactive action would be best, but I’m not certain keeping an eye on the wheeling and dealing in Hollywood would be an effective use of staff time. Even if we did assign someone to stay abreast of the latest movie and TV series speculation, with more than 4,000 books in print he or she would be overwhelmed. Instead, we could lead the charge by attempting to get our books made into movies. Sub rights divisions are tasked with working on film deals, but those are rare and even then options don’t get made into movies all that often.

For now, despite my concerns that we’re missing out, riding the wave created by others may be the best approach. Taking better advantage of the wave would certainly be beneficial, and that’s something that we’re going to work on. (Any ideas welcomed!) We have some experience now and we’ll keep analyzing data to determine what works and what doesn’t.

Do I wish DiCaprio had played Hugh Glass in the movie, Lord Grizzly? Absolutely. But, I’ll take the boost given to our book from The Revenant. With DiCaprio fronting things, the Golden Globes on his mantle, and the Oscar nominations just announced, I’m thinking the wave will be a long one and even though Nebraska is far from the ocean, we’re pretty adept at riding our boards.


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