What’s the Deal With Lead Titles?

By Jen Malone

You know that old adage “eyes on your own paper”? Great advice, obviously, but… it’s sometimes really hard to do that when Twitter is full of authors being sent on lavish book tours or doing signings at BEA or headlining book festivals and you… are not. You’re lucky if your books are face-out on bookstore shelves. They’re certainly not in their own freestanding pre-printed displays in full view of holiday shoppers.

Why isn’t that you? Is your book not good enough? Does your publisher secretly regret buying it in the first place?

Nope, nope, nope.

They like you just fine! in fact, they probably LOVE you and your book!

So, here’s the deal with lead titles.

"Tentpole" movies (and books) receive the lion's share of marketing.
“Tentpole” movies/books support other properties from the same studio/publisher.

Bear with me for a second, because my background is in movie marketing, so I’m going there with an analogy. Lead titles are just like movie studio’s “tentpole” films, the giant summer and holiday blockbusters. Talking ’bout you, Avengers. They’re called tentpoles for a specific reason: because they prop up the rest of the studio’s releases. Those few films pour enough money into the coffers that the studio can then afford to release a slew of other films that maybe don’t have elaborate CGI effects or major movie stars. Let’s call those other films the studio’s “midlist titles,” and many of them are excellent movies in their own right.

Publishing’s business model is the same. The success of a few allows for, and funds, the release of the many. A rising tide lifts all ships, if you will.

A big reason for this type of business model has to do with escalating (read: out of control) marketing costs.

Marketing has what’s called a Law of Eights. Studies show that a person needs to see ad eight times before being sufficiently motivated to take action/make a purchase. Not so long ago, it used to be that a quarter of the nation watched the same TV program or read the same magazine, because we didn’t have 1/100th of the entertainment choices we have today. But now, finding and reaching the same person eight times is next to impossible (or incredibly expensive).

In fact, those blockbuster movies will have marketing budgets (this is not counting the budget for making the film) of $150 million and upward. Some films spend well over $200 MILLION on marketing/advertising alone.

Publishing can’t afford this, of course. BUT, publishing follows the same guiding principles.

Using simple math here, rather than spend $100 to market 10 books evenly (allotting $10 to each) and risk having them all slip under the radar, it’s better business for the publishers to spend $90 on one book and divide the remaining $10 among the other nine books. It increases the odds that the featured one will get noticed and, if it’s successful, the money it makes will cover any losses or (more typically) supplement the far more modest sales the other nine achieve. Plus, the attention it receives will possibly shine light on the rest of the publisher’s offerings.

Makes some sense, right?

So… how do publishers pick that magical one title to single out for diva attention?

Well, which one has the awe-inspiring CGI effects and the A-list star?

In book terms, that $90 is logically going to go to the book that is the easiest to market/pitch.

In movies, stars (and some directors) are assigned “marquee values,” an actual dollar amount studios know they can earn just by having that person attached to a film. They know that there are X number of people who will go see any movie, say, Sandra Bullock is in. Or any movie Woody Allen directs. Regardless of the film itself. Those people have a loyal fanbase who can be counted on to turn out even if no one else does.

It works the same for authors. Is your name Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, John Green, or Rainbow Rowell? Congratulations! Unless something drastic happens, you will always have lead title status for your books.

Otherwise, it comes down to the book itself. Is the story high-concept, meaning it’s easily explained in one or two sentences and has a hook that booksellers can very quickly grasp? Is there something about you as the author or about your book’s subject matter that the press is going to respond to, indicating the probability of ample media coverage? Did your manuscript end up in a bidding war among publishers, earning you a very high advance and basically forcing the house to market the heck out of your title to try to cash in on that investment? If so, odds are good you may be picked as a season’s lead title.

If you don’t have those things (or you do, but someone else on the list just happened to have them in slightly higher doses) you are a midlist title with the other 95% of us.

It’s not a bad thing.

What it definitely DOESN’T MEAN is that your book is not amazing, or beloved by your editor and publisher, or that you have failed at publishing in some way. Promise!

“Sleeper hits” surprise movie studios and publishers. Dream big! It could happen to you!

*Caveat: most lead titles are designated ahead of time, but some are the My Big Fat Greek Wedding sleeper hits of publishing. Meaning, you might start out as a midlist title, but early orders are amazing, or everyone requests your ARC on Netgalley, or you get four starred reviews and suddenly the entire book industry is buzzing. The publishing house will seek to capitalize on that word of mouth by pouring more marketing dollars into your title! Hope springs eternal, even for us midlisters!


  1. Hi Jen, thanks for the encouragement to everyone in the 95% and for the useful analogy. Funny, but I don’t think of your books as mid-list-y at all. Perhaps they are incubating smash hits. It seems to me that trying to predict what will be the next big thing is a difficult business but public opinion does have some influence now that the webwork of connections between people is so vast and instantaneous. If anyone is able to harness that it is you!


  2. Jen, thanks for the insights into film promotion and the application to books. I work for an online retailer for my day job, where I edit book categories/pages and it’s similar from the web marketing perspective too. There are always going to be big authors and big sellers who “pay the rent”, but I always make room on my pages for new authors with something to say. Still hoping a publisher takes a chance on me someday soon 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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