Tom Brokaw: `secret weapon'

By Published on .

Random house had many things working in its favor when it published Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation" in December 1998.

In Mr. Brokaw, anchor and managing editor of NBC-TV's "Nightly News With Tom Brokaw," Random House had a trusted and likable public figure with a household name and familiar face.

NBC's stake in the book profiling war veterans guaranteed prime time, mass-media publicity. The blockbuster Hollywood film "Saving Private Ryan" had recently resurrected interest in World War II nostalgia. It was Christmas, a boom time for book sales. And soon after the holidays, the book's documentary tie-in would air on NBC.

"Absolutely everything clicked," says Ann Godoff, Random House president, publisher and editor in chief. "Tom was the spearhead, and ultimately our great marketing secret weapon. Every piece of it worked out right in terms of timing, advertising, the way the package looked. It was a wonderfully orchestrated thing."


That "The Greatest Generation" quickly became a best seller in 1999 was perhaps no surprise. But 36 printings and 3.5 million copies later, the magnitude of the success is hard to grasp.

Stores sold out the hefty 200,000-copy, first press run before the holiday season ended. According to the publisher, it is the fastest-selling non-fiction book in Random House's 73-year history. It shot up to No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list within 20 days of its release, and has remained in the Top 10 ever since.

When the follow-up book, "The Greatest Generation Speaks," hit bookstores Dec. 7, 1999, the original rebounded to No. 2. The two books now jostle for position on the coveted list New York Times list, with the first book generally topping the second.

Ms. Godoff, 50, who has been a force in the publishing industry for 20 years, says response to "The Greatest Generation" is unprecedented.

Ms. Godoff, previously a Simon & Schuster senior editor, moved to editor in chief at Atlantic Monthly Press before becoming Random House's executive editor nine years ago. She was promoted to editor in chief before taking on her current role.

"I've seen books sell these many copies [before]," Ms. Godoff says, "but not create this kind of [public sentiment]."

"The Greatest Generation" builds on Mr. Brokaw's theory that World War II produced people admired for their humility, work ethic, family values, courage and tenacity. The book's series of soft-journalism profiles include ordinary people, decorated heroes, high-profile journalists and Hollywood personalities.


Like most nostalgia, this book, no doubt, inspired people to relive the past.

Random House's marketing team nurtured this organic interest in World War II culture and history. It invited people, as Mr. Brokaw had in the book, to be the stars. In fact, as the campaign matured, Mr. Brokaw began to include his subjects in public appearances. In February, several "Greatest Generation Speaks" letter writers appeared with Mr. Brokaw at Barnes & Noble's Union Square store in New York. C-Span 2's "Book TV" covered the event.

"[Mr. Brokaw] wanted to make sure everybody knew who the heroes in the book were," says Ms. Godoff. "Tom's ability to present this as a book about this generation of people, rather than as a celebrity [book], that selflessness allowed us to [promote him] as an enabler. Tom was enormously comfortable with that, and it [affected] every marketing decision from then on. That was a real treasure trove, and we felt we could use that to sell books."

One way Ms. Godoff's marketing team capitalized on this "real people" approach was through " `The Greatest Generation' Display Contest," which invited bookstores nationwide to participate in the marketing of the book. The prize: A public appearance by Mr. Brokaw and 200 copies of the book.

Fifty serious entries, mostly from independent stores, came back, says Ms. Godoff. That was double the number for similar efforts with other books.

"[Since] these were the stories of everyday people, we thought making it a community event would be the best way of drawing people into stores to buy the book," says Random House Marketing Director Sheryl Stebbins.

Hawley-Cooke Booksellers in Louisville, Ky., and World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, Mass., were co-winners of the Random House marketing event.


Working with local newspapers and community volunteers, World Eye's staff collected ration coupons, newspaper headlines, maps, medals, photos and uniforms from various service branches.

The bookstore put together a documentary about Greenfield's relationship to the war years; it was aired on a local access cable station. Similarly, Hawley-Cooke displayed photos, written essays and stories. Local TV news coverage accompanied the display's opening, generating free publicity for the book.

Beyond appearing at the winning bookstores, Mr. Brokaw did a nine-city book tour. He became a fixture on broadcast outlets that would reach the masses.


He appeared on "Late Show With David Letterman," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," "Charlie Rose," "Larry King Live," "Hardball With Chris Matthews," "Book Notes With Brian Lamb," "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee," "Dateline NBC" and "The Today Show," and held an America Online chat.

Because of all the TV publicity, Random House spent very little on traditional media. The publisher ran ads in USA Today and The New York Times and purchased a few local radio spots.

"Literally, that's it," says Associate Publisher Mary Bahr. "For this book, we did not initially invest a huge amount of money in advertising and paid marketing."

Random House did, however, set up co-branded marketing efforts, such as one with Good Housekeeping, which ran excerpts from both books and invited readers to write 300-word accounts of their personal or family war experiences. The winner, to be named this summer, will have lunch with Mr. Brokaw at the Good Housekeeping dining room in Manhattan.

Most Popular
In this article: