Three marketing lessons from America’s greatest writer

America's greatest writer in downtown Knoxville

America’s greatest writer in downtown Knoxville

I was saddened by the passing of Cormac McCarthy, who holds a special place in my life for three reasons:

  1. He was my favorite author
  2. He grew up in my hometown of Knoxville, TN, and wrote about the city in many of his books.
  3. After attending the university, he lived in a home about 1,000 feet from my current house!

The passing of America’s greatest writer meant there were many tributes, but an article by the acclaimed essayist Ted Gioia made me realize there was something about Cormac even more inspiring than his writing. Here is an excerpt from Ted’s essay that resonated with me as a marketer and entrepreneur:

Cormac McCarthy’s first five novels were totally ignored by the culture media, and hence by readers who take such verdicts seriously. None of them sold more than 5,000 copies. Even Blood Merdian—now widely considered a modern classic of American fiction—got remaindered after only selling 1,883 copies. (That’s why first editions now sell for $10,000.)

Give credit to Cormac’s editor Albert Erskine, who worked with the novelist at Random House for more than 20 years. He continued to support McCarthy’s work despite poor sales. And who dared argue with Erskine, who had been editor for William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Malcolm Lowry, and other towering figures of American fiction?

They don’t make editors like Erskine anymore. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say the dominant publishing behemoths wouldn’t allow them to stick with an author for five books with lousy sales. Either McCarthy would be dropped from the roster, or the editor would get fired.

But Erskine backed McCarthy from the start, publishing his first novel The Orchard Keeper in 1965. It took more than twenty years for Cormac to get his due. But Erskine and Cormac persevered—and were finally rewarded.

Esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom would eventually name Blood Meridian as “the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.” David Foster Wallace put it on a short list of the five most underappreciated modern American novels. When The New York Times polled famous authors to pick the greatest American novels of the previous quarter century, Blood Meridian finished in second place, surpassed only by Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

McCarthy received many awards during his career, including the William Faulkner Foundation Award (“The Orchard Keeper”), MacArthur Fellowship, National Book Award for fiction (“All the Pretty Horses”) and a Pulitzer Prize for “The Road,” which was also an Oprah Winfrey book club selection.

The 2007 film adaptation of “No Country for Old Men” won four Academy Awards, including best picture.

His success seems improbable based on his early failures. And there are lessons there for us all.

Lessons from America’s greatest writer


The first thing that astounded me was the abject failure of his early books, including his greatest work, Blood Meridien. This is hard to fathom, but my own book Marketing Rebellion outsold the initial runs of McCarthy’s first five books … combined!

Can you imagine the persistence it must have taken for him to keep going, even when his very best work sold less than 2,000 copies?

In my personal branding classes, I emphasize the importance of persistence. There is no “hockey stick” success. You just keep on going, month after month, year after year, and don’t give up.


Another stunning realization is that we would have no Cormac McCarthy without Albert Erskine, his editor. Isn’t that amazing to think about?

Probably the biggest flaw in my professional life is a lack of mentorship. I have an over-developed sense of self-sufficiency born from my early years, when I learned I could not depend on anyone. While accountability and initiative is a strength, when overdone, it becomes an isolating weakness, and I have suffered from that.

We can all benefit from the boost of mentorship. Thank goodness Cormac had a mentor who believed in him.


I’m guessing many readers of this post have never heard of Cormac McCarthy. He was never in the news, rarely gave interviews, would never be seen on social media.

Last year, at the age of 88, he published his final two novels. He had been working on these books for 40 years.

This focus and devotion to his craft is so counter to the culture today that it is literally stunning. What advice do you hear from the marketing gurus? Be everywhere, do everything, shout the loudest, be the boldest.

McCarthy showed there is still a place in this world for focus and craftsmanship.

Maybe it is time for a few of us to step back from the daily TikTok memes and consider making something that lasts.

Mark Schaefer marketing predctionsMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of some of the world’s bestselling marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak at your company event or conference soon.

Follow Mark on TwitterLinkedInYouTube, and Instagram.

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