Promotion – What Makes A Work Go Viral?


I suppose every author and musician, maybe every dancer or videographer, movie producer, or TV exec wants to know the same thing — what makes a work go viral?

In other words, why did Harry Potter become such a success? Why Eragon? The Passion of the Christ? Twilight? Hunger Games? Left Behind? Shadowmancer? The Da Vinci Code? The Shack? Is there something these books have in common that brought them so much attention?

The first thing I notice is that all except perhaps Hunger Games made the national news for one reason or the other. In most cases the reason was controversy. Harry Potter received criticism from Christians as did The Da Vinci Code. Christians debated the merits of The Shack. Shadowmancer supposedly angered a faction of Christians and came to the US under a cloud of criticism. And Jews objected to The Passion.

Some of the works received national attention because of a human interest aspect. Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon when he was fifteen, self-published, and traveled the country with his parents hand selling the book until it was picked up by a traditional publisher, and made national news.

The Left Behind books found their way in front of network viewers because of their success in the Christian market. (In the same way, Amish stories are now coming out of the ABA — because they continue to sell and sell and sell.) Twilight was a phenom because, of all things, the teenage lovers didn’t have sex.

But the question remains. How did these books garner enough sales to catch the public’s attention?

It seems something first captivated an initial group who started talking. Left Behind had a well-known non-fiction writer as one of the co-authors, and I expect that pulled in a number of initial readers. But I also believe it tapped into a fascination about future events.

The Shack took a different path. The book creators solicited promotion from its readers within its covers. At the end, there were specific action points that were designed to get satisfied readers talking about the book and buying more copies to give away.

Twilight caught the attention of a group of romance lovers with a strict moral code. Perhaps Mormons banded together to support the book initially (pure conjecture on my part).

Shadowmancer, besides claiming religious controversy, also took on the mantle of the “Christian” Harry Potter, possibly earning itself a niche following.

In contrast, The Da Vinci Code may have picked up fans from the new atheist crowd or from any anti-Catholic, and of course once the Pope spoke out against it, the controversy was on.

It appears that the first thing, though, was something within the work itself. The Passion of the Christ had so many unique aspects — a famous actor seeing the project through in the face of rejection from traditional sources (human interest), opposition from a religious group (controversy) which garnered national attention, a non-traditional approach to the subject matter, a highly religious film using Biblical material as its primary source, a select group of unknown actors. In other words, there was lots to talk about.

I already mentioned the content of the Left Behind books. Harry Potter had a unique story world. Hunger Games had a timely, intriguing dystopian concept that tapped into a current cultural phenomenon — reality games.

In other words, either the author or the subject seemed to set the work apart from others, which caused first readers/viewers to pay attention.

In each case, a big budget marketing plan didn’t seem to be responsible for the work’s success. People were. But the people who talked about what they read or viewed first had to have something to talk about, something unique enough that they wanted to pass it along to others.

And viral happened.

The Value of Promotion vs. the Value of Story


First, the announcement. After our first CSFF Top Blogger Award run-off, Rachel Starr Thomson garnered 55% of the vote to secure the April Tour honors. Congratulations to both her and Brandon Barr for superb posts during the Blaggard’s Moon tour.

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In case you missed it, on Friday Novel Journey posted an interview with contributor Jessica Dotta and uber-agent, Donald Maass. Half way through, the discussion turned to promotion.

Jessica noted that Mr. Maass is credited with saying that promotion and marketing play a small role in the success of a book. In fact, in Writing the Breakout Novel he calls these ideas about promotion and marketing myths authors continue to believe. When Jessic asked (in question five) if authors shouldn’t strive for the best marketing possible, Mr. Maass replied with a succinct analogy:

Great stories are the engine. Promotion may be the gasoline but gasoline won’t propel a two-cylinder putt-putt very fast–or push a broken engine very far down the road.

Jessica expanded the discussion, pointing to a handful of successful debut novels that snagged reviews in elite media sources and then went to the top of the best selling charts. But Mr. Maass insisted that great storytelling explained the success:

Why does media get excited about a novel? What starts the bandwagon rolling? Publisher hype? That’s a prod, obviously, but media far more often than not take a pass. What gets them excited is the same thing that gets word of mouth going: a great story. It all comes back to that. Up and down the ladder it all starts there.

As you might expect, Mr. Maass also believes that a writer should take the time to get the story right. Apparently this is a point he strongly makes in his new book The Fire in Fiction (which I am anxiously waiting to arrive from Writer’s Digest), prompting this exchange:

[Jessica] One of the elements I loved about The Fire in Fiction was your encouragement to work until the book is right. As writers, we often hear that in order to survive we must be capable of producing one or more books a year—lest we lose our audience and future contracts. But what if it takes an author two to five years to craft a good book?

[Donald Maass] Writing a great novel at a book-a-year pace is extremely difficult. I watch clients struggle with that challenge. One empowering thing to know is that the bigger the impact a novel has, the longer readers will wait for the next one.
– emphasis mine

I have to admit, that last line might be my favorite. Well, what do you expect from a writer of a four-book epic fantasy? 😉 I mean, isn’t it important for readers to have time to spread the word if book one gripped them? Even in this technological age, that doesn’t really happen over night. Or necessarily in three months. I didn’t read my first Harry Potter book until the third one was out, and they were not flying off the presses every six months.

For the most part, the word builds and the promotion builds because the story demands it. Yes, there may be some mysterious exceptions. I think of G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer which burst on the scene in 2004 as another book coming out of the UK with a huge following. Americans dutifully lined up and bought the book, and it did indeed hit the best selling list.

But today the lifetime sales on Amazon of the Creation House edition is over 450,000. What’s worse, the book that followed, Wormwood, is 250,000 places higher. Since I haven’t read Shadowmancer, I am going by the reports I’ve heard from writer friends (but the lion’s share of the Amazon reviews bear out their opinion)—this was not a good story.

Maybe this is the exception that proves the rule. On occasion the media will jump on a book bandwagon built by hype not substance. The result may be great sales, but the public, when fooled once, won’t likely be fooled twice by the same author.

Backfires and Books


Those of you who watch the news probably know that Northern California has been coping with an incredible number of wild fires, some threatening areas known for their pristine landscape. Recently I saw a news piece about one effort to contain these fires. The method of choice was the backfire.

I remember when I was young hearing about firefighters intentionally setting fires, and I was somewhat horrified. The concept of fighting fire with fire didn’t register as particularly wise. Not to mention, that those backfires looked dangerously closer than the wildfire.

Of course I’ve learned since just what the purpose is for these backfires—to eat up the available fuel before the out-of-control conflagration reaches whatever line firefighters have determined must not be crossed.

What does any of this have to do with books?

As I’ve thought about some of the most successful books—Left Behind, Harry Potter, Shadowmancer, and now, The Shack—it seems to me there is often a wildfire feel about the books, with a backfire kind of response. The result appears to be more flames and more smoke. In the book business, this is all good because the smoke and the flames mean the book is getting noticed.

The thing about wildfires is, something has to ignite them, in ample dry tinder. Continuing with this as an analogy for book sales, I suggest the publicist might be considered an arsonist, intentionally sparking the fire. But fires also start because of lightning or downed electric wires or a cigarette tossed out a car window. They can start by the wind catching a spark from a campfire or a car backfire. These accidental, unpredictable, unexpected beginnings of forest fires catch us off guard.

But here’s where the analogy falters. In the book business, there does indeed seem to be a backfire response to some books that seem to be uncontainable, but the backfire itself adds to the flame and the smoke and seems to become a part of the conflagration, not something to eat up the available fuel.

I’ve said before, controversy sells books. But can controversy be manufactured? Maybe for a one book length of time a la Shadowmancer. But in the end, there has to be substance to the original fire, or the backfires simply aren’t necessary.

Much like natural fires, the progress of a book-fire is in the hands of God. I may not understand why one fire starts and is immediately snuffed out or why another takes off and burns thousands and thousands of acres.

However, I do think it’s important not to go around setting unnecessary backfires. And I think it’s important not to go around setting imitation fires. 😉

As an author, I want my book-fire to be as big and out of control as it can possibly be. There are some things I can dictate. Where I start the fire, the strength of the flame. But winds, humidity, firefighting resources, those are things beyond my control. Not beyond God’s.

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Two weeks to go before Donita K. Paul’s DragonLight blog tour. 😀

Published in: on July 7, 2008 at 10:59 am  Comments Off on Backfires and Books  
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