books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, July 3, 2011

John Green: A Social Media Marketing Success Story


This blog got a mention from Nathan Bransford in his “This Week in Books” post on Friday. Of course I’m basking in his ├╝berblogger glow. Thanks Nathan! 

He also pointed out a blogpost I’d missed from Smashwords CEO Mark Coker, in which Mr. Coker bestows his blessing on agents-turned-epublishers. As I mentioned last week, some agents-turned-epubbers were getting some literary panties in a serious bunch, so I’m glad to have that smoothed out.

But the most interesting thing in Nathan’s Friday post can be found the comments thread (which is often the case in the blogosphere. Comments are where the fun happens. Here, too.)

The commenter who calls herself Sidekick—a teacher from L.A.—posted a link to an amazing article in the Wall Street Journal. It’s about YA writer John Green, who has hit #1 on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble lists—for a book he hasn’t even finished writing.

That’s right. His newest book, The Fault in Our Stars (isn’t that a great title?) is not coming out until May 2012. But his pre-orders have already put him at #1. And his publisher has not done one bit of publicity. Green doesn’t even co-ordinate his efforts with their marketing department.

“I don’t take direction from Penguin,” he says in the WSJ.

He’s done this all by himself. Well, with the help of his brother Hank.

I’m going to take this as good news to counteract what we’re hearing about the scores of established, even bestselling authors who are being dropped by their publishers and told to toddle off and find careers as aluminum salvagers or Walmart greeters. Their agents and editors can’t do a thing because the almighty marketing departments—and the wildly inaccurate trolls at Bookscan—say their numbers are down.

Yeah. It’s pretty grim. You can read an in-depth, depressing post on that on Kris Rusch’s blog this week.

But now-superstar John Green is an “established” author too. He gets rave reviews in the New York Times and other high-toned journals and his books even have a whiff of the “literary” about them. (“The fault is…in our stars” is from Hamlet, after all.)

Green has been a steady midlist author with Dutton Children’s Books (Penguin) since 2006 (and they’re still charging $8.99 and $9.99 for his Kindle books, so he doesn’t have the “bargain” chip to play like last week’s book marketing superstar, John Locke.)

Green’s recent Will Grayson, Will Grayson, co-authored with David Levithan, got some very nice reviews when it came out in April of 2010. But the hardcover is already remaindered, and the 2011 paperback has the dreaded “only 1 left-order soon” thing on its Amazon buy page.  

But his unwritten book is #1.

And how did this miracle happen?

Social Media.

The guy has over a million followers on Twitter, and 26 thousand on Tumblr.

Plus he and his musician brother Hank have their own YouTube channel—established for their Vlogbrothers videolog—and together they founded the online community, nerdfighters.com. They’re also about to launch VidCon, a conference for vloggers later this month in Los Angeles. (Sorry, it’s already sold out.)

Plus they have their own charity, Project for Awesome.

Green admits to using Facebook, but not that much. (See, I told you it has peaked.) 

This is what he did: last Tuesday, he posted the title of the new book on Twitter, Tumblr and his community forum. An hour later, he tweeted that he’d personally sign all pre-orders. Then he went on YouTube and read a section of the book. He also mentioned it didn’t have a cover design yet.

Within hours, fans began to make and post hundreds of potential covers. They also buzzed about the pre-ordering on Twitter.

And by 9 P.M. that evening, the cover-less, half-written book hit #1 on Amazon (and on Barnes and Noble an hour later.) Mr. Green hadn’t spent a penny on contests or gimmicks, or greased the palm of a single CEO of a bookstore conglomerate.

Does this mean we should all do the same thing? Start Tweeting and Tumblring promises for signings, and go read our half-written masterpieces on YouTube? Should we form online nerd herds, launch a vlog conference in, say, Fresno, and start a charity called Project for Not-Too-Sucky?

There are no doubt marketers who are making plans to do just that as we speak.

But it won’t work. Most marketers can only think in copy-cat terms (If one zombie mashup book was a success, let’s eliminate all other forms of literature and flood the world with zombielit! When it fails, we’ll blame the authors and nobody who writes about zombies will ever work again!!)

Also, marketers don’t get social media. They think it means they can annoy people into buying stuff.

The reason John Green has had so much success is that on the Internet, he follows his bliss—and doesn’t “take direction” from a marketing department. In their vlogs, he and his brother are perfectly and totally themselves: goofy, raunchy, brilliant young men who really care about the world they live in.

Also, the Greens interact with their Tweeple and hold interactive discussions in the forums and vlogs. They treat fans as individuals.

John knows how to relate to his YA audience: his approach is not one-size-fits-all. (I guarantee it wouldn’t work for Boomers, romance readers, or the inspirational market.)

What’s important is that he’s never selling. He’s having fun.

Copying him won’t make you a success any more than copying Lady Gaga’s outfits will make you a singing superstar.

But what we can learn from the John Green phenomenon is that great reviews in the New York Times do not sell books any more.

Social Media sells books.

Interacting with other people and being friendly sells books.

Being real sells books.

Being funny sells books.

Being creative sells books.

And whatever those marketing people tell you…is probably wrong.

Author Shelly Thacker had a great blogpost on Friday about what we can learn from John Green and she gives some great tips for social networking success. 

What about you, fellow scriveners? Are you finding new ways to reach out and be friendly on the Internet? Are you still having fantasies about that rave review in the NYT? (Yeah, me too.) Wish you could go to VidCon?

36 comments:

  1. Wow! That is truly amazing! It's hard to believe that a book that has yet to be finished is #1. And without cover art! Goes against most of what I've ever heard or read. Pretty inspiring.

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  2. My, but things are changing so fast that I often feel like my head is spinning.

    I never thought I'd say this but I'm glad I'm not a traditionally published author right now. It must be nerve-wracking as hell.

    Thanks for linking, Anne. Your blog is really a big help for people like me, unpublished, unagented and wondering what we should be doing/not doing.

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  3. The book in question isn't on Amazon UK so no comparable event happening this side of the pond.

    As you say, social marketing at work, and working extraordinarily well. The sad thing is that the publishers who have contributed almost nothing towards this will reap all the benefits.

    All credit to the publishers for ensuring it will be in the bricks and mortar stores next year, of course, but as per your reference to Kris Rusch, how many bricks and mortar stores will there be the year after?

    If I were a publisher I would see this as yet another worrying sign that writers only need publishers now for paper distribution.

    If I were John Green I would be seriously wondering why I would need a publisher at all for future books.

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  4. This post makes me so happy! I am a HUGE John Green fan, even though I only found him recently through his vlogbrothers stuff. I totally agree about the marketing lessons he's teaching us, about just being genuine and funny and creative as much as possible, and like you said, I'm not trying to copy him, but definitely trying to take my cue from him.

    But here's the thing, as genius as he is social networking-wise, I still don't think he would be as successful if he didn't also have some amazing literary chops. After I found him I downloaded a preview of An Abundance of Katherine's on my kindle, and had an I WANT THIS RIGHT NOW experience, because he's a brilliant writer.

    So lesson from John Green: Be awesome + write awesome=success

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  5. Lots of great info in this post! I agree that a copycat formula just doesn't work (look at so many big hit novels that have had loads of badly written copycat novels follow them). When it comes to marketing, a writer needs to know what works best for him/her, plain and simple.

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  6. Anne,
    John Green's success is indeed testament to his creativity and to his skillful use of Twitter & YouTube. It's yet another evolution in the selling & marketing of books.

    There was a time when books were sold via newspaper & magazine reviews and ads. Then, when books were first mentioned on the Tonight show, authors & publishers realized the power of TV and, of course, that, in turn, led to the Oprah Book Club whose Selections were highly publicized & moved millions of copies.

    Between what I'm calling The Tonight Show revolution & Oprah, Jackie Susann created what we think of as the 20th Century book tour with Valley Of The Dolls. She and her husband, promoter/publicist Irving Mansfield, hired (or had the use of) a plane, painted it with VOTD cover & logo and toured book stores and distributors across the country. Jackie was smart enough even to autograph the trucks that delivered VOTD to bookstores!

    Traditional book people were horrified, considered her vulgar, outrageous, etc, but soon enough every publisher sent their lead authors out on tour (tho not with a plane emblazoned with a book cover on the fuselage!).

    Book marketing evolved over time & continues to do so. John Green is yet the latest innovator.

    PS: gossipy tidbit: my DH was working on the Ed Sullivan show at the time. Jackie & Irving sat in the audience & Ed introduced them, mentioned the title on the show & VOTD got yet another nation-wide plug.

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  7. Caitlin--Things are happening fast. Most of the "experts" are still spouting the old "rules" and don't have a clue what's going on now.

    Cynthia--You're right about established authors having a hard time. They're used to certain income and it's not happening any more.

    Mark--I had that same thought. Especially when I saw what he said about Penguin's marketers. And the price of his ebooks.

    Sarah-VERY good point. Learn to write first, people. Really, really well. Or all the publicity in the world won't make you a star.

    Mary--Exactly. Raunchy videos would not sell the next Barbara Cartland or John Updike. Knowing your audience is key.

    Ruth--Love, love, LOVE that you brought up Jacqueline Susann--and thanks for sharing that story. I happened to watch the Bette Midler movie about Susann on Netflix last night, "Isn't She Great." Not only did Susann take bookselling on the road, but she memorized the names and interests of every bookstore worker before she arrived. Just like Green--she treated everybody as an individual. I'll bet she treated Ed Sullivan as her absolute bestie and made him feel like a real fun guy. And her biggest secret--she could laugh at herself.

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  8. I'm trying to be me, and certainly never push my book at anyone, but now I feel so inadequate...

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  9. Alex, I know. I started to go there, too. But comparing is as useless as copy-catting. We gotta be who we are. Here's a link to a great 3-min video about why going bigger isn't necessarily better: http://t.co/CamrCC8

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  10. Dearest Miss Allen,
    John Green is one of those authors I'd like to be when I grow up. He creates smart, intriguing, conflicted, witty characters and puts them into fantastic books. Will Grayson, Will Grayson belongs on every teen's shelf, but the publishing world sees fit to kill it? Aaargh. It doesn't surprise me that Green's social media tactics are as smart & unpredictable as his characters.
    All the best,
    Charlie

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  11. Great Blog. Due to huge competition in online market, every business owner tries to apply different and unique strategies to get valuable clientele to his/her website.

    Marketing Agency Sydney

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  12. What an interesting article. I want to be No. 1 on my as-yet-unfinished book, too: ) I'm thrilled with what John Green has done. Thanks for sharing.

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  13. Wow, wouldn't have imagined a half-written book rocketing to #1 on Amazon. Sounds like being himself is really paying off. :)

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  14. This is such an exciting and wonderful time for writers! It's great fun discovering new ways to publish and market books, and to see innovative ideas in action.

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  15. Wow, what an amazing story! Thanks for sharing it with us Anne! :D

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  16. C.S. I remember reading the rave review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson in the NYT. I'm glad to know it's as good as it sounded. And that all this glory is going to a writer who really deserves it.

    Samual--That's a little spammy, but I'm going to leave it up. Yes, we do need to form our own strategies and not copy-cat.

    June--We shouldn't expect ourselves to be able to do all that Green has done. His online presence isn't just about selling books. The message to take away is that original approaches work.

    Ranae--That's his secret--being himself.

    Marilyn--It is a crazy but exciting time.

    Spook--Thanks. Getting your online presence started early is the key, and it looks like that's what you're doing.

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  17. Great post! Thanks for the links and great information. Now to apply what I've learned.

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  18. Thanks for the shout-out Anne! Social networking can feel like an overwhelming challenge -- especially for novelists, since we're used to working on a big canvas. It's not easy to be entertaining in 140-character snippets. I'm glad authors are finding my Friday blog post helpful. I'll keep sharing tips as my class continues the summer.

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  19. Thanks for the post. We can learn and adapt ideas to where we are and what can work for us.

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  20. What a great post. Basically John is living the life we all should lead - do what you love, be yourself, play fair and nice.

    Write and write well.

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  21. This is great news for all of us rejects from regular publishing, suffering agent angst. My readers love my stories. Now I'll actually have a way for them to buy them. Kindle Direct here I come!
    www.hollybushbooks.com

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  22. I find this all so fascinating. And congrats on the Nathan mention! How exciting.

    If there's anyone poised to make the leap to self-publishing it's you, my dear. I hope you really go for it!

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  23. Kathi--Thanks. I think what we can take away is that it pays to be creative and the same old/same old isn't working any more.

    Shelly--Your tips are fantastic. I hope everybody will check out your blog.

    Stephen--Thanks.

    Cindy--The best way is always so simple isn't it? Not easy, but simple.

    Holly--Yup. I'm probably going to follow in your footsteps.

    Nina--I'm scared, but I think it's probably the way I'm going to go.

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  24. First and foremost, John Green writes great books that appeal to both genders. But his use of social media is brilliant.

    I've watched his videos before and they work because they're him. And I guess that's the most important thing about his marketing: he lets people see a real part of who he is, someone not unlike the guys he writes about, and people respond.

    Unfortunately, who I am would probably not translate well onto video! And that's an important thing to remember for wannabe copy cats. Whatever you do has to reflect who you are and you have to be comfortable with it. Otherwise it will just backfire in your face.

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  25. Wait - I don't get it. If the guy has a million followers on Twitter, why was Will Grayson remaindered so fast? It just came out in April of 2010, but I doubt he got a million followers in one year - or did he? I think first-time authors should be wary of stories like this and not think that spending all their time blogging and on Twitter will sell their books. Social media is great for getting the word out once you have a book, but first and foremost, writers need to focus on writing great books. (And this comes from someone who teaches social media classes.)

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  26. Wait - I don't get it. If the guy has a million followers on Twitter, why was Will Grayson remaindered so fast? It just came out in April of 2010, but I doubt he got a million followers in one year - or did he? I think first-time authors should be wary of stories like this and not think that spending all their time blogging and on Twitter will sell their books. Social media is great for getting the word out once you have a book, but first and foremost, writers need to focus on writing great books. (And this comes from someone who teaches social media classes.)

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  27. Hi Anne,
    I just found your blog from Nathan's link (I'm late to the party, but glad to be here). Love the information you're sharing. As a Boomer and mystery/suspense writer, I feel push-pulled like a Dr. Seuss character about social media. I know it's important, I'm drawn to parts of it, but I think its use for marketing in the areas I'm interested in is different than with the YA market. I just don't know how those differences operate yet! A recent Sisters in Crime survey showed that older readers (and there a LOT of them) still rely most on word of mouth and on book placement at bookstores for their purchasing choices. I wonder how long that can last?

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  28. Sherrie--Yes. The #1 rule: have a great book. #2 Don't follow marketing "rules": be yourself and think of your audience.

    Meghan--John Green is already an established author. He's written 6 well-received books since 2006. But Big 6 books have a shelf life of about 4 months before they're returned and pulped, often even if they're selling well. One of the many dysfunctional aspects of Big 6 publishing. So he's pre-selling, which gives him a much bigger window to get an audience. He's also ignoring the marketing department, which makes him successful. The New Yorker's Shouts and Murmurs has a hilarious send-up of today's publishing marketing department. "Memo to writers: start a blog, find the numbers of some celebrities, phone them to ask for blurbs, and get yourself on the View, while I go on vacation for 6 months."

    Linda--Welcome! You're so right that Boomers are not going to respond to the same marketing strategies as teens. Boomers are the biggest book buying market and the most neglected. The Big 6 has no interest in them whatsoever. Writers who learn to target that market can be wildly successful, but some of the techniques may not be as new and shiny as social marketing.

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  29. Great post! Targeting and finding that audience is so key, yet so difficult.

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  30. I did see something online this week about that. You look at that and you think. Wow! Thing about us writers it that a vast amount of us have hermit-like tendencies that do us no good on the book marketing/friend making front. It took me a while to reach out to other people and even now, I feel like a pimp when I mention anything about my book. Despite that. I plod on. Gonna have a look at the other links. Thanks! You always provide great information.

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  31. Susan--It's not easy. And not all of us have the comic gifts the Green brothers have.

    J.L.--We do tend to be hermits, and I've got to admit to some serious hermity tendencies of my own. But social networking is way easier than the old fashioned book tour. Now that was hard work for an introvert!

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  32. I need to add a few zeros to my twitter followers then!

    This story though is the culmination of years of social networking and success. A first time unknown author has no chance of this type of success unless they are the child of someone who does Oprah's hair and she picks it up.

    A perfect example of its a marathon, not a sprint.

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  33. I'm coming to this post a month late (immediacy is not my specialty). I have the privilege to teach middle school students. There are a group of them who are constantly coming in at lunch to watch Green's vlogs with me (they bring me the link). They teach me his nerd greetings. It's fantastic (and it helps, of course, that he can write). I think for social media to be successful at selling books, you have to find a way to communicate your real personality (as you said in your post). Green and his brother do that brilliantly. Now excuse me, I better review my nerd signs as I'm about to step back in the classroom!

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  34. A well designed and implemented social media marketing campaign will help bring in a decent amount of back links to your site as a byproduct. It can increase brand exposure and PR for a fraction of traditional advertising costs and effort, as well as provide large scale market research and product refinement ideas at no extra charge. Thanks a lot.

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  35. According to Social Media Markting Austin..Social Media give you the opportunity to acquire backlinks to your site's pages, articles, press releases, etc. It’s important that you have a strategy to create and promote your Social Media content and to manage your brand image and reputation.

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  36. With social media, news spreads like a raging wildfire, and with these, you or your product is, all of a sudden, the talk of the town. Social media is not just all about posting regular updates, rather it’s also about building credibility and trust. It also helps to post videos. Just be visible enough and make sure to produce quality content only. This will surely attract visitors.

    -Sage Aumick

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