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 überblogger 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, 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?

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