THE NERDS WIN
A couple of weeks ago, the acclaimed and best-selling young-adult author John Green’s upcoming novel, The Fault in Our Stars, hit number one on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com. Which is a pretty big deal in and of itself, but what makes this particularly interesting news is that his book won’t actually be out until May 2012. The Fault in Our Stars hit its huge numbers based on advance orders alone.
How Green accomplished this nifty trick is at once a testament to his own popularity and a feat of social networking. I’m sure authors the world over are now studying his brilliant strategy and will be attempting to emulate both it and the presale numbers that Green racked up. More on what he did in a moment; but the thing is that what John Green did would only work for a handful of authors out there, he being foremost among them. (And full disclosure: John and I are both published by the same editor at Dutton. I’ve met him once—twice if you count the time I stood among hundreds of fans to get a book signed.)
What led to this huge explosion in sales was actually a combination of several things that all went down together during the first week of July. First, Green announced the title of his next book, the aforementioned The Fault in Our Stars. Second, he read the first chapter of that book on a live video-blog post; and third, he promised to sign every single pre-ordered copy of The Fault in Our Stars with a Sharpie and to document the process in a series of videos (he will in fact sign the entire first print run, a number likely to be in the hundreds of thousands).
The reason that this trio of events led to John Green’s book jumping straight to the Amazon and B&N top slots (and even a week later The Fault in Our Stars was still number 13 on Amazon!) is all tied into who John Green is himself. Aside from being a profoundly talented author—his debut novel, Looking For Alaska, won the Printz Medal, YA literature’s most prestigious award—and a bestselling one, Green is a nerdfighter. You don’t know what that is? I don’t expect you do, but this is part of a huge community that Green and his brother Hank helped form a few years back when they began communicating with each other via video blogs in what they dubbed Brotherhood 2.0. It grew from there. Nerdfighters is both a huge social networking community and a social activism community—it aims to decrease what it calls worldsuck. One motto, so to speak, is “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome,” often abbreviated to DFTBA.
Them’s fightin’ nerds
Anyhow, Green is king of the nerdfighters, a very active online community. He also has, like, a million followers on Twitter. Social networking isn’t some afterthought to this guy. Like, hey, I will throw up a Facebook page and sell more books that way. No, John Green has built an authentic online community by creating a genuine group that he communicates regularly with via Tumblr, Twitter, and, in particular, via a series of short, hyper-cerebral, super-funny, motor-mouthed video clips on the VlogBrothers YouTube channel.
The subjects of the videos run the gamut from the evils of drug companies to travels among nerdfighters (they’re international) to a reading of The Great Gatsby (going on now). But one thread, as of late, was about John’s difficulty in finding a title for the forthcoming book. It became a big thing. His readers/viewers/nerdfighters knew that he was having a hard time with it. So when John Green announced that he finally had a book title, after a year or so of publicly struggling with it, it was (and is) a Big Deal. And when he promised to announce said book title live on the Internets, and read a chapter of the book, people paid attention. And when he tweeted his announcement, it went out to more than a million followers. And when he said that all those people who pre-order will get a signed copy, well, I already told you what happened from there.
The base that John built
I can’t think of very many authors who would have had this kind of response based on a title announcement or signed-copy promise—because even if they had that many readers and fans, how many of them have such efficient and effective ways of reaching them? The rest of us could tweet to a few thousand fans and hope that maybe some magazine (or the Wall Street Journal) would pick up the story, but Green didn’t need that. He is his own broadcaster and the story went out far and wide immediately, directly to his fan base, a fan base that he built.
John has said that he got the idea to sign every copy because he thinks that fans who happen to live in large metropolitan areas where authors tend to stop on tours shouldn’t be the only beneficiaries of signed books. And while I’m quite sure that this was indeed the impetus behind the whole notion—and trust me, I’ve been to John’s book signings; hundreds of kids come out, they’re like rock shows—I’m sure the potential sales boost was not lost on him. But I wonder if even he could have imagined it being this huge. Now, all these pre-orders will go toward first-week sales, which pretty much guarantees that The Fault in Our Stars will debut very high on the New York Times bestseller list its first week out. And, of course, this excitement and buzz has only increased the excitement and buzz that will come down the road (for a book that would have had its share of excitement and buzz regardless).
Social networking for fun (and profit)
I’m sure that in future we’ll see other authors trying to replicate Green’s genius. It will be both amusing and pathetic, like watching the regular people on Dancing With the Stars. I’m sure plenty of writers out there will simply think they can do what Green did: offer some signed books and poof, watch the numbers soar. But seriously, do they think that a few thousand Facebook friends, a blog, a Twitter feed will stand in for the millions (and I mean that literally) of people whom Green has connected with over the years through true and meaningful social networking? Social networking, I might add, that is for the sake of social networking, not for the sake of bookselling, although, of course, plenty of bookselling does happen, thanks to the social networking.
In other words, this little gimmick only worked for John Green because it wasn’t actually a gimmick and because John Green is John Green. The rest of us are not. Though I guess we can keep trying!—GAYLE FORMAN