IS IT DESIRABLE TO MAKE LITERARY FICTION GO VIRAL IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Big question. Big risk. Big reward?
Before talking about HOW, the question is WHY?
‘Going viral’ is a short way of saying ‘become wildly popular so everyone wants one.’
Also, potentially lethal.
It is one thing to have a product/idea be popular with the masses, but it is another to have the masses laugh at it.
A hula hoop going viral at the right time becomes a toy that almost anyone can buy – AND almost anyone can learn to use – at least sort of. Right before Christmas, at the right price (enough for a hefty markup but not expensive enough to break anyone’s bank), and balanced with the manufacturing ability to produce more in a hurry, hula hoops were very popular and sold millions. (Disclosure: I had one as a kid in Mexico, and was pretty good at it.)
But a book?
It almost seems contradictory to the concept of literary fiction to try to make it go viral.
Except that it has been done.
Something like two MILLION copies of The Goldfinch were printed.
Something like half of those copies were eventually pulped.
Unknown numbers of the ones purchased were READ.
Unknown numbers decorated coffee tables as the ‘book to have.’ Not to have read, necessarily, but to seem to have read. It being literary fiction and wildly popular, if you had a copy you wouldn’t necessarily tell your friends whether you had read the whole thing or not.
Full disclosure: I read the reviews, lots of them, and decided it was probably not my kind of book: too many of the complaints were pet peeves. Some day I will find out for myself, but the day hasn’t come when I can divert MY focus without derailing my own writing. Yet.
How did it go viral?
The most expensive way, the way of the BIG traditional publisher, with a campaign that put the publisher’s entire resources behind a gamble: that they could push a literary novel into being THE literary novel of the season, make it a ‘must have’ and sell enough copies to justify the advance, the push, AND enhance the publisher’s reputation.
Not just reputation, but selling a reasonable number of paper bricks at a hardcover price is lucrative – one well-publicized ‘winner’ can carry the publishing house’s season.
The economics get all fuzzy if the numbers don’t work out, or they would use this system for all their books every season. But the economics MUST work out, or the big publishers wouldn’t keep trying to find (make) the breakout novel of the season.
In sum, it costs a lot of money, but can pay off with a lot MORE money.
How to take advantage of the possibility if you’re an SPA?
Well, if you’re already a popular SPA like Brandon Sanderson, with a loyal fan base, you can kick it to the next level with a huge Kickstarter calculated to both satisfy those fans and create a beautiful buzz for your books. [Hint: He wrote four books in secret – and then releases them to his Kickstarter fans before anyone else is allowed to buy them.]
What if you’re an unknown SPA?
Then you have to hope like crazy that you catch the public imagination – or, possibly better still, the attention of a significant influencer, and get the push from someone else’s fame.
Because the product is not an easy one to sell. For one thing, they consume, each, almost a whole waking day. And there isn’t yet an audiobook so you can do other things while listening – plus it needs closer attention than many, to pick up and follow its varied threads. It’s a pretty intense experience to live a story with three main characters by sitting inside their heads, right behind the eyeballs, thinking their thoughts and registering the external world through their senses.
Not a short commitment from a potential reader, as a popular five-minute song might be.
Add to the mix an author with no energy due to a boring chronic illness – no energy to do the vaunted indie marketing, which requires dedication and verve, spending hours creating material and doing what a whole lot of professionals at a traditional publisher will do for a favored author: designer cover, a book tour, appearances on media from internet to live TV, promotions at Walmart, movie tie-ins for the fortunate… arranging, arranging, arranging – by someone(s).
The right mix of promoting the book and promoting the writer is crucial – time-critical and planned and managed. And still subject to luck. Not just the cost – but the contacts – are crucial to try to control the presentation and roll-out for maximum exposure.
So what do I OFFER such an influencer?
Few things can be left to random kindness any more.
The best value from an influencer is one who discovers your book – and promotes it on their channel of influence (think BookTok) – without any work from the author. Because they like it.
But no one can COUNT on that LUCK. Even when a book such as the lovely The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, written by a very ill woman who paid attention to the snail in a terrarium, happens, there are friends and pushers, people who did the work of finding a publisher for her, who made it their job to promote her memoir and her writing. Another book which didn’t count on luck, but was awarded the Pulitzer for fiction, A Confederacy of Dunces, was pushed, after he couldn’t get it published and committed suicide, by John Kennedy Toole’s mother, to writer Walker Percy. Again, not something to count on.
What I can offer is the brownie points (does anyone still remember those?) from discovering something unique: a chronically ill and disabled writer who takes forever, but writes mainstream fiction – and writes it well, or the influencer wouldn’t even be considering using up their points for someone else. It could be pushed as ‘discovering the indie/self-published X’, where X is the influencer’s favorite important mainstream writer. I’m far too modest to suggest a comparison author, but my reviewers (at least two) have compared me to Jane Austen. It’s worth a thought.
And if you don’t go viral, how about getting banned?
Another path to notoriety! Otherwise known as ‘publicity.’ Anything to make a good story, right? Not mine – the influencer’s.
It’s a little harder for me – I’ve been looking to the future use of teaching Pride’s Children in schools, and have deliberately kept the actual words and events to the PG-13 level – but someone is quite welcome to take my third main character Bianca Doyle’s unorthodox way of getting a father for her children as scandalous and upsetting drivel to which innocent teenagers (!?!) should not be exposed. Go ahead – it takes little to get the righteous flustered and judgy.
Those are the potential arrows in my literary-publicity quiver
I am quite happy to discover and entertain more, if you have suggestions – I want to be widely read. I would like a few more reviewers, please rhapsodizing about my prose. You needn’t be fulsome – understated works, too.
I would like a huge contingent of breathless fans waiting for me to finally complete work on LIMBO (or LIMBO & PARADISE), to the extent of making preorders possible.
I would love a ready market for any prequel or sequel short stories about our merry band and their quarrelsome ways, and I will continue to work at my deliberate pace (or until cured) to add to the canon.
Wishes make good goals for 2023, if a tad unrealistic. One can dream.
Merry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and HAPPIER NEW YEAR to all – may the holidays you love and celebrate bring you joy.