A few days ago, I got a call from an acquaintance who was looking to put out a book. The idea behind it was, according to all in the know, stunning. A virtual guaranteed bestseller. I hadn't heard it yet, but going on the quality of this guy's ideas, I'd bet it's good.
So, he fleshed it out, got the proposal done, then handed it over to his agent. She read it and said it's good. But, before she'd agree to shop it around, she tells him, "Here's the deal. Advances have gotten a lot smaller since the time we first talked. A lot smaller. For this to be worth our while, I just need you to do one more thing. Go make some videos, put up a blog and get yourself viral. Then, we'll get the advance we need. Kapish?"
Hmmm, well if kapish translates to WTF, then kapish it is.
I've talked to a lot of authors about building digital platforms over the last two years, spent gobs of time building my own and deconstructing others. I've even created content that's gone "text" viral. And, through this process, two things have become patently obvious.
One, those who tell you "you need to make something that's gonna go viral" don't know what the hell they're talking about. There is no magic formula, no button you get to push and nobody you pay to get there. You have control over what you create, but the world has control over how far and how fast your creation travels. And, two, the more you make something with the express purpose of "going viral," the less likely it'll be to happen.
Because, with rare exception, going viral isn't a contrived push button phenomenon.
Especially not for authors and aspiring authors. Unlike traditional media, you don't buy or trade your way into viral. Sure, you may be able to buy enough early traffic or tap your network to "seed" your content and drive early views. But, that's not viral. That's bought or traded eyeballs. You still face the challenge of making the leap from a discrete cluster of bought buzz to a massive landslide of evangelized magic.
So, next time an editor, publisher, marketer, agent or publicist says, "do something on video that'll go viral," it's a pretty good sign they're a few cards short of a social media deck. And, if you're one of these folks, just don't say it. Luckily for you, though, I'm going to let you in on the real secret to making yourself instantly viral.
* Insanely creative
* Insanely valuable
* Insanely funny
* Insanely offbeat
* Insanely provocative
* Insanely musical
* Insanely deep
* Insanely emotional
* Insanely beautiful
* Insanely evil
* Insanely controversial
* Insanely goofy
* Insanely angry
* Insanely pained
* Insanely confrontational
"Kinda" won't get you there and 99.9% of the time insane won't even get you there. Because, these days, the market is already flooded with insanity. But, at least it'll put you in the game.
In fact, an unwillingness to push to the edge tends to be the shortfall in nearly every book trailer or author video I've ever seen. Brad Meltzer's "worst book ever" trailer was seriously funny. Gary Vaynerchuck's recent video for Crush It! was a crack-up. And I absolutely loved Dan Pink's ultra-cool Johnny Bunko manga movie. But, did any of these come close to going "viral?" Nope.
Funny, quirky, offbeat and pretty-engaging rarely reach the threshold of viral.
Plus, even if they did, there's something about them that stops people from hitting the make-this-sucker-viral button. They're commercial. Every book trailer is a clear pimpfest for a book. They're fun. They may add to the bigger book marketing funnel. But, the moment you add in a commercial call-to-action, most videos become dead in the viral water.
So, what's an author to do?
First, unless you're willing to get publicly insane, don't put all your promotional eggs in the viral video book marketing basket. Ain't gonna happen. Make it because it's fun. Make it because it's one element in a vastly larger initiative. And, if you are willing to get insane, don't put your call-to-action in the video. Either do it on a subtler level (in the description field on youtube.com) or wait until the video has been shared before adding any kind of commercial element to it.
And, the next time one of your trusted book-marketing advisers tells you to do something to make yourself viral online...be afraid. Because that person has just tipped their "I don't get how social media works" hat.
In next week's column, I'll bring this all together with my last post on reinventing the publishing model with an example of an alternative publisher that uses privately-hosted video to not only sell a lot of books, but make an entire publisher "go viral."
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more