08/01/2012 02:28 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

The Secret to Book Publicity

It was going to go over big. I knew it!

"Question," I said, reading from a notecard adorned with an Xed out Kenny Rogers. "One famous country singer sold his soul to the devil decades ago in exchange for fame and a marginal acting career. The trade off, aside from this singer's soul, was that his Hollywood Walk of Fame star absolutely, 100 percent, had to be satanic. Who was this musician?"

I was standing on a stage at the book release party for my first novel, Black Hole Blues. We were playing a game show I invented called "Death to Kenny Rogers," because the Gambler was the villain of that book.

Or, at least, I was playing the game. The audience seemed mostly flummoxed.

"Answer: Kenny Rogers! His star on the Hollywood walk of fame: 6666 Hollywood BLVD. That's one more six than Satan gets. "

This fact (well, the address is true) did not draw the howls of laughter I imagined. It did not result in a sellout at the book table in the back of the room. It was, like all my elaborate publicity ideas, a failure.

So was the Sex Dungeon for Sale! coloring contest I held for my first book's release. So was the Broken Piano for President drinking game I organized at readings for my most recent book tour, which I was convinced would move copies faster than a magician pulls quarters from ears. I was positive releasing a book-on-cassette-tape version of Broken Piano was going to earn a parade in my honor among indie rock circles.

I was wrong on all counts. But, I had fun.

Fact is, nothing I did helped sell books until I did nothing at all.

Such is the mystery of book buzz. The Xanadu of the book world. (The city, not the roller disco movie.)

I recently gained a lot of notoriety and saw Broken Piano climb, shockingly, to the sixth bestseller on Amazon. Like most good surprises in life, it had nothing to do with my hard work and foresight.

Like most surprises, it stemmed from a potential lawsuit.

I never could have planned the events that led up to seeing my name mentioned in this publication, as well as the New Yorker, New York Times, the Atlantic, Yahoo! News and an incredible array of other outlets.

What happened? Jack Daniel's sent me the world's nicest cease-and-desist and it went viral.

Not exactly the stuff of marketing department PowerPoints.

My publisher, Lazy Fascist Press, and I didn't see this coming. But that's how all effective literary publicity works. Everybody, from the ritziest New York presses to scrappy indies hope for good book publicity, but when it actually hits the mark, it's usually something unforseen. You can't tell me anyone in their right mind saw Fifty Shades of Grey coming, no matter your opinion of mom porn.

Publicity is the alchemy of the literary world. If someone knew how to consistently turn lead to gold, well, then, there'd be a lot less lead cracking our bookshelves.

But the secret is, we don't know what we're doing. (I say "we" because my publisher can't afford marketing and since I spent about $100 mailing out review copies, I am, technically, a publicist, too.) The old ways of getting a review in respected magazines and being interviewed on Charlie Rose don't sell books. We publicists tell ourselves it does, but that's just so we have reasons not to lie our head on a train track.

I'm no doubt going to continue doing stupid stuff to promote my books. I have a drinking game/reading planned in Chicago this week and couldn't be more excited. I know, however, that it'll never help sell more books than getting a cease-and-desist from the world's largest booze brand.

But that's okay, because I realized dumb publicity failures are fun. Fun for me, at least. And fun for the few misguided fans I have who think like I do. And that's enough. No matter what sells and what doesn't, there isn't enough fun surrounding books.