5 Book Marketing Stunts That Backfired Spectacularly
It's tough out there for authors. Between 600,000 and a million books are published or self-published in America every year, and most of those sell fewer than 250 copies. For every breakout success like A Billionaire Dinosaur Forced Me Gay or Taken by the Lightning Bolt, there's a thousand books whose sales slide slowly and painfully into a ditch like that time you decided to go rollerblading in an ice storm.
Which is why some writers get desperate in their quest to tear the reading public's fickle attention away from whatever butt picture they're currently looking at. Butts are pretty damn distracting, though, so it's not unheard of for authors to turn to some intensely crazy stuff. Like ...
A man from West Virginia, Ray Dolin, had a dream. He was going to hitchhike all the way across America and use his experiences as the basis for a book, The Kindness of America. Unfortunately, Dolin's dream was soon shattered, and not just because he ran into a bunch of mean people in L.A. Nope, it was something even worse: while Dolin was waiting for a ride outside of Glasgow, Montana, a stranger in a pickup truck pulled over, shot him in the arm, and then sped away. Police soon arrested a man from Washington state for the shooting, and it looked like the plot of Dolin's book was going to get a whole lot more interesting.
"While recuperating in the hospital, I met a nurse who turned out to be a whistleblower
for the CIA and a direct descendant of the Romanovs."
The incident made national news, with Internet comment sections beating their chests about America's failing moral values (conservatives) or degenerate redneck gun culture (liberals). Unfortunately for the human desire to seize on news articles that prove what we already believe anyway, the truth soon came out: the Montana drive-by shooting never happened. Dolin admitted that he'd shot himself in the arm, either to drum up publicity for that upcoming book of his or because he was stuck on page 200 and couldn't think of an interesting plot twist (hell, it worked in Fight Club).
"I couldn't do it in the face since I still had to take author photos."
The Awful Consequences
Montana law enforcement wasn't impressed with Dolin wasting their time and money for the purposes of book publicity, particularly since he stuck to his story even after an innocent man was arrested and jailed for the crime. He was given a suspended sentence and ordered to pay fines and restitution. Tragically, Dolin couldn't get to the courthouse to pay because a missile silo fell on him, and he's writing about the event in his new book, Missile Silos Falling on Me in America.
"The book reveals a lot about this country's degenerate falling-missile-silo culture. Four stars."
Trapping Yourself in a Glass Cage
Belgian mystery novelist Georges Simenon, who died in 1989, was a pro at that whole writing thing: the guy could apparently pump out a novel in 11 days. Christ, it took me longer than that to decide whether to call my action-thriller protagonist Buck "Hardboiled" McGruntman or Lance Fist. But Simenon wasn't happy with what his writing superpowers had already allowed him to achieve: he wanted more. So, in 1927 Simenon announced that he was going to write a novel in 24 hours. Sitting in a glass cage. In public. Furthermore, people watching would be able to decide the book's characters and plot elements, presumably by banging on the glass and yelling things like "BAD GUY SHOULD BE MORE ITALIAN," "SCENE NEEDS MORE PONIES," and "ARE THERE GOING TO BE BUTT PICTURES?"
By other accounts, Simenon had 72 hours to write the book. But the stunt definitely involved a glass cage, and hopefully he got all the kinks worked out with the ventilation system, because as much as some people don't like pretentious writers, no one really wants to watch them slowly asphyxiate in public.
"Well, there goes John Grisham. How many times have I told you kids
to make sure you leave air holes?"
The Awful Consequences
The 24-hour novel stunt went awry when a terrorist broke into the cage and Simenon had to interrogate and finally kill him while exploring the moral boundaries of our post-9/11 Western society. Well, OK, no -- the whole thing died with more of a quiet, whimpering fart than with a bang: the newspaper that planned to finance it went bankrupt. This was unfortunate for Simenon, but it was probably a good thing in the long run. I mean, think about what the world would be like if the "writers in glass cages" craze had taken off. I'm sure we'd get the next George R.R. Martin novel quicker, but it would probably involve a lot of human rights violations. Hey, that gives me an idea for a dystopian thriller novel.
Novelists the world over are dying like trapped Sims after failing to meet their deadlines,
and the only man who can stop it is Lance Fist.
Rigging Your Way Onto Bestseller Lists With Cold, Hard Cash
In 2013, the Wall Street Journal noticed that several business-themed books had shot to the top of the paper's bestseller lists, only to drop off quickly. Really quickly. In some cases, sales dropped so dramatically that less than a week after hitting the top of the bestseller list, more copies of these books were being returned to stores than were being sold. What was happening? Did the pages smell? Did it turn out that everything after page 63 was just scrawled racial slurs and bad pie recipes? Nope, the truth was far more sinister.
Those pie recipes had raisins in them. RAISINS.
The authors of these quick-selling books had hired a marketing firm called ResultSource that had propelled them to the top of bestseller lists. They did this by buying up massive amounts of books, sending them out to dozens of addresses across America, and using hundreds of different payment methods to evade the statistical precautions that bestseller lists have in place to prevent shit like this. All authors had to do was hand over a hefty fee: getting onto the New York Times bestseller list with ResultSource would cost you about $200,000. Personally, I'd rather just keep the $200,000 and buy a robot butler that pretends to like my writing, but I guess my heart's not really in the bestseller business.
The Awful Consequences
Not long after the news came out, Seattle mega-church leader Mark Driscoll and Grace, his wife, were forced to apologize after it came out that they'd paid the company hundreds of thousands of dollars to make their book, Real Marriage, a New York Times bestseller. Since then, ResultSource seems to have disappeared to that big bulk-buying warehouse in the sky, so I guess rich wannabe authors have to content themselves with robot butlers.
"Dead the WHOLE time? Marvelous, sir. Did not see that coming at all, sir."
Illegally Flying Into Buckingham Palace
A few years back, an Australian man named Brett De La Mare was having trouble finding a publisher for his novel Canine Dawn, which he described as a story set in the Australian bush that features plenty of of "sex, money, and adventure." So he decided to edit the manuscript some more, develop a catchier hook, and maybe start on a new project in the hope of improving his craft. No, hang on. He decided to get attention for his manuscript by flying a motorized paraglider into the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
It was the start of a story featuring plenty of sex, money, and adventure between a paraglider
and one of those guys that wears the big hats.
I'm not sure how De La Mare thought this would achieve his goal of getting his book published, because a story about Australians having sex in rural areas doesn't have much to do with gliding into restricted buildings. It's not like he was trying to get a deal for a book called How to Get Inside the Queen's Laundry Room or My Life With Bad Impulse Control. If publishers gave out book deals on the basis of who happened to dramatically catch their attention during the working day, you could start a luminous career by simply visiting Random House's headquarters in New York City and throwing cats at people. And, believe me, that doesn't work. I know.
The Awful Consequences
De La Mare had earlier tried a similar "publish me" stunt in New York, circling the Empire State Building in his glider before landing in a garbage bin outside a police station and being arrested. You'd think he would interpret that as God telling him to rethink his direction in life, but he didn't, and he was arrested in London as well, with a palace spokesman remarking that the struggling author seemed "surprised by the vigor and speed of the police response."
Translated into American, that means "they tasered him until he peed himself."
All things considered, though, De La Mare was lucky: both of his publicity attempts occurred in late 2000, so being arrested was the worst thing that happened to him. Try something like that these days and you'd be shot down by drones before you could say "Guantanamo." It doesn't work out that well for everyone.
Being Sent to a Thai Prison
In 2009, Australian lecturer and writer Harry Nicolaides was arrested in Thailand. Most foreigners who get arrested in Thailand at least get to enjoy some drugs shortly beforehand, but Nicolaides' crime was far less enjoyable: several years earlier, he'd self-published a novel that contained a passage obliquely insulting the Thai royal family. This happens to be totally against the law in Thailand, where the king is revered as semi-divine. Seriously, it's like going to a World Coffee Fan Convention and declaring that you prefer decaf Nescafe. You just don't do it.
We laugh now, but a guy in Seattle went to prison for that.
According to Heath Dollar, an old friend of Nicolaides', the decision to break the law was a deliberate attempt to be arrested. Nicolaides, Dollar said, had confessed to him in the past that he believed the key to getting a publishing deal was creating a publicity stunt. He'd even admitted to Dollar that the anti-monarchy passage was a deliberate way to drum up talk about the novel.
The Awful Consequences
Nicolaides' stunt happened during a particularly harsh crackdown on printed "we hate the king" material. The writer was denied bail and sentenced to three years in a Thai prison, a place that ranks up there with "bovine anti-diarrhea-drug testing facility" in the category of places you probably don't want to stay for three years. He was released after six months, but unless being kept in a crowded, unhygienic cell with murderers and rapists does a lot for your creative-writing juices, it still probably wasn't worth it.
Things got even worse when he emerged with a script for a gritty reboot of Anna and the King.
Here, I should also note that Nicolaides denied Dollar's accusation that the passage was a publicity stunt and accused Dollar of making up the story so that he could further his own writing career. So I guess the next step is for someone to accuse me of inventing the entire Thai royal family to get another entry for this article. Come on, has anyone you know actually been to "Thailand"? Wake the hell up, people.
C. Coville's funny book, One-Star Reviews, is available right now! Please buy a copy to ensure that she never needs to resort to any of this stuff.
For more from C. Coville, check out The 4 Selfish Reasons People Share a Thing on Facebook. And then check out The Terrifying (Inevitable) Future of Advertising.
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