How to Position Your Book To Go Viral

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by Larry Brooks on March 13, 2012

It is the Holy Grail of instant success as an author.  The elusive grand slam home run of literary home runs.  It is better – beyond – getting published, or even making a bestseller list. 

It is the dream.  Bigger than your highest vision of The Dream.

It is called “going viral.” 

For the Luddites among us… going viral means that word-of-mouth and the media, especially the internet – which in this case are simply responding to an initial word-of-mouth phenomena — conspire in a dance of co-dependent cause and effect to explode a book beyond the bestseller lists into a feeding frenzy of attention, demand, praise and bookstore waiting lists.

For most readers, this sudden attention is the first time they’ll hear about the title, or its author. 

Think The DaVinci Code, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Lovely Bones, The Help, The Bridges of Madison County… books that seemingly appear out of nowhere and sell millions within a few weeks, and more millions afterward, almost always resulting in a movie and a sequel.

People who wouldn’t have been interested before are now clicking onto Amazon to pick up a copy, in some cases simply because they want to see what all the buzz is about.

How did they do that?  How can we do that?

Good news and bad news: we can enter the game, we can go for it, but once qualified and out there, it’s a total crapshoot.  One over which you have, after meeting the criteria for viral consideration, absolutely no control.

It is beyond social media.  You can’t tweet or Facebook yourself into viral status. Your publisher can’t even make it happen.  It rarely happens to the common A-list author names – they became A-listers after their viral debut – it’s usually something fresh, from a fresh face.

And yet, going viral is a paradox

It is something you can wish for, but once the book has been written, cannot create or execute.  The best you can do is write a book that is positioned – that delivers the right stuff – to be discovered, ignited and launched on a viral journey at the scale required to wear this nametag.

Many books qualify.  Few hear their name called.

The paradox is this:

The criteria for putting your book into a position to go viral is almost exactly that associated with getting published in the first place.  The book has to work.  Really, really well.

That said, viral books tend to do a couple of specific things really well:

They are often “high concept” (rather than character-driven, even though they introduce great characters), with exceptional execution across all of the Six Core Competencies.

They also deliver something else, almost without exception: they seize the inherent compelling power of underlying story physics in way that exceeds the competition.

These two realms of story – compelling concept, with exceptionally strong underlying essences, is what gets you into the viral game.

And if that sounds underwhelming, welcome to the paradox.  Doesn’t everybody try for a compelling concept and the blowing of their story physics out of the water?

Answer: not really. Mostly because they don’t address these as goals.  Some authors just write their story, write it well, let it unspool organically, and hope somebody out there gets it.  This may get them published, but it doesn’t usually get them on Good Morning America.

If you want to go viral, you should address high concept and the optimization of story physics in the story development process.  You should be aware of their inherent compelling power, or not.  And if the latter, jack it higher.

The Latest Example of the Viral Dream Come True

Just this morning Good Morning America did a feature on the latest viral sensation in the book world.  It described a mad frenzy of word-of-mouth obsession, and during the segment the GMA anchors were literally grabbing the book from each other’s hands to swoon over randomly selected sentences.

Not because the sentences were astoundingly eloquent.  Rather, because the sentences deliver more than one of the basic elements of story physics like a bullet to the brain.

The book is called “50 Shades of Grey,” dubbed an erotic novel (part of a trilogy) by a little known English author named E.L. James.  As I write this, a mere four hours after the GMA lovefest, less than two weeks after initial release, it resides at #1 on the Amazon Kindle list, and #4 on the overall bestselling books list.

Almost all because of reader word-of-mouth.  And media that listens and jumps on board.

Interestlingly, it isn’t yet registering on the New York Times bestseller list.  Why?  Because that’s an insider industry list based on wholesale distribution to bookstores and a lagging nod to digital books, and 50 Shades of Grey is barely in bookstores and is too new to crack the old boy network that the NYT represents.

But wait ‘til next week.  It’ll be there, and probably at #1.

Let me tell you why this book has gone viral.

And in doing so, identify the simple elements of story physics that this book delivers.  Read and learn, this is your ticket not only to the viral world, but to finding a publisher and a readership, as well.

The book is about a young woman who has an affair with a billionaire.  In one reader’s words, it is full of sex, money and clothes.  It is Sex in the City times ten.

One interviewed reader calls it “mommy porn.”  A guilty pleasure perfectly suited to the anonymity of a Kindle in a crowded mall.

High concept?  Not particularly.  But here’s what it does do well:

It is fueled by two things, both of them among the short list of essential story physics that capture readers:

The book is driven by hero empathy, while delivering a vicarious ride.

Read that again.  It isn’t the plot, and it isn’t character.  No, this is about the reader.  This strategy shoots for the result of what you’ve written, the impact on a reader that creates a reading experience beyond the intellectual curiosity of plot, the reward of laughter or any marveling at great art.

It’s about the reader transporting themselves into this world… going on this ride… feeling it… wanting to be the hero… wishing it was them… the reader completely engaging in this journey on a personal level.

You may enjoy the heck out of the latest detective thriller, but really, is this something you want to actually do?  To actually feel?  No, that’s a voyeuristic read.  50 Shades of Grey, while perhaps voyeuristic, is actually more masturbatory and vicarious in nature.  It delivers an emotional experience that taps into something deep and forbidden and unavailable. 

It mines pure gold from the power of its underlying story physics.

That’s it.  Do this, and do it within a compelling premise with professional-level execution, and you are in a position to go viral.

And if you don’t happen to win that particular lottery, at least you’ll have increased your chances at publication or digital success exponentially.

More on this in a day or two. 

For now, ask yourself what about your story delivers a vicarious ride, where your story takes the reader, and at what level your story makes the reader feel and actually become a part of the story in a vicarious and personally empathetic way… rather than sitting in the literary grandstands and watching it all go down.

Read more about story physics here.

Read about how to deliver them to your reader here.

{ 22 comments }

Anne Lyken-Garner March 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Wow! wonderfully written. Just wondering if a non-fiction book can carry the same sort of elements?

Denise March 13, 2012 at 3:17 pm

The reason 50 Shades of Grey has gone viral is because it started out as Twilight fan fiction. The author rode on Stephanie Meyer’s coattails, let the popularity of Twilight bring in a huge audience, and then changed the names of the characters and cashed in. She didn’t even bother editing it first before charging people for it.

I think a book like Hunger Games is a much better example to prove your point.

Larry Brooks March 13, 2012 at 4:30 pm

@ Denise – can’t argue with it, but based on what I heard on GMA this morning (have to confess, having just heard of the book, I haven’t read “50 Shades” yet, it’s a different genre entirely than the Twilight books, no vampires, a nanny in New York who hooks up with a billionaire. “Splain?

@ Anne – great question. Non-fiction is a different animal, in that an author can build a readership through a topic-focused website, something a novelist has a much harder time doing. Many of the same things apply, but the underlying “forces” are a little different, has more to do with “how can this change my life NOW” forces in non-fiction. Thanks for chiming in! L.

Debra Erfert March 13, 2012 at 6:29 pm

I guess it all depends on what kind of vicarious ride you want to take, Larry. Evidently the GMA anchors won’t hesitate to praise the kind of books I take great care in avoiding. Like I’ve always heard–sex sells, and I wouldn’t expect the mainstream media to warn their viewers away from it. In fact, I’m not surprised they fawned all over it. Is that what it takes for your story to go viral? Just get a knuckheaded, high-level morning anchor to read a few passages (Surely, they didn’t read the whole book) and then let the drooling begin. There truly is no shame in immorality anymore. Or am I being politically incorrect here?

But perhaps I don’t give the GMA anchors enough credit. Do they often have book reviews? Do they cover different genres?

Larry Brooks March 13, 2012 at 6:47 pm

@Debra — I respect your opinion, actually share it to a great extent. However, should be noted… GMA didn’t create the viral phenomenon surrounding this book, so they can’t take that rap (whether they review books or not). Fact is — even if you and I and anyone don’t approve — the book tapped into a “force” of storytelling (vicarious experience) in a way that resonated. In comparing it to Sex in the City, which isn’t quite as out there, the point becomes, I think, clear. The story works for a mass audience, enough to cause it to go viral, and that’s where the learning is. Those other books I mentioned that went viral, none of them were close to “objectionable,” at least in a sexual context (many objected to Davinci’s religious stance, but again, that’s just one end of the opinion spectrum, just like this book), so no, this isn’t “what it takes to go viral,” as you ask. Maybe you miss the point — the topic isn’t what goes viral, the tapping into underlying forces of storytelling does. We get to choose where and how we apply it.

Hope this helps clarify, without challenging your opinion regarding the reading tastes of the public. It is what it is, and we all get to write (and read) as we please. Thoughts? L.

Debra Erfert March 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm

I understand about the content, Larry, but what I’m saying is that the high profile of the GMA people talking up the book created a much bigger wave of curiosity that carried the book along to a level it might not have achieved if otherwise left to the blind Internet networking alone, or if the book sat quietly on the shelf at the store. The viewership of GMA is automatic. People turn on the news just to have noise with their coffee in the mornings. When the beautiful people are excited about, well, anything, obviously that must be something we should be excited about, too. The power of suggest in strong in the average human. I see a commercial for pancakes, and I crave those stupid things all day long until I make breakfast for dinner. They made people curious about that book with their enthusiasm. Would they make those same people curious about a “sweet” or “clean” romance that is just as well written–one that would carry the reader along on an fabulous emotional ride? Would they even want to? Somehow, I have my doubts. Truly, I do.

spinx March 14, 2012 at 3:49 am

Terminator II, Back to the future, MATRIX, TopGun, Rain man – little foot!! – all high concept!
Growing up those were the movies that stuck with me. That moved me.

Of course, now I am older, a lot of movies have lost their spark, have traded in that excitement for somber realization of all the faulst. But not all movies have, no, not all.
There are the ones that have remained, and still excite me – more so now than ever.

Because concept alone never satisfied me, never had me tuly invested, truly feeling, caring, rooting for the characters.
—————————————————————
Actually, ever since I started writing, my goal has been to create this kind mix, a pop song, a melody to remember, but still with the kind of lyrics you won´t forget, that make your heart bleed just that little more.
————————-

On another note! I just came across a very nice speech, given by no other than WIlliam Faulkner himself – a read well worth!

The one sentence that struck me so deeply, I want to share:

“He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion.”

(if anyone wants to read the whole speech, check it out here http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/faulkner/faulkner.html )

Christie March 14, 2012 at 5:52 am

Larry, on the surface to someone who hasn’t read the books, it does look like 50 Shades is completely different than Twilight due to the sex, lack of vampires, etc. But the fact is that it IS a Twilight fanfiction, and many of the choices the author made for that story are directly because of characters/events in Twilight. Comment #46 on this post http://dearauthor.com/features/industry-news/master-of-the-universe-versus-fifty-shades-by-e-l-james-comparison does a good job at pointing out some of those similarities.

Martha March 14, 2012 at 8:47 am

Out here in the weird, windy city of Portland, OR, I just heard of “50 Shades” and decided it might make sense to take another look at a collaborative mystery novel I wrote with 2 other women and have been trying to peddle. I got to thinking: maybe we should throw in a little more of this kind of spicy stuff. So I went online and read the first few pages of “50 Shades”, backed away, and closed my browser. I didn’t even get to the ‘spicy stuff’ but 3 pages of that breathless, deathless prose was enough for me. Maybe I didn’t give the book a chance to hook me, but when I think about how hard we aspiring novelists work on our craft, polishing it, struggling to refine it, this kind of success makes me wonder what kind of biz we’re trying so hard to break into. I sincerely wish the author of “50 Shades” luck and success, just as I wish all writers the same, but I guess I don’t aspire to the level of “50 Shades”. I hope to reach a little higher.

Denise March 14, 2012 at 10:57 am

It’s very common in the fan fiction world to write stories that have little resemblance to the source material. I’ve read plenty that have made me think, “Why didn’t they just write this as original fiction?”

I believe there are two answers. First, for a writer starting out, there is safety in playing in someone else’s sandbox. It’s easier to use someone else’s characters like paper dolls and dress them in your own costumes and put them in your own setting. I can understand that. I’m fine with it because these writers at this point are exploring a hobby, they’re not writing as a commercial endeavor. A lot of writers get started in fan fiction and the support of the community encourages them to go on and write original fiction.

Second, there are people who write fan fiction for the built in audience. E.L. James knew that hundreds of thousands of people look up twilight fan fiction every month. If you post a Twilight fan fiction on a fan fiction site, it’s going to get read. So what’s easier, write your story as a fan fic, use Stephanie Meyer’s audience, and then cash in or post an original fiction and hope someone stumbles across it on the internet?

I don’t have a problem with people writing fan fiction. I do have a problem with doing a find and replace with character names and then selling that fan fiction. Would this story have gotten so popular if the author had started out without Stephanie Meyer’s established platform? Most likely not. Maybe it would have, we’ll never know because the author didn’t have the guts to try and make it on her own.

Lake March 14, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Interesting blog comments, but all debate on fan-fiction aside what strikes me hardest here are the powerful words, “Deep, forbidden and unavailable.” Here’s why – I’m never going to read a book about a guy who works a corporate job, puts in very long hours and strives to become a great writer all night long. That’s too much like me. Rather, I’m going to read the stories about people that take me out of the day-to-day existence and provide a vicarious experience that I would risk my life for in the real world. As a reader, I want to go someplace I’ve never been – or never even imagined – and be someone spectacular, yet human enough to be like me. As a reader I want the “deep,” the in-some way “forbidden” (at least to me) and I especially want the “unavailable.” I want all of it within a high stakes conflict that makes me say, “I gotta know how it ends…” So the counsel is dead on, Larry, as always. As a horror writer, I’m poised to explore the “deep, forbidden and unavailable” in numerous ways. And, believe me, I’ll work my A off to do so. As always, thank you for all you do.

Curtis March 14, 2012 at 9:47 pm

“the topic isn’t what goes viral, the tapping into underlying forces of storytelling does.”

@Larry. Now that’s the one you ran up the flag pole I want to salute. How many books have a great topic but don’t touch the life story of the reader? Result?

I’m guessing, no life story touched no book read. Even non-fiction, which I have written tons of,has to “touch” more and on a deeper reader level than the topical. Be it Mommy porn or Popular Religious Studies, those brain synapses have to fire or the book gets tossed.

Rosanne Dingli March 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Gee, Lake – and my publishers have just released my latest novel Camera Obscura, which is exactly that – a story about a guy just like anyone else, boring and bored… who gets caught up in a chase after a beautiful woman who drives him crazy enough to follow to a small Mediterranean island where she attempts to either make a total fool out of him, or a criminal. What does Bart Zacharin do?? I made him do stuff to take readers on a vicarious wishful thinking romp. That’s what 50 shades does.

@Socknitster April 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm

I think one point has been missed here. Maybe two.

First–this author brought readers with her. She had a following in fan fiction and they bought the book and left reviews. Positive reviews sell books. That CLEARLY contributed to this book going viral. She already had a fan base to draw from. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Fandoms like Twilight are absolutely HUGE.

Second–I agree she was playing in someone else’s sandbox, but come on. These are stock characters, nothing terribly special. I haven’t read Twilight and haven’t read 50 Shades but these darn things get so much press you get the gist, no? She wrote words–just like we all do. The fact that they weren’t edited properly is regrettable. But she wrote the words and she’s selling them and people are buying them, so, who can sneeze at that?

I completely agree that fan fiction is a great way for aspiring writers to practice their craft. I’ve done it myself.

The rest? Well, maybe it is a vicarious ride, but to me it sounds like plain, old-fashioned titillation. Went viral, yes, but I don’t think for the reasons you mention in this post.

Larry Brooks April 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm

@Socknitster — interesting. But I think we’re more in agreement than you realized. First… EVERYBODY entering the publishing game is faced with the NEED to bring readers with you. It’s a whole new proposition now, publishers are weighing a “platform” more than ever before… so 50 Shades is not unique in that regard. Yes, she brought a large fan base, but that’s for the same reasons — her story appealed.

As for titiallation vs. vicarious ride… that’s totally a nit. Same thing. Always has been.

You make my case for me so clearly, I”m surprised that seem to be challenging me. We’re saying the same thing: she wrote a story, she brought readers… nothing special in that. She delivered an experience readers were drawn to, in a big way. That’s the IDEA of going viral. And always, somebody in the media has to latch on to a trend, a noise on the web, and that’s something we — and this author — have no control over. We throw out the best bait we can, and we hope we catch a monster. The author of 50 Shades did just that, she covered the “I hope I go viral” bases, and she scored.

Uptight Citizens' Brigade April 10, 2012 at 7:28 pm

I may be something of both a Luddite and a prude, but I don’t think “viral” is the best word to use when dealing with a sex book. Just sayin’.

That’s the kind of stuff that I would prefer neither shown nor told. Eee-yuck.

Marjorie F. Baldwin April 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm

My first book, Conditioned Response is definitely positioned to be a breakout novel – and it’s already started going viral!! I haven’t even published it yet and people are buying the UNPROOFED GALLEY VERSION that I labeled in all caps that way. I’m pretty sure the fact it’s a sexy SciFi Thriller will work in its favor, not against it (genre work is always 50/50 though, you have to hit the timing right).

I’m totally in agreement you have to have a great book–but that’s true for just selling it, more than 100 copies. If your book is lousy or unprofessionally prepared (not proofread, not covered with nice, eye-catching artwork, has internal plotting inconsistencies or holes) it’s not going to sell even 100 copies.

If your book meets and rises past all those hurdles, you still don’t breakout and go viral just because it’s that good–you’re so right, Larry–but I don’t think you can “only” do it by making a protagonist that your readers want to BE. I think the keywords there are “living vicariously through the characters” and of course, the journey has to be one that readers either WANT to take or can’t help but get caught up in (or get caught up in it before they realize it’s too late to stop reading because now they HAVE to know what happens!) That’s not necessarily a “gripping page turner” though one of those will do it. You can make a great book that pulls the reader along and makes them want to read faster — and make it about shopping. Well, okay, I couldn’t write that but maybe you could, Larry (haha)

In my case, with Conditioned Response, I dive right in and hold the reader captive by making them care about the people in my fictional world. The characters are so interesting, you want to know more about them–and then you feel their pain everytime something happens (that’s the empathetic component)

I’ve made my readers cringe, laugh out loud, cry, shudder, shiver and well, the sex is really good so whatever it is you do when you read really good sex, yeah, some of that ((wink)) Repeatedly. Then I start killing people because as I say in my “Friday’s Rules,” If you have sex, then you die. If you have great sex, then you die horribly. If you have mind-blowing sex, you might just implode. The sex in this book is… mind blowing *muahaha*

The science in this book is also pretty mind blowing – literally. I visualize a journey into the minds so clearly (right there in chapter 2) the reader knows we are not in the here and now–and they might not want to come back to reality because this future world I created is pretty darn kewel!

Beneath all of the kewel science and sexiness is raw humanity. Just people. The most human of them isn’t even human, she’s an alien (Phoenician) but the humanity is so easy to connect with, THAT’s why my readers go on a vicarious journey with these people. It’s hard to resist joining in when they’re all so real and normal and unreal and nothing like you would ever meet in real life and just like someone you might see in the mall. I deliberately made it all very intellectually accessible and “easy” while also being so vividly different and engrossing, you become fascinated with it. Like a train wreck. You can’t look away. You HAVE to see what happens.

Alas, I can only write and edit and release one book a year with my day job so until I do actually break out and go viral, my readers will HAVE to wait to see what happens. Maybe that’ll make ‘em buy faster? ^_^

-Friday (@phoenicianbooks)
http://about.me/FridayBaldwin

CHARLES DITTON June 29, 2012 at 3:42 am

Larry

Great blog post. Absolutely agree that for a book to go viral they need to deliver something else, though sometimes it takes a while for that to seep into mainstream thought and then boom! My money is currently on English Author Stephan J Myers and his debut novel Loss De Plott which seems to be rapidly building a cult following and no vampires or sex on the radar!

Janet May 10, 2013 at 8:08 am

What do you mean by “high concept”?

Larry May 10, 2013 at 12:10 pm
mica June 4, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Denise is right. 50 shades of Grey blew up because it was Twilight fan fiction, it is essentially a love story with a lot of sex thrown in and it has a ‘Edward Cullen’, ‘Damon – from The vampire diaries’ type male in it.

Women are going gaga over the romance, not so much the sex. Look at Goodreads and Amazon and look at the bestsellers list, romance novels with Christian Grey type hero’s have been dominating the charts for over a year now.
There’s nothing ‘high concept’ about 50 shades, there’s another Twilight fan fiction that is doing well on the internet now and writers can publish their fan fiction through Amazon soon.

If you look at sites such as Wattpad and Inkpop, you will see that romance novels with so called bad boys like the guys i mentioned above, are very popular.

JT Sather December 11, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Great post. I have indeed written such a non-fiction little rag. It possesses all of the criteria above, and yet it lags. I have every belief that it will explode one day. The reviews I’ve received are outstanding. It’s just a matter of time, I guess, but the waiting is driving me mad. I need to find that next level of -giddyupedness- to get this horse moving.

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