viral video lit 04.06.2005, 11:05 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Faced with declining coverage of books in newspapers and magazines, writers are constantly looking for new ways to promote their work on the web. Literary blogs have done a lot to fill in the gaps left by print, covering lesser-known authors and titles translated from foreign languages, and even revisiting older works. And since many lit bloggers are writers themselves, the blogs serve as a virtual salon where writers and intellectuals come to spar about literature, recommend books, and share their own work. Cory Doctorow offers free, cc-licensed downloads of his novels, attracting readers, generating buzz, and bolstering sales of his books in print. Others are sneakier, deploying anonymous 5-star reviews under their own titles to boost sales on Amazon.
The latest, and probably most expensive, trick is video lit, or book shorts - brief little films (like movie trailers or music videos, but for books) designed to be spread virally through email, blog shout outs, and links, just like the digital tidbits - video clips, images, sites, articles - we stumble upon and circulate daily among friends and family. If people like what they see, they can buy the book (a convenient link to Amazon or Barnes & Noble is provided).
It sounds a bit cock-eyed to advertise books as though they were movies, but proponents of the form say it can get results. There's a piece in Wired that profiles some of the writers who have experimented with the form, and the little production houses that help them do it. The most frequently cited example is a Flash-animated encapsulation of "Yiddish With Dick and Jane," a borscht-belt-infused pastiche of the iconic 1950s children's reading primers. Not too long ago, the 2:45-minute film, produced by a company called Vidlit, was getting passed around incessantly on the web, while at the same time, the physical book flew like hot cakes off the shelves, going on to sell over 150,000 copies. Whether the two are related is hard to say. The book was pretty heavily promoted in stores as a no-brain-required gift item. But Vidlit touts this as a coup of viral advertising.
BookShorts, a Canadian company, produces full live action films for its titles. I watched the book short for Susan Swan's novel "What Casanova Told Me" and was not terribly impressed. It comes off like a preview for a TV movie adaption of a trashy book. But the Dick and Jane example, silly as it is, suggests how clever design and a quick one-two punch can get you a lot of mileage on the web. If people like the idea (and clearly they did), and if the film possesses a kind of must-see quality (the visual equivalent of a good one-liner, a zinger), then people might feel compelled to shuffle it voluntarily through the web. I could see this perhaps working for a political tract or manifesto, or for a religious text - something that is compulsive and seems to contain the seeds of larger truths or revelations. Imagine if this piece were connected to a book (click "Knife Party," then again in new window, then watch "What Barry Says" by hitting "click here" at the bottom). Breathtaking visuals and a compelling political premise combine to whet the appetite for further reading.
Posted by ben vershbow on April 6, 2005 11:05 AM
Cory Doctorow on April 7, 2005 2:02 AM:
"Some writers circulate digital copies of their work for free, hoping to attract readers, buzz, and perhaps (if they're incredibly lucky) a book deal."
All the books that I put online are simultaneously published by a major commercial publisher -- I'm not trying to get a book deal; I'm trying to make more money on the book deal I already have.
ben vershbow on April 7, 2005 11:15 AM:
Right, print and digital working in a nice symbiotic relationship. I realize I may have linked sloppily and confused the issue a bit. Have since fixed it.
But to continue the discussion... In your case, the fire first caught in print, in a science fiction magazine. Then you published your first novel and started putting the free CC downloads on the web. So you're living proof of the internet's ability to catch, refract, and bounce that fire back into the material world. You're going dual exhaust.
But except for something like House of Leaves, it seems that books, as we think of them, invariably begin in print. For now at least, the web serves to amplify gestures from the physical world. The Creative Commons movement fights to protect works produced within those waves of amplification, and offers more flexible options for someone like you. You've managed to thrive in both systems. But say Grokster prevails, CC gains traction, and the activist fire subsides.. is there any way for a writer to actually make a living on the web, or is it all just howling in an echo chamber?
Cory Doctorow on April 9, 2005 6:54 AM:
You're being awfully generous to the sf mags, I think -- the print mags circulate 100-40,000 copies, by and large. They don't come close to the mass audience that books have.
dan visel on April 13, 2005 2:43 PM:
John Darnielle, songwriter-in-chief for the Mountain Goats (and eloquent blogger) talks about artists responding to their critics in the online world here [ http://lastplanetojakarta.com/archives/2005/04/rave_on.php ]. He's approaching it from the music world, where there's maybe a faster feedback loop.