Ghost in the Machine

To hawk Douglas Coupland’s lastest novel, his publisher goes online

That’s the last area of media that comes to mind when you think new technology? It used to be newspapers. But they’ve caught on, chasing ad dollars and readers onto the Web. Even radio tends to stream.

No, the last significant media holdout seems to be the book publishing industry. Oh yeah, you say. They of the slow-moving book tour and the print ad and the author interview on C-SPAN2. Despite the proliferation of online book clubs, online publishing, major online writing contests (like Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award — the winner to be announced in April), and the introduction of e-readers like Kindle, most book promotions still aren’t what anyone would call cutting-edge.

“Marketing has never been a strength of the book publishing industry,” says Barry Parr, an analyst in the media group of JupiterResearch. The multitude of books that come out each year necessitate tight marketing budgets built around author appearances and press events.

However, as in any worthwhile yarn, this story line seems to be at a moment in the narrative arc where all events lead suddenly to a point of brilliant suspense. The protagonist — the publishing industry — has gathered its wits to execute something truly daring. And it’s something that just might save the day, or at least hurtle all the players into a thrilling thickening of the plot.

Among the most arresting of these changes are nine compelling videos from Random House of Canada — short, linked works on YouTube and elsewhere that promote Douglas Coupland’s latest novel, The Gum Thief.

Chronicles of Machina

Coupland’s 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, injected that label into the zeitgeist. The author, also a visual artist, has been prolific in chronicling the culture in books like Microserfs and jPodas it’s been changed by new technology. So it’s only fitting that, finally, the campaign for his latest novel be intimately linked with new media. 

The story of this campaign begins, as many good stories do, with a crisis. Coupland, who’s been putting out a new book about every 18 months, didn’t want to go on another tour. He had just finished touring for jPod, released in 2006, when it came time to plan promotions for Thief.

“He called me up and said one word,” says Sharon Klein, a publicist for Random House Canada. “YouTube.” (That might actually be two words.)

Luckily for Coupland, Random House liked the sound of that. It hired Crush Inc., a Toronto-based graphics and post-production studio, telling the firm it wanted to try something new, but it didn’t know what.

“Coupland’s audience is pretty savvy; he’s got a rabid following,” says Gary Thomas, Crush’s founder and the creative director of the videos. Plus, the book’s episodic structure — it’s presented as journal entries by two people — lent itself to something nontraditional, he says.

“We didn’t want to do dramatizations, hire actors and make a cheesy little movie,” Thomas says. “Imagine if these people were doing their own YouTube entries: How would they be seeing their lives?”

I Scream, You Scream

Crush produced a set of nine quirky videos that can stand on their own as episodic art pieces: three from the point of view of Roger, a grown man reduced to working at Staples; three from the point of view of Bethany, his goth co-worker; and three that feature a droll pair of drunks from Roger’s novel-in-progress.  

Typography and art, including animated office supplies, make the videos visually compelling; the dark stories of Coupland’s characters make them an addicting teaser for the book.

(Steve Hall, who blogs at Adrants, bought the book “influenced entirely by the advertising,” and it delivers, he wrote. “Like Häagen-Dazs ads. Except literary.”)

So far, the videos have gathered a small but impressive audience: The first clip was
featured on the YouTube homepage and racked up more than 225,000 views in two months. Subsequent videos — arguably more interesting than the first — weren’t featured; they attracted between 2,000 and 16,000 views each, plus a smattering of re-postings.  

Other authors and publishers have blogged about books as they’re being written, or have posted part or all of a book for free in an effort to build interest, says Parr. “This is pretty different, because you’re looking at spending some real money,” he says. “It wouldn’t necessarily work for every book, but this feels like it’s a good fit.”

Complementary campaign elements drove traffic to Coupland’s site, which also featured the videos, and to YouTube. Random House bought ads on MSN’s Sympatico, one of Canada’s most heavily trafficked sites, and, and built a strong presence for Thief on Facebook, which has a large Canadian membership. Random House also included traditional elements of a book campaign, including an ad in The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s largest newspapers. Coupland did one author event in Toronto.

The departure is paying off. “Sales for The Gum Thief have been consistently higher — and have remained higher — since it went on sale in September than, for example, his last book, jPod, and we do attribute this to the new media promotional activities,” says Tracey Turriff, senior vice president and director of marketing and corporate communications at Random House Canada.

Lost in the Plot

The publishing industry has been slower than others to harness new media, admits Lisa Charters, vice president and director of online sales and marketing for Random House Canada, but she says the past year has shown tremendous gains, with the industry jumping into social networking, widgets and online contests. Random House Canada has had its own dedicated online department for more than eight years, and has built up an archive of high quality Web audio and video on its Today the publishing house makes new media part of every promotion, she says.

Random House has even used new media to reinvigorate the traditional author tour, using Facebook and other sites to promote readings and interviews. Attendance at those events went up in 2007, Charters says, and the company plans to use the tactic even more aggressively in 2008. Connecting with authors is important to fans, and “people still want the offline experience,” Charters says.

That connection between authors and fans can be made online, too, in a way that makes the relationships richer and more complex, Parr says.

“What you’re looking at is a world where you can build an audience though that kind of interaction, and where authors are no longer remote,” Parr says. “Your only connection with them is not just seeing them on television, or shaking their hand at a book signing. That’s a big switch.”

In fact, literature as a whole is experiencing quite a bit of innovation, says Mark Marino, director of communications for the Electronic Literature Organization. He points to writers who are creating wiki-novels, such as A Million Penguins; collaborations among writers in multiple languages; and other interactive works of literature, such as 10:01, which exist as print and interactive works. Plus, as consumers’ lives become more intimately bound up with the Internet, they seem to be more open to reading on a digital screen, not just on paper, he says.

“I would hope that the campaign [for The Gum Thief] would call attention to … the campaign itself as a kind of literary art object, not independent of the books, but sort of interesting and engaging in its own right,” Marino says. “I hope it fosters other similar sorts of experiments.” 

But that’s a story for another day.

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