What Is an Author’s Marketing Responsibility With a Traditional Publisher?

Avery Monsen & Jory John

It is a pleasure to share this interview with two authors who are also marketing geniuses, Avery Monsen (@averymonsen) and Jory John (@joryjohn). A couple years ago they authored a brilliant illustrated book with Chronicle, All My Friends Are Dead, which became an online sensation and breakout bestseller with more than 100,000 copies sold. This year, the sequel released: All My Friends Are Still Dead.

I was eager to learn more about their marketing and promotion strategy, and they have been kind enough to share their methods and perspective.

While I clearly remember the moment I discovered your first book, All My Friends Are Dead—because I was absolutely delighted by it and HAD to share it—I have no recollection of how it got on my radar!

But at the time it was clear to me the book’s preview had gone viral. What were some of the steps you followed to make that happen, and what role did your publisher play, if any?

By the time ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD was published in June 2010, we’d already written one book—a writing and activity guide for kids called PIRATE’S LOG: A HANDBOOK FOR ASPIRING SWASHBUCKLERS—published by Chronicle Books in 2008.

So we had a little bit of experience on the publicity end, reaching out to people, trying to get the word out about our first book. But we’d also gotten the chance to see just how short that publicity window can be and how you have to go all out in the beginning. Otherwise, you just end up posting a link to your book over and over again on Facebook and nobody wants that. (FYI: Our friends put up with a lot. Sorry, friends.)

Truth be told, the two of us spend a lot of time on the phone with each other, coming up with ideas for all kinds of things … and when ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD was released, we wrote up a big list of publicity ideas and stunts that we wanted to try out, which we thought might generate some interest for a book that we thought was really funny—if we don’t say so, ourselves—and would appeal to people with similar senses of humor.

At the same time, we’re not publicists and we don’t fully understand how publicity works. (We don’t understand how most things work, actually, although we’ve been reading a lot of Wikipedia lately.) We just consider ourselves to be two creative guys who can come up with plenty of ideas and be persistent.

So, we had plenty of conference calls with the Chronicle publicity team, who are always super receptive and generous with their time. (Quick example: A second ago, we heard back about something we asked via e-mail 15 minutes ago, on a SUNDAY! It wasn’t even a very pressing question. So tons of credit goes to them.)

We have a tendency to get really caffeinated and bring up a lot of stuff at once and necessitate the making of lists and follow-up e-mails and second and third calls, etc.

So, we’d run (and we continue to run) our ideas past them, listen to their feedback and take plenty of their suggestions as well. We really wanted to be involved, though, and we also let it be known that we could be proactive and take the lead on things, anytime it would help.

We’re always a little surprised when we hear about authors who are passive about the book that they put a ton of work into upfront. We really subscribe to the philosophy that nobody cares as much about your book as you do, and for good reason. Shakespeare said that. (Not the Shakespeare you’re thinking of.)

We make a lot of lists. Some of the stuff that we came up with included:

      • a video starring Avery as Death
      • individual postcards with the book cover’s image mailed to top bookstores with a personalized note
      • a city-wide dinosaur hunt, where we’d hide toy dinosaurs all over San Francisco and plot their GPS coordinates onto a website. (This still hasn’t happened, although Avery did spend a weekend attaching tags with our website to 500 tiny dinos.)

Also, we started doing these all-day events outside of bookstores, just chatting with people who happened to walk by, which would sometimes turn into sales. We actually have a lot of experience working street fairs and talking to people. Before we were published authors, we sold ‘zines and shirts and other stuff that we make, and we’re both really comfortable talking to people, which helps. Sometimes we talk to people more than they want to talk to us. Oftentimes. Part of what helps is that we just enjoy goofing around and joking with people and we’re not necessarily in it for the hard sell.

We also made that website, which came to your attention and you were so nice to tweet about. That has a preview of about 10 pages of the book. It’s a very simple website (now with the sequel added), and when you’re done clicking through the pages, there are links on how to buy the book or share it on your preferred social networking site. So, a lot of people helped us spread the word through Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr. (We’ll address Tumblr in your next question. We read ahead, since this is an e-mail interview and we’re relatively quick readers.)

Your books are BIG on Tumblr. So is Tumblr one of your favorite or preferred social networks? Are you both active on Tumblr aside from the marketing of this book? How did you manage to crack that community with your first book? Serendipity? Good connections? Or, as one person has written, is it because the book is the “most Internet-ready nugget known to humankind”?

Well, something we realized is that ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD is not really a book that can get a traditional review in newspapers and magazines, for the most part. We did get a few, but it’s an illustrated humor book with around 300 words. So any attention we were going to get was probably going to be on the Internet, not from a typical book reviewer or news outlets.

There is something Internet-ready about our books. We definitely agree with that. Part of that has to do with the fact that we spend an inordinate amount of time online. We haven’t clocked it, but we probably spend more time staring at a screen than living real lives, which may help explain why we’ll both end up, ultimately, alone. That is, we’ll never meet our soul mates and, if we have met them already, we didn’t realize it and they lost interest in us while we were refreshing our Amazon pages. This might all be off-topic, but if any of your readers are looking for potential mates who are also published humor-book writers and who check their Amazon ranking three times an hour, we’re more than happy to use your blog and your good name as our dating site, Jane. Thanks in advance for being a reference and/or wing-woman.

SO ANYWAY: Tumblr. We’re relatively active on Tumblr in our non-book-release seasons. We have a comic called OPEN LETTERS, which appears in weekly newspapers around the country (and we’re always looking for more papers, editors: wink, wink, cough, cough, seriously), and which we post on Tumblr once a week. Avery also has his own page, which is both a personal blog and a place to add animated GIFs like a janitor who just can’t get his floor cleaned. Most of the stuff we put up doesn’t relate to our books at all. This is important, we think, for a couple reasons:

1. It’s just good to stay active and keep producing things. Creativity is a muscle that needs to be stretched even when you’re not getting paid for it.

2. Giving things away for free online builds up goodwill. People are more likely to reblog the promotional GIF for our book if they’ve already reblogged some other funny animations we’ve made. (That sentence is a complete guess. We have no facts to back it up. But it seems true, right? And if it seems true, it is true. Vonnegut said that. Again, not the Vonnegut you’re thinking of. We’re talking about Kurt Vonnegut.)

All My Friends Are Still Dead

I’m not the first one to mention this, but your method of sharing the book preview is somewhat unusual—an animated GIF (screen capture above, click here to view). Why do you prefer this method?

We had the website with our book-preview and then, almost as a happy accident, somebody on Tumblr decided to turn it into an animated GIF, which a bunch of people enjoyed and was passed around all over the place. If you’re familiar with Tumblr, you know that they make it super-easy to reblog something that you like and a lot of people seemed to like this. So, our GIF took off. Thanks to her, we even held a Tumblr record for a while, when the post got 38,000 notes, or some such thing. So when our latest book, ALL MY FRIENDS ARE STILL DEAD, came out, we did it again.

OK, one of the reasons we’re doing this interview is because I tweeted about your website when the first book came out. It’s pretty amazing to me that you have such good records that you contacted me more than a year later, with a personal note, saying that you appreciated that one tweet, and would I be interested in having a copy of the sequel. (So few authors have that kind of savvy, patience, and time, in my experience.) Can you give us a glimpse behind the curtain here as far as your process? This has to take loads of time!

We think it would be strange to us to release a book and not devote a lot of time and energy to it and, as mentioned, we’re surprised if we ever hear about authors who don’t want to be involved in this leg of it. We treat is as a job.

Again, we’re trying plenty of different things and we’re always pleasantly surprised when anything works out. We’re spending a decent chunk of each day on publicity and things like this, while working on a new book for Chronicle.

We’re in the process of trying to get a little publicity video together for the sequel, along with scheduling some events, setting up some giveaways and reaching out to people who we think might be able to help spread the word, more winks. We also continually update our Facebook page and try to get fans of our book excited about our new stuff.

As for contacting you, we’ve learned that being diligent about saying “thank you” to people AND staying in touch with folks who have said nice things about us is really important. We’d like to be able to tell you that we keep an Excel list of everybody who’s every mentioned us, along with notes with what they said, but we don’t. (If we ever get an intern, this might be a good first task!) We do have Google Alerts on our own names and all of our books, so we’re instantly notified whenever anybody says anything about us or our stuff. Treat that as a warning, general public.

In your case, you just happened to come up when we were discussing influential people that we should to contact. We’ve also learned that personalized notes go a long way. We’ve been on the receiving side of press releases before and we know how easy those mass e-mails are to ignore.

And thanks for calling us “patient.” We’d like to think that we’re in this for the long-haul, so we’re getting better at biding our time, making contacts, saying thanks, and then remembering those same people in a year or two when we have something new out.

So, yeah. We just remember being really excited when you tweeted about us. (How on Earth did you get 150,000 followers, by the way? You’re like a regular Ashton Kutcher or President Barack Obama. We’ll do ANYTHING. Seriously: think of the worst thing. We’ll do that for a few more followers. You know that question you asked us about Tumblr up there? We pose the same thing to you, re: Twitter. You’re a force, Jane. And we’re @averymonsen and @joryjohn.)

All My Friends Are Dead dinoIf you haven’t already clicked through to see the books referenced throughout, you absolutely must. Much gratitude to Avery and Jory for their time in offering such valuable insights.

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