By Mark Alpert
Mass-market success is a bewildering thing. There’s no doubt that a well-financed marketing effort can boost the popularity of a movie, book, or television show. Why else would Hollywood spend hundreds of millions of dollars to promote its latest offerings? And yet there are many examples of plucky films and books that unexpectedly gathered wide followings without the aid of any big marketing campaign.
I first analyzed this topic in the late 1980s when I wrote a story about fashion-industry marketing for Fortune magazine. Remember all those goofy 1980s fashion trends? The shoulder-pad craze, for instance? Marketing experts told me it was hard to identify the origins of that particular sartorial mania. Did people instinctively go wild for the linebacker look in a kind of mass hysteria, or were they pushed in that direction by canny advertisers trying to profit from excessively padded blouses? Or, to phrase the question more generally, how much leverage can corporations exert over consumer choice? One of the ways to study this question is to focus on fashions that are adopted more freely — that is, in situations where no one has a financial interest in influencing the public’s tastes.
A good example of this kind of fashion choice is the selection of baby names. No corporation is going to spend its ad dollars trying to convince you to name your kid John or Nancy or Preston. In this situation, the influences are personal and cultural, rather than economically driven. And as we all know, there have been huge changes in the popularity of certain baby names over the past several decades. Does anyone name their kids Seymour or Ida these days? So the marketing experts wanted to study the trends in baby-name popularity to get a better understanding of how consumer choices are made. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the results of those studies, and I can’t even locate the story I wrote on this topic. All this happened before the Internet.
And of course the Internet ushered in a whole new arena of consumer influence. I’m not an expert on viral marketing, but many of my friends are freelance journalists, and as a group they’ve become pretty obsessed with tracking the popularity of the Web articles they write. Some of them have a financial incentive to maximize the readership of their stories, because they’ll get paid more if their articles attract a greater number of clicks. I haven’t done a whole lot of journalism since I sold my first novel, but every once in a while I write stories about science or politics for various websites, and I’ve noticed a few characteristics that seem to enhance the readership of those articles. Those same characteristics, I believe, can also boost the popularity of novels, giving them a better shot at making the bestseller lists.
So what are the keys to viral success? Let me tell you a couple of stories about what’s worked for me.
Back in 2014 I heard something strange about NASA. The space agency was funding research on what was described as a warp-drive technology. Yes, warp-drive, like the engines on the Starship Enterprise. Just in case you’re a little rusty on your Star Trek trivia, I’ll provide a brief explanation of how the Enterprise and all those Klingon and Romulan starships are able to flit across the galaxy so easily. They’re not actually going faster than the speed of light, at least not locally; instead, their warp drives are compressing the spacetime in front of the starships. These drives bend spacetime into an asymmetric bubble around the spacecraft, distorting the fabric of the universe so violently that a trillion miles of interstellar vacuum (as seen from an outsider’s perspective) can shrink to a few inches (as seen from the bridge of the Enterprise). Within this distorted bubble, the spacecraft never exceeds the speed of light, but once it crosses the compressed spacetime and emerges from the bubble it could be hundreds of light-years from its starting point. Take us to Warp Nine, Mr. Sulu.
This technology works great on the television show, but in reality it’s a little more complicated. Bending the spacetime around a real starship would require enormous amounts of an exotic form of energy that may or may not exist in our universe. Nevertheless, a NASA researcher named Harold White thought he could test the principle behind the warp-drive technology in a tabletop experiment, and the space agency agreed to spend $50,000 on the project. (Which is a relatively small investment given the agency’s twenty-billion-dollar annual budget.) That was the gist of the story I wrote for Scientific American’s website, that NASA was willing to take a small gamble on an unlikely hypothesis that most scientists scoffed at. But this little news squib quickly attracted tens of thousands of readers, the great majority of whom were reeled in by the Star Trek references and the accompanying illustration of the Starship Enterprise in flight.
I know that the inherent quality of the story didn’t give it the big boost in readership, because I wrote a very similar article for the same website two years later, a story about a more reasonable, feasible plan for interstellar travel (it’s called the Breakthrough Starshot project), and this second story didn’t attract an extraordinary number of readers. The big difference in popularity was obviously due to the widespread appeal of Star Trek, which continues to be a powerful cultural force 50 years after the original television series went off the air. So the lesson here for fiction writers is that it’s commercially useful to write a novel that piggybacks on an enduringly popular theme, person, place, or period of history. For example, a novel set during the Civil War will likely attract more readers than a novel set during the War of 1812, even if the two books are identical in quality. It’s just a fact of life: there are a lot of Civil War buffs out there. (I happen to be one of them.)
My latest brush with viral fame occurred just a few weeks ago during the holiday break. My new novel SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK has a nonfiction introduction entitled “Physics and the Search for Meaning,” and I thought it would be cool to put an excerpt from this essay on the Scientific American website. I gave the excerpt a somewhat provocative title — “Can Science Rule Out God?” — and it ran on the website a couple of days before Christmas. I promptly forgot about it because I had to drive the family up to Maine for the holiday, but when I got back to New York and looked at my emails I saw one of those ominous messages from Twitter: “You have 152 notifications” or something like that. My essay had definitely struck a chord. I’d put forth a middle-of-the-road position, arguing that we need to better understand the laws of physics before we could say anything useful about their origins, and I got dozens of impassioned responses from both believers and nonbelievers. Lots of people have strong opinions on the question of God’s existence, and they’re eager to share. These readers want to be part of the conversation. They want to be heard.
The typical experience of reading a novel is more of a one-way communication: the writer tells a story, and the reader listens. But some novels almost demand a response. This kind of book touches on something that the reader cares deeply about, something universal, and the reader wants to prolong that impassioned immersion in the story even after finishing the novel. So a common reaction is to encourage other people to read the book too. Or go online and discuss the plot and characters. These readers get feverish and excitable, and with every breath they spread the ideas that the novel has planted within them.
Just like a virus.
Speaking of God, I recently wrote another essay related to my new novel SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK. The heroine of this book is a modern-day version of Joan of Arc, so I did a lot of reading about the original Joan and developed some fervent opinions about her legacy. My essay was published this week in America magazine; you can read it here.