Is ‘viral book’ an oxymoron?

May 29, 2019

You’ve seen the tweets: some personal news, followed by a Publishers Marketplace screenshot containing the phrase “based on their viral article.” Sometimes, rather than a direct correlation between the deal and the viral essay, the announcement may read “writer of viral personal essays,” or “host of the viral podcast.” (The definition of viral is left for the reader to determine.)

Traditional publishing, among the slowest of all media, and social media, the quickest, are working together more often. A search of the Publishers Marketplace database for the word “viral” turned up 14 non-fiction books in the first five months of 2019. Seven were sold from viral articles, and six were sold on the basis of another “virality”—for instance, a viral photo or a viral Facebook broadcast. In comparison, 11 books were sold in conjunction with viral media in all of 2018, six based on articles and four on other online media (including a “viral cooking technique”).

Digital media is not an industry known for its profitability. However, the uptick in publisher interest in viral work indicates a hope that publishing can capitalize on an internet-tested zeitgeist: presumably, publishers believe that those viral articles will turn into bestselling books. Is this a legitimate hypothesis? Can publishers forge a solid link between the fast pace of the internet and the very slow business of book publishing? What can authors hoping to garner a book deal learn from this newfound interest in virality?

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In November 2018, BuzzFeed launched a month-long “Detox your Thoughts” challenge with cognitive behavioral advice by Dr. Andrea Bonior. Three months later, publisher Chronicle Prism bought a book based on Bonior’s effort at auction. Bonior found the virality that lies behind the book contract comforting—“it felt like the topic was something that people were really wanting and needing,” she says. Her book is due this summer—a notably faster turnaround than most book contracts, perhaps an indication that publishers would like to capitalize on the zeitgeist before it fades.

But it’s best to see virality as an origin point rather than a guarantee of book success, says Leigh Stein, whose 2014 BuzzFeed article “Piecing Together My Abusive Ex-Boyfriend’s Final Summer” was the basis for her memoir The Land of Enchantment.

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“It’s definitely a launchpad and not something you can translate into book sales,” Stein, who also teaches a course on using online writing to build a career, says. “What could I do? Say, ‘Thanks for reading my article, please join my mailing list,’ and months later send a link to my book? If they read the essay, do they even want to buy the whole book? Maybe not.”

Authors frequently gripe that they don’t get enough support from their publishers, either during the writing process or else when it comes to marketing their work. But the support problem seems more marked for writers who are signed up in the heat of a viral moment. One author, who did not want to be named for fear of jeopardizing future writing work, put it simply: “Don’t expect much from publishers.”

It seems like publishers are trying to capture success from these glinting moments of optimism. Good luck. But, then again, what other option is there?

Virality, for some publishers, might indicate a built-in audience, which means that they can pass some of the responsibility for publicity to authors. It’s become common practice for agents and editors to discuss a writer’s “social media footprint”—which usually means Twitter following—when debating whether to offer them representation or a deal.

But it’s a flawed plan, according to one agent who who requested anonymity to speak critically of publishers. “Stuff goes viral all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work,” the agent says, “let alone the feasibility of stretching that content into a book, or the ability on a publisher’s part to translate that viral interest into sales.”

“Going viral means a story or an essay has an appeal to a certain lowest common denominator,” book critic Christian Lorentzen says, “something basic that a lot of people relate to or want to know about. But viral stories also tend to be free and morsel-sized, so cost and time aren’t obstacles to gaining a very wide audience. Once you have to lay out twenty bucks and spend a couple of days reading a whole book—the audience who does that wants something that’s more than basic.”

And even if a book offers a broader experience if they do, what is popular on Twitter—a platform on which 80 percent of messages are written by 10 percent of users, or about 30 million people—might not resonate outside of it.

“It seems like publishers are trying to capture success from these glinting moments of optimism,” Jeremy Gordon, book critic and culture editor at The Outline, says. “Good luck. But, then again, what other option is there?”

Ultimately, the viral book industry is a new attempt at the oldest game in publishing—to predict what will make for a bestseller, with the least possible risk. It’s not yet clear how strong an indicator of sales virality is. But for writers, it seems a wave worth riding.

“I don’t see too many cons, at least not for the writer,” Giancarlo Ditrapano, an independent publisher, says. “If they write a good book and get a big check, then awesome. If the write a shit book and get a big check, still kinda awesome. Not as awesome by a mile, but still.”

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Becca Schuh is cofounder of Triangle House Review. Her work has appeared in Bookforum and Electric Literature, among other outlets.