Welcome to viral book selling

UPDATE:  sadly Baboon Fart Story reached #9 on the narrower >General bestseller list, selling a mere 21 copies before being pulled by amazon. But still an interesting example of a book catching some viral publicity.

Today a book called Baboon Fart Story climbed to #9 on the Amazon bestseller list. The book featured the word “fart” over and over again and a cover featuring a baboon drinking its own pee. This “book” began its life as a rhetorical device in a blog post, an example to demonstrate that anyone can put any book on Amazon they like. Some bloke took the idea seriously and made it real. And, low and behold, as such things are want to do, it caught a wave of viral publicity and sold some copies.

At which point Amazon took it down. Disproving the original idea that Amazon will sell any old shit. But demonstrating a much more interesting truth.

There’s been much talk about the Amazon ebook marketplace this week. Primarily because of Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” report. With some scraped data from Amazon, Howey publicised what is already a pretty well documented fact. A relatively large number of writers are making quite large sums of money, almost overnight, by selling their indie published ebooks direct to readers. There has been wailing and gnashing of teeth, focused on whether Howey’s stats are correct. All of which neatly avoids actually asking what the hell is happening over in the jungles of indie ebook publishing.

What’s happening is that the dynamics of viral publicity and marketing which rule on video sites like YouTube, and on “news” sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, are arriving in the world of book selling. The books selling on Amazon aren’t quite the same books selling in bookshops. Oh, the big bestsellers like George R R Martin are there. But alongside Game of Thrones are books like The Atlantis Gene by A G Riddle. You know what you’re getting with The Atlantis Gene. Because everyone has heard of Atlantis. It doesn’t matter that the book reads like it’s been written by a twelve year old who has never read a book. Because most readers aren’t going to read it. They’re just buying something for a few quid that happens to look interesting. Crazy cat videos don’t have Hollywood production values either. It doesn’t matter, their viral marketability does not rest in their high quality.

There are two ways of looking at this viral quality that the Amazon ebook marketplace brings to book selling. One is that it undermines quality and the hard work of talented writers. Well, I guess that is true to an extent. But. The other is that writers now have a fairly solid digital marketplace where they can make money. IF they understand, and are willing to work with, the dynamics of that marketplace. So it’s not the right place to launch your intense literary masterpiece. But it might be the right place to bang out some cheesy but fun action oriented fantasy novellas and make a bit of money selling them to help fund your serious work.

Are you doubting this is possible? Remember, today a book with a peeing baboon on the cover made it big. If you’re a talented writer, why not use your talents to exploit a rich marketplace like this? Why not experiment with new kinds of story that engage the kind of casual but numerous readers the Kindle store attracts? Perhaps the question isn’t “does this undermine quality”, but do you have the chops to make quality writing that works in this space? Thought of as that kind of challenge, the reason so many writers are excited about ebooks becomes clear.

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You are not going to improve the world

Human beings are largely engaged in wasting enormous amounts of psychic energy in attempting to do things that are quite impossible. All sensible people therefore begin in life with two fundamental suppositions. You are not going to improve the world. And you are not going to improve your self. You are just what you are. And once you have accepted that situation, you have an enormous amount of energy available to do things that can be done. And everybody else looking at you from an external point of you will say “My god, how much so-and-so has improved!”

Alan Watts in discussion on the veil of thought. Listen to the full talk.