There are two kinds of books that are almost surefire hits and which publishers will bid what may seem like insane amounts: Those written by (or ghostwritten for) celebrities, and those written by (or ghostwritten for) celebrities.
Andre Agassi signed a deal for a reported $5 million for his upcoming autobiography, which isn't yet available but already inching its way toward the top of Amazon's sales rankings. Bill Clinton received $15 million to write his 2005 autobiography, My Life, widely viewed as the largest advance in book publishing history (until Oprah Winfrey signed a contract for a weight-loss book). Hillary Clinton took in an $8 million advance for her tale of her years in the White House. While their publishers shelled out an armored car's worth of cash, the Clintons and Winfrey sold millions of books and easily earned back their advances and then some. Sarah "Going Rogue" Palin attracted a comparatively modest $1.25 million for her forthcoming memoir, yet based on preorders—it's #2 on Amazon's sales rankings a full two weeks before its release—HarperCollins stands to reap a windfall.
If you want to be a successful author it helps to be famous. With the advent of social media, however, the rules are changing, and that leads me to Gary Vaynerchuk, author of Crush It: Why Now Is The Time To Cash In On Your Passion. He boils down his message to this: Follow your passion, then deploy social networking tools to not only build your business but to extend your own personal brand that "makes you all the money and, more important, brings you all the happiness you could ever want."
Some may have scoffed when earlier this year, GaryVee, which is how he often refers to himself, inked a 10-book deal worth a reported 7-figures with HarperStudio. A week after the Crush It hit store shelves his slender volume (barely 140 pages) landed on The New York Times Business Book Bestseller List. Who's scoffing now?
I've been watching Crush It's progress with interest since Viral Loop was published the same day. While sales of my book might be characterized as brisk, GaryVee's are a veritable tsunami. About 80 people came to my launch party; hundreds attended a book signing he gave at Borders. To date, 11 people have reviewed my book on Amazon. More than 90 have reviewed his, and whenever someone posts a negative review his legions of admirers attack the few dissenting voices. (Now that's customer loyalty.) I've followed him in TV interviews and on radio programs. He is a marketing machine.
My book identifies the growth engine behind viral phenomena like Hotmail, eBay, PayPal, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, illustrating how these entrepreneurs built multimillion and in some cases billion-dollar businesses from scratch, all without spending a dime on marketing. Their users spread their product for them. It outlines concepts like "viral coefficient," stackability—how a company like YouTube, for example, grew on top of MySpace to eventually become bigger than its host—the pitfalls of scaling to handle an onslaught of millions of users, designing a product to go viral, "viral tags," "viral media," humans' biological need for social networking both online and off-, and even the dark side of virality, when information becomes a weapon. Five publishers found the concept compelling enough to bid for it over three days in what one editor called "a very spirited auction." Without a built-in audience, however, I needed to adopt a long-term strategy to publicize Viral Loop.
In the sprit of the book, I implemented a social media marketing plan involving a Facebook application that tells users how much they are worth in dollars to Facebook based on their level of engagement, the number and level of activity of their friends, and their "influence." It has spread to thousands of users and I have been talking to companies about letting users take their Viral Loop values on Facebook and use them to buy real things, which would really juice its virality. I also commissioned an iPhone app, a predictions market game powered by InTrade.net, one of the biggest predictions markets on the Web.
All of this takes time to bear fruit. In essence, I am banking on selling enough books to create a large base of readers who will, if all goes well, spread the book to their social network of friends, family and colleagues by positive word of mouth—a system that has worked in publishing for centuries. But it can be slow going and although I've received very positive feedback on Viral Loop success is not assured.
GaryVee's book, on the other hand, is an inspirational work; you read it and you immediately believe you, too, could create a moneymaking enterprise with you as the boss. (I plan to include it on the syllabus of Entrepreneurial Journalism, a new graduate level course at New York University that I am scheduled to teach in the spring.) By creating a built-in following he may have become the first social media celebrity—the kind of guy publishers love.
How did he do it? The son of a Belarusian wine merchant from New Jersey, Vaynerchuk decided a few years ago to start a video podcast series about wine for regular people. His obstreperous, Jim Cramer-like charisma plays well over the Web—he's very funny and engaging, throwing out words like "douchebag" during wine tastings. After his wine video podcasts proved to be popular he transitioned into proffering career advice to would be entrepreneurs.
His timing, it seems, could not be better. As Sara Nelson, former publisher of Publishers Weekly, put it in the Wall Street Journal Online, GaryVee "may be the first to have become a celebrity in an era that merges the Internet, a recession, and rampant career dissatisfaction." Nelson reported that one editor at a major publishing house told her, "I can't tell you how many fix-your-career, reinvent-yourself proposals we've seen in the past few months." But "what sets Mr. Vaynerchuk apart from all those guru-wannabes may be that he already has an ardent fan base of frustrated entrepreneuers, the recently downsized and the generally careerologically challenged. He has a 'platform,' in other words, a built-in audience."
Or as GaryVee says in his book: "Three years ago I was an anomaly, a guy with very limited technology skills who used social sites like Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr to build a highly fulfilling and profitable personal brand ... The opportunities are endless—I don't think enough people have grasped just how much society and business and even the Internet have changed—and my story is about to become a lot less usual."
Ashton Kutcher has more than 3.9 million followers on Twitter largely because he's a star. Gary Vee has amassed 850,000 followers, which has helped make him a star. The difference is that it took him just a few years.
In many ways, Gary Vee sounds like one of the companies I write about in my book. He's become a Viral Loop brand, growing almost exponentially. Where he will stop, no one knows.
Adam L. Penenberg is author of Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves. A journalism professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Penenberg is a contributing writer to Fast Company. Viral Loop Chronicles appears weekly on Fast Company.