I caught you off-guard. I broke the regular weekly schedule, and made some of you take notice. The rest of you, who will discover this on Thursday or on the weekend, won’t be as surprised.
Or maybe you will, wondering what the heck I’m doing, messing with the schedule of the Business Blog.
I’m making a point.
The point is that when you do things the same way, day in and day out, the predictability actually helps. In something like a blog, it makes the readers show up as if they had an appointment, expecting that bit of entertainment or information. It’s part of their routine.
When you shake up that routine, it’s a bit uncomfortable, but it catches people’s attention.
Like I just did with some of you.
And most of you are scanning this, trying to see if I’m pulling off an April Fool’s Joke. I’m not. The fact that this post landed on April Fool’s Day is just a bit of a bonus. I’d been planning the surprise post as the penultimate post in this series since December.
Because that’s when I remembered just how marvelous surprise is.
December—or more specifically, the wee hours of Friday, December 13, is when Beyoncé slapped the music industry upside the head by releasing her latest album with a single announcement on Instagram.
I discussed this release in the January 1 blog post (marked Discoverability #5). Beyoncé’s move, the move of a secure, settled artist, was brilliant.
Her promotion campaign? Even more brilliant. That single post with an attached video said simply, “Surprise!”
What she did dominated the worldwide entertainment conversation over the holidays, the worldwide music conversation for about a month, and the music industry—well, they’re still discussing it.
Because what she did is impossible to repeat.
It came from her: her art, her brand, her desire to do something different. And yes, I know. She’s so much more famous than everybody, of course she can do it.
Anyone who is that famous can do it. Um, not. Not now. Because now, they’d be pulling a Beyoncé. She surprised us, and she owns method. It won’t be as exciting if Billy Joel does it or if Taylor Swift decides to release her next album the same way. It won’t be a surprise.
Surprises seem so obvious after the fact.
•Of course, Beyoncé can do this. Because she’s Beyoncé.
•Of course, Beyoncé can do this. The album is stellar, just like we expected.
•Of course, Beyoncé can do this. She has the fan base.
And on, and on, and on.
And yet, surprises—good surprises—catch our attention all the time. Sometimes they’re serendipitous, like this spectacular Hail-Mary basketball shot which also had the added benefit of a sweet narrative in the center.
Sometimes they’re the result of something the owner/creator knew (or hoped) but no one else did. The Veronica Mars Kickstarter project, which funded in 11 hours surprised even its creator in the speed of funding, but Rob Thomas knew that the defunct series had a lot of die-hard fans (called Marshmallows—don’t ask). The surprise was a pleasant one for him and the cast, but a difficult one because they now had to deliver. March has been the delivery month, including a surprise at the box office—the film is still doing better than the studios expected, probably due to (ahem) word of mouth.
Those Kickstarter projects that came after Veronica Mars? They made some money, but didn’t surprise the way the Mars Kickstarter did. In fact, they probably disappointed, because the creators expected a Veronica-Mars effect. I know the media did.
I know someone is going to ask this, so here’s how it would go if I were teaching this in person.
Student: So, how do you surprise?
Kris: Really? Seriously? You’re asking me that—Boo!
But some of you are thinking it, so here goes.
Believe it or not, surprise takes a lot of thought. Sometimes its serendipitous as in that basketball shot with the fantastic back story, but mostly, surprise is the result of good hard work.
For writers—and discoverability—surprise takes two forms.
First, you must surprise with your art. What does that mean exactly? It means if the reader knows how all of your books will end—or, if you’re writing romance (or something with a prescribed ending), the readers will know exactly how you get to the end.
The book must catch the reader off guard. Sometimes that off-guard is big, and sometimes it’s just a different direction than the average writer would take the book.
In George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series, which everyone (including me) refers to as Game of Thrones, George included a major surprise in Book 3, A Storm of Swords. Readers were upset and intrigued in joint measure. Fans remembered this, of course, and if you go to the Westeros website discussion forum from a few years ago, the fans were trying to figure out when the HBO series would catch up to the book.
Because, the book fans (bless them) didn’t want to ruin the surprise for the TV fans. But the book fans wanted to see the reactions of the TV fans, so they did what any good modern person does—they filmed their friends’ reactions. Here’s George on Conan O’Brien’s show, discussing this, along with some clips of the surprised reactions. (If you are still spoilerific on Game of Thrones [and seriously, how can you be?], don’t watch this.)
That’s the kind of surprise that keeps readers reading, keeps viewers talking, and puts your work into the conversation. On March 23, the TV show The Good Wife had an even bigger surprise for its fans because no one except the people involved in the show knew it was coming.
The show had already earned the respect of fans with a fantastic game-changing episode in the fall—all of this in Season 5, when most shows run out of steam—and so when the show’s previews said that the game-changer was really on March 23, fans tuned in, not wanting to hear discussion of the show the next day.
Was there a surprise? Oh. My. God. (Seriously, be nice to me. I’m still in recovery.)
The Good Wife is an even better of artistic surprise for a couple of reasons. First, the producers received some very bad news in early 2013, and rather than let it derail the show, they used that news to make the show better. Second, the show has never been a highly rated series. However, because it’s been consistently part of national entertainment dialogue for the past two years now (and because it wins awards), it has been renewed when other series, with the same ratings, haven’t been.
On the other hand, one of the Good Wife’s Sunday night competition shows, Revenge, had so many surprises and so many twists and turns that the show got completely and utterly ridiculous. The surprises ceased to be a surprise and just became a single question: Do the writers know what they’re doing? My guess, as a former fan, is no.
So surprise in art is something you use sparingly, but you must use that tool in your creative toolbox. And you need to use it in your promotion toolbox as well.
What, exactly, do I mean by that?
Well, almost everything writers believe they “need” to do to promote their books was something that originator of the promotion had done as a successful surprise.
Romance author Debbie Macomber is a promotions maven. I tried to Google the history of her promotions, but I couldn’t quickly find anything, because she’s been promoting her work for so long.
What I do know is this: She was the first romance author to make a concentrated effort to go to bookstores. She did flyers, she did bookmarks, she did a newsletter before anyone else. She gave away something with every book—and it was never the same thing, nor was it the same as something other authors were doing.
When the rest of the romance world heard what she was doing and started producing bookmarks, Debbie had given her best bookseller promoters aprons. She has done all kinds of intriguing promotional things. I’m being purposely vague because I followed what she was doing, saw a lot of it come through a bookstore (to a grumpy male bookseller who [even though he didn’t cook] still took notice), and heard her speak more than once on the things she did.
She was always inventing something new, and is so far ahead of the game that when I Googled this, I found that her fans collect her promotional items. Which, after 31 years of publishing and promoting, makes complete sense.
Debbie enjoys doing this. She loves the fan interaction. She’s good at it. I’m not saying you have to do it, but if you do promote and you want someone to notice what you do, then do something different.
Stop doing what everyone else does. Do something that connects to one of your books, and make that something memorable. Make it original.
Think about it.
What would you like to see a YA writer do to promote her work? Or a romance writer? What really cool thing did you get from some non-book promotion that you could see easily translate to books?
What caught your attention last week with promotion, somewhere in the arts or in business? Can you do that? Should you do that?
Be creative, and be innovative.
But more important than that, be true to yourself. Don’t do something that makes you uncomfortable, that feels like pandering, or is something you’re doing only because someone else told you to.
Remember to write the next book.
Or write a column early.
Like this one.
“The Business Rusch: Surprise!” copyright 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch