The Business Rusch: Surprise! (Discoverability Part What The…?)

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Business Rusch logo webYes, it’s Tuesday. Yes, the Business Rusch usually appears on Thursday. And that’s the point.

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.

Why 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.

Of course.

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.)[youtube][/youtube]

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.

Surprise us.

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.

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“The Business Rusch: Surprise!” copyright 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

15 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Surprise! (Discoverability Part What The…?)

  1. Well played, and completely to the point. This perfectly echoes the type of great advice from the marketing sage Seth Godin, who would heartily approve of this post, and the illustration of how and why it works.
    Wisdom can come from many different directions, and I love the interconnected resonance when outstanding people in disparate fields are saying similar things.

  2. Awesome, Kris. Way to marry message and delivery. You really gave me a laugh.

    Plus the post is great, as always. Now what will you give us on Thursday???

  3. Nice object lesson, Kris! I was stalking your site because a particular character doesn’t want me in his head, and this chapter is just ornery to write. I’d feel guilty procrastinating on FB, but reading your or Dean’s site is somehow excusable… even though it’s not writing. I didn’t expect anything. I was just going to peek – and surprise! 🙂 And yes, I did feel that momentary quiver of vertigo, because your blog was not supposed to be there. So the surprise better be good – at least in advertising.

  4. I pondered this for a while this morning, after being surprised by your post. 😉 I was thinking about what kind of discoverability stuff works on me, and the only things I could think of were cover, blurb, and lots of titles available. Recommendations sometimes work for me and occasionally an excerpt. Giving stuff away? Not. At. All. I couldn’t care less about doo-dads. Don’t know how much in common I have with my readers, though.

  5. Love the surprise post! 🙂

    And, yes, “The Good Wife” surprise was a complete shock! Even to the end of the show I kept wondering if Will was truly dead. How could it be? Wow.

    Another shocker that blew me away a few years ago was on N.C.I.S. The gang was on a rooftop and after all the action had ended and they were joking around, Kate took a bullet to the head and fell over, dead. It was as though I were standing there with them, and Kate was a real person–a dear friend. I felt sick to my stomach for an hour. Never saw it coming.

  6. Fun and thought-provoking post, as always, Kris.
    Not to put too fine a line on it, but I think there’s a difference between George and what he does in his writing (content) and Debbie/Beyonce and what they do AFTER the content is complete. My favorite writers haven’t stayed my favorites over decades because they write the same thing over and over. GRRM writes more than fantasy, and even his flavor of fantasy stretches the boundaries (such as with the red wedding, which reads even better than on film). I enjoy Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series almost as much as his Dresden, and there are many other examples. So an author who surprises me with his originality or by switching genres keeps me loyal with the quality of his/her writing/content. I’m not saying that you can’t use surprise in DISCOVERABILITY (marketing), but I think over the long run, originality in content will win, as long as the quality is there. Like you said, surprise marketing isn’t much of a surprise if it’s the only know you can turn.
    Just my two cents.

  7. Surprise indeed! I keep your website on my favorites bar, and read your Thursday column religiously. Just because I was wishing for Thursday’s column, I stopped by–and never expected to see a Tuesday column. Love the way you constantly surprise by such helpful insight. And loved today’s April 1 surprise. No fooling’!

  8. It is Tuesday morning. I turn over to read Free Fiction Monday. What???

    An excellent way to make your point. But it is going to throw my Thursday off. Well played.

  9. My Air Force experience taught me that all surprises are bad. Nothing since has changed what I learned then.

    When George RR Martin killed Ned Stark, I knew no one in GoT was safe. When he killed Rob Stark, I stopped watching. (Okay, I may watch again, because I like Peter Dinklage so much. I enjoy every second he is on screen. Same for Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). The more vicious and treacherous she is the more I like her.)

    Orson Scott Card introduced a hero on page 1 of ‘Empire’. Two-thirds through the book, he killed him. I felt cheated. I have not read OSC since and will not.

    If you are going to kill a hero, do it early. OSC killed the hero 2/3s in. Without warning. That was stupid, stupid, stupid. Unforgivably stupid. Do something that stupid and you lose readers. OSC lost me. I will not be back.

    Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes. Surprise. The reader outcry was so great that Doyle resurrected Holmes. The BBC did the same thing with Sherlock.

    When Spock died at the end of TWoK, it hurt. But it set up his resurrection. The franchise could not stand the loss of Spock.

    Obi-Wan Kenobi. Dead but not gone in Star Wars.

    As a reader, I get anchored in a character. Kill that character and you set me adrift. Adrift I end up on the rocks. Not a good place to send me.

    This is fiction. If I want irreplaceable loss, I shall read straight history. In fiction, gut-wrenching twists are allowed; stab-in-the-back surprises are not. You cannot kill Tinker Bell.

    ‘Second star to the right and straight on till morning.’


  10. I have to say I’m not sure why I even came here today, since I read your week’s story yesterday — I suppose sometimes you have in-between posts about books? — and I was certainly delighted and surprised. Thank you! And thank you for the reminder that the best stuff — in any area — is both surprising and delightful; that’s what people remember, talk about, share. That’s why people shared that “Old Spice” ad from a while back — no one was expecting the turn it took. But then it continued to be hilarious. (Just like no one expects the Spanish Inquisition…)

  11. The Beyonce album is definitely a wonderfully complex case study. First, you have to consider the underlying premise which you did. Beyonce is an established, seasoned, and RESPECTED artist. She’s not a gimmick like Miley Cyrus. She is regarded as the best live performer still actively recording (Justin Timberlake being the male representative). She’s technically a member of the generation proceeding the one currently at the forefront of pop, a generation that has not lived up to standards. Her reputation alone has given her relevancy despite each album prior to Beyonce declining in performance.

    Also you have to remember the Super Bowl era. She debuted a new song in a Pepsi spot, and it seemed logical that she would release an album to take advantage of the Super Bowl/Destiny’s Child reunion hype. But it never happened. Instead she went on tour. Then she released another song as part of an H&M campaign. And when she performed the new songs on tour people were all over Youtube. Over all, this did much to maintain buzz. She said nothing about the album, which left people to speculate. And people will speculate for weeks but only talk about things they know for a day or two. I would say her touring is your marketing equivalent of short stories.

    Months passed with no album, and it seemed her critics may have won. Her previous album 4 was not successful and marred by a plagiarism scandal. None of the singles were hits. Most harsh critics in the blogosphere expected her new album to be a display of desperation, pandering to Top 40 radio. Eventually, the critics won, with no album in sight it was just assumed the effort had fallen apart. It seemed she had lost relevancy and was too afraid to admit she was flopping. Even her album before 4, I am Sasha Fierce is only notable for one viral single, Single Ladies. Not exactly befitting for one of the few artists who has gone diamond worldwide in a slumping albums market.

    Finally, there was the storm from her buzz track Bow Down. No one knew at the time where that came from. In retrospect, we actually now know its a simplified version of a song on the album. But the song was controversial, deemed antifeminist for using the b-word. In a twist, the full version puts the song in a completely different pro-feminist context. But at the time, it was polarizing.

    So just when all the fuss and anticipation dies down, and every body is focusing on acts like Lorde, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry; she drops the album. It shows the power of latency, of how when you let things die down they can roar back ten times hotter with a strike of the match. Everyone loves a comeback. And her critics went silent. Just when her detractors were gaining steam, they were snuffed out.

    Now, the album itself is perfection, because it’s new but not new. Alt R&B has been bubbling up through the underground for the past several years on the mixtape and indie scene. But she blew it up on the mainstream level. Her singles choice to radio were perfection, one a very accessible, slightly above standard Ryan Tedder production, the other much more steeped in the increasingly popular underground movement. But ultimately, any song could have been a single because each one had a video and the album was fully open to radio. As far as marketing, she over took iTunes. No other album was promoted on the top bar. Every time a panel rotated, it was just another ad for her album. She dominated the number one digital music retailer by offering a temporarily exclusive release. iTunes features are proven, top tier marketing.

    So in terms of lessons:
    1) Be the best writer you can be. The clout of being an artist with a unique voice will help you weather the storms of trends and give you a loyal fanbase. Even if you take a five year break, your fans will forget you then roar back to life because they want the unique characters and voice that only you could provide.

    2) Focus on what you are passionate about. Create, create, create. And it’s okay to leave drafts on the cutting room floor if they don’t sing. Beyonce’s song from the Pepsi commercial is just a B-side on the album, and the song from the H&M commercial didn’t even make the cut. She said in interviews she was tired of the Top 40 formula, and just threw a lot of songs out to start fresh.

    3) Don’t underestimate subtlety. People talk like there was no marketing. But there was. Beyonce coordinated her efforts with iTunes. Her marketing was just so subtle and overwhelmed by the spontaneous blog reaction that no one really thought about it. But this roll out was planned just in the albums conception: having music videos available for every song meant any song was its own organic marketing. It would be like having a short story to accompany every chapter with your novel. A twenty chapter novel with twenty tie in short stories provides 21 different opportunities for discoverability. Now magnify that with wide distribution and what happens when people buy the novel and all the stories simultaneously.

    Beyonce’s album had flawless passive marketing (the boot leg looking cover, the unexplained iTunes page) with two brilliant active marketing tactics (monopolizing iTunes and opening the FULL album to radio, so each format could choose its own songs to play (and there was something for everyone). Lesson: diversify.

    4) Finally, latency: If you had a major moment that has died down, you may be over-exposed or your work may be getting too predictable/redundant. Take a year off, explore new story ideas, then come back hot and heavy, releasing more novels more frequently than usual. Randomly put up a complete trilogy or publish fifty short stories over a week. Whatever you do, hit hard.

    Ultimately, write your heart out, THEN figure out how to sell your work, picking the right strategies for whatever you created. As Beyonce tried harder to maintain commercial success, she started to fall. But when she got back to loving the creation of music, she planned the perfect path to success for her. If you are excited about your work, you will be excited in exploring creative ways to get it out in the world.

  12. Thanks for the chuckle. And the Conan clip.

    I didn’t realize how much expectation did matter until yesterday. I got pretty sick over the weekend and didn’t have my Monday post finished. (Don’t worry. Went to the doctor. Drugs are good.) Yet, the regular crowd still showed up expecting a post.

    Unexpected. I’ll definitely keep that in mind.

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