Monday, July 21, 2008

Dennis Cass: "Everybody’s a marketing genius."

By now, almost everyone in the publishing world has seen Book Launch 2.0, even if creator Dennis Cass isn't a household (or office) name. As I wrote in my post Book Trailers, I couldn't recall his name or book title (HEAD CASE: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain), and had to search my own blog for them. But the video, of a hapless author talking on the phone with someone who's giving him publicity suggestions, sure stuck in my brain.

I emailed Cass via his admittedly somnolent blog, Dennis Cass is... (He's spending most of his online time on his new venture, Dennis Cass Wants You to Be More Awesome.) At his invitation I phoned him last week at his home in Minneapolis. The edited results of our talk are below.

Q: When was HEAD CASE published?
A: The hardcover was published by HarperCollins in spring '07; the paperback in March '08. I didn’t even tell my friends when the paperback came out. I didn’t want to say, “Hey, out again.”

Q: How about Book Launch 2.0?
A: The video went up around May 13. It was the coming-out party for the paperback, which was languishing on Amazon. I told HarperCollins publicity about the video, but I said, “Let’s see what it does on its own.” So on the first day I just sent it to five people I knew in publishing, including an editor who knows John Hodgman. The next day, I think I sent it to another five people. [I received it from a writer on May 13, posted the video that day and sent it to GalleyCat, who posted it on May 14.]

You know you’ve done it right when you don’t even ask people to send it along. By day three, when I tried to send the video to another five people, they said “I already saw this two days ago.” It was insulting to them; it happened that fast. By the end of the week, I wasn’t doing anything and it was getting 1500-2000 hits a day. It’s leveled off at around 40,000. In the heat of it, my Amazon sales ranking went up too. I actually ended up selling books for a while.

Q: Book Launch 2.0 was great, but it didn't tie in with HEAD CASE, or even mention it.
The main reason why I did the video is, I thought this would be funny even it it doesn’t sell a book. It’s funny and it's true, and writers, editors and people who work in publishing are going to get this.

I didn’t put the book cover or title in the monologue because it would feel like an ad. Random House wouldn’t want to promote a video for a HarperCollins book. Some people at Random House showed it at the Columbia summer school for publishing. Everybody liked it. If it had been more of a hard sell, I don’t think that would have happened. It had to stand alone as its own cool thing.

HarperCollins was really excited about the video. They wanted me to put the cover shot of the book on it. But it’s already up and I'm not going to take it down and recut it.

Q: How did you make the video?
A friend who works for an ad agency in town shot it. Every writer should have a guy—or a girl—who understands this stuff, who can make a website, or a video, or a cartoon. Your guy should not just be someone who knows how to build a website, but who gets it—who knows how our culture works.

I had a script for the monologue. It took about 20-30 minutes to do a full take. Once I did it a couple of times from paper we just started playing with it, improvising a bit. I was completely pleased at how it turned out.

Q: Had you written for film or theater before?
A: I haven’t written for performance, but I've done public speaking and improv comedy. I like performing. [Cass has also taught college, which is a public performance in itself. See his NYT Magazine article, My New Look.]

The genesis of the video was that conversation, which I still have with people. Even after they saw the video, they said, “You have to make more videos.” I said, "You’re being that guy." Everybody’s a marketing genius. It’s much easier said than done.

I worked for a literary agency in my twenties, did film rights and sub rights, so I know how the entertainment sausage is made. It’s a miracle that anything gets made, and it’s a double miracle that anything is halfway decent. It’s mind-boggling that things are actually good and find an audience, and are popular and successful. It’s lightning in a bottle when that happens.

I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I’m not a marketing genius, I just did something cool that worked.

Q: What's next?
If you could do one of those things a month... It’s like a bubble economy, something’s got to keep feeding it. It was a big hit for as long as it was a big hit, but now what’s the next thing? I'm hoping that people who bought the book as a result of seeing the video will blog about it. I’m not obsessed with my Amazon numbers; I’m focused on building an audience.

I’ve been a moving target, written for lots of different publications--New York Times Magazine, GQ, Mother Jones, Slate, Harper’s--on lots of different subjects. One thing this book experience has taught me is that I need to do something long-term, I can’t just fly around doing what I want. I think the audience for my writing will be based on my voice and my outlook, because I’m not a subject-matter guy. You can call yourself a writer, but you can make little videos and write comic books. [He says this ironically in the video.] You don’t have to write the Great American Novel to have an impact on the culture.

I’m working on my next book; I'm not ready to talk about it yet. [His agent, Heather Schroder at ICM, loved the video.] But there will still be some goodwill left over this fall when I get the book proposal out. I have a side project where I’m giving writers and artists career and writing advice: Dennis Cass Wants You to be More Awesome. [Latest question: Should I blog about rejection?]

It’s nice to make something happen; it’s so hard. There are people with million-dollar budgets and MBAs who are failing at making things happen in our culture. When you get a little wind, it makes you excited. ABC didn’t call me with my own show, but a lot of bloggers and people in the industry contacted me. It was great for expanding my network; 40,000 people is not bad.

The world gives its thumbs up or thumbs down, and you just have to accept it. It’s just a lottery ticket: scratch and win. Most of the times you scratch it and it’s the canary, the turtle and the rabbit. And you don’t get anything. Then you scratch it, you get three turtles and you win five bucks!


Anonymous said...

- “Let’s see what it does on its own.” So on the first day I just sent it to five people I knew in publishing, including an editor who knows John Hodgman. -

I'm not knocking the method. But contacts in the publishing industry is hardly "let's see what it does on its own."

Bella Stander said...

Sure it is. There are any number of trailers that get sent to people in publishing that never get forwarded. Several have met their ends on my very own hard drive.

Anonymous said...

Nope. Not convinced.

No big deal.

Caitlin said...

I'm with Bella. Sending it to 100 people or trying to get PR around it is not seeing what it does on its own. Sending it to 5 people, no matter who they are, is.

Dennis Cass said...

Anonymous is right.

Next time I will say, "Let's see what it does within my deceptively potent network of mega-connections."