Booklife Guest David J. Williams, with “Viral Marketing Case Study: Or, How I Built Fake Websites to Sell My Real Books”

Today, a great guest post by author David J. Williams , whose futuristic military thrillers I quite enjoy–tightly written, intelligent, and exciting. This is being posted on Tuesday rather than the regular Wednesday due to a WordPress issue. – JeffV

er, hey, is this thing live? Well, first of all, thanks a ton to Jeff for inviting me to say a word or two about how I’ve been marketing my Autumn Rain trilogy (consisting of the books THE MIRRORED HEAVENS, THE BURNING SKIES, and the forthcoming THE MACHINERY OF LIGHT). I’ll also say a bit about Lessons Learnt and all that…

First, let me reveal the Actual Strategy, and then I’ll break it down a little from there. “Viral marketing” has more definitions than you can shake a stick at; it seems to me that the essence of the best campaigns is that they’re not transparently related to the author, but instead help to generate a buzz by virtue of their being a little mysterious.

The core of my campaign was the following site:



That dastardly terrorist group Autumn Rain! Who the #$# are they? I.e., we’re dropped straight into the world, with a faux news site with CNN-like look-and-feel, reporting on the aftermath of the catastrophic event that opens the first book. There’s plenty of “apparent” content and even (if you click on the graphic at the top) an actual video, in which a doomed reporter broadcasts his final hapless transmission. Of course, if you try clicking on the other links, you rapidly realize that there’s really not much to this website: it’s just a shell, intended to convey the emotional impact of Something Really Huge Going On, creating the illusion of verisimilitude…an illusion that’s carried still further by the page that virtually every link takes one to:

The world of 2110 is one where the government has the Internet in “lock-down”, so it ties in thematically…but the point is that this website is like a cat that arches its back and makes all its hair stand on end to appear larger than it actually is. (I apologize for that somewhat-forced analogy, but as I write this, my feline friend Captain Zoom is sitting on my lap and intruding upon my cognitive processes, in addition to making it that much harder to type).

Now, in addition to that first website, I created three more:

….which all point to back to

I won’t discuss these “feeder” sites in great detail, except to make the following points:

—Each one relates to some aspect of the world of Autumn Rain/the early 22nd century.

—Each one is even more of a shell than the core site, with far less detail.

—Each site has a “breaking news” update that appears over it, giving us the impression that the site has been around for a while, and holy crap, something’s just happened that’s overriding business as usual.

You may be wondering why the core site URL is instead of just Well, if you go to the latter URL, you’ll find out why: that’s an entirely different web page


…promoting the second book, in which the O’Neill cylinders of the Euro Magnates get attacked by Autumn Rain, who’re trying to bag the U.S. president during a secret summit conference. (If you’re sensing a theme here as to the content of those books, you’re probably on the right track.). Originally, I built the first four sites to promote the mass-market release of MIRRORED HEAVENS (book one), and then when it came time to promote BURNING SKIES (book two), I made the “main” site the one that related to the sequel, since that was the priority. Then I linked that new site back to “breaking news” since it occurs subsequently.

So what we’ve got is a fully-functioning web ecosystem of viral sites, linked to one another, with multiple entry-points that draw the viewer further into the mystery. At no point is there a link to the actual book, and that gets to the central tension that I take to be at the heart of this kind of viral marketing, to wit:

How do you get exposure without being exposed?

The risk of not putting in links/mentioning the books is that the casual viewer stumbles upon the site (more later on how they get there in the first place), says, hmm, interesting, wonder what that is, no idea, let’s go find out what Megan Fox is up to these days, and then just keeps on surfing. But what I was betting on is that the viewer who DID get intrigued would then go to additional effort to find out what’s going on, and would then be that much more likely to TELL OTHER PEOPLE. It’s clear that the sites can’t possibly be real, but what are they promoting? A quick google search of Phoenix Elevator/Europa Platform/Autumn Rain will rapidly reveal my website and books, which would then trigger this kind of discussion:×5237545

…i.e., an exchange on a bulletin board as to what’s going on and what the books are and who I am.

Note the balance I was trying to strike here, which is while it’s not blindingly obvious as to who’s behind the sites, it’s also not *too* hard to figure out what’s up. This is in sharp contrast to the gold standard of viral marketing, which are campaigns that function as full-on activities in themselves (and have the budgets to match). For example, consider the oft-cited , a gateway to an immense alternative-reality labyrinth/full-fledged ARG intended to promote the Halo franchise. But the problem for authors like me is that this is one of those Bell the Cat issues, i.e., it’s a great way to solve a problem that is already largely solved:

…because if I had a million eyeballs watching my every move, I wouldn’t need to take steps to try to get a million eyeballs watching my every move (Halo promoted via trailers relating to the game itself). Since Halo’s architects were confident of driving huge numbers of people to, they could rest assured that SOME of those people would get to the end of the mystery, no matter how involved it was. I had no such assurance, which meant I couldn’t make the mystery too complex.

Which brings us back to the fundamental challenge with this kind of campaign—and the core issue with gaining exposure without being (immediately) exposed: how do you drive people to the sites in the first place? I can’t claim to have totally solved this, but part of the answer is that these campaigns take time. They can’t be launched overnight, and that’s why for the first several months of this year I ran a batch of google ads that pointed back to the site, resulting in this kind of thing:

Note that this blogger raises the question why the heck I didn’t link to the books themselves. I’ve given my reasoning above, but he may very well be right—the rulebook on all this has yet to be written. Which is part of what makes it so much fun…

I’ll conclude with a thought or two on the economics. First, although this might *look* like it cost a lot, it didn’t, because—like I’ve already said—there really isn’t *that* much content here. These aren’t so much web-sites as stand-alone web pages/shells. Web design was done through these guys , and I obviously also spent some $ on Google ads. The videos came from my friend Paul Ruskay, of Studio X Labs in Vancouver. The major investment was simply writing everything out, which I delegated to Captain Zoom and his friend Ajax in return for some salmon. But that’s another story.

So did I get my money’s worth? Like so much of PR, that’s hard to say. I clearly reached a lot of folks I wouldn’t have, and had the chance to build out further aspects of the world I created. I even received a really cool note from graphics artist legend Steve Lieber, who stumbled upon the site through a gmail ad, and wrote to tell me that how much he liked the content, and that he’d bought the books as a result. That kind of buzz can go a long way. And ultimately, buzz is what this is all about.

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