Viral Can Be Good for You

A Sci-Fi Success Story


mock cover machine of death

The cover design of Machine of Death

This one is, first and foremost, a shout-out to a friend: a Swedish physics student later turned writer/translator, one of my cohort from University of Sussex days, who has remained a good friend and, nowadays, fellow blogger.

Here’s to Pelotard. To borrow from his Facebook posting:

I dreamed that I had written a story for a book that made it to #1 at the Amazon bestseller list. Then I woke up and it was true.

It’s not many writers who can say that.

But thanks to faith, fun, and independent viral marketing, Pelotard and the 33 other story writers for the science-fiction anthology Machine of Death enjoyed their October 26, 2010 release date in exactly that position: leading the 100 top-selling books list on And as I write, they are still in the top five … nearly three days later.

It tickles me to find that I have Pelotard’s 2007 IM chat transcript, when he told me his story had found some sort of home (out of 700 submissions, it turns out). Back then, of course, he didn’t know what kind of home that would be. As he pointed out, the three volume editors – Canadian writer, Dinosaur Comics cartoonist, and computer programmer Ryan North; writer Matthew Bennardo; and Wondermark Enterprises founder and comic artist Malki ! – had no marketing budget.

So “I *don’t* think I’m going to become famous,” Pelotard said.

Well … I’m not so sure about that. :)

The story of how Machine of Death made it to the top has a lot in common with the science fiction genre itself (which I happen to enjoy). Science fiction speculates from “what is” into “what if,” with technological innovation in a rational framework often forming the heart of the work. Hence – in this anthology – the concept of a machine that can read a blood sample and tell the individual how he or she is going to die.

In the publishing process, the “what if” lies in editors’ and marketers’ expectations of sales. And therein lay the rub: without the insurance of the big-name author, a publisher tends to think of the “what if our print run of 40,000 copies mostly ends up back in our warehouse?” scenario, rather than the “what if this book hits at a disposable-income moment and absolutely hammers a current public preoccupation with its topic?” notion. The industry wouldn’t take the risk with Machine of Death.

The publishing industry concern has some merit – but it also highlights how anxiety can impede progress. And progress, for better and worse, is at the heart of the genre. Ultimately, like the science from which it takes its name, the genre explores the possibilities of human development: what we learn (or don’t) from the past, what preoccupies us in the present, and where it might lead in the future.

Whether you see that as “boldly going where no one has gone before” or a reason to buy extra duct-tape and window coverings will tell you more about yourself now than about where we’re headed as a species.

The Machine of Death editors – who know rather more about the Internet than the publishing industry does, it must be said – are obviously of the “boldly go” variety at heart, because their “what if” became the concept of a book that could reach number 1 chiefly through techno word-of-mouth channels. They emailed, tweeted, and got themselves a Facebook fan page. The volume contributors did the same. The release date became the big event it should be, with the set goal quite achievable: take this book to the top.

The editors have also followed a pattern other writers – Cory Doctorow, Brandon Sanderson, and Kemble Scott, among them – have begun to test: that of allowing free access to the work online. They are gracious, generous, and interactive with their consumers. They didn’t want to turn over to the publishers audiobook and ebook rights, for they wanted to allow those options on their own terms. And they held to the notion that the actual authors should be the ones to benefit from film rights as they chose.

As the editors said in their blog:

The agents and the publishers are right; it might not work for a mass market. That’s okay. We don’t need to sell it to everyone. We don’t need to sell 100,000 copies; we don’t have the rent on a New York office to pay for.


We only need to sell it to you.

And that point really is at the heart of sales, if it’s too often forgotten. As Bob Burg and David Mann spell out in their book Go-Givers Sell More: “It’s not about you; it’s about them.

I couldn’t be happier for these people. It’s every breakthrough writer’s dream. For all that we write first for ourselves, we also write for an audience. And as much as we hug, hold, and treasure our family and friends, the hope that someone else is interested forms a critical part of our makeup. That’s why we create: we want to share.

And I respond to that sharing.

As I write, Machine of Death is at #5 on the Amazon list. That is not at all a bad place to be after three days. It has been written up or reviewed by ABC News in Australia, the Tor Books blog, and the Publishers Weekly blog, as well as smaller sites such as FrozenYogurt, Pelotard’s Impopular Culture, James by Pentadact, and my own. (There may well be more, but I have to publish this darn piece.)

It has even managed to irk a certain FOX TV personality by passing his own book (focused, I gather from the title, on a topic popularly considered on a par with death in its appeal) in the stats on its official release date. I understand from Machine of Death‘s Facebook page, however, that his office has now asked for copies. (Would those be free ones, or are they willing to cough up for them? It is, after all, rather less expensive than his volume.)

I hope he reads it. For as Benjamin Franklin said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

And it is salutary for every human to consider the other side of that pairing – the better to appreciate the possibilities in life.

2 thoughts on “Viral Can Be Good for You

  1. Pelotard

    Wow, thanks for this :)

    OK, maybe a bit famous, then. I expect at least 6,800 people will read my story – that’s the preliminary sales figures for Tuesday alone, accordning to David Malki !. But I won’t get *rich*, though – they tried to send me a cheque for $45, but I told them not to bother. Even if I could find a bank over here that still knows how to cash the things, they’d charge me $40 for their trouble.

    The “certain Fox personality” is an interesting phenomenon. On the basis of him not holding the #1 spot, he decided we were a left-wing conspiracy, and proceeded to denounce us in broadcasts and tweets and what have you. In the process, he informed thousands of people of our existence. Money can’t buy that sort of attention!

    And in the latest twist, it’s gone quite surreal. Liberals all across the US are now blogging and tweeting and urging people to buy Machine of Death simply to annoy the man…

    At least, we now have common grounds with him. He’s delighted that we’re down at #14. We’re delighted to be at #14, period. Because that’s still very, very impressive for an indie on-a-shoestring project!

    • Joanna Mullins Post author

      It absolutely is. :) The man finally did something useful (though I’m sure he doesn’t see it that way – he’s probably trying to work out how to undo it, which may land you even more readers, given how he thinks).

      And I have to admit, I enjoy the fast-track poetic justice. You all were going to “win” in the end anyway – thought that wasn’t your goal until he turned it into what, in darts, we elegantly call a “pissing contest” – because his is the type of book the library can’t give away at its secondhand book sales. Politically related books generally are flash-in-the-pan phenomena, mass-generated and interesting for a few months at most, and never wanted again. (Try selling Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn” even for a penny if you want an exercise in futility.) Good fiction, however, stays around, forms cult followings, and ends up well past print runs on dealer sites for $400 – and sells. (The low price on Book 6 of Patrick Tilley’s Amtrak Wars series is currently $407.96, used, on Amazon Marketplace.) More to the point, it is actually *read* – as opposed to becoming part of someone’s ideological shelf, to show off at parties.

      Our politics are surreal generally these days – even without “midterm” elections looming. A vast number of people are deeply tired with the childish self-absorption your … gee, do I call him a promoter or an opponent? 😉 … and his colleagues at FOX demonstrate, which is embraced and mirrored by his audience. It’s right along the lines of “the teacher doesn’t like me” (no, dear, the teacher doesn’t like it that you didn’t do your homework and disrupted class by shooting spitballs at the kids who did). When I heard his reaction to “Machine of Death,” I had the best laugh I’ve had for weeks, because it was the perfect display of the attitude that has been too tied up with “serious issues” – and has obscured those all too effectively.

      I suppose it’s a good thing I’m not a parent; that sort of gleeful reaction at a spoiled child’s comeuppance isn’t, I think, in the official good parenting handbook. Still, I seem to remember getting a good bit of it myself (merciless parents I had).

      Congratulations again, and well earned!

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