Word-of-Mouth and The Adulterants

Marketing a book is always a difficult venture. You must communicate to your desired audience that this is the book they want, inform them where they can get the book, and convince them to pay money to own it. When a book is targeted for an unconventional audience that typically doesn’t read a certain genre or doesn’t purchase books often at all, the challenge is greatly magnified. In these cases, publishers have to get creative.

For example, on March 5, 2018, local Portland publisher Tin House launched a unique marketing campaign for Joe Dunthorne’s The Adulterants. Tin House wrote to their loyal readers and the literary community at large, offering to send the “manchild” in the reader’s life a free copy of the book.

Yes, really.

They asked for the names, addresses, and details of “bad behavior, lack of self-awareness, or unchecked privilege” of manchildren across the continental United States so they could send twenty manchildren the gift of The Adulterants. In addition to the book, a note was included informing the manchild that someone in their life saw the main character in The Adulterants, Ray Morris, and thought they, too, were a manchild in need of self-reflection.

In a sense, the campaign’s premise was to offer an anonymous intervention and shaming of manchildren, and it was a roaring success. By March 15, 2018, when Tin House closed the contest, an overwhelming number of manchildren were nominated from all over the country. Tin House even released data on the submissions, giving us a rare look into an unusual target audience. It turns out, 13 percent of manchildren submitted were named Mike, Adam, Steve, or Chad. Roughly 70 percent were nominated by either an ex- or current partner, 9 percent were nominated by a coworker, 4 percent were nominated by their moms, and 2 percent were nominated by their daughters.

I find this whole campaign amusing, but that isn’t why it’s important. On the surface, The Adulterants is a dry, witty, coming-of-age story about a manchild. But manchildren aren’t going to buy the book for themselves. They probably wouldn’t ever walk into a bookstore of their own volition, and they certainly wouldn’t openly identify themselves as a manchild in need of self-reflection. Instead, Tin House targeted the people in their lives who wanted to intervene before it was too late. They were the ones who would buy the book to either comfort themselves that they weren’t alone in having to deal with a manchild or to give as a gift to a manchild. The campaign was an advertisement for the true potential buyers of The Adulterants, engaging them to respond to the publisher with nominations of manchildren, making them eager to get a copy of the book, and ensuring they were positively gleeful at the prospect of tormenting a manchild with a book. Tin House hopes that now that they’ve heard about The Adulterants, the people they engaged with during the campaign will buy the book and send it to someone, and that the humor of the campaign will stick with people and pique their curiosity until they read the book for themselves.

Essentially, Tin House is hoping this campaign will be converted into word-of-mouth recommendations and interest—the mysterious be-all and end-all in marketing. Every book publishing campaign wants to generate word-of-mouth discussion of their book, as it is single-handedly the most compelling reason people find and purchase a brand new book. Unfortunately for authors and publishers, no one is sure what will generate word-of-mouth for a given title, and there is no reliable method for measuring what marketing strategies lead directly to word-of-mouth. We know that it takes engaging the right people with just the right message to get the ball rolling, and that’s easier said than done. But for this campaign, Tin House managed to get hundreds of people to share and like their posts on social media, send in nominations directly to the publisher, and read and share articles about the campaign printed by Bustle, Melville House, The Irish Independent, the Irish Examiner, and the Portland Mercury. The campaign led to word-of-mouth among a wide swath of people. For publishers that need to get creative in selling their books, anonymous shaming and other interventionist-style marketing campaigns may help compel their existing readership into selling their books to their desired audience for them or, at the very least, create a buzz on social media platforms. In the case of The Adulterants, it seems to have worked brilliantly.