What I learned about publicity from John Green

by Michelle McCann
Published on: February 7, 2012
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Comments: 2 Comments

Last Sunday I ungraciously fled our annual Scriva business meeting to join my students at the John and Hank Green “Tour de Nerdfighting” event. If you write children’s books, you are probably already familiar with bestselling YA author John Green (Waiting for Alaska, Will Grayson Will Grayson, The Fault in Our Stars). But unless you are a “geektastic” teen or twenty-something who spends too much time watching YouTube, you may not be familiar with the Nerdfighters phenom.

John and Hank (a musician) are “the Vlogbrothers.” Beginning in 2007, they have hosted a popular YouTube channel together, where they vlog back and forth to each other. Their vlogs sometimes involve the books and music they create, but mostly not. Their vlogs are some of the most popular on YouTube and their million-plus fans/community are known as “Nerdfighters” (check them out at www.nerdfighters.com).

I went to their sold-out Portland event first and foremost, because I am a John Green fan: I love his books and think he is a unique voice in contemporary YA lit. Second, he is hysterical. Third, I am in awe of his ability to promote himself and his books without seeming to be promoting himself and his books. Even when driving around in this not-so-subtle tour bus!

But the biggest reason I went to see John is that we share one significant character trait: we both suffer from social anxiety. Unfortunately for me, it makes doing book events something I dread for months in advance. Thanks to fellow Scriva Ruth, I have two such events looming in March. I am filled with dread already. Here is what I worry about:

  1. I’m afraid no one will come.
  2. I’m afraid I will be boring.
  3. I’m afraid people WILL come and see how boring I am.

If John Green truly has social anxiety (as he claims), how can he possibly go on tour across the U.S. and “perform” in packed theaters full of strangers every night? Well, here is what I learned:

1. Stage lights help. The Bagdad Theater seats nearly 600 people and was so packed I had to sit in the aisle. But because of the lights John couldn’t see us so he claimed to be less nervous.

2. The audience was filled with his community. True to the Vlogbrothers’ slogan “Raising nerdy to the power of awesome,” the audience was full of… you guessed it, nerds. But not the embarrassed, shrinking-violets, stand-on-the-sidelines nerds of decades gone by. These millennial nerds were loud and proud. They wore their geekiness as a badge of honor. They screamed like it was George Clooney and Brad Pitt on stage. They loudly sang along to Hank’s songs about Harry Potter, physics, and lovelorn anglerfish. They freaked when John read this fan question “What would you do if zombies attacked you right now?” John and Hank have created a strong community, as John called it “a refuge for nerds.”

3. He didn’t try to be cool. John copped to his enormous stage fright right off the bat, causing the audience to root for him all the way through the show. He also stuck to doing things he was comfortable with. He talked about his inspiration for the book, read from it, answered fan questions. All pretty basic author event stuff (albeit the Q&A featured a machine that shocked whichever brother was left holding it when the time ran out, kind of like Hot Potato). Hank was the one who wore the tutu.

4. He brought a friend. It seemed easier to spread the burden of entertainment between two people. They supported each other onstage during their nervous moments, they each attracted their own fanbase to the event, and by alternating their “performances” they kept things moving along.

5. He was nice to everyone. I can’t tell you how many author events I’ve been to where I came away totally disillusioned. It’s surprising how many authors, even children’s book authors, can be rude and downright mean to their fans, not realizing (somehow) the permanent damage they are doing. Not John. Even though they still had to drive to Seattle after the Portland show, and even though John was suffering from pretty severe carpel tunnel syndrome, and even though there were 600+ eager fans waiting to meet him afterwards, John was kind and gracious to every person he met (my students were at the very end of the line and they confirmed it for me). He even looked me in the eye before signing my book. I left the event liking John even more than I had before and went right home and started reading The Fault in Our Stars. Mission accomplished, John.

So even though it is highly unlikely I will ever attract 600 screaming fans to the Bagdad to hear me talk about my books, I can incorporate some of what I learned from John into my own publicity:

* Be myself, don’t pretend to be cool.

* Do events with other authors.

* Invite my community for emotional support.

* Be nice to everyone who comes.

* Perhaps blind myself with some stage lights.

I can do that.

Days after returning home from the tour, Hank vlogged about how difficult it was to be on the road for 3 weeks and asked himself, “Why did we do it?” His answer was this:

“It’s vital to do things that are outside of your comfort zone… whether that’s volunteering in a homeless shelter or just going someplace you wouldn’t normally go, like somewhere where they line dance. Go somewhere where they line dance!”

So, it’s good for me to get outside my comfort zone. Doing promotional events is like eating spinach. Now if I could just work in some line dancing…

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  1. ScrivaRuth says:

    Oh, Michelle, I so hear you about social anxiety. And of course I followed your advice about doing events with other authors! I figure if children’s authors in general were outspoken extroverts they probably wouldn’t have chosen to be children’s authors.

  2. The fun and interesting Michelle nervous about being boring? I think you’d have to work very hard to come close to that.

    Thanks for sharing. I especially liked “Be nice to everyone” and the idea that one can promote oneself shamelessly without being obnoxious.

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