How to Turn a Book Series into a Pop Culture Phenomenon

How to Turn a Book Series into a Pop Culture Phenomenon

Don’t lie. We’ve all been there.

It’s hard to look at franchises like Twilight and Harry Potter and not want to write the next book series that sweeps the nation and secures billions of dollars in sales and movie deals. Forget about how good (or mediocre) the actual books are; it’s foolish to overlook the overwhelming impact such franchises have had on the world.

For many of us, books like these are the reasons we became writers. Maybe we wanted to write books that touched the world in similar ways. Maybe we wanted to secure financial freedom and never work another day in our lives. Maybe we just wanted to become household names.

Whatever your reason, it’s quite understandable if you want to become the next Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling (all political turbulence aside). Some may harshly judge you and accuse you of being superficial, claiming that their more artistic reasoning for being a writer is more noble and just.

But in the end, it’s only natural to want fame and glory. Of course, it’s unlikely that you’ll see real success if you don’t find real passion in the art along the way, but no reasonable person can judge you for simply wanting to be larger than life.

So how do you do it? Well, there’s no guaranteed route. But there are some hints that can lead you in the right direction…

Do One Thing Really Well

Many authors are under the impression that in order to make their book go viral, they have to write the perfect book.

I don’t often say this, since it’s an overused and abused saying, but let me be clear: Nothing could be further from the truth.

What, you think Twilight was even remotely perfect? For that matter, can you name any wildly popular book series that approaches the realm of perfection?

Sure, a few have come close, including one of my personal favorites. But you’d have a hard time arguing the perfection of even the most compelling of books, let alone those that seem to have reached viral status without seeming to have any merit.

You don’t have to write the perfect book. If you still think so, consider 50 Shades of Grey. Need I say more?

No, instead of writing the perfect book, you must instead do one thing really well.

What does this look like?

Many times, it looks like fantasy. No, not dragons or wizards, but meeting the fantasy that lies inside every human.

Maybe that fantasy is forbidden love with undead creatures. Maybe it’s the taboo relationship with a suave businessman. Maybe it’s literal fantasy, replete with knights and epic quests.

Once you determine the fantasy you want to meet, everything in the book must go toward meeting this fantasy.

This is an abstract concept, one that can be difficult to embrace. Often, it’s easiest to channel such fantasy when it’s one you naturally have. If not, one of the best ways to look into the mind of someone with such fantasies is by reading successful books in your chosen genre. Watch for common themes and take the hint that the authors are trying to meet the fantasies of their readers.

Other times, doing one thing really well means simply that. It takes no more than one or two traits or methods and aims to become the gold standard in them.

Let me explain by looking at one of my favorites.

The Lord of the Rings

Before they were three of the greatest movies ever made, I read The Lord of the Rings cover-to-cover at least twice, and a few more times since then. Something about the worldbuilding, characters, and narrative gripped me in a way that no book has since. Yes, the style is dated and would never fly as a modern publication, but after reading the trilogy for the first time, I knew I wanted to become a writer.

But I don’t believe it’s because the books were well written. In fact, by today’s standards, they would never sell. Granted, that has much more to do with the modern attention span, but I digress. I have my own opinions about the narrative structure and prose, but I’ll keep those to myself since saying anything negative about Tolkien is a good way to commit career suicide.

Rather, I believe The Lord of the Rings achieved such fame because it did two things really well: worldbuilding and telling an epic tale of good vs. evil.

Worldbuilding is a tricky notion. On one hand, I despise the practice because, as a writing coach, I have watched countless writers fall into the deep, dark pit that is worldbuilding and never come out. I’ve watched literal years go by while an aspiring writer struggles to flesh out their world before writing a single word of prose.

On the other hand, I respect the work that goes into crafting such an engaging world that feels more real than actual life. J.R.R. Tolkien accomplishes exactly this. It’s one of the few fictional worlds that have ever come truly alive to me, and whether my high standards are a fault or a feature, that’s saying something.

And when it comes to good vs. evil, I’ve not seen many examples that tell such a tale in an epic way. Specifically, the tale of an unassuming character thrust into an epic struggle that he wants no part in (the reluctant hero) but feels compelled to resolve because he knows that evil must not triumph. To me, no other narrative even comes close to being the defining work on the struggle that is good vs. evil.

I believe that it’s because Tolkien did these two things really well that his books are still studied and discussed today, not to mention turning into a blockbuster cinematic franchise that will be squeezing money out of consumers’ pockets for decades to come.

It’s More Than Just Writing

So that’s all fine and well. Let’s say you’ve followed this advice, and you wrote a book that does one thing really well. Is that enough? Can you sit back and relax now, knowing that soon, the money and movie deals will start rolling in?

I think you know where I’m going with this.

As it turns out, finding success as an author is about more than just writing a great book. In fact, that’s the least important part.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that writing a good book isn’t worth the time and that you should hire someone on Fiverr to ghostwrite it for a couple hundred bucks.

No. I’m merely saying that when it comes to making a book series go viral and earn a killing with your words, the quality of the actual book itself will usually have the least impact on your success.

It’s a sad truth, but it is true nonetheless. It’s no longer enough to write the Next Great American Novel and retire comfortably as royalties keep you fat and happy until the day you die. Those days are long gone, and they will likely never come again.

Instead, success is found and money is made in marketing. As it turns out, you can sell a horrible book, and you can make a lot of money doing so — as long as you have good marketing. On the other hand, you could write the best book since Les Misérables, and you could never see a dime if you’re not willing to put in the work to market it.

If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to check it out for yourself. Take a look at the bestseller charts on Amazon, and use the “Look Inside” feature to read the first few pages of top sellers. Within a matter of minutes, you’ll be convinced. There are some truly abysmal books that are selling like hotcakes because their authors have mastered the art of marketing and genre writing.

For more information when it comes to making money as a wordsmith, I’ll point you to a three-part series I wrote on financial success as an author. If you’re new to the concept of treating your books as a business instead of your babies, if you’ve heard the words “write to market” and your eyes glaze over every time, or if you’re tired of cranking out words by the thousands and never seeing a penny, I highly recommend reading it.

Viral Marketing

Whether you read my articles on financial success or you simply already have a good understanding of what goes into a successful marketing campaign, you should know that there’s another level of marketing that you’ll need to engage in if you want to launch you and your book series into stardom.

Viral marketing comes in many forms, including:

  • Guerilla marketing by you or a street team
  • Paying top dollar for premium advertising space
  • Taking advantage of the latest social media trends

With a variety of options, each one taking a significant amount of time and/or money, it’s important to decide which one is best for you.

Guerilla Marketing

Guerilla marketing is one of those weird phenomena that seem to fall in and out of style. It’s no longer the hot buzzword like it was in the mid-2000s when everyone was trying their hand at it, but it can still be effective if you know what you’re doing.

If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s taking advantage of unconventional marketing techniques that are particularly eye-catching or controversial.

An example that many people are familiar with is the flash mob. While it’s occasionally done just for fun, it’s usually done to promote events like musicals, where the cast will go to a public area and perform a song to promote their show. This technique is also growing in popularity when it comes to causes like social justice or activism.

While you likely won’t be able to perform a flash mob for your book, I have seen success stories where authors will put up eye-catching posters for their book — or sometimes, for a fictional event that takes place in their book. I’ve also heard of authors placing copies of their books in places like coffee shops. Others will strategically place QR codes to their Amazon store page in public areas.

Just be careful when performing guerilla marketing. It’s one of the riskier forms of advertising, and while it’s rarely prosecuted, it’s illegal in many cases, whether it’s considered disturbing the peace, trespassing, or littering.

Premium Advertising

A good option if you have cash to spare, the right advertisement in the right place can be enough to launch a career.

Whether it’s using digital signage on Times Square, renting a billboard, or even paying for commercial space on television or streaming services, premium advertising can be a great option if you can afford it.

However, it’s important to keep in mind the first thing I said here: the right advertisement in the right place. It’s no good advertising your young adult novel in a major newspaper. Likewise, it’s a waste of money to run a commercial for your sweet romance in the middle of Saturday morning cartoons. You get the picture.

Social Media Virality

We’ll spend a good deal of time here, since taking advantage of current social media trends and sensations is one of the most effective forms of marketing and will likely be your best shot at gaining the kind of momentum you need to become a pop culture phenomenon.

What exactly this looks like depends on the specific platform you’re marketing with. On Facebook, it means making sure you’re in the right groups, building your own group, and engaging with the community on a regular basis.

On Instagram, it means posting relevant, high-quality, natural pictures (anything edited or filtered has fallen out of style and will only lose you points), using the right hashtags, and posting every day.

On TikTok, it means creatively using trending audio to bring attention to you and your books, generating interest more naturally by relating to the viewer in humorous or meaningful ways, rather than directly trying to sell anything.

On all three platforms, and on every other platform, it means connecting with your target audience in a genuine, significant way, building trust and social proof by engaging with them regularly, and curating a following that is loyal to your brand and will do your marketing for you.

Trust and Brand Loyalty

Most people have a base understanding of what brand loyalty is, but few people know how it’s built, and even fewer understand just how important it really is.

In its most basic form, brand loyalty can be simply preferring to purchase a specific brand. But the gold standard is so much more than that.

With brand loyalty, the goal is to connect with your target audience in such a way that they develop more personal, positive feelings associated with your brand, feelings usually reserved for real-life relationships.

These feelings turn people into advocates for you and your brand, recommending them to their friends and family because they believe in the brand so fiercely that they’ll stand behind it just as much as you will.

So how do you inspire brand loyalty? Well, one way is to consistently produce quality products that keep people coming back for more. This is where writing a quality book comes into play and can further your chances of achieving the fame you dream of.

But if you’ve sold one book to a reader, you’ve already succeeded to an extent with that same reader. So how do you build brand loyalty before selling someone into making their first purchase?

The trick is to not sell anything.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the best way to sell anything on social media is to not sell anything at all.

You see, when people go on social media, their intention is not to purchase anything. It’s to escape, distract, or amuse. It’s to connect with friends, meet new people, or get a glimpse into the life of someone else. No one goes on social media with their credit card in hand, ready to buy something.

Therefore, when most people run into social media and they run into an advertisement, they immediately scroll on by unless it’s particularly eye-catching or addresses an immediate need.

This is especially true for younger generations. Gen Z in particular hates being sold to; they tend to value connection and authenticity more than any other generation. The same can be said for everyone to some extent, but if you intend on marketing yourself on the Gen Z platform of choice, TikTok, you should know that directly trying to sell anything will typically produce only the most disastrous of results.

So back to the main question: How do you build brand loyalty before making a purchase?

Be genuine. Be honest. Connect with people before even mentioning your product. This is especially true on TikTok, but the same holds true across all of social media.

There’s a world of nuance to this, more than I could ever hope to address here. So rather than trying to belabor the point for another dozen pages, I suggest you do some research and see it in action for yourself. Specifically, I suggest studying Duolingo’s TikTok account. To me, there’s no better example of a brand that truly understands these concepts and employs them in creative ways. Seriously, I truly believe that you could teach a full college course on social media marketing by just using their TikTok account — it’s that good.

And no, these concepts are in no way limited to TikTok. Yes, the methods will change across different platforms, but the core idea is the same: Inspire brand loyalty by connecting with your target audience before ever trying to sell them a thing.

The Most Important Element

While it’s important to have a quality book and even more important to employ strategic marketing, there is one final element you need to become the next Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, or J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s the four-letter word we all hate, the truly nasty one that ends in “uck.”

That’s right. It’s luck.

The unfortunate truth is that no matter how good your book is, no matter how clever you are in marketing, you will need a fair amount of luck if you hope to become a true pop culture phenomenon.

I know none of you wanted to hear this, but you surely knew that it was coming at some point.

Do you want me to lie to you? Do you want me to tell you that if you follow these five steps, you’ll be a smash hit, guaranteed?

I know it’s not fair. It’s not right that you can write an amazing book or even have stellar marketing but still fall short while someone less talented happened to hit the jackpot, so to speak.

Do you want some good news? What I can tell you is that if you write good books, employ clever marketing, and be a good businessperson, you are more than capable of making a good amount of money with your writing. You may not become a household name or get the movie deals you’ve always dreamed of, but financial success is well within the reach of any author willing to do the work.

But when it comes to becoming a viral phenomenon, there will always be some element of luck. Don’t let anyone lie to you and tell you otherwise. There are scammers by the droves who will try to sell you an online course that promises such explosive results.

Where does this luck come in? Primarily in one form.

Word of Mouth

Every marketer knows that no amount of money poured into any kind of marketing will ever be able to produce the same results that word of mouth can.

After all, word of mouth is the holy grail of marketing, and it’s what creates sensations like The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Grey, and Twilight.

The reason word of mouth is so popular is that the best product recommendation you can get is one from a trusted friend or family member, not from the New York Times bestseller list or an affiliate marketer’s Top 10 listicle.

Readers especially take their book purchase decisions very seriously, and they tend to be quite picky. This is what makes luck a critical component in viral marketing — if the right reader finds your book, that can make all the difference in the world. The reader that has the clout and influence to compel people to buy your book is one of the most powerful career starters.

It’s why it doesn’t seem to matter how much money you have sometimes, and why you can throw away money on Facebook advertisements and get nowhere. You can spend thousands of dollars in advertising and still never find that one reader who will take your books and propel them into a viral sensation.

However, all hope is not lost. Just like you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking that luck plays no role, you should also not be deceived into believing that infamy is completely out of your control.

If you follow the advice of doing one thing really well and implementing powerful marketing that has viral potential, you will give yourself an incredible advantage when compared to your competitors.

The better your book and the better marketing you do, the better chance you have of finding the right readers and becoming a pop culture phenomenon.

Now We Can Talk About Quality

I hope you understand by now how much more important it is to do one thing really well with your book and how important it is to employ winning marketing strategy — at the end of the day, these tactics are what will have the most impact on going viral. However, writing a quality book increases your odds of exploding in popularity, especially if you’re writing a book series.

Let me be clear: If you do one thing really well, that can be more than enough to make up for mediocre writing. Again, I’ll point to 50 Shades of Grey. It’s notorious for not being very well written, but it did one or two things very, very well, and it found a hungry market of readers who discovered it and fell in lust.

So do I suggest letting quality fall by the wayside? No, not at all. I wouldn’t be much of a writing coach if I endorsed that. Rather, I suggest doing one thing really well and supporting it with a well-composed narrative that goes through rigorous editing.

Writing a quality book betters your chances of going viral because it’s easier to recommend a good book than it is to say “but.” That is, it’s easier to say, “it’s an amazing book with an incredible romance” than it is to say, “the worldbuilding is incredible, but the plot and dialogue aren’t that good.”

If you want to become a pop culture phenomenon, it’s important to marry quality and virality, producing a good book that has the potential to go viral thanks to everything we’ve discussed thus far.

Good Luck!

There is no more appropriate way to end this article, I’ve decided after thinking about what to call this conclusion for several minutes.

Yes, if you follow this advice, you’ll have much better chances at becoming a pop culture phenomenon with a viral book. But at the end of the day, the luck that it takes is not insignificant. I wish I could give you more assurance, but it’s important that you think realistically here.

I hope that in your pursuit of fame, you fall in love with writing. If not, it becomes all too easy to burn out and abandon a writing career entirely. In the end, I hope you adjust your expectations and seek a successful career as an author — and if fame comes along, all the better.

How to Turn a Book Series into a Pop Culture Phenomenon
Hey, author!