February 2012 - Interview with Baratunde Thurston :
Authors are increasingly aware that they need to connect with fans in order to develop a loyal following. In this interview excerpt broadcast on Spark, host Nora Young (from CBC Radio) interviews comedian Baratunde Thurston, who shares his innovative and unconventional book promotion ideas.
Young: I received an email from you asking people to be on your "street team." Can you explain what that is?
Thurston: I wanted to have a group of people to take that message and talk to their people about it. I am a very open person, it can be powerful to get out a message to people you already know, but I wanted to broaden the circle about my books message. If I can get some people to sign up, and they get their people to sign up, my street team will grow. My plan is to recruit people who can be advocates and put this book in their voice so they can own a bit of the story themselves. It's also a way to learn from others, a way to share the thinking process of marketing the book and the larger movement to promote the message we want to spread.
Young: Where did the idea of a "street team" come from?
Thurston: I campaigned heavily and worked in politics early in my career. What I want to be involved with most with the book is the selling process. My experience on campaigns has lead me to feel as though I should be very rigorous about it. The notion was that we can get different types of people involved. Not just to buy into the book, but also the idea behind it. When you promote a politician, it isn't just the person you like but the message they want to spread. The idea of the street team is that the people who promote my book also want to promote the message I seek to spread. There is a reason that marketing campaigns and military campaigns use the word "campaign." It's a quest to spread knowledge and a message. To educate the public about my novel and story I want to share.
Young: What made people want to do this?
Thurston: I wanted to offer folks who signed up some behind the scenes understanding of what it takes to market a book. There are tons of authors out there who would love to understand exactly how to promote a book. Involvement with my street team will show them how to be directly involved. We gave them an early copy of the book to get them inspired and to better understand the theme and message. It's also a virtual process. The street team evokes physicality, but we also wanted to know who these people are, how deep their social network is, how they knew me, and how they feel about the issue at hand. I wanted to understand that they were aware of what they were signing up for, what compelled them to be such a part of this project. I wanted to understand that people had some level of commitment. Filling out the application was the measure of whether or not people were truly passionate about it as opposed to a simple "like" on a Facebook page.
Young: What did you get out of the "street team?"
Thurston: What I get out of it: we wanted people to read the book, talk about it amongst their peers. Peer to peer and point to point communication among the street team members is a great way to see the message spread to others within the group, not just me. It's a different way to actually spread the message and not just praise the author. People are fans of my work, but it's not me that I want to see become known, it's the story I've written and the lesson it can teach others.
Young: Authors are being encouraged to do a kind of variety of this: connect to audiences and blog, etc. How does this change what books wills be on the cultural radar?
Thurston: Similar to music production, there is a tier of people who control the book. The role of the author was just to do the writing and the agency was responsible for the distribution, editing, financing, and marketing. We are in a world where the power has moved more to the edge. Now authors are finding themselves taking on the role of marketing distribution. Now authors will have a natural sense of fearlessness with writing. People are attracted to this as opposed to presenting material through the traditional system it used to be. Authors must be born for this transition to have a natural proclivity for selling themselves as opposed to the traditional way of promoting books.
Young: How do you see these blog streams working together?
Thurston: Yes there are multiple streams of content that will create the product that is my life, but I'm looking for ways to unite these streams into a delta, if you will, and then to a sea of high impact social common of world change. For me, its fun to have many things going on at once, but the ability to learn from one stream and applying that lesson to another is valuable. It is a good potential test to understand what will work and what will not.
Young: Have you had a positive response from the street team?
Thurston: Yes we have the team in place. We asked the team to report the three things they loved most about the book and the three things they loved least about the book. And we didn't have them email us but rather publicly compile their results in a Facebook chat so that the team can learn from each other. That is the thing, what we are doing and what I hope that will happen is that they have better ideas than me. They are a connected group that we have facilitated but have not controlled. They will do what they want to do. We will have some cohesiveness among everybody but the team will do what they find best to promote the book. One example that the street team came up with was to make post cards using excerpts from the book. So what someone did was put a quote on a postcard and mailed it and put #howtobeblack. Also, another member photo shopped the book into hands of celebrities to create demand with a caption reading #howtobeblack, which ultimately connects observers with the book, and further, with the message I want to spread. The creativity among my street team is incredibly useful. The artistic freedom and lack of rules of promoting my book has lead to innovative ways to spread my message outside of the conventional methods traditionally used by authors.
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