This new year marks 15 years since the founding of @lantis Media, ten years since the publication of the Raising Atlantis series of books, and three years since partnering on the fiction front with Google’s augmented reality game Ingress, which just passed 10 million downloads.
In the end, I’ve learned, it really is the art that counts, not the noise.
Our friend and marketing guru Seth Godin said as much this week at Digital Book World in New York City, where he told book publishers that social media was overrated. “The Monkeys had a TV show, but [Bob] Dylan’s still around,” he said.
Indeed, our original and superpopular Atlantis Mapping Project website and series is long gone. But Raising Atlantis is still around and selling strong a decade later.
In other words, making something remarkable is more important than making noise.
But what does that really mean to creatives whose books, movies and music await discovery because nobody knows they’re out there?
I had a conversation about this over the holidays with Vanity Fair columnist and James Bond screenwriter Bruce Feirstein at a party thrown at the home of Ingress lead creative Flint Dille.
Bruce related that it was only by sheer accident that he recently stumbled across a steeply discounted autobiography by one of his favorite old rockers at the bottom of a remainder bin in a local bookstore. The book had been out for months and had all but disappeared. Bruce, whose finger is on the pulse of American culture as much as anyone’s, was appalled.
“How could I have missed it?” he wondered. “What else am I missing?”
Great question. And one that book publishers, music labels and movie studios increasingly believe can only be answered by the power of “social context.” In short, social media tweets, instagrams and the like—powered by popular authors, performers and other artists with “platforms”—are supposed to drive us to Amazon, the multiplex or the Greek.
But social media is more of an amplifier than anything else. Usually, it amplifies what your friends are already telling you. Just because you like grabbing a beer with Joe the Plumber, however, doesn’t mean you’re going to rush out to buy whatever he’s reading or watching.
Real engangement with the art itself, however, can make social media personal, relevant and even anticipated.
Seth first explained this to me fifteen years ago in his offices at Dobbs Ferry, New York. I had just launched @lantis Media with a hopelessly naive website. The Atlantis Mapping Project, then, was nothing more than a satellite overhead image of Antarctica with an invitation to type in your email address to receive the latest breaking news about the ‘secret U.S. military dig’ two miles under the ice.
Seth called it groundbreaking.
Why? Because he said I was creating–and engaging with–a global online community months before publishing my first novel Raising Atlantis. We were already exploring my storyworld together.
As Hollywood executive Nicky Weinstock later wrote up in the official magazine of the Authors Guild, all I seemingly had to do was hit “send” to announce the book was on sale. Bam! Raising Atlantis became an instant No. 1 bestselling ebook on Amazon, then a New York Times bestseller in print, with even bigger selling sequels afterward.
So how was this not social media? And how is this bad by anybody’s definition?
Well, for starters, social media as we know it didn’t really exist in 2002 when the original ebook came out. Back then it was mostly a double opt-in “permission” email list and Amazon’s recommendation engine at work. We did, however, employ “Email This” buttons on our posts. They functioned somewhat like today’s social media buttons and quickly made our articles about Atlantis some of the “most forwarded” emails in America, regularly outranking diet advice and celebrity articles on big media sites.
But there was something else at work, too.
The growing popularity and media noise distracted my little team toward successful paid subscriptions for this “marketing content” and away from my personal purpose as a writer at heart in making art. For me, this is primarily in the form of novels.
It all came to a head at a tense board meeting at the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, CA. We were inside our secret “pirate” conference room that resembles an old ship. My lead advisor and the only “adult” in the room, who knew me well, called me out and said I was leading the enterprise down the road to hell.
“Just publish your damn book,” he said.
And so I did. Raising Atlantis was the real content my audience was waiting for and wanted to buy.
Critics might argue whether popular, commercial fiction like Raising Atlantis is art. And I’ve definitely written better since. But it was a strange and remarkable first try, and a new medium fit perfectly with a new message. Most of all, it started a conversation that continues to this day, eight novels later.
So, yes, by all means we should embrace social media, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of our art, whatever that might be.