In these days of promoting books through social media, it’s not uncommon for authors to tweet teasers on Twitter or host giveaways on Facebook to celebrate a book’s release. But when fictional characters start pitching in to get the word out about the book they’re in – unbeknownst to their author? Now, that’s a different PR campaign altogether.
Just ask Neal Shusterman (Bruiser, the Skinjacker Trilogy). In the spring of 2012, he noticed some peculiar online chatter involving his Unwind Dystology (Simon & Schuster), a now four-book series about three teens struggling to survive in a world in which parents can have their children “unwound” – or harvested for their organs – after they turn 13. Book one, Unwind, had been released in 2007; at the time, he was gearing up for the August 2012 release of book two, UnWholly. Not only were his fans posting comments about Unwind on Twitter, but four of his characters – Hayden, Connor, Risa, and Lev – were tweeting, too. “I post on Twitter regularly, and when I checked my followers, I saw that my own characters were following me. They sounded eerily like my characters would actually sound,” Shusterman recalled. “It was a very surreal thing to see come to life digitally!”
Elsewhere, on Shusterman’s Facebook page, another stranger (one not from his books) who called herself Razz Le’Dazzle had popped up and was contributing content related to the Unwind universe. “She was posting fantastic stuff such as links to articles that somehow relate to [the process of] unwinding, and pictures that connected to the books,” Shusterman said. “Some people were convinced that Razz was me in disguise, because of how connected she seemed.”
So what did Shusterman do? Like any entrepreneurial author, he saw the enthusiasm as a golden opportunity, and responded. In July 2012, he got in touch with Razz Le’Dazzle, aka Symone Powell, a then-19 year old from Indiana, and asked if she’d be interested in helping to promote the series officially by building its social media presence. “Because she was so connected to the book, and her posts were so good, I asked her to take over @Unwholly_Unwind, and post teasers and links,” Shusterman said. “I even sent her the manuscripts of UnWholly and UnSouled [book three] ahead of time so she could post those teasers.”
For Powell, accepting the offer was a no-brainer. “One of my favorite things about Neal as an author is that he doesn’t belittle his audience,” she said. “Also, he doesn’t write the same book twice, meaning he doesn’t set up shop in one genre.” Her respect for the author, and having access to precious inside information, is what makes promoting the books so much fun, she added: “While I’m kicking out teasers and the fans still have yet to get the book, I can sit back and twirl my metaphorical evil mustache while their eyes dry out from watching the calendar for so long.”
Winding Up for the Campaign
With Powell handling the books’ official Twitter feed, Shusterman began interacting more with his characters – and the teens responsible for their online profiles, who had originally connected through a message board for the projected 2015 movie. Then in the spring of 2013, he made their informal street-team status a bit more official, and what began as four Twitter accounts soon blossomed into a network of 14, with fans across the country, and as far as Australia, manning the feeds, and hosting contests and giveaways of signed copies of the book, as well as of atypical goodies like an autographed pair of socks.
Not surprisingly, the real people behind the characters feel strong connections to their online personas. “Hayden’s one of my favorites due to his sense of humor, and the fact that we look alike certainly didn’t hurt,” said Tyler Holtzman, the theater major from Ohio who runs Hayden’s character Twitter account. “This whole experience has been an opportunity I never in my wildest dreams imagined might happen. When I was originally contacted by Neal, I honestly thought it wasn’t real, but I am so grateful to him. I appreciate [him] as an author not only because of his incredible writing style and skill, but also in the way he involves his fans in every step of his writing process.”
Holtzman and his peers aren’t the only ones benefitting from this symbiotic arrangement. Shusterman said the relationships he’s forged with his newly minted YA PR team – through Twitter, a private Facebook page used for brainstorming ideas, and a newly created Tumblr page – have influenced his writing choices. “I feel even more of an obligation to the characters now that they’re ‘real’ people,” he said. “For instance, the character of Hayden had a passing reference to Spam – the processed meat kind – in Unwind. Tyler kind of ran with that, making Spam a bit of an obsession for the character. I’m following up on that in book four, UnDivided.”
Thus far, the group effort seems to be working. With more than 38,000 “likes” on Facebook’s Unwind Dystology page and a burgeoning Twitter following, Shusterman’s fan base is growing steadily. Following the October 15 release of UnSouled, he embarked on a10-city tour, with school visits and bookstore signings scheduled through March 2014.
But UnSouled is only the first half of what was originally meant to be book three in a trilogy. Next up for the author: UnDivided, the fourth and final book in the dystology – scheduled to be published in 2014. A projected collection of novellas about minor characters in the Unwind world will follow a year later. In the meantime, Shusterman hopes to meet some of his “characters” in person. He also offered PW a few plot hints for book four. “Connor and Risa will come face to face with Nelson, the ‘parts pirate’ with a vendetta. Cam will find the true reason why he was created. Lev will be back in the news again in a major way. And beyond that, all I can say is that it will be a very satisfying conclusion for all characters, and on all levels,” Shusterman promised. “As an author, I don’t like to wrap everything up with a neat little bow, but readers will put down the final book feeling very satisfied.”