You may not know what Diary of an Oxygen Thief is about, but you might have heard the title. Or maybe you saw a picture of the book on Instagram, or read a discussion of it—positive or negative—on Twitter. And that’s by design: a design carried out by the book’s anonymous author over 10 years.
The slim novel, which details the travails of a broken-hearted, alcoholic, and bitter misogynist (who is also an unreliable narrator), was self-published in 2006. After selling nearly 100,000 copies—predominantly in trade paperback and e-book—the book was acquired by Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint in May, and re-released by the Simon & Schuster imprint on June 14. In its first three weeks on sale, the title has gotten off to a respectable start, selling roughly 14,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. The book’s unlikely rise, from underground hit to Big Five-published novel, is due predominantly to the marketing efforts of its anonymous author. He pulled off a savvy publicity campaign that prioritized, above all else, getting the book’s title shared on social media.
The author, who asked that his name be kept out of print, spoke to PW from his apartment in New York’s East Village about the long, strange trip of publishing —and promoting—Diary.
A Brit who honed his advertising craft at some of the major agencies in London, then New York, the author self-published the novel in Amsterdam in 2006. At that time he was working for an ad agency in the Netherlands and, after having the book rejected by a number of U.S.-based literary agents, a friend of a friend offered to print him 1,000 hardcover copies for free. Although the author hadn’t intended to self-publish, he decided to make use of the copies he suddenly had. After taking one into a bookstore in Amsterdam, he was pleasantly surprised by the fact that he got the title on the shelf. “[The bookseller] held [the book] up and shook it,” the author said. “I think he had this fear, because it was self-published, that it was poorly made and would fall apart. He never looked at the text. He then said he’d take three copies.”
Soon the author was taking requests for bigger orders from the Amsterdam bookshop. He also started getting copies into bookshops in other cities, such as Paris’s Shakespeare & Co.; the stores, he noted, all catered to young hipsters, whom he considered his target market. After moving back to New York City, the author, who was then working freelance advertising gigs, felt emboldened by the success he had selling, and distributing, the book in Europe. He decided to do a 5,000-copy print run of a new trade paperback edition, and to focus almost entirely on selling it. “I was getting just about enough orders that, if I lived a simple life, I could pull it off,” the author said.
Amping up his promotional efforts, the author hit several indie bookstores in N.Y.C., gaining particular traction at Spoonbill & Sugartown in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; the East Village’s former St. Mark’s Bookshop; and Nolita’s McNally Jackson. To get copies into Barnes & Noble, the author posed as an independent publisher and pushed the title through the retailer’s small-press program. (No meetings were required with B&N; everything was done via email. The author, calling himself V Publishing, told the retailer that his house was targeting the “hipster market, the most elusive of all segments” and would rely on guerilla marketing. He also showed the retailer some YouTube clips he’d made promoting the book. B&N placed an initial order of 100 copies.)
Intent on building underground buzz for the book, the author focused on promotional efforts that would make people google the book’s title. From his limited sales in bookshops he felt confident that he could land readers by getting the book’s cover (which features a picture of a snowman whose carrot nose has been repositioned to look like a penis) seen, and its title shared.
With this in mind, the author went out into the streets of New York and put up posters. Some featured profane statements and the book’s title; others simply displayed the book’s cover. The posters of the book’s cover were placed side by side on scaffolding, in the wheat-pasting tradition, to mimic ads promoting bands and albums that often dot urban landscapes. To draw readers in another way, the author created a fake profile on a popular dating website—he declined to say which one—with photos of a beautiful woman. The profile directed potential suitors to read a book called Diary of an Oxygen Thief. “I gave the impression that, if they were to read this book, they might have more of an amorous chance with me,” he said. Again, as with the posters, the goal was to get people to plug the book’s title into their Web browsers.
The author also began selling copies from his own stand in downtown New York. Although his aim was, predominantly, to generate revenue, he realized there was value in generating photos of the book. “I encouraged people to take a picture of the book, even if they didn’t want to buy a copy,” he explained. “It became kind of a thing, and people started sharing their photos of the book, or the first page, on Instagram.” And, when people did buy the book, he made that part of the photo program. “I would take a picture of them holding the book, then add it to Instagram and tag the picture.”
The book’s Instagram feed, @o2thief, has more than 5,000 followers. More significantly, though, thousands of photos have been hashtagged #diaryofanoxygenthief (or some variation thereof). The steady buildup of social media attention began to pay off roughly two years ago when the author started receiving huge orders from Amazon. The book had, finally, gone viral.
Once the novel broke into Amazon’s top-60 sellers, agent Byrd Leavell, at Waxman Leavell, took notice. Toward the end of last summer, Leavell reached out to the author—he found him through a mutual acquaintance in the industry—and took on the title. But, despite the strong sales the book had achieved by that point, which Leavell estimated at around 90,000 copies, editors were wary.
Some may have been turned off by the book’s vulgarities or the fact that the narrator is so unlikable. “It was the classic subjective fiction reaction of people saying, I see something here, but I don’t get it,” Leavell said. But the agent was unphased; he believed the book’s sales (which were about 1,000 per day when Leavell began shopping it) and its popularity on social media were proof it could become a major bestseller. Leavell also knew readers were falling for the book. “It’s a literary novel about an alcoholic misogynist that young women love,” he said. “There’s something [that these readers enjoy] about seeing the dark side of the male psyche.”
Gallery’s Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, the editor who finally said yes to the novel, admitted his interest was initially piqued by the book’s sales. He was also intrigued by the author’s marketing efforts, which he described as “creative” and “relentless.” Finally, for Ruby-Strauss, there was value in the work itself, which he called “subtle and not just something that trades cheaply on shock value.”
Whatever readers are responding to, publishers should take note of the author’s marketing methods. They prove that expertly deploying imagery of a book on social media, as opposed to trying to place a book in readers’ hands, can be an incredibly effective conduit for sales.