Discover more from The Creative Shift by Dan Blank
The Marketing Tactic that Keeps Matthew McConaughey a #1 Bestseller
A Book Launch Case Study
Wouldn’t it be nice of books just sold themselves? Sometimes they do, but more often it is work. I want to share a case study of how this happens for one author, and one book. I’m going to zoom into a single TV appearance, and dissect the 10 minutes, moment by moment, to identify all the ways the book is being promoted.
This is how my brain works — I see people talking about books, and I think, “What exactly is happening here to effectively share what a book is and why someone would like it?” And I slow it down in my mind, rewind it, play it at half speed, rewind it again, play it over and over and over. My work is about helping writers express what they create, find ideal readers, and share their work in a meaningful way. So I tend to analyze things at this frame by frame level. Every word, every phrase, every expression.
Which brings us to Matthew McConaughey appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to promote his new picture book, Just Because. I shared recently that I had worked with the illustrator of that book, Renée Kurilla.
Just Because debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for children’s picture books, and at the time of writing this, has been there for five consecutive weeks. Everything I share below happened after the book became a bestseller. So the marketing tactics I analyze show how the author is working to keep the book a bestseller. Matthew’s previous book has been on the bestseller list for 100 weeks. I imagine that is the goal with Just Because.
Which is to say, your book launch doesn’t end after launch week. It is work to ensure it keeps reaching readers.
What I want to illustrate in today’s case study is this:
Look at how hard these two people are working to promote this book, and how hard this entire entity of the TV show, their staff, the network, and the author’s team, is working. This is not an accident. There is a lot to learn in considering the nuances below.
I want to showcase the work involved in promoting a book, by two people who you would think, “Oh, they don’t have to work at promoting something. They are rich and famous and have these huge platforms. A book simply has to be published with Matthew’s name on it, and it’s an instant bestseller.”
Yet… look at how hard they are working in these 10 minutes to sell this book. Here is what unfolded:
(Note: if you are receiving this via email, your inbox may not show the entire post because it is so long. If that is the case, you can read the entire post here.)
Part 1: The Preview
Before the episode came out, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon posted a preview teaser on YouTube Shorts. It starts with Questlove coming in to tell Jimmy that it’s so great to be back after a break, and Jimmy sharing that they don’t have a lead guest for that night’s show:
The lighting gets darker and Jimmy is suddenly holding a candle, explaining that “Legend has it, if you say his catchphrase three times, he will appear…” He then, in a very Matthew McConaughey voice, looks in the mirror and says ‘Alright, alright, alright…”
A horror movie song plays as the camera whip pans around to see if Matthew appeared in the doorway:
Now Questlove joins in as they both say “Alright, alright, alright,” in the mirror a second time, and the camera whips around again to an empty doorway. But when they turn back to the mirror, Matthew is there and says, “Boo!”
Jimmy asks why he appeared after only saying his catchphrase 2 times, instead of 3, and Matthew holds up his book, Just Because, and points to the title:
This promo is a taste of what is to come, where every element is focused on the book. I can envision an entire staff of writers, publicists, and others around a table brainstorming how to make the book the punchline to a promo, and everything that follows.
Part 2: The Interview
Sixteen seconds into the discussion, Jimmy holds up Matthew’s previous bestselling book, establishing him as a wildly successful author (in case people didn’t know):
Then, Jimmy begins explaining how much he enjoyed the book. I really appreciate a point he makes that by reading the physical book, Greenlights, then listening to the audiobook, “I probably spent 24 hours of my life with you, and you didn’t know about it.” So often, writers focus on the price as being the biggest hurdle to get past when convincing someone to buy a book. But I think the investment of time and energy is as — or even more — important.
Look at Jimmy’s face here and arms in the image below. Isn’t this how every author wants to feel when a reader talks to them about their book?
Jimmy continues by saying, “I think it was #1 for 98 weeks or something.” When you see him do it, he’s telling the person who knows this already — the author — looking him right in the eye. But really, he is telling the audience: “You may know Matthew as a movie star, but he is an incredible author. I want to reorient your way of looking at him to be as a successful author.” There is a lot of psychological framing going on here:
Now, Matthew is very charming. He positions the success of the book in terms of the conversations he’s had with readers. That they see themselves in his stories, and he expresses humbleness in that relationship. Here he motions to the audience to make it about the reader. Look at how open his facial expressions are:
Jimmy continues to share how honest and “real” the stories in the book are. So much of the work here is establishing success and authenticity, as if he is saying, “Hey, this is a successful writer, but he’s not grandstanding, he’s just like you, and he’s so authentic. Maybe you and he can have a beer after the show.”
Now that they have anchored Matthew as a great writer, a successful author, and someone relatable, you can physically see the transition to the next book as Jimmy begins raising Just Because, as he puts down Greenlights, saying:
“You can see the seeds of Just Because in Greenlights.” This again is a framing device, to transfer the perception of success from the first book to the second book.
From here Matthew dives into a specific story right away, which is a smart way to connect readers to the book. To engage through story, not description. He tells of his childhood treehouse, which is illustrated on the cover. Again, he speaks directly to the audience:
A lot of writers undercut their own story and what they create. They rush through it, diminish it, they tell the least dramatic version of what they write and why. Why? They worry about seeming self-involved. They worry that talking about what they create somehow turns a pure creative act into a hollow cry for attention. But Matthew tells this story with a sense of awe in his voice, as if he has never shared this before. Here he describes how big his treehouse was:
Only then does he pivot to a larger theme in the book, hoping to make it relatable to the viewer: “A treehouse I think is a symbol for all of us. It is the first place for me that I got to go and have my own private thoughts, write down my private things, have my things, where it is like no one else can see that if I don’t want them to. The only people in my treehouse are the people I invite to my treehouse.”
Then Jimmy pivots back to the process of creativity, “So you write this, I’ll give it a shot, I’ll release this as a children’s book. Did you ever think you would write a children’s book?”
Matthew’s response focuses on the purity of the creative act, and (again) how relatable it is: “This came to me in a little ditty of a dream one night. I woke up at 2:30 with this little hook…” And he starts singing the words from the book. He continues: “So I write about 200 couplets, 30 of which made it into this version.” He then talks about how the themes are things his kids are going through, and their friends are going through, that he hears other parents talking about — again focusing on this idea of universal themes that the audience can relate to. “That’s what’s in the book.”
Then, in case all this work isn’t clear, Jimmy overtly says: “I dig it, man. I love it. This is so much up my alley. Even if I didn’t have kids, I would have this.” As he is saying this, I feel like I can see Jimmy recognize that he’s not holding up the book! So he grabs it to hold up the cover yet again:
Matthew points to the audience, recognizing that illustrator Renée Kurilla is there today.
Then Jimmy chimes in: “FANTASTIC illustrations! Great job!” The audience literally begins cheering. Jimmy realizes he hasn’t shown the back cover yet:
As if they haven’t explored every nuance of this book, Jimmy finds another: “I like the dedication at the end of the book, would you mind reading it?” Even the their physical position of this is part of the marketing — where each of them are holding half of the book. It’s as if Jimmy is saying: “if you like me, you should like this book. Here I am holding it, arm in arm, with successful author Matthew MacConaughey.”
A loud cheer follows, with Matthew proclaiming, “Isn’t that true?!” Jimmy looks on with reverence, and Matthew holds up his hands as if to say, “Your welcome.”
Then… they quickly move into a small bit. The line from the dedication is “We are all as young as we are ever going to be.” Matthew notes, “We are as young as we are ever going to be right now. Whoop! We just got older.” And he looks at Jimmy. Now I’m not sure if this is planned or not, but they move into the bit:
In unison: “Whoop, we just got older!”
”Whoop, we just got older!”
I mean, look at the expression in each of their eyes below — total shock and wonder. Where else do you see expressions like this? On the day grandparents sees their grandkid for the first time. Or when two people have been stranded on a desert island, and they are about to die of starvation, but they suddenly discover a Krispy Kreme donut shop on the island that they hadn’t noticed before, and it’s also free donut day. They could not be more joyful:
Jimmy then moves on to a story about how they lit up the Empire State Building with green lights when Matthew visited, to honor his book, Greenlights. But not before holding up the cover of Just Because again! Why? Because the goal here is clearly not to promote Greenlights or anything else, it is to keep the viewer ensconced in Just Because.
Thirty seconds later, Jimmy holds up both books again as they prepare to cut to a commercial break. He starts by saying, “Congrats on both books.”
But then quickly hides the older book to encourage people to buy Just Because. Where did Greenlights go? It doesn’t exist! Only Just Because exists!
Part 3: People Remember Songs
For seven minutes, Matthew and Jimmy have covered every way to promote this book, right? Wrong. Let’s consider: how else can we get people to feel engaged with this book? To remember the title? To remember what it is about?
The answer: song. Why? Well, here are some quotes from Kelly Jakubowski, Associate Professor in Music Psychology, Durham University on the power of music to aid in memory and connection:
“The science behind rhyme, rhythm and repetition… The features of music often serve as a predictable “scaffold” for helping us to remember associated lyrics. For instance, the rhythm and beat of the music give clues as to how long the next word in a sequence will be. This helps to limit the possible word choices to be recalled, for instance, by signalling that a three-syllable word fits with a particular rhythm within the song.”
Okay, back to our analysis…
After the commercial break, what is Jimmy doing? STILL HOLDING UP THE BOOK! And I want to point out, they could have put the book on a little stand, but I think it is an important detail to see the host of the show physically holding up the book, making the connection, “Jimmy likes this book. You like Jimmy, so you should like this book.”
Then the setup for the next segment begins… by Jimmy opening the book: “Matthew, I was reading the book earlier, and I just have to say, I love it, and I do recommend it…” I mean, the gushing doesn’t end!
But he continues, “It has a rhythm to it…” and he begins singing lines from it:
Jimmy continues: “What I was thinking we could do, is to add a little music to it…” He motions to the band:
And we see Captain Kirk Douglas play a riff:
The rest of the band joins in, to an obviously prepared song, and Jimmy begins singing, with he and Matthew trading off lines:
Jimmy then pulls out two handheld microphones that are already on, and the two of them begin to move center stage, in front of the band:
So here they are leaning into one of Jimmy’s talents, as a singer and performer, and we are experiencing the book in an entirely new way:
Now we see the full band, The Roots, in frame, all going along. Lead by Questlove, the current members include (according to Wikipedia): Black Thought, Kamal Gray, Captain Kirk Douglas, Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson, Ray Angry, James Poyser, Mark Kelley, Stro Elliot, Jeremy Ellis, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, and Dave Guy. I mean, look at the immense talent of so many people in this one image, all using visual and audio cues to engage you with this book:
And of course, as the performance ends, two books magically appear in each of their hands. I slowed this down frame by frame to analyze it - it all happens in 3 seconds, as if by magic. Here we are at minute 2:47 — what is missing here? There are no books!
Now a second later at 2:48, Jimmy’s hand glides gently out of frame, as if he is about to pull a rabbit out of a hat:
Suddenly a book appears! Notice Matthew’s hand reaching to his left:
Look at the image below, do you see the flaw here, the glaring flaw that may have cost someone their job? The hand that appears just to the right of the screen, giving Matthew the book, thus breaking the illusion of magic. Why am I focused on that tiny glimpse of a hand? Because it breaks this narrative of two chums just sitting around chatting about what they love. It is a reminder: this is all setup and pre-planned to the millisecond:
And here we go, ending with the book in frame, both people smiling:
Do you have to do all of this when promoting your writing? No! But I want to highlight that this is work. I want to recognize the nuances of this work. These things didn't just happen, it took planning and effort. It’s possible to look at the bestseller list and think that it is easy for everyone else to find success, and there is no room for you.
I like analyzing how books are shared because when I do, I see the nuances of the work involved. That there was likely weeks of planning that went into every detail of this 10 minute TV appearance. There were probably dozens of ideas that were developed, but later rejected. The result? Connecting readers to stories, ideas, and information that moves them.
If you share what you create, I encourage you to not feel ashamed of that effort. So many people shy away from talking about what they create. I want to encourage you to feel permission to talk about your creative vision, and to feel good about it.
Jimmy and Matthew couldn’t possibly be more famous than they are, yet what I’m illustrating here is this: promoting a book can be work, and to sustain a book, that work continues. A team of people came up with a ton of ideas that Jimmy and Matthew and The Roots executed on here. And this is just one marketing tactic out of many that Matthew will be using for weeks and months to come.
You may be thinking to yourself, “Dan, if this is what is required of me, I want no part of it. I would rather never write another word than to have to constantly sell my book in such an overt fashion.” So I want to share my actionable takeaways from this case study that you can remix as you like:
Consistency and repetition help people learn about what you write and why. A couple weeks ago, I shared a different book launch case study that made a similar point, landing that novelist on the bestseller list as well.
Use different emotional and psychological framing to engage people with what you create. Simply because you mentioned your book once, a few weeks ago, don’t assume people remember, or that it struck a deep emotional or psychological chord with them. Consider different ways people can find a connection to your writing. In this example, we focused on personal stories, aligning to success, song, social proof, likeability, and so much else.
Having others advocate for your work is a powerful way to engage new readers. How can you bring your creative work to other communities? Consider the difference between the author pitching their book, and in this case, Jimmy saying, “I would own this book even if I didn’t have kids.” How can you create conversations with others around the themes you write about?
Inspiration of the Week: I always love seeing how tools are organized. I think of this for artists, writers, and creators a lot, but even passing by a plumber’s van makes me soooooo curious about all their tools, and the methods by which they organize them: