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‘Machine of Death’: How Webcomics Creators Hit #1 on Amazon and Took Down Glenn Beck

Five years ago, Ryan North did an installment of his daily strip, Dinosaur Comics, where T-Rex came up with a premise for a book about a machine that tells people how they’re going to die. It was originally intended as a one-off gag, but over time, that premise became the foundation for Machine of Death, a collection of stories edited by North, Wondermark‘s David Malki! and Matthew Bennardo that grew to feature 34 stories, each one with an illustration. Despite boasting the talents of webcomic superstars like Randall Munroe and Kate Beaton and award-winning comics creators like Cameron Stewart and Roger Langridge, the book was rejected by every publisher the editors submitted it to. So they decided to publish it themselves.

To mark the book’s release on October 26th, the editors decided to make a push to get their self-published anthology to #1 on Amazon’s daily sales charts, and not only did they succeed, they also dethroned a competitor they had no idea they had: Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, who also had new book debuted the same day, and labeled the book as part of the of the liberal “culture of death” for daring to get more sales than he did:

“And I want to tell you that, um…our books are ALWAYS #1. And I find it REALLY fascinating, FASCINATING, that if you go to Amazon.com, Broke is number THREE… And then, the #1 book — TODAY, at least — is Machine of Death. And it’s collected stories about, you know, people who know how they’re gonna die. Haowww! … This is the left. You want to talk about where we’re headed? We’re headed towards a culture of death. A culture that, um, celebrates the things that have destroyed us.”

Today, we’re joining in, as ComicsAlliance sits down to talk to to North, Malki and Bennardo to find out just how it all went down, and take a look at a few of our favorites from the book’s amazing illustrations by artists like Kate Beaton, Chris Hastings, Jeffrey Brown and Cameron Stewart!ComicsAlliance: How much promotion did you guys actually do, and how much promotion was involved from others? I know that David mentioned on his site that it only really takes a few hundred sales in a short time to get to #1, and Looking down the list, you’ve got over 60 contributors like Chris Hastings who have really successful webcomics, Yahtzee Croshaw, indie comics guys like Jeffrey Brown, mainstream comics creators like Cameron Stewart and Karl Kerschl. There’s a wide breadth of creators whose fans might not necessarily overlap.

Matthew Bennardo: We don’t really know what right now what all the contributors were doing on October 26 — how many of them were talking about the book, and in what channels, and how much. That’s something I’d like to find out, in fact.

But I think as far as hypotheses go, “power in numbers” is probably part of the story. Another important part is that early on October 26 there was already something exciting to talk about. When I got to work on Tuesday, we were already #24 on the Amazon bestseller list. Suddenly I had something much cooler to tell my friends and family, and things only got more exciting from there.

My friends would still have been interested in the book if we’d never made the bestseller list — but being so high so early gave everything a sense of immediacy and legitimacy that just snowballed. As to how we got on the list in the first place — I’ll let Ryan and David speculate on that.

Ryan North: I think part of the disconnect for us and publishers was the we kept started by thinking “Look at these great stories!” and then figured if we got some of our cartoonist friends to do illustrations, we’d make the book even better. Then we were thinking “Look at these great stories, and look at these great illustrations by awesome cartoonists!” – but unfortunately a big name there doesn’t impress a publishing company.

None of us really know how many sales it takes to get to #1, but I know that we sold thousands on the first day. Comparing to the competition, I’ve got to believe that Glenn Beck and Keith Richards sold more than a few hundred on our launch day too, so I don’t know how many it was, but I think it was probably more than a few hundred sold before we took the #1 position.

In terms of what promotion we did: we told the contributors we were planning this big push, and asked them to let people know if they were going to buy a copy, that’d be the day. David [Malki] posted to Twitter and his website early in the morning and went to bed (he did all the preparation for this!) and then I took over in another time zone as I got up. By the time I was up at 7:30 EST, the book was already at 24th place. 3 hours later we were at number 2, and two hours after that, #1.

I think for sure that having our online notoriety helped us with that first push, but as Matt said, after that it sort of snowballed: people could see something was happening, and by buying the book they had a horse in that race. That morning there were hundreds of Twitter posts about the book: people saying they’d bought it and linking to the machineofdeath.net page, people posting the exact second the book moved up in rankings, and so on. It was really exciting to watch, and super exciting to be a part of!

On thing that surprised me: it turns out that there’s these spambots on Twitter that monitor Amazon’s top listings and spam out affiliate links as soon as a book hits the charts, so as soon as we were in that top 10, we had an unintentional army of spambots talking about the book too. I’m not sure it helped at all (I’d like to hope it didn’t, and I can’t imagine “AMAZON_BOOKZ_$$$” carrying much weight on Twitter) but it added to the surreality of the day. Suddenly not only did we have an army of readers behind us – even the spambots were on our side!

David Malki!: Matt and Ryan are right! There was a tremendous sense of immediacy as people began watching the bestseller list update throughout the day. So once we got the ball rolling, it kind of took off on its own, which was a pleasant surprise for us and also exactly what you want to happen in a situation like this. Once we got high on the chart and people realized that “holy crap, this might actually happen,” it became less a matter of “some internet guys running a marketing campaign” and more about “things are HAPPENING in the WORLD that are OBSERVABLE.” In other words we created SCIENCE.

But that strong initial push from our own readers and those of the contributors is definitely what gave us a huge head start, and the name recognition among the contributors helped a huge amount as well. We’ve gotten emails from folks saying “Great job, I want to do the same thing with my self-published book for kids about how to be nice to dogs, any tips?” and our response has to be, “First, spend 14 cumulative years building an audience of hundreds of thousands, and compile the work of contributors who have an aggregate audience in the millions. Then, you can probably sell a few hundred books.”

I think the scope of this project is one of the many things that makes it interesting. The concept is cool, the contributors are tremendously varied (so it’s impressive in itself that we’ve brought them together), and then once folks read the book, they realize that the material is tremendously varied as well. And that makes them recommend the book to folks who otherwise might not be interested in something more niche!

CA: Did you guys offer any incentives to your readers? I know David promised his readers extra Wondermark strips.

RN: Kinda! I did a sequel to the Machine of Death strip the day we launched, but it’s not like I wasn’t going to do a comic anyway.

DM: I offered extra Wondermark strips because I was just thinking, “what can I put in front of people to make them as excited as I am.” There are probably a handful of folks in my audience who’d pay $9 to get three extra comics in a week even if they didn’t get a 400+page book out of it. So on the whole it was just me being desperate. Then, when it all happened, suddenly I’ve got all these emails and phone calls and websites to deal with PLUS extra comics PLUS preparing for a trip. I didn’t sleep or see my wife that entire week, I’ll have you know. Enjoy those comics NOW.

CA: Okay, so if I’m getting this right, you’re saying that you actively tried to work against real Americans. Is that about right?

RN: We actually picked the October 26th because we thought it was going to be a slow day for book launches. That’s probably where we messed up the most! It turns out that Tuesday is the day when big publishers officially launch their new books, so we really couldn’t have picked a worse day. We ended up competing against Keith Richard’s new autobiography, Glenn Beck’s new book, the Barefoot Contessa‘s new cookbook and a ton of others — and we beat them! I think that’s the most amazing part. But it was nothing personal – we didn’t even realize these people were there until we passed them in the rankings on the way up.

I should point out that both Matt and David are actually real Americans, so as the lone Canadian in the bunch if anyone is ruining it for everyone, it’s — it’s probably me. RUINING IT FOR EVERYONE

CA: You guys got called out on Glenn Beck’s radio show for being part of the “Culture of Death” after you got the #1 slot on Amazon ahead of one of his books. I first heard about it from [contributor] Carly Monardo, but how did you guys find out?

RN: I think we all found out when someone in his audience let us know on Twitter. It was a pretty big surprise!

MB: I think Glenn Beck was surprised too! As far as I can tell, that’s the only reason he mentioned us. We don’t operate anywhere near the same scale that he does — he was selling his books in lots of different avenues that day, but Amazon was probably one of the few that could give him real-time results. He checks the rankings and sees these guys nobody has ever heard of before at #1. He has to say something on his radio show, so we just get lumped in with Keith Richards — which was amazing in itself.

Personally, I would love to get together for a beer with Glenn Beck, Keith Richards, and the Barefoot Contessa just to have a few laughs about what happened.

DM: Actually, someone left us a comment on the MoD blog. I asked for confirmation on Twitter and got it a few hours later, when it was being played live in Hawaii (probably the latest possible time zone). Picture this: someone on the East Coast hears the show. They comment on the blog. I tweet about it, and as Glenn Beck’s show is panning across the continent with the sun, someone tunes in to listen strictly on our behalf. It’s amazing when you think about it that way. I’m sorry that that dude had to listen to an hour and a half of the show, though. We thank him for his sacrifice.

CA: Have you guys gotten any other big reactions?

RN: Publisher’s Weekly! Plus, We’ve had some queries from the New York Times, but I don’t think an article came out of it.

DM: Everybody who has read the book has either absolutely loved it or, at worst, appreciated and enjoyed most of it — which is about the biggest reaction a book can possibly have. We expect some more mainstream press around the time of our bookstore release in a few weeks, though. At least we hope for it!

CA: I saw you mention on Twitter that Beck’s people had contacted you about a review copy. Did anything come of that, or did you just fade away from his Enemies List?

RN: We sent him copies, but haven’t heard back! I’d be surprised if it did, but it was kinda amazing. Maybe he’s busy reading them AS WE SPEAK, finding each and every story more engrossing than the last!

DM: I don’t think we were ever on his Enemies List, I think we were briefly, thanks to our vocal supporters on Twitter, on his “Possible Controversies to Stir Up and Rally People Against, So They Will Buy My Book in Indignation” list, which I’m sure is very long. Ultimately I bet we were just not evil enough once they put us under the microscope. I mean, we’re these bootstrapping, small-business-makes-good-against-the-man entrepreneurs. Conservatives wish everyone in America was like us.

In addition to the stories themselves — each one detailing a recipient of one of the Machine’s predictions — Machine of Death boasts an incredible roster of artists, with each one contributing an illustration that leads each story. They’re all great, but I’ve picked out a few favorites:

“Love Ad Nauseum” by Kate Beaton

“Torn Apart and Devoured By Lions” by Christopher Hastings

“Starvation” by Karl Kerschl

“Prison Knife Fight” by Roger Langridge

“Improperly Prepared Blowfish” by Jeffrey Brown

“Drowning” by Adam Koford

“Cancer” by Danielle Corsetto

“Cocaine and Painkillers by Jess Fink

“Exhaustion From Having Sex With a Minor by Cameron Stewart

To get your own copy of Machine of Death, you can pick it up on Amazon (further boosting its sales ratings) or wait for it to show up at your local shop — after their triumph on the sales charts, Bennardo, Malki and North have signed a deal to get nationwide distribution to the bookstore market.

Or, if you’re so inclined, you can download the entire book for free as a PDF from the Machine of Death website.

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