This week, a mysterious figure appeared on a 42-foot high billboard on the side of the Madame Tussauds wax museum, down the street from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Only the top part of her face was visible — fierce gray eyes, dark-brown skin, bone-white hair rising into the air like smoke. She seemed to be levitating above Hollywood Boulevard, above the chain stores and the traffic and the celebrity footprints, as though she possessed some magical power, which she does. Unless you’re a devoted fan of young-adult literature, you will not have heard of Zélie Adebola, but soon, she will summit the peaks of popular culture like Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen before her. Zélie is not the first black heroine of a young-adult fantasy series, but she is on track to become by far the most famous.
The book, Children of Blood and Bone, due to come out March 6, has been called “a brutal, beautiful tale of revolution, faith, and star-crossed love” (Publisher’s Weekly), and “a timely study on race, colorism, and power and injustice” (Kirkus). To conjure the fantastical realm in which it is set, a land of spirits and giant snow leopards, its Nigerian-American author, Tomi Adeyemi, drew on West African mythology, which she researched during a recent fellowship in Brazil. She wrote the first draft in one feverish month. Less than a year later, at the age of 23, she sold the manuscript in a seven-figure deal rumored to be among the biggest in YA history. (“We paid a spectacular advance for a spectacular novel unlike anything we’ve read,” Tiffany Liao, her editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, told me in an email.) A film deal quickly followed, and since then, Children of Blood and Bone has appeared on dozens of lists of the most-anticipated books of 2018. At New York Comic Con last summer, fans waited in lines for hours for a chance to meet Adeyemi, though none had yet read the book. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, who focuses on race in children’s and young-adult literature, understood the impulse. “A book like this would have been beyond my imagination as a kid,” said Thomas, who is 40. She sees the publishing industry’s rapturous embrace of Children of Blood and Bone as the result of decades of activism aimed at making the industry more diverse. “What I love most about the idea of Children of Blood and Bone is that it moves black protagonists to the center of the fantastic — we are no longer in the margins of the mainstream imagination. Many black YA writers my age have lumps in their throats because when we were 24, those doors were glued shut.”
The book takes place in a country called Orïsha 11 years after magic has vanished from the land. The King has slaughtered all the Magi — magicians who could draw on the power of gods and goddesses to summon fire, darkness, spirits of the dead. Zélie sets out on quest to restore magic, and to defeat the king, who has murdered her own mother. This week, I caught up with Adeyemi to talk about the inspiration for her work, why she’s bored by Lord of the Rings, and what a book like Children of Blood and Bone would have meant to her as a kid. Plus, check out the book trailer below, released exclusively to Vulture.
I’ve read that your first attempt at writing a novel was inspired by seeing the backlash that the Hunger Games movie got from some viewers who were apparently upset to discover that Rue was black. How did that motivate you to start writing?
It’s actually hilarious, because it seems like we’ve come completely full circle. Now, everybody is losing their minds over Black Panther and its opening weekend totally eclipsed the Hunger Games, and A Wrinkle of Time is coming out next month, and it all feels really good. But in that moment it was really — I know this might sound dramatic, but there’s no other word — it was actually just soul-crushing. Especially during that time in my life.
What was going on in your life then?
It was my freshman year at Harvard. I grew up in a predominantly white community, Hinsdale, Illinois, and given that, I feel blessed because I could still count my experiences with blatant racism on two hands. I thought racism was the substitute teacher picking on you because she assumes that you’re a delinquent and she doesn’t know you have the highest score in the class. But then I got to college, and that’s when the shooting of Trayvon Martin happened, and that was terrifying. I knew racism could emotionally hurt, but up until then, I thought we were past the time when racism could actually kill me. And then we went through the trial, and I saw oh, also, it’s not only that you can be killed, it’s that your killer is going to walk free.
So college was this big awakening. Then came The Hunger Games — those stories were supposed to be my safe spot. Those characters were just supposed to be characters. I thought it wasn’t really about the color of their skin. But then I found out that people were bringing their real-world hatred into that fictional world. They said, “Oh, yeah, it’s not sad when a 10-year-old girl gets speared to death because she’s black.” And they’re saying it in public, too, on the internet. They were so bold and so unashamed. It was both terrifying and heart breaking. If they don’t feel anything seeing a fictional black girl die, then our world is in a much worse spot than I thought. I am a lot less safe than I thought.
But after the terror comes the, “Oh I’m going to get you.” [Laughs.] At least for me. I’m going to get you, because I’m going to make something as good as The Hunger Games, and everyone is going to be black, and you’re going to have to enjoy this thing with all black people and that’s going to suck for you! That’s how I go through things. Something hurts me, I feel that hurt deeply, I shed my tears, and then it’s like, okay, but now I’m going to get you. Not necessarily this month, not necessarily this year, but give it time. I will clap back. And you will eat your words.
It’s amazing what a difference six years can make, especially in a genre like fantasy, which has been dominated for so long by white people.
We’ve been told the same story for so long. We’ve seen literally 1,000 Lord of the Rings movies. I keep thinking about what it would have been like if I had seen this growing up — if I’d seen someone even darker than me, someone who doesn’t have straight fantasy hair, but a curly magical afro. I know what it would have done that for me, because I know what it did for me when I did see these things for the first time. Like with Kerry Washington on Scandal. I remember being like — that’s me, I’m the main character! I’m badass! I’m emotionally complex! I’m making out with the president! Cool cool cool! You don’t realize what’s missing until you see it. And then once you do, you’re like, why do I feel like I could lift a car right now? So this is why white men feel so great all the time.
This is the explanation.
Yeah, because they’re always seeing themselves doing amazing things. Right now, I feel like we’re in this black-girl-magic renaissance. Last week, Dhonielle Clayton’s book The Belles came out, and in April, Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is coming out, and seeing our three books next to each other — I’ve never seen books like this in my entire life. It’s actually incredible.
I’m this excited as an adult consumer, so I can’t even imagine what this specific year is going to do for so many children, especially so many black girls. They are being flooded with, you are amazing, you are beautiful, you are powerful, you can kill zombies, you can do magic, your hair looks amazing. Even though the world is a very scary place, if I just look at that part, I feel like: okay, I could have a daughter right now. She’s not going to have to go through this period of hating her hair and hating her skin. Not to say that these books are going to completely eradicate that, but it’s going to make a huge difference, because you hate yourself when you think you’re different, when you think no one is like you.
How old were you when you wrote your first story?
My very first story, I was around 5, and I really just wrote myself. When I was 5, I loved myself so much I gave myself a twin named Tomi. Everything started out fine. But then I didn’t write another black character until I was 18. I look at that gap, and just the thought of me sitting alone in my room reinforcing the lies the world told us pisses me off.
What kind of characters were you writing in those years?
The protagonists were either white or biracial, because I thought those were the only people who were allowed to be in stories. It wasn’t a conscious decision, which to me is why it’s scarier. Somewhere in there, I’d internalized this idea. I’m writing stories alone in my room, and I don’t write black characters because I don’t think that’s allowed. And my senior year, I finally realized how messed up that was. So even before the Hunger Games, I realized I needed to write black characters with really big hair. That was one way I could start teaching myself to love and accept myself and not wish I looked different, or that my skin was lighter, or that my eyes were hazel. It was so easy for me to describe those features in the books I was writing as desirable, but it wasn’t easy to write “she had really dark skin” — I didn’t have the language for it. So that was the start of my journey.
I spent 12 years of my life writing stories without black people. That’s insane to me. It’s insane that I could have believed in magical portals and dragons and all that stuff, but to believe a black person could be experiencing those things was unimaginable.
So when you started working on Children of Blood and Bone, were you drawing any inspiration from the classics of the fantasy genre — the 1,000 different versions of Lord of the Rings, as you say?
Here’s where I’m going to be crucified: I haven’t actually read Lord of the Rings. I haven’t watched Game of Thrones. [Whispering.] I’m whispering because I know they’re going to be like “burn her!” I’m not saying they’re not great, it just wasn’t doing it for me. So I couldn’t be influenced by LOTR because I literally couldn’t get through it. There are just all these short men running around.
I’m more influenced by anime. That was my first love. When I think about my childhood, it’s Harry Potter, but really it was Naruto, it was Bleach, it was Death Note. Those are epic, vicious tales. Right now my inspiration is Attack on Titan. I know I need to make something as effed up and as incredible and as bleak as Attack on Titan. Right now on my bookshelf, I have my only hardcover finished copy of Children of Blood and Bone, and then to the left of it, I have Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older and to the right of it, there’s An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, and above it is Avatar: The Last Airbender — Children of Blood and Bone is the baby of those three.
The idea that magic is a thing that has gone away and needs to be recovered is a common theme in fantasy books and older fairy tales, too. I’m curious why that theme resonated for you. In the real world, what’s the thing that you think has been lost that needs to be recovered?
For me, this theme hits home. I think everyone from a marginalized background can relate. You’re young, and the world is full of color and hopes and dreams. And then one day you have an experience that teaches you the world isn’t what you thought it was.
It teaches you that because of the color of your skin, people will treat you differently. Strangers will hate you. People in power will use their power to further disenfranchise you. People you pay to protect you will use their weapons to systematically hunt you down and kill you.
Living through that, it’s like watching a world full of color fade to hues of gray. To me, there’s no more powerful metaphor for that than watching a world that used to be full of magic get that magic violently ripped away.
People are talking about this as one of the biggest books of the year, and on top of that, the book carries this political weight — one of the first YA epic fantasies written by a black woman, featuring a black woman of color. Let’s talk about how you’re handling these expectations.
At this specific moment in time, I don’t feel the pressure of that because the book is done. For the eight months we spent intensely revising the book, absolutely. I knew the importance of this book and its potential impact on readers from all backgrounds, which meant every single word, every plot point, every character action, every element of the world — literally everything — has been through the ringer.
Up until a few days before we had to turn in the final text, we were still editing, still discussing, still analyzing. I put an insane amount of pressure on myself to get this book right. I know that no matter how hard you work you won’t be able to stop people from coming at something or trying to pick it apart, but I don’t have to feel pressure or worry now because I know that I did everything humanly possible (and then some) to put out the best book possible.
I think for me the biggest challenge is to maintain sanity and maintain time for everything. I really destroyed myself for this book.
Tell me more.
It was mostly all nighters. So many all nighters. Usually when a book is getting published, they make the book deal and then the book will be published a year and a half to two years later. We tried to do this in 11 months. Also the book that Macmillan bought was 400 pages, the advanced copy is 600 pages, it would be one thing if we just added 200 pages, because that’s not actually that bad. But we freaking ripped up the pipes. The book is so much better for it, but it was grueling.
I want to hear about the your research into the African mythology that inspired the magic in Children of Blood and Bone.
So I was in Brazil to research something completely different: how their history of slavery compared to ours and how the formation of an Afro-Brazilian identity compared to African-American identity. But the museum that had been my focal point — the whole reason I was able to justify going to Brazil — was closed for renovation. So when I realized this, it was raining, and I wandered into a gift shop to stop my hair from getting wet, and the gift-shop owner was kicking people out who were clearly there to not get wet. So I was like, “I’ve gotta look interested!” I started looking around and I picked up this poster of nine different Orisha. I had no idea what it was. I’d never seen anything like it. This ties back to what we were talking about earlier — You don’t realize that you’ve been surrounded by white Jesus and Zeus until you see black gods and goddesses and you’re like, “Holy wow!” I knew instantly I was going to do something with it, I just didn’t know what the story was yet. I was way more moved by just seeing that gift-shop photo than by any of the other slave-trade research I was doing. So I pivoted. And I started looking into the deep history of stories about these gods and goddesses — I call them that, because they’re similar to saints or angels. And a few months later, I started to think about what it would be like to do a story with a world based off those gods. I knew then that I had something worth writing that we hadn’t seen before.
Are there any updates on the movie that you can share? What’s that process been like? How involved are you?
The process has been wonderful! Everyone working on this movie is so passionate and excited about this project, and I couldn’t have asked for a better team to be behind Children of Blood and Bone. At this moment in time, I’ve had a few conversations with the screenwriter [whose identity is still a closely guarded secret], and it’s been incredible collaborating with him. I’ve also met with the team at Fox 2000 and Temple Hill Productions, and we’re continuing to meet as we get closer to putting all the people and pieces in place to start production. I can’t give any concrete dates away, but I will say that having watched Black Panther twice in two days, I am so excited for Children of Blood and Bone to make its way onto the screen!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How do you create a viral video?
I am asked this quite a lot. I’ve been asked by authors, TV producers, and first-time Kickstarter entrepreneurs. In my experience, the answers are the same for all of them.
In this post, I’ll deconstruct one example: The 4-Hour Chef (4HC) book trailer, which is now the most-viewed non-fiction book trailer of all time. Roughly 1.5 million views and counting.
Before we dig in…
First, let’s make a distinction: creating a “viral” video is not the same a creating a “popular” video, but both can be valuable.
If you use ads to drive 1,000,000+ views, a video is not viral; it is popular. If your views come from organic sharing (or incentivized sharing like DropBox), it can be considered viral.
This post is also intended as a companion to my post, Behind the Scenes: How to Make a Movie Trailer for Your Product (or Book), which goes into equipment, planning, and (tons of) other details that I’ve omitted here.
For later — below are resources that will save you a TON of time and tail-chasing…
Feel free to skip the box for now if you like:
YouTube Channel stats – http://vidstatsx.com/
Viral video chart – http://viralvideochart.unrulymedia.com/all
Trending videos – http://www.youtube.com/trendsdashboard
Good blog posts on the topic, probably in this order:
Outlets that cover trends and tools in online video well:
YouTube Creator Playbooks
Now, without further ado, here’s how we got ~1.5 million views for my latest book trailer…
Step 1: Storyboarding
This is like creating a comic book for the trailer, scene by scene. It’s the same process used by Pixar, among many others (video example here).
Here was my first stab for 4HC:
Click here to enlarge the below.
Click here to enlarge the below.
Optional Step 2: If Budget Allows, Assemble a Team
For the 4HC trailer, I brought in several specialists to help with production and promotion.
Please note that a team is nice-to-have and not must-have insurance. To date, my most viral video had zero budget. Here’s what gets you 4-5 million views:
That said, I like to tilt the odds in my favor whenever possible. Here’s my A-Team for doing so when funds allow:
– Directing and post-production – Adam Patch
– PR strategy and implementation – Ryan Holiday and BrassCheck
– Marketing, YouTube influencers, and experimental campaigns – Mekanism (Thanks, Jason and team!)
But how do you choose someone like Adam, if it’s not Adam? You ask for proposals, of course.
Typically, before you hire a production lead like Adam (who also acts as a general contractor for the production team), they will put together a proposal or “treatment”, which includes an itemized budget.
For 4HC, since I’d worked with Adam before, things started with my storyboarding and an in-person lunch with Adam.
Below is the 4HC “treatment,” cobbled together from our subsequent emails and conversations. It gives you a good idea of what you might expect you see:
4-Hour Chef video trailer Treatment
Step 3: Shot List and Logistics
Once you agree on look and feel, you have to roll up your sleeves: it’s time to scout locations, find talent (if needed), and choose specific shots for a to-do list (the “shot list”) that you check off as you film.
Special thanks to Chris Young and the amazing ChefSteps team for letting us use their Mr. Wizard-like food lab in Seattle. We shot the entire trailer in Seattle as a result. Here’s the kind of fun we had (see first 15 secs):
Our full shot list is below. Note that “CU” stands for “close-up”, and “TT” stands for “tabletop”.
View this document on Scribd
Step 4: Shooting Principal Footage
Not much to say here, other than shoot a TON of material when you have the chance. It’s easier to edit down than to add extra shooting days.
Below an example of original footage that will be magically changed in the next step. Here we used one of my favorite books as a stand in:
Step 5 – Editing
The first step is to cut down hours of footage into 120 or fewer seconds. This is tough but important work.
If you make the finished product look polished enough for broadcast, you might have opportunities (or make opportunities) to get it on major TV. Here’s the process I used to get bookings.
The 4-Hour Chef trailer was featured as my introduction on everything from Dr. Oz to The Hallmark Channel. It’s the perfect adrenaline rush and sales pitch wrapped into one. Especially for short-form TV interviews — typically 3-4 minutes total, with multiple hosts — you’ll be strained to get a word in edgewise. It’s fantastic to let your video hit the talking points, doing the sales job for you.
Now you have a “rough cut” of the trailer. This is first draft, without graphics or special effects.
Once the footage, cuts, and order of scenes is agreed upon, you arrive at “picture lock,” which means that the footage and length can’t be changed. Only at this point does it make sense for anyone to create time-consuming graphics, animation, or sync’d music. Something like this, for instance:
Here’s the complete progression from first “draft” to finished product. Can you tell what changes in each version?
Now that you’ve taken a shot, here’s the full commentary from Adam, taking you though it step-by-step:
And how exactly does Adam work his magic?
Let’s watch how Adam edits the opening atrium scene in The 4-Hour Body trailer, which also has roughly 1,000,000 views. But first, take a look at the finished trailer and notice the opening shot of me at my desk:
Now, we go behind the scenes:
Step 6 – Music
For The 4-Hour Body trailer, I chose music first (Splinter by Sevendust), which I then set visuals to. This turned out to be a licensing headache marathon, and I explain the whole how-to process here. And that was with the band offering it for free! For this new 4HC video, we had custom music produced after the video was complete. The talented Luis Dubuc provided a sync’d jam, and we were ready to roll. No fuss, no muss.
Custom music need not be expensive, and you can even use crowdsourcing with start-ups like Audiodraft. I’ve used them before as well (see here and here).
Step 7 – Launch and Promote
First, a super basic note on uploading. ENSURE YOUR VIDEO CAN BE VIEWED ON MOBILE DEVICES!
25% of global YouTube views come from mobile devices. I screwed this up for The 4-Hour Body trailer, and I’ve been unable to reverse the mistake and make it viewable on mobile; as a result, I’ve lost hundreds of thousands of views.
No option to change — shite!
So, avoid being a dumb-ass like me and get it right the first time. Back to launching once you’ve uploaded…
The 4-Hour Chef trailer premiered on HuffPo, then it was reposted to my blog here. When I announced the post my Facebook fan page, we promoted it through FB’s paid mechanism. Notice that this was all done on 11/7/12 and 11/8/12 — roughly two weeks before official book launch on 11/20/12.
One of the most effective promotions I did was a unique BitTorrent bundle of 680MB+ of free content. For the super-low labor involved, it drove fantastic numbers:
Watched the trailer on YouTube: 293K people
Visited the author’s website: 325K people
Visited the book’s Amazon page: 852K people
But that was just one piece of the YT traffic puzzle.
When it comes to YouTube, you need to realize what you’re up against in terms of noise: 72 hours of video are uploaded every minute. To capitalize on the opportunity (it’s the second largest search engine in the world), you need to plan. Spray and pray almost never works — your competition is too good.
So, what to do?
First off, do not split your ammo. If you’re considering ads to help drive traffic, do it when it counts: the first 24 hours, when you can combine it with all PR for a synergistic effect. Momentum begets momentum, and early success begets later success. I often pile nearly all book launch media/interviews into a 5-7 day period (Check out this madness).
Team Mekanism was responsible for 99% of all my YT-related PR and directly and indirectly 50%+ of traffic. BitTorrent and my PR that week make up the rest. Mekanism combined extensive PR outreach with early judicious use of TrueView ads and StumbleUpon traffic (Disclosure: I advise StumbleUpon).
Here’s Mekanism’s explanation of what they did, first as PDF with screenshots, then as text:
4 hour chef coverage from Mekanism
Bolded emphasis below is mine:
To help support Tim’s book launch, Mekanism took a three tiered approach: connecting him to relevant online influencers, hosting a contest on Pinterest (to expand his exposure among the female demographic), and promoted content within Slideshare.
[TIM: Slideshare is hugely underused for product launches. We used it for The 4-Hour Body as well.]
To drive widespread awareness of The 4-Hour Chef, Mekanism reached out to credible online influencers to help drive word-of-mouth. Mekanism reached out to bloggers and YouTubers across a variety of verticals relevant to each of the different chapters within the book. For example:
• Food Enthusiasts
• Male Lifestyle
• Science + Tech Bloggers
• Mom Bloggers
In researching outlets and people, Mekanism took an approach very similar to that outlined by Mike Del Ponte in his Hacking Kickstarter post. The key is establishing relationships, and ensuring your content/message is tailored to each individual blogger’s audience. To accomplish this, Mekanism not only crafted custom pitches, but also provided a wealth of assets that could be freely used: exclusive excerpts, interviews with Tim (live or recorded), his video book trailers, images, etc.
Without a doubt, the most engaged audiences were those of several YouTube stars/channels, specifically SourceFed & WheezyWaiter. These appearances led to thousands of comments and likes and contributed to YouTube being the second largest traffic drive to Tim’s target landing pages.
We wanted to see if it was possible to get a deck outlining the benefits of the 4-Hour Chef on the homepage of Slideshare, vis a vis having it rank on Slideshare’s ‘Top Presentation’s of the Day’ section. Slideshare was chosen because it has a well-educated and affluent user base that matches the target consumer of The 4-Hour Chef (69% college grads, 37% have $100k+ HHI).
First, a Slideshare deck was created to outline the benefits/chapters of 4HC. Next, we did the math to determine how many views, and in what period of time, were needed to drive the into the ‘Top Presentation’s of the Day’ section. Based on our observations, it seemed as though 15,000 views within a 24-hour period was likely enough.
Having this understanding of required viewing density, we uploaded our deck and promoted it via paid StumbleUpon ads and drove the content to the homepage of Slideshare via “stumbles,” ensuring everyone visiting the site the day of launch saw the presentation.
Keep in mind that the sum is greater than the parts. Here are more of the parts, written in a report to Tim:
– Made the ‘Hot on Facebook’ and ‘Hot on Twitter’ section (on homepage)
– Was ‘Featured’ (also on homepage)
– Peaked as 2nd most popular presentation last night
-#3 most liked & top favorited ‘How To & Style’ video of the day
-#5 most viewed ‘How To & Style’ video of the day
-#65 top favorited & most liked video on YouTube today (of all videos across all categories)”
The goal of all of this, of course, is to build a rapid view count number that pushes the trailer above the noise. This then propagates into additional organic sharing, all of which sells books.
So, those are the basics of stacking the deck in your favor for online video. Most posts on “virality” are vague generalities, so I wanted to dig into the weeds. Hopefully you like this.
Are there any other details you’d like to see, or questions you’d like answered? Please let me know in the comments.
Posted on: April 10, 2013.
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