Brooke speaks to Justin Robert Young, who, along with Brian Brushwood, inspired their podcast fans to write a fake erotic e-book and improve its ranking in the iBook store by buying it and leaving 5-star reviews. The idea was to mock the success of Fifty shades of Grey and its sequels. The book reached #4, but then something funny happened - people not in on the joke started buying and positively reviewing the book.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Back in 1969, to mock the new popularity of poorly-written, pictorially-explicit books, 25 Newsday journalists got together to write the parody, “Naked Came the Stranger.” It spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Many of those readers knew it was a joke, and bought it anyway. Others just – bought it. Fast forward 43 years.
WOMAN/READING: He eases me toward the bed, until I feel it behind my knees. He grabs my hips with both his hands and runs his tongue around my navel. He gently nips his way to my hip bone, then across my belly to my other hip bone. “Ah,” I groan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s an excerpt from “50 Shades of Grey.” It’s not a parody. It’s spent 25 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has spawned its own parody, “The Diamond Club,” which is a crowd-sourced e-book that’s gotten as high as #4 on iTunes top 10 paid e-books list.
The book is the brainchild of Brian Brushwood and Justin Young, the hosts of the NSFW show, Podcast. Young says he took inspiration from “Naked Came the Stranger.”
JUSTIN YOUNG: I had just heard about Mike McGrady’s passing, who did the “Naked Came the Stranger” hoax, and I’m like, well, we can do exactly this. We can write a novel but we can sort of twist it a little bit, so instead of it being a staff of Newsday writers, we can reflect the modern times and have our audience be our content creators. The main character of “Naked Came the Stranger” sleeps with these very 1960s kind of characters, like a reformed rabbi and a crooner.
We’ll update that with our own version of trendy topics, like a vlogger and a cupcake artist and –
- fixed-gear bicyclist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] Your audience, I guess, ultimately produced a 100,000-word Google doc. How many people participated, and how involved were you?
JUSTIN YOUNG: We don’t quite know exactly how many people had some kind of impact on the book. They’re all taken this monk-like vow of silence. For me and Brian’s involvement, we laid out exactly what the basics of the plot were going to be, which is that there is a woman who builds a big dating site, with a super sex-charged Mark Zuckerberg kind of character.
In the first chapter, she finds out that he has married somebody behind her back and then she kind of goes from there on a 250-page sexual odyssey.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you didn’t just send the book out into the world and see it climb the charts. You told your audience to buy it and give it great reviews.
JUSTIN YOUNG: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do we know that this success isn’t just a closed loop, where the authors are the buyers and that’s just it?
JUSTIN YOUNG: Quite simply, because we don’t have that many fans.
You know, we’ve, we’ve done things like this before, and really, what we expected was for it to hit the top-10 charts, for us to chart somewhere about where we wound up topping off, at about 4, and then that would be it. It would drop like a stone, we’d declare a victory, and that’s what we’ve done in the past, and that’s what we expected to happen here. This did not happen.
Another indication that it wasn’t just our fans is that initially when we did our first big push, the Also Bought row on iTunes showed a lot of things that our audience has also bought, including Brian’s books. My friend Andrew Mayne is a self-published thriller author. A lot of his books showed up there. However, what we saw is like a mood ring; it kind of changed from those books by Brian and Andrew in sci-fi and fantasy, to a lot of self-published 99-cent e-books with very romance-novelly kind of names, like, you know, ”Bared to Him” and [LAUGHS] stuff like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We heard a snippet of “50 Shades of Grey.”
JUSTIN YOUNG: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s hear a snippet of your crowd-sourced book.
WOMAN/READING: “Shh,” he said. “Why don’t you come with me back to my restaurant and I’ll show you some of my techniques firsthand?” His private driver drove us to Alfeo’s, his restaurant on the pier. I’ve always wanted to eat there but Roman would never take me. Now, it appeared that Alfeo would be taking me, in more ways than one.
JUSTIN YOUNG: It’s so ridiculous, isn’t it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Is it true you actually haven’t read the whole book?
JUSTIN YOUNG: Oh, absolutely, 110 percent true. I haven’t read the whole book, no.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Why not?
JUSTIN YOUNG: Every day I kind of woke up thinking that this one would just kind of go away –
- and we would all just be happy about the success we had.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the past, we’ve covered books that fool people into buying them by masquerading as other books, that – we’re talking about books with titles like, “35 Shades of Grey.” That actually exists, and it became a bestseller. [LAUGHS]
JUSTIN YOUNG: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a little different. The covers suggests “50 Shades of Grey,” but this wasn’t an attempt to deceive, right, merely to mock.
JUSTIN YOUNG: There – there is an element of mockery in there, but really it was kind of an experiment to see what would happen if we completely eliminated character development and we completely eliminated plot, and all we did was just double down on a gigantic Costco-sized helping of – banging.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Thank you very much, Justin.
JUSTIN YOUNG: Well, thank you very much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Justin Robert Young is a co-host of the NSFW show, Podcast.
JUSTIN YOUNG: The audience were - were, by the way, very, very excited about the exposure for the book. I told them, listen, like, you know, what could we read on NPR, and they sent me three of ‘em.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m ready.
JUSTIN YOUNG: “Matilda, the bearded lady, oozed sex. She had all the lovely curves of a beautiful woman, and the facial hair.”
“Roman Dial’s soft brown hair bobbed back and forth in the golden rays of the San Francisco sun, as I accepted his friend request between my alabaster thighs.
He set the menu on the table with such precision and gentleness. I couldn’t help but look at his large hands. They held signs of work but were live, like the wings of a moth.”
[BROOKE LAUGHS/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Bernie Bernstein, with more help from Ariel Stahlberg and Lita Martinez, and edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne. Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.