'Go the F*** to Sleep' author: I don't support piracy

Despite a boost for "Go the F*** to Sleep" from the viral spread of a pirated PDF, author Adam Mansbach says that encouraging content theft is not a marketing strategy.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
4 min read

Adam Mansbach, author of the cathartic "children's book for parents" "Go the F*** to Sleep," has a complicated relationship with content pirates.

The viral spread of a PDF version of his book helped rocket the print version into the bestsellers list on Amazon before the book was printed. Finally pushed to stores and retailers just this Tuesday, it is now Amazon's number one seller.

If one were to design a viral media campaign, it could not have been done better. Except this success happened quite by accident. I talked to Mansbach about the book, piracy, and social marketing.

Mansbach says that the online spread of "Go the F*** to Sleep" started before the PDF hit the Net. He did a reading of the text on April 23, in Philadelphia. He told the audience that they could preorder the book on Amazon, and the next morning, he says, it was 125th-best seller.

Adam Mansbach
"Go the F*** to Sleep" author Adam Mansbach. Sarah Millet

He had sent the PDF of the book to a few booksellers -- a common practice in publishing. And then, Mansbach says, "Innocently enough, it was forwarded. And it went from there."

Mansbach, a novelist, never intended the world to be able to see his book, for free, online, and before the print version was available. "To show how Web-savvy we were, " he says self-deprecatingly, "We were trying to do cease and desist orders at first."

He even reached out to individuals who were sharing the PDF on Facebook accounts. Mansbach says he asked one Facebook user to remove the PDF from their page, and the response was, "'Ok, If you want, but 300 people asked me where I could get the book.'"

There was a "gradual dawning that it wasn't hurting us," he says. After about a week, Mansbach and his publisher, Akashic Books, ceased trying to stanch the spread of the book.

Mansbach still has not given the piracy of this book his full support.

"It helped us," he says, "but it would have hurt most people. We had a perfect storm. The idea of pirating I don't want to be too romantic about or supportive of."

And clearly, there's more to the success of "Go the F*** to Sleep" than its accidental marketing campaign. Mansbach realizes that it's the product itself, which touches a deep nerve with parents, that's at least as important to its success. As the full PDF version of the book circulated, he says, "People were able to see that we delivered on the promise of the premise. That it wasn't a one-note joke. It was beautiful, an art object."

Other publishers have, however, latched on to the see-it-free-first model that Mansbach accidentally took such great advantage of. Akashic Books sold the audio rights to Audible.com, which hired Samuel L. Jackson to read the book. That recording is available for free right now, unabridged and uncensored. Jackson will read TV-friendly excerpts from the book tonight on the Letterman show. (CBS produces the Letterman show and is also the parent company of CNET News.)

In talking with Mansbach, I found that his ambivalence about the piracy of his work was clear. He says he cannot see sanctioning or encouraging the free distribution of his creative work. He says, though, that he is primarily a novelist, and he would be "happy" if there were as much interest in the prepublication free distribution of his novels. "It would mean literary fiction had an audience." Right now, he says, "publishers freely distribute galleys of stuff, and nobody cares."

While piracy was never part of Mansbach's plan, he's no stranger to unconventional marketing ideas. He once proposed hiring an artist to put a mural up on Houston Street in Manhattan to promote a project. But, he says, he's found that when it comes to being creative with new media and the Web, "the big publishers never are." They do, though, demand their writers engage in social media, even if their directives seem to be more check-list items. One publisher told Mansbach he need to write a blog "three times a week," to support his work. "About what?" Mansbach asked.

Mansbach doesn't discount the role of the publisher, and like any good entrepreneur, he knows his strengths. "I want to write books, I don't want to be an industry." He also has an entrepreneur's street smarts when it comes to business. After the book took off on Amazon presales, several big publishing houses approached his small publisher, which he says has never turned a profit, to buy the book. The buy-out amounts were substantial. "We had to take them seriously," he says, but he and his current publisher turned them all down. "The deals would have put a ceiling on what we could have earned," he says.