‘Go the F— to Sleep’: The Case of the Viral PDF

 March 23, 2020

By  BC Editorial Team

Bay Area writer Adam Mansbach’s unusual success heralds new headaches and opportunities for publishers

The phenomenon of music and video piracy has been around seemingly since the Internet’s invention — it’s a well-known scourge that has driven the recording industry to pricey lawsuits and the rest of the world to Pirate Bay and BitTorrent.

But it seems that book publishing has a new issue on its hands: the viral book PDF.

A few weeks ago, The Bay Citizen looked at the furor around a provocatively-titled “children’s book for adults” — the illustrated “Go the Fuck to Sleep,” written by a Bay Area author, Adam Mansbach, currently on the East Coast for a two-year stint at Rutgers University. Galleys have not been distributed, so the only form that people have seen the book thus far has been as an emailed document.

It is now at the #1 spot on Amazon’s bestseller list.

The book, now scheduled to hit stores on June 14, began attracting attention with a sudden, mysterious climb up the Amazon list after it had been posted for pre-sale earlier this year. While it’s impossible to calculate the number of emailed documents shared, media outlets such as the New Yorker have begun to speculate that one of the biggest engines of its success has been booksellers and other industry folk circulating the 32-page PDF to the wider world.

This, of course, presents a challenge to Akashic Books, the independent publisher who is seeing unbelievable success with this slim, illustrated book —namely how to stop piracy of its intellectual property while not squashing healthy buzz. The book’s success, while only existing in electronic form, seems fairly unprecedented: already, Fox 2000 has optioned the film rights and Mansbach appears to be poised for a national media tour.

“The copies have been proliferating since this craziness started,” said Ibrahim Ahmad, senior editor at the Brooklyn-based press, “With a PDF, you can make so many duplicates and people have just been forwarding it.”

And Akashic been doing what they can to control the distribution of the document by asking people to take down any posted PDFs. This may not be much. “As the publisher of this book, our responsibility is to tackle instances of piracy when we become aware of them,” Ahmad said, “That’s just doing a service to our authors, ourselves, booksellers, distributors, to everyone involved in the successful making and promotion of a book.”

In an age of e-books, piracy has been a rising concern amongst publishers for a few years, although none of the publishers contacted by The Bay Citizen could recall a PDF of a book going viral in the vein of “Go the Fuck to Sleep.” This volume had a few key properties that enabled its electronic popularity: an undeniable title, a good-looking cover and a short length, making it easy to read, post and pass on. Also, the long lag time between the book’s pre-sale (it was originally scheduled to go on sale in October) and the buzz made online sharing necessary.

While other local publishers, such as McSweeney’s, may not have seen a PDF gets sent around to the masses, they are well aware of that possibility.

“It hasn’t come up for us, but I think that’s where it’s headed,” said McSweeney’s publicity director Juliet Litman, “Sometimes you want publicity and sometimes you don’t. This is a case that it turned out well for the publisher and the book.”

“I’m not sure we’d think it’s a bad thing,” she said of the viral sharing.

But McSweeney’s does take some precautions when they send out PDFs, which typically go to overseas journalists and booksellers, as well as other reviewers on deadline. They ask for discretion and watermark pages. In the case of some recent highly publicized launches, such as the Panorama newspaper and Lucky Peach, the new food publication by chef David Chang, the publishing house sent out PDF excerpts, not the whole thing, to the world.

Litman freely admitted that their security measures were not watertight. “In this day and age, it’s hard to control who sees what,” she said.

For now, Akashic is happy to be riding the waves of the unexpected hit. “Somehow this book has just tapped into this nerve,” said Ahmad. And as the book industry develops more ways of handling the undeniable impact, both positive and negative, of PDF bootlegging, Ahmad said that they would have the advantage of years of the music industry playing catch-up with technology — with the ultimate lesson that “people will find a way to get it in the digital world.”

One benefit of illegal action seems clear. “Up until this week,” Ahmad said, “we have done nothing to promote this book.”

BC Editorial Team


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