A good yarn can inspire creative thinking. Here’s a list of novels that digital marketers might enjoy.
1. The Circle – Dave Eggers
Eggers’ novel is the most recent on this list (2013) and follows Mae Holland in her new job at The Circle.
The Circle is a GAFA-style tech giant, probably most like Google, that dominates the online world with its TruYou system, ensuring every internet user is known (and can pay, comment, interact) across the web.
Like a lot of near-future dystopian novels, privacy (or the lack of it) is the chief concern of the tale. Despite the obvious warnings for society, there’s plenty of excellent dark humour.
For example, Mae must recommend products to her fellow Circlers to increase her RetailRaw index (a measure of referred revenue); The Circle, it comes to light, has bought ‘Facebook archives’ (presumably it didn’t work out), and new screens are regularly added to Mae’s workstation as her superiors encourage her to raise 98% customer feedback scores to 100%.
Other fun features in passing are ‘retinals’ (AR contact lenses), and new wearable cameras that enable politicians and others to ‘go transparent’ (have their entire life streamed in video and recorded to the cloud).
Oh, and it’s going to be a film with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks.
2. Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) – Émile Zola
Set around the first Parisian department store, the novel follows a salesperson, Denise Baudu, and details her employers efforts to change consumer culture and win the high street.
Retail experts reading this may recognise the strangely familiar plot of Zola’s book.
Read part of the Wikipedia description and it’s intriguing to note that the owner’s tactics in retail have stood strong for well over a hundred years.
His aim is to overwhelm the senses of his female customers, forcing them to spend by bombarding them with an array of buying choices and by juxtaposing goods in enticing and intoxicating ways.
Massive advertising, huge sales, home delivery, and a system of refunds and novelties such as a reading room and a snack bar further induce his female clientele to patronize his store in growing numbers.
In the process, he drives the traditional retailers who operate smaller speciality shops out of business.
The convenience and low prices of online shopping means stores have recently rediscovered this focus on the experiential (too late for some – HMV and UK’s Woolworths).
We might not be dealing with class and sexual attitudes in shopping any more, but there’s enough relevance here for Zola to provide a fun read.
3. The Book, The Film, The T-Shirt – Matt Beaumont
A less literary read next, but a rollicking one.
The author, Matt Beaumont, is a former copywriter who has his own souvenir tale of being fired from an agency for sending a threatening email.
His second life is as a novelist, mining the ad agency culture for humour (as blue as one would expect, even decades on from Mad Men).
The Book, The Film, The T-Shirt is Beaumont’s second novel and it follows Greg Fuller, partner in ad agency Fuller Scheidt (reason enough to read the book).
With a plot revolving around a farcical commercial for rubber tyres as retold through various characters on the shoot, this is one for agency-side readers.
4. Oblivion – David Foster Wallace
This book of short stories begins with a tale, Mister Squishy, set within a focus group taste-testing a new chocolate snack called ‘Felonies!’
Foster Wallace was a champion of pop media references in literature and regularly includes fictional brands that are absurd but beautifully accurate.
His most famous book is Infinite Jest (the name of a terrorist weapon that consists of a video so entertaining that viewers can’t move from their armchairs).
Despite his play with brands and media, Foster Wallace eschews cynicism (he doesn’t criticise pop culture) and focuses on sincerity in relationships.
5. Microserfs – Douglas Coupland
More post-modern American literature, Microserfs is the ’90s equivalent of The Circle, but examines geek culture rather than exploring a dystopia.
The novel is set on the Microsoft campus and follows engineers who are torn between sticking with Microsoft (not as cool as it used to be) or joining a startup and moving to Silicon Valley.
Perfectly measuring engineering culture, Coupland shows the near reverence for technology amongst the campus employees and also explores his protagonist’s family life (with his dad losing his long-term job at IBM and helping out around the startup’s offices).
If you liked HBO’s Silicon Valley, try this. Its prescient parts include blog-style correspondence (with emoticons) and a Minecraft-esque game.
6. Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart
This is the only near-future out-and-out comedy on the list. Despite the laughs, marketers will nod sagely when they recognise Tinder culture as well as life-logging and a lack of privacy.
Here’s a quote from a Guardian list of books about the internet that shows the level of ribaldry Shteyngart achieves.
…people wear mobile devices around their necks that permit real-time rankings of everyone around them. Out for a night at a bar with some buddies, the hapless middle-aged narrator, Lenny Abramov, is informed that the pretty girl he’s been eyeing has rated his “MALE HOTNESS as 120 out of 800, PERSONALITY 450”.
Not only can the bar’s patrons run full financial solvency checks on each other, they can assess such data as cholesterol levels and life expectancy estimates; athletic, religious and sexual preferences; recent purchases; and whether or not a possible hook-up’s past experiences of child abuse will make her particularly vulnerable to a suitor’s advances.
7. Neuromancer – William Gibson
You’ve probably heard of this book, if not read it. Gibson coined the term Cyberspace in an earlier work but popularised it here, before it went on to be a major synonym for the web.
The paragraph in question can be read on Wikipedia (you’ll find it here). It’s incredible to think this prefiguring of the web was published in 1984, the year the Discman was launched (only five years after the Walkman).
Neuromancer is a classic sci-fi thriller, including AI, the matrix, hacking and cybernetics.
If you want something a little more up to date from Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties is a well-regarded later novel (1999) that includes a ‘netrunner’ (data analyst) who becomes obsessed with the powerful head of a PR firm.
8. A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
Egan’s book should be a laugh for marketers, if only because there’s a chapter written entirely as a PowerPoint slide diary. Just in case you get withdrawal symptoms from slide decks.
The novel is set in the music industry and champions the idea that creativity and authenticity will always have a place, despite the possible strictures of technology.
Alex, the main character, is in charge of recruiting ‘parrots’, who are paid to create ‘authentic’ word of mouth for a concert.
They determine their target consumers by assessing need, reach and corruptibility, surely the most succinct summary of social marketing.