Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, is a master of literary intrigue, so perhaps it’s only fitting that the promotional campaign for his latest novel has unfolded like a giant conspiracy.
Brown’s books typically explore alternative religious histories, and The Da Vinci Code, which has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide, scandalized the Catholic Church by suggesting that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a daughter.
His latest novel, which is being released on May 14, is entitled Inferno, and brings back Robert Langdon, the tweed-wearing "symbologist" responsible for deciphering the existential mysteries in three previous Brown novels: Angels & Demons (2000), The Da Vinci Code (2003) and The Lost Symbol (2009).
In his latest adventure, Langdon travels to Florence, Italy, where he discovers previously unknown secrets about Dante's Inferno, the epic 14th-century poem that describes the circles of hell.
For most authors, publishers try to build buzz by getting advanced reading copies in the hands of reviewers prior to the launch. But not Brown's handlers.
For one thing, book critics generally savage him for his awkward prose and lapses in logic. Besides, it's not like he needs any promotional help from reviewers.
To demonstrate Brown's popularity, on Monday, a full day before it was even released, Inferno was already the bestselling book on Amazon.com. (If you're wondering how that's possible, those sales figures are derived from pre-orders.)
A book that commands this much anticipation comes with a heavy amount of foreshadowing — including, in this case, a social-media tease surrounding the title, arcane mathematical symbolism around the publication date and a virtual lockdown of its international translators.
While critics have their doubts about his literary abilities, there's no denying Dan Brown knows how to build a compelling mystery.
As it turns out, the marketing plan for Inferno was a slow-burning process filled with as much intrigue and grandeur as his fiction.
On May 13, 2012, Brown revealed to the Boston Globe that he was writing "another Robert Langdon thriller in the world of symbols and codes." Surely it's no coincidence that the announcement came a year almost to the day before the book’s eventual release.
Title and release date revealed
On Jan. 15, the publishers announced the release date of the latest Langdon thriller and harnessed the power of social media to help divulge the title. They asked Brown fans to post on Facebook or tweet using an assigned hashtag (#DanBrownToday).
As they did so, each reader's profile image became a tile in a large web graphic that eventually spelled out "Inferno."
The contest was so successful that when the final mosaic was revealed on NBC's Today show later that day, it crashed the show’s website.
Symbolism in mathematical signs
On April 15, Suzanne Herz, senior vice-president at Brown's U.S. publisher, Doubleday, revealed that the launch had not been chosen arbitrarily. She pointed out that when the release date, 5-14-13, is read backwards, "it becomes 3.1415 – the value of pi."
What does algebra have to do with Dante's poem? Herz was deliberately coy about the connection, but hey, who doesn't love a clever code? (Although it's worth noting that pi is usually 3.1416 when written to the fourth decimal point.)
A single interview
Brown did only one interview, with London's Sunday Times, in advance of the release.
In it, he revealed how he might scandalize the church this time: "I'm not writing about the Masons and ancient histories, which is kind of ethereal. I'm writing about Dante's vision of hell … It wasn't until the 1300s and this version of Inferno that it became terrifying. Dante has had enormous influence on the Christian view of hell."
A publishing conspiracy
Now that the novel has finally been released, we're likely to hear more about the lengths to which Brown's publishers went to keep it under wraps.
One thing we do know: Last winter, translators from 11 countries, including Germany, France and Brazil, were brought to Italy under a shroud of secrecy.
Working for two months in the basement of the Milan headquarters of Italian publisher Mondadori on foreign-language versions of the book, the translators signed a confidentiality agreement, had to relinquish their cellphones and were even given fake backstories in case anyone questioned what they were doing in the building.