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14 March 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 4:01am

Choose your own adventure

John Lanchester's Capital is being marketed through a nifty personalised website - but will it work?

By Sophie Elmhirst

Book marketing has taken a new, digital turn. To accompany the release of John Lanchester’s novel, Capital, a 500-page brick of a book tracing the diverse lives populating a street called Pepys Road in south London, Faber and Faber have, with the help of Storythings, created a website: pepysrd.com created to encourage readers to interact with the themes of the novel, and ultimately buy it.

Click on the link and you’ll see that the site plays immediately to the greatest of English middle-class weak spots: financial self-interest and obsession with house prices, as it asks you to fill in a form saying where and when you were born and where you live now, and then tells you how much property value has inflated. To gain such insight you have to fill in your email (obviously) and in return, receive a free download of the book’s preface, and the promise of ten original Lanchester mini-stories delivered to your inbox, in a choose-your-own-adventure style process where you eventually discover how your life pans out over the next ten years, and, I presume, if you are destined to live in splendid wealth or lounge in the gutter.

Still – despite the wince-inducing initial hook, the process seems to be genuinely interactive and cleverly thought out. On the Storythings site there’s some interesting background to the idea – including the obvious point (but they’re right that not enough sellers think of it) that any marketing device should encourage people to engage with the thing they’re being sold: “The first and most important goal in Pepys Road is that we wanted people to read” — hence Lanchester’s new stories. The creators also credit the online diary site, Ohlife, as inspiration in the way it encourages the user to repeatedly use the service, and connects you with your previous interactions. Storythings want to lock you into the world of the novel over an extended period of time – a neat idea, but I can’t help but think people might enjoy playing with the website and receiving mini-stories without feeling the need to go to a shop and buy the actual book.

The other question is whether such a cute device would work for any other novel. There’s something about Lanchester’s work – reviewed by Leo Robson here – that lends itself perfectly to such an idea. It is, as Robson says, preoccupied with the “surface” of life – where we live, how much we earn, what we do. Faber are also lucky to have a writer willing to engage so proactively with a marketing process. A more elusive piece of writing, and more retiring author, might struggle with such gimmickry.

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Still, as gimmickry goes, it’s original and engaging, and feels more carefully considered than some of the tricks publicists pull. It’s encouraging too that reading and writing are the central, motivating ideas – for all the changes in how, where and in what format we read, it will always boil down to there being a writer and a reader, and words on a page.