Ernest Cline DeLorean

Ernest Cline has a lot to be thankful for. His book, Ready Player One, ranked number 21 on the New York Times best-seller list for hardcover fiction last year, and it slid into the top 20 at the beginning of July this year, a few weeks after the paperback version arrived on shelves. Ready Player One is a success story for more reasons than one. Cline hasn’t been sitting idle, watching his book rise and fall on the charts. He’s transformed it into a platform to share his dream, connect with fans, and launch the marketing campaign of a lifetime.

He’s giving away a 1981 DeLorean to the clever few who can find three keys and open three secret gates — just like in his novel.

“I feel really lucky,” says Cline, realizing that a breakaway hit doesn’t happen to everyone on their first try. “The reception has been pretty astounding.”

Cline celebrated his success by buying a DeLorean of his own, a car he’s wanted since he “first saw one in person at the age of 10.”

He might have written off his purchase as a business expense (“the best idea I’ve ever had,” he says), but the DeLorean means as much to Cline as it does to other ’80s lovers. Ready Player One, which tells a story about legions of dedicated gamers contending for the ultimate fortune, blends classic video game culture with Oingo Boingo songs and movies like Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future. To own a real DeLorean like the one in the film, especially a model built from Cline’s favorite pieces of pop culture, might be the geek equivalent of leaving a footprint on the moon.

DeLorean ECTO88

“It’s the perfect emblem of my book,” he says.

“I have modified the car so that it matches the DeLorean driven by the protagonist in my book. I’ve added personalized license plates that read ECTO88. I’ve also outfitted the car with a KITT scanner from Knight Rider, an Oscillation Overthruster from Buckaroo Banzai, a large array of Ghostbusting equipment, and a Flux Capacitor” — the component that gives Back to the Future’s DeLorean the ability to revisit any point in history. “So now it’s a time-traveling, knight-riding, ghostbusting jet car. Probably the geekiest vehicle in history. I love it.”

Cline’s decision to give away a second DeLorean shows a sense of community — a true passion that he wants to share with others and a genuine appreciation for what makes nerds tick. He’s the kind of person who relates most closely with his own character Ogden Morrow, a “fun-loving geek” with a love for ’80s music and video games, along with a few “obsessive” traits.

Cline showcased the grand-prize DeLorean at each of his book-tour signings in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, California, Kentucky, and Florida, where people were welcome to view the car in person and even climb inside.

“People at every one of my book signings have freaked out over the car,” he says. “I open it up after every signing and let people sit inside and pose for photos. It’s like a traveling ’80s pop culture museum. People love it, and they love the contest, too. There’s nothing cooler than the possibility of winning a DeLorean time machine by playing video games.”

The contest to win the car consists of three rounds, but participants have to do a little sleuthing to make it to stage one.

“With the help of my publisher, I hid an ‘Easter egg’ in the text of both the hardcover and paperback editions of Ready Player One,” says Cline. “If readers can find this hidden clue, it will lead them to the first of three increasingly difficult video game challenges. The first person to complete all three of these challenges will win the grand prize, a 1981 DeLorean automobile complete with a Flux Capacitor!”

According to Cline’s blog, 931 people have successfully cleared the first gate in the competition. In the book, protagonist Wade “Parzival” Watts — one of many egg hunters, or “gunters,” searching for famed OASIS game creator James Halliday’s Easter egg — conquers the Tomb of Horrors (a reference to Dungeons & Dragons) and acts out John Badham’s 1983 film WarGames line by line to pass the first gate.

The real-world version is a little different.

“The first challenge is the new Atari 2600 game called The Stacks,” says Cline, who notes that the ROM is functional on the Stella emulator and vintage Atari 2600 systems via cartridge thanks to the handiwork of Other Ocean Interactive and AtariAge. “Nearly 1000 people [editor’s note: the number is now slightly higher] have already beaten the game and found the hidden [QR code] inside the game, which leads to the second challenge that launched on July 1, a new Facebook game created by Richard Garriott — the legendary game designer who partially inspired the character of Halliday in the book.”

The Stacks

Cline explains that he knew he wanted to host a video game contest that mimicked the one in the book, but he wasn’t sure how to execute the idea.

“Then the hardcover came out in August of 2011, and a lot of real video game developers discovered it and reached out to me, offering to help me create games based on my novel,” he says. “That was when I realized I might actually be able to do a real contest, with the help of these game developers.

“There are three ‘keys,’ or hidden web URLs that lead to each challenge, and three ‘gates,’ or video game challenges that must be completed to proceed. But the challenges are much easier than the ones in the book, and the prize is much more modest than the one Halliday offers. But readers are still having a blast with the contest, and it brings the book to life in a way that’s hard to describe. I’m having a lot of fun with it.”

Five days into the second challenge — concealed in Portalarium’s Facebook game Ultimate Collector: Garage Sale, in which players collect items to transform a regular DeLorean into a time machine — 100 people earned a place in round three. Now the tally is up to 250 players.The third and final challenge went live today, and Cline says it’s now “a race to the finish to see who wins the car. My guess is that the contest will end sometime in August, depending on how long it takes someone to complete the final challenge.”

At that point, Cline assures us the numbers will grow thin. “The third challenge is extremely difficult, so there isn’t any chance of two people completing it simultaneously. There will be no scoreboard for the third challenge. The first person to complete all three challenges and send in verification will win the car.”

Cline says the effort required to run the promotional contest has been worth it, but do authors need to invent more creative strategies to sell their work in today’s media-saturated market?

“I don’t know how many books it’s helping me sell, and I don’t really care because my readers are having so much fun competing in a contest like the one in the novel,” says Cline. “Since my novel is about a video game contest, it seemed obvious and natural to promote the book with a similar contest. I’m not sure the same thing would work for another book.”

Cline admits he wasn’t the first person to look toward geek culture for inspiration.

Ernest Cline at Austin Books and Comics

“I’m no expert on marketing books,” says Cline. “This is my first novel. But as a reader, I love it when authors do creative things to promote their work. For example, my friend John Scalzi hired Jonathan Coulton to write a song based on his novel Redshirts, which is just about the coolest book-marketing idea ever. It’s also a great song and a great book. That helps.”

People have responded well to both the campaign and the book, even sending Cline emails of gratitude.

“I have received many touching emails from people of all ages who really love Ready Player One and who feel like I wrote the book just for them,” he says. “It’s incredibly humbling and gratifying since I originally wrote the book just to try and please myself. Dozens of people have told me it’s their new favorite book, which is the most wonderful thing a first-time novelist could ever hope to hear.”

Cline has found a way to not only encourage active fan involvement but also build a foundation for whatever comes next.

“I’ve learned that it’s possible to turn geeking out into a valid career,” he says. “Writing the book was fun, but also a real challenge, and it took me a long time. Promoting has been nothing but enjoyable. The only downside was having to spend so much time away from my 4-year-old daughter. But we were able to Skype, and she knew I was traveling the country in my DeLorean to promote ‘daddy’s book,’ so she was cool with it.  It’s really good to be back home in Austin now, though.”

In his downtime, when Cline isn’t engaging with readers, working on TV and film projects (Ready Player One is set to become a film, and Cline wrote the script for Thundercade as well as 2009’s Fanboys), or watching cartoons and playing giant robots with his daughter, he’s penning his second novel: a personal coming-of-age story based on his childhood with elements of science fiction and fantasy fused together.

“This second book is more about growing up at a unique time in history, at the dawn of geek culture,” he says. “I think fans of Ready Player One will definitely enjoy it.”

Ready Player One Paperback