Bono’s book blitz and the true potential of multi-platform storytelling

Laura Hertzfeld
7 min readDec 29, 2022

“Why isn’t Bono just reading and signing copies of his book at the Grove like everybody else?” — was definitely something I thought to myself when I first heard about the sold-out mini-tour the U2 frontman launched following the release of his memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs One Story in early November.

Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles. Photo: Laura Hertzfeld

Photo Credit: Laura Hertzfeld

A lifetime of U2 fandom should have taught me not to underestimate this master storyteller (and no one else should either; tonight the Kennedy Center Honors airs, where Bono will receive the highest entertainment award in the U.S., along with the rest of the band).

From the second the lights went down in Los Angeles’s downtown Orpheum Theatre, it was clear this event was no ordinary book talk. Flanked on stage by a minimalist but still effective table and chairs and accompanied by three musicians who are not the rest of U2 but a talented harpist, keyboard/percussionist, and cellist, Bono’s solo show is more theater than book talk, so much so that it has a story arc that could probably stand on its own even without the man himself on stage. Original artwork flickers throughout, scaled back versions of U2 classics rise and fall with the tenor of the words Bono’s performing, and the audience is taken on a journey back to Dublin in the 70s, London in the 80s, Africa in the 90s, and America always. It’s a special night at the theater and he’s (no surprise) extended the engagement to several shows in New York this spring.

But the show is just a sliver of what Bono’s created with his book bonanza. Surrender debuted at number two on the New York Times bestseller list, behind Matthew Perry’s newsmaking revelations about addiction in his memoir, ahead of Bob Dylan’s book of poems and folk history. A debut at number one may have been presumed for the man who’s filled 50,000 seat stadiums for the past 40 years. Until you realize that the book alone — as gripping a read as it is, all nearly 600 pages of it — is not the point, but the stories within it. And that’s something every storyteller can learn from.

When we talk about new storytelling formats, we tend to think solely about the technology that powers them — virtual and augmented reality, fancy cameras, headsets, museum experiences, and expensive movie tickets. These are all incredible tools in our toolbox, but to truly reach audiences, you need to give them any number of ways to connect with your story, all with a clear visual through line — and Bono has done just that. The book launched with an extensive audio version, not only read by the artist but performed. The social media campaign features original audio and art as well as a Spotify playlist and commentary. The hardback, physical version of the book is also a departure from the norm, with Bono’s line drawings and lyrics taking center stage among the text and his family photographs annotated with words and drawings as well.

In a “By the Book” interview with New York Times Books, Bono talks about his approach to the audiobook and the opportunities this medium presents. “For my memoir I have attempted to layer in remixes and re-imaginings of U2 music with speeches and sound effects. I found a very clever fella called Scott Sherratt who wanted to make the “Sgt. Pepper’s” of audiobooks for me. I’m not sure what it is, but if you are on the subway or a hike, in a car or hiding under your bed, it’s certainly a brave as well as an immersive experience to let me crawl through your cochlea and whisper, growl or belch my words at you.” The same way the show is not just a book talk, the audiobook is not just an audiobook.

And this is all before you even get to the media blitz, which included an in-depth interview with David Remnick at the New Yorker, drinking whiskey on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and a q&a with the chief historian of Washington’s National Cathedral.

It’s clear that this collaborative, creative multimedia extravaganza didn’t just get handed down from the marketing department at Knopf. The artist is directly involved in the destiny of his work and is deeply involved in making it accessible to more people. And it’s far from the first time U2 as a collective has used technology and new storytelling modes to engage their audience, and even more importantly, it’s a working collaboration of the band as a whole.

In the 2008 Davis Guggenheim documentary It Might Get Loud, The Edge discusses using technology to develop his distinct guitar sound. Since going to my first U2 show in 1997, I’ve been moved and inspired by the way this group translates their work on stage, from the innovation that brought a stage out into the audience at their arena shows starting with the 2001 Elevation Tour, bringing them closer to the audience to an AR app that turned their displays into a waterfall at the Songs of Experience + Innocence tour in 2018. U2 were also the first band to feature in a digital live-action 3D film, with their U23D experience that showed at IMAX theaters and had viewers in 3D glasses back in 2007.

What lessons can other creative storytellers, celebrities, and even the next gen storytellers on TikTok and YouTube learn from Bono, who’s been not-so-quietly chipping away at creating U2’s own multiverse (U2-niverse?) of content since the 1970s?

  • Different parts of the story reach different people and require different treatments. The second half of Surrender spends a lot of time in wonk-land, going in depth about Bono’s poverty and debt relief work in Africa, his time at the White House through several administrations, etc. Bono knows this will lose people in the theatre, and instead on stage tells the story of being inspired during his travels in Ethiopia, leaning into recounting his time working on LiveAid and skipping the less sexy and certainly less visual data analysis.
  • Accept that not everyone is going to read your book. And certainly not everyone is going to read the whole book (or article or watch a full episode, or listen to the album front to back). And that’s OK. Treat your audience — no matter how they discover you — equally and honor people who’ve spent time with your story in any capacity. There’s a lot of content out there, meet folks where they are. In an interview with Ireland’s Hot Press, Bono notes that he purposely structured the book to be read in segments: “It’s a long book, but I wrote it as forty short stories so readers can dip and out,” he says. “People are busy.”
  • Be experimental — you want people experiencing your story to have fun, so make it fun. Add art, add visuals, bring in people who you trust to make those things happen for you and bring your story to life in a new way. Towards the end of Surrender, Bono owns up to the mistake of convincing Apple CEO Tim Cook to put the band’s Songs of Innocence album onto every iPhone, but honors Cook’s commitment to taking the risk — he quotes Cook saying: “It may not have worked but we have to experiment because the music business in its present form is not working for everyone.” Scratch “music” and replace it with “journalism” “movies” “art” — you name it — and we’re ripe for disruption in the content space, and that takes bold ideas, ones that might not always work.
  • It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to be thoughtful. Bono jokes at the beginning of the stage show that he cut long-time visual director Willie Williams’s budget drastically — the few chairs on stage are no mechanical lemon, but they are powerful.

Of course Bono’s not the first to pair memoir with stage show (see also: Springsteen on Broadway, David Byrne’s American Utopia), but his commitment to platforms new and old is certainly a model that the book publishing world can learn from. It’s not hard to imagine Eddie Vedder or Dave Grohl taking notes.

This type of marketing can work for all kinds of projects, not just musicians. One recent example that’s taken the multiverse approach is lifestyle guru company The Home Edit, which blew up on social media and has grown into a small empire of podcasts, magazines, books, product lines, a Netflix series, and their core offering, home organization services. Instead of music and life lessons, they are selling small luxuries and lifestyle goals — and creating a story and mythology to back it up. And the numbers don’t lie about their success — they recently sold their franchise to Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine conglomerate.

Of course this tactic won’t work for everyone — not every artist needs or wants to think about their content like it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If the artist or creator isn’t fully brought in and part of a collaborative process with each new content play, these projects run the risk of feeling like pure marketing, cheapening the experience and getting away from the authenticity that made them special in the first place. But for those who have the vision and the passion to get out of the studio and into the world with their work, the future of content is so bright you’ll need Bono’s shades.



Laura Hertzfeld

LA ambassador, midnight baker, Jeopardy silver medalist. Storytelling innovation. Prev @yahoonews @Journalism_360 @EW @PBS @jskstanford she/her