by Christine Kling
This past Tuesday, the Thomas & Mercer edition of Circle of Bones was released into the wilds of Amazonia. They published a Kindle edition, a trade paperback and an audiobook. I have never felt this sure that a book was the best I could squeeze out of this brain of mine, and I sit here tonight wondering if there is any genuine thing I can do to help get this book into the hands of more readers.
I have been hearing lots of talk lately about this word “meritocracy” as concerns books. The idea is that good books will win out, no matter whether they are self-published, traditionally published or just trying to find their way out of a drawer. Books of merit will find their audience. And the way this happens, according to this theory, is through word of mouth. So, this “word of mouth” is often referred to as the holy grail of the book business.
Word of mouth is generated when people are so moved by a book that they must talk about it. They become loyal fans and ardent supporters of the book.
Some folks claim that only “great” books can generate the word of mouth that makes them best sellers. This is certainly true of books like Tinkers by Paul Harding that was rejected by dozens of publishers but when finally published by a small press that paid the author an advance of $1000 and gave it an initial 3500 copy print run then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. And it is true of A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, the book that was published posthumously 11 years after the young author committed suidice and it, too, went on to win the Pulitzer.
But I think that most people will agree that many, if not most best sellers are not really great books. From the Fifty Shades of Grey books to Twilight to the DaVinci Code, we can all agree these are not “great” books. However, they have something that makes people talk about them and pass the word on to their friends. There are many writers (some who can barely stand upright due to the chips on their shoulders) who will claim these bestsellers were “made” by huge marketing campaigns, but for every book for which this worked, there are many others that got the huge marketing push and yet never reached bestsellerdom and never earned out their multimillion dollar advances. If big publishers really could create these mega-bestsellers, I’m certain they would do it more often.
In his book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, James W. Hall identified twelve features that mega-bestsellers have had in common, and his book is a fascinating attempt to deconstruct what makes these books the ones that generate this word of mouth. Lest anyone think that this book provides writers with a recipe for a bestseller, Jim warns readers “So call it the yeast or call it the magic powder that catalyzes these inert ingredients – this last recurring feature is key. It is the author’s honest passion that breathes life into Scarlett and Scout and Mitch and dear old Professor Langdon.”
When you get right down to it, the online system of reader reviews found on sites like Amazon, Nook, Goodreads, et al is trying to generate this type of word of mouth. Authors today hope to use social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and the hundreds of other social networking places to gin up lots of talk about their books. The thing is, I think people, readers especially, are smarter than that. You can’t game word of mouth by talking about your own book any more than you can fake the magic powder Jim Hall refers to above.
My friend and fellow author, Kristy Montee, who with her her sister writes books under the name PJ Parrish, shared a Forbes article about Amazon customers via email today. The article’s author, Sue Charmane Anderson, is quoting from a presentation given at the Digital Media Strategies conference based on a study of why Amazon customers make the purchases they do. . They claim that “… statistics show that only a piddling 10 percent of Amazon book choices are made because of its ‘bought this/also bought’ recommendation engine. Bestseller and top 100 lists influence 17 percent of book choices, with 12 percent down to promotions, deals, or low prices. Only 3 percent came through browsing categories. Planned search by author or topic, however, makes up a whopping 48 percent of all book choices.”
This reinforces the idea that buyers hear about a book via word of mouth and then go search for it in the bookstore of their choice. With all the digital tools at our fingertips, it’s still just people talking that sells books.
And that brings me back to my original question–
Is there any way I can help generate more word of mouth?
And I’ve found my answer–
Only by writing the best books I can write.
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