Word of Mouth

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.

Fair winds!



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About Christine Kling

I have spent more than thirty years living on and around boats and cruising the waters of the North and South Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean. I’ve written articles and stories for many boating publications including Sailing, Cruising World, Motor Boating & Sailing, and The Tiller and the Pen. When I was married, I helped my husband build a 55-foot custom sailing yacht. After launching her, we sailed through the Panama Canal to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands where we chartered for over two years. While in the islands, I received my 100-ton Auxiliary Sail Captains license. It was that sailing experience that led me to set my first nautical suspense novel, SURFACE TENSION (2002), on the waterfront in Fort Lauderdale. Featuring Florida female tug and salvage captain, Seychelle Sullivan, the first book was followed by CROSS CURRENT (2004) and BITTER END (2005). The fourth book in the series, WRECKERS’ KEY was released in February 2007. At the end of the 2010-11 academic year, I took the motto of this blog to heart. I quit my day job as an English professor at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale (just when they offered me tenure, I said no thanks and took early retirement). I was living the dream of full-time cruising on board my 33-foot Caliber Talespinner on my very tiny pension and whatever I made from my books having parted ways with the big publishing establishment. I self-published two books on my own: a small collection of four short stories entitled SEA BITCH: Four Tales of Nautical Noir and my first stand-alone sailing thriller set in the Caribbean, CIRCLE OF BONES. In 2012 I was offered a publishing deal with Amazon's mystery/thriller imprint Thomas&Mercer and they reissued CIRCLE OF BONES. The sequel to that book, DRAGON'S TRIANGLE came out in June 2014. And as for me, I'm no longer a singlehander on my little boat. I met Wayne Hodgins in 2013 and after a whirlwind Skype courtship, I flew to meet him in Fiji and we sailed a nearly 2000 mile passage to the Marshall Islands for our "first date." We now sail together aboard LEARNATIVITY, a 52-foot motor sailor with our family including Barney, the Yorkshire Terror and Ruby, the Wonder Dog.
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4 Responses to Word of Mouth

  1. Hi Christine, *waving* It was such a pleasure to meet you last weekend at Sleuthfest.

    It is so tempting to go looking for the magic powder that will get one’s book noticed and send it skyrocketing to bestseller status. I, for one, need a reminder now and again to stay focused on writing books, the best books I possibly can. So thank you for this post.

    Congrats on the release of the Thomas & Mercer edition of Circle of Bones!

  2. Thank you Kassandra! This is me waving back:-)
    You’re so right that we authors tend to want shortcuts. Writing is such hard work, after all, and when we’ve put heart and soul and a big chunk of ours lives into our stories, we want others to read them and love them. But we can’t make that happen through any effort other than writing good stories and making sure people can find them.

  3. Tom Tripp says:

    Congratulations on the new release. I LOVE Circle of Bones! I do wonder about this issue of meritocracy guaranteeing that good books will eventually win out. I think that is only true to the extent that we have a healthy indie e-publishing industry. For every Harry Potter, or Confederacy or Tinkers that eventually does make it into print, there must be many more that never do, either because the authors just gave up or it just never made it to the right agent. There are just too many talented writers — many of whom are now appearing in the e-pub world — to think that the “old” system didn’t passively winnow a lot of wheat with the chaff.

    Keep going, Chris. You continue to inspire us!

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Tom. And you make an excellent point. If we know that books that are not “great” books sometimes get great word of mouth, I suppose it is also true that some really good books never get the attention they deserve. What is frustrating for me is that I have been ever so lucky, given many chances to break out, and yet it doesn’t happen. Now with self-publishing though, at least any book can be brought to market – but it’s the getting the notice and the word of mouth that is still so difficult.

    I’d had high hopes that Amazon would help propel Bones to a larger readership, but so far in the first week, that hasn’t really happened. Sales are good, but not great. The way people react to the book makes me think it’s the sort of story that could get people talking, but I haven’t really seen any sign that it is going to take off. My story is proof that getting the publisher isn’t always the last page of the story. In order to really sell lots of books, a book has to have that special magic powder that generates word of mouth.

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