After almost two years promoting my own books I’ve reached the conclusion that most of the promotion suggestions you can find on the internet are pretty irrelevant and little more than formulaic. Even worse, the things that do matter are either never mentioned or not mentioned in detail and, as I have laboriously found out, the devil really is in the detail. So I’ve decided to write a series of articles on how to promote self-published books. Here is the fourth instalment:
IV – Word of Mouth – An Urban Myth?
Ever since I’ve become a self-published author, I’ve heard people telling me that the secret to self-publishing success is “word of mouth”. If your book is good enough, and if you can somehow start that magical chain of recommendations, the whole thing will spread like a cascade of dominoes on a Guinness World Record attempt.
I accepted the advice in good faith, and started working hard to kick-start my first book by finding an initial set of sympathetic readers who would then tell their friends about my literary masterpiece. It all seemed rather intuitive and made perfect sense to me: one person likes the book, tells a couple of friends, they like the book, mention it to several other people and so on. You don’t need to be very proficient in math to see the geometric progression potential and to salivate at the promise of chart-topping sales.
As time went by, though, and I started digging into the dark arts of self-marketing and learning about the myriad details of Internet promotion, it became pretty obvious that something didn’t add up – the ratios and the processes involved were totally incompatible with the “word of mouth” scenario. In fact, with time, I became convinced that so-called “word of mouth” is nothing more than a total fantasy – one of those things that seems logical and obvious, but just isn’t.
If you’re twitching your nose and thinking I’m wrong, don’t feel bad about it – that’s the reaction I always get. But please bear with me while I try to expound my arguments.
Let’s start by analysing an area where word of mouth does exist: music.
You typically have 2000 kids in a high school, and most of them listen to music several hours per day. They also frequently extend their headphones to their friends and say “Hey! Listen to this. This stuff is good!” (yes, I’m trying to be moderate in the choice of language). Their friends listen for a minute or so and immediately decide if they like the music or not, and the process is repeated.
In such an environment, you can have dozens (or hundreds) of recommendations going on in one day, and their effect is immediate. It is not inconceivable to imagine a student entering his high school premises at 9 am being the only person to know a song that has just been released, and by 6 pm, thirty or forty kids have been exposed to that same song.
Now, by comparison, let’s see how things happen in the literary world.
Unlike kids in high school, readers aren’t in packs of 2000 in a building (or if they are they aren’t aware of it) – they are thinly spread around the country, they take months (sometimes years) to pick up a book, may take many more months (or never) to recommend one and the person who’s hearing the recommendation has the same ratio of taking months (or never) to pick up the recommended book and deciding if he /she likes it.
I’m no mathematician, but I’ve always suspected that if someone created a mathematical model of these interaction ratios, the conclusion would be that a book would take several millennia to reach any bestseller list from word of mouth alone.
Even in more concentrated reading environments, like goodreads.com (the biggest readers’ site on the Net), recommendation ratios are incommensurably lower than anything you can get in music. If you don’t believe me, try recommending a book to your friends on Goodreads. After one month, go and check how many of them have read the book. You’ll be very lucky if anyone has. That’s time enough for a song to have reached thousands of people, starting from one recommendation only.
So I stand by my belief : word of mouth in most genres of literature is a fantasy. It simply doesn’t exist.
I say “in most genres” because I do admit that some genres may behave a bit more like the “music model”. I think that Romance readers, for instance, have a tendency for interacting a lot in internet sites. Also a book about Manchester United will probably also lend itself to WoM, both because football fans organize themselves in groups and because it’s the sort of book that will have lots of photos and people will have a look at it rather than really reading it, and so things can happen a lot faster than with a standard text based book.
You may, by now, be half convinced but you’re probably thinking about several examples of self-publishers who sold appreciable quantities of their books before being picked up by a publisher – how did they do it, then, if not by word of mouth?
Well, first of all, I think each case is its own case. Different events may be primarily responsible for different books’ successes. Secondly, I would pay very little attention to author interviews where they suggest that it all happened by word of mouth. Sometimes they may simply not be aware of how it happened at all, but most of the times I think they have a pretty good idea but see no reason why they should explain it in detail.
Personally, I think in most cases it can be traced down to getting a lot of books into the hands of readers through free downloads and then having the good luck of being mentioned by influential people who liked what they read and who have clout and have their opinions voiced in widely circulated media. Buyers can also be directly influenced through Amazon’s recommendation algorithm, the iBooks’ carousel, etc. In both cases (recommendation by people with clout or Amazon or iBooks’s algorithms) the author may wrongly attribute his sales success to WoM of common readers.
Once these external forces intervene to boost a book’s sales figures a feedback cycle can be started in which WoM reinforces the effect of these external influencers and in turn, with luck, attracts more recommendations by people with clout or by the algorithms but I don’t believe that in most genres WoM alone can do the job.
Just as with the Medicis in the Renaissance, in the 21st century a patron goes a long way towards making an artist. A writer must create the initial wave, but the ratios involved are far too low (in most genres) for a self-sustained chain of events. At some crucial point, external help is required. Without it, I don’t believe self-publishing success is possible. And although external help is undoubtedly related to the contents (you may call it quality if you want) of the book, it ultimately involves a good dose of that most valuable and elusive ingredient in anyone’s success: luck.
My opinion, anyway.
Did you like this article? Why not tell your friends about it, let’s spread the word.
No, I’m not kidding. Unlike books, it only takes a couple of minutes to read an article. So, in this case, word of mouth can work.
P.S. For those readers with a penchant for formulas and spreadsheets, I have engaged the help of a mathematician friend of mine (he prefers to remain anonymous) who has created an Excel spreadsheet that allows you to play around with various WoM scenarios. You can download it HERE. Instructions are on the spreadsheet itself.
© 2013 Pedro Barrento
I would love to know your opinion about this post so don’t be shy and do leave a comment. Also please feel free to check out my books “The Prince and the Singularity – A Circular Tale” and “Marlene and Sofia – A Double Love Story“.
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Disclaimer: Please note that English is not my mother language and that this series of articles has not been revised by a native speaker. The quality of these articles therefore in no way reflects the quality of my books which went through an exhaustive process of revisions, editing and proofreading by a professional literary consultant http://www.lynncurtis.co.uk// (whose services I strongly recommend, by the way).