Writers have many opportunities to foster word of mouth about their books. Doing so starts by understanding the underlying mechanics of why some books take off while others disappear.
We’re all familiar with viral videos or other things that go viral. Whether we’re talking about an internet meme or an amazing book, these things pass from one person to another via the power of word of mouth. For books, word of mouth manifests in online reviews, social media recommendations, book group suggestions, a phone call to a friend, or watercooler conversations at work.
We’ve all read books that moved us. These books become part of us. We wear the experience of them on our sleeves. We don’t just recommend these books to our friends: we insist that our friends read them. We buy them for our friends. We become single-minded evangelists for the books and the authors.
As readers, we also read a lot of good books that we never recommend to anyone. Good books aren’t good enough anymore. To spark and sustain word of mouth, a book must surprise, delight, and transform the reader, as if by revelation. This is how sleeper hits from previously unknown authors can come out of nowhere to land on the New York Times bestseller list.
There’s more to word of mouth than book quality alone, however; it is, in fact, governed by a complex chain of interdependent and sequential elements. Let’s take a closer look.
Consider what needs to happen for one reader to spread a book to another. The reader must become aware of the book, discover a reason to desire the book, and then find convenient access to the book. Once she finds it, her desire must overcome the cost of the book and the effort required to read it. And then she must be so moved by the book that her passion inspires her to promote the book to other readers.
Each new reader must complete this cycle to inspire others to do the same. But there are potential obstacles at each stage of the cycle, and these challenges can easily undercut virality.
Readers could hear great things about the book, search for it, not find it, and then give up. Or maybe they find it but lose interest at the sight of the cover. Or they see a typo in the book description, or the price is too high, or too low, or the book’s not available in their favorite stores, or the average review rating is four stars and not five.
Herein lies the opportunity for authors to directly influence word of mouth. Think of a book as an object and attached to that object are dozens of dials and levers—we’ll call them viral catalysts—that the author can twist, turn, and tweak to make the book more discoverable, more accessible, more desirable, and more enjoyable to readers. Every decision the author makes will have an impact on word of mouth.
Examples of viral catalysts include better cover images, better prices, better editing, broader distribution, better book descriptions, better categorization, or (brace yourself) better books. If authors can identify and minimize their books’ potential weaknesses, they’ll have a better chance of encouraging word of mouth. Identifying such issues requires an open mind and a keen sense of self-awareness.
Luckily, readers, through their actions or inactions, give authors valuable clues about what’s working and what’s not. For example, if the book averages five-star reviews but sales are low, it’s likely a problem with the cover, the book title, the description, the distribution, the price, or the author brand.
But, if reviews average 3.5 stars out of five, that’s a sign that reader satisfaction is the problem. Readers like the book, but not enough to evangelize it. The solution is probably a major revision. Or maybe the book needs better categorization so it reaches the readers who will enjoy it most.
One of the many benefits of self-publishing is that books are dynamic, living creatures. Authors can evolve their books over time. Even established bestsellers have the opportunity to reach more readers by adjusting their viral catalysts to make their books more discoverable, desirable, and enjoyable. When authors get the formula just right, each reader creates another reader.
Mark Coker is the founder of Smashwords, the author of the 2018 edition of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, and the host of the Smart Author podcast.