The Business Rusch: Word of Mouth
Big Bang TheoryBook RiotBrenna Clarke GrayHoward Wolowitzindependent bookstoresindie publishingIngram SparkMarion AbbottMrs. Dalloway's Literary and Garden ArtsNew York Timespromotionsocial mediatraditional publishingVerso Advertisingwriting
Writers always panic. They finish a book and expect the world to fall at their feet. At the same time, they worry that no one will notice. And, because all writers who are writing today were raised in the traditional publishing model, they believe that if no one discovers their book now, this minute, if no one hears of them the day of the book’s release, then that book is a failure forever and ever, amen.
So panicked writers behave badly. They promote stupidly. They alienate the very people whom they want to read their books. Tweeting Buy My Book! Buy My Book! twenty-five times per day. Demanding that friends and family “like” said book on Facebook.
The advent of social media hasn’t made this problem worse, although it has made the problem obvious. Used to be, back in the dark ages, readers would only run into these writers at conventions. At SF conventions, these writers would beg to be on panels, hold up copies of their newly released book, and refer to the damn thing every time someone asked a question, even if the question had nothing to do with the book’s topic. Somehow they’d shoehorn in the name of their book into any conversation. They were just like Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory after he got back from the International Space Station:
And they were (and are) just as annoying. Only now that behavior has gone viral. Worse, writers are haranguing their readers. Enough so that Brenna Clarke Gray on Book Riot damn near started a riot of her own among writers by posting a blog titled, “Readers Don’t Owe Writers Sh*t.” She says that as a reader she promises writers one thing: She will not steal their books. But, she adds, she won’t “(a) not use the library, (b) not buy used books, (c) not borrow books from friends.”
I know that there’s been a lot of pushback from writers and booksellers about readers who do the above. I think that’s beyond stupid. Used books, libraries, borrowed books are all ways to add to discoverability, to begin word of mouth.
But Gray continued:
I don’t (a) owe a tweet, (b) owe a blog review, (c) owe a word of mouth review. I am not betraying bookish culture if I (a) buy from Amazon or Chapters or Barnes and Noble, (b) wait to buy the paperback, (c) don’t buy at all. None of the above things are unethical or amoral or indicative of my deep failings as a reader or blogger or member of the bookish community.
The fact that she had to say these things, and say them so vociferously, is a sad commentary on what writers think they have to do to get noticed. My friends who do all this crap, you are getting noticed. Just not in the right way.
Gray writes this as a reader and a blogger. The situation is infinitely worse for independent booksellers. That same week that Gray’s screed went viral so did, of all things, a letter to The New York Times, published in response to an article on self-publishing. You can just hear the frustration in the correspondent’s tone.
We see this every day in our independent bookstore: writers dropping off unsolicited work in the hope that we will stock books that have had little or no editing, and few reviews or distribution beyond Amazon (always a nonstarter).
With rare exceptions, it is unrealistic to expect busy booksellers, who conduct business with hundreds of established vendors already, to take them on: reading, evaluating and setting up separate vendors for each title.
For us, it’s a bookkeeping nightmare yielding very little return.
Abbott’s complaint, and the bookkeeping nightmare at the core of it, is why Dean and I started Ella Distribution last year. Self-published writers and tiny, tiny presses would have had one place to go so that booksellers could order from there. But changes in the way that major distributors like Ingrams and Baker & Taylor made our little venture irrelevant. We shut it down in April. I explain those changes and the reasons we disbanded Ella in last week’s blog.
If you didn’t read last week’s post, please go back and do so now. I’m not going to reiterate the points made there in this blog or in the comments section.
I will, however, repeat a salient point in last week’s blog. The only way these big distributors will stock your book now is if they believe your book is worth stocking. If you have that, then the small bookstores like Abbott’s can order your self-published book.
But how do you catch a small bookseller’s attention without dumping unwanted crap on the bookseller or turning into Howard Wolowitz?
After all, more than 3 million books were published last year, and those were only the books that Bowker, which runs the ISBN system, could count. I’m sure more books than that were published in 2012.
Many writers, who want their books to get noticed, go with traditional publishers. Traditional publishers do very little work with their midlist titles to get those books noticed. Until earlier this year, traditionally published titles went into a different system at Ingrams and Baker & Taylor than self-published books. Baker & Taylor brought those walls down hard earlier this year (see my blog) and now Ingrams is ramping up the competition with its announcement of Ingram Spark.
That distribution wall between traditional publishers and self-publishers is in the process of collapsing entirely.
So bookstores can order any book they want; the key is to make them want that book—without pissing them off.
How do you do that?
Oh, dear. Here we go again.
On April 6, 2011, I published a post called “Promotion,” and unlike most of what I’ve blogged about in publishing since then, that post still holds true. Every bit of it. The more promotion you do, from bookmarks to visiting booksellers to tweeting constantly, the more you will piss people off.
The best way to promote your work is to develop a fan base.
How can you do that with just one book?
You can’t. It’s a rare writer who hits on the first novel, and usually that’s a fluke tied into something going on the culture. You can’t control the culture. You can’t control book buyers. But you can control what you do.
Write good stories. Write great stories. Practice, practice, practice. Publish what you write. Readers will find good books, and they will tell their friends.
In that post, I quoted from a study of more than 9,000 avid readers by Verso Advertising of Book Buying behavior in 2010. According to this study, people buy books because:
1. Author reputation (52%)
2. Personal recommendation (49%)
3. Price (45%)
4. Book Reviews (37%)
5. Cover/Blurb (22%)
6. Advertising (including online) 14%
Note, of course, that people buy books for more than one reason. They could buy books because of reviews and because of author reputation. That’s why the numbers add up to more than 100%.
That study was published in 2011. I wanted to see if it had been updated. Verso hasn’t yet published one in 2013, but 2012’s was on the site. It was compiled from 2,200 avid readers in late 2011. It said that people buy books because:
1. Personal recommendations (49.2%)
2. Bookstore staff recommendations (30.8%)
3. Advertising (24.4%)
4. Search Engine (21.6%)
5. Book Reviews (18.9%)
6. Online Algorithm (16.0%)
7. Library visit (15. 5%)
8. Blogs (12.1%)
9. Social Networks (11.8%)
I’m not sure if “author reputation” is missing here because of the way the question was phrased. I suspect that it wasn’t a choice. The header on this particular section is “Principal Ways of Learning About New Titles” or “Discoverability,” that buzzword in publishing at the moment.
Let’s take this at its word, though. Let’s talk about ways of discovering “new titles” even by favorite authors. I just picked up five Meg Cabot books that I hadn’t realized existed because I’d lost track over the past two years. How did I find those books? Search engine.
Search engine isn’t even on the 2010 list, nor is algorithm. That just tells you how much book buying has changed and gone online in the past three years.
I want you to notice something else: With the exceptions of “search engine” “algorithm” and “advertising,” everything else on that list is word-of-mouth.
You can’t control word of mouth. You can start it only by telling your fans, Facebook friends, and the readers of your blog that a new book is out. Repeatedly hammer that point and you turn into Wolowitz. Instead, write the next book and let the first one take care of itself.
That’s true whether you’re an indie writer or a traditionally published writer. I don’t care how much your traditional publisher nags you to promote, promote, promote. Ignore them. Write the next book and if they don’t buy it (or you choose not to sell it to them) publish it yourself.
Let’s assume you’ve written a good novel. In fact, let’s assume you’ve written several good novels. No distributor has picked up those books and no one is buying the e-copies. Word of mouth hasn’t even started yet. There’s no hope it ever will because no one outside of your family has read a copy, despite the book’s availability.
Oh, so many things.
Back in the early days of self-publishing, a great story hidden in a book with a low price and crap cover could sell. Honestly, that’s how Amanda Hocking’s books sold. That woman can tell a story, but her covers were bad and interiors worse. And she was one of the few people writing good urban fantasy in the early days of Kindle. Readers who spent 99 cents got a good story, so they let other readers know.
And Amazon was developing its ebook algorithm so that readers who bought books similar to Hocking’s got automated recommendations from Amazon to buy her books.
Nowadays? Unless you’re a reader trolling the 99 cent book ghetto, the bargain bin as it’s called in brick-and-mortar parlance, you’re not going to discover anyone who wrote a book with a great story and a crap cover.
A good cover isn’t just a good piece of art. It’s the right art with the right branding. It’s making sure you have the correct fonts, knowing where to put information, and keeping an eye on genre.
It’s a lot of work to design a good cover, and it’s not just about hiring an artist or someone who knows font. A great cover doesn’t just make the reader pick the book up; it also tells the reader at a glance what genre the book is in.
Cozy mysteries look different from traditional mysteries. Thrillers use different word placement than contemporary romances. If your book isn’t properly branded, then you’re hurting sales.
It’s the same with cover copy. The cover copy has to be active. It has to tell the reader what the book is about without discussing a plot. It has to generate excitement in something that we call when we teach “Movie Phone Voice.” If you don’t know what I mean, then check out “Five Guys in a Limo.” Imagine these guys reading your cover copy. Yeah, it looks ridiculous to you on the page, but that’s what readers expect. So do it.
These aren’t things you can learn quickly. You need to go to bookstores, study the shelves, see what the traditional publishers are doing. You need to read cover copy and more cover copy and try and try and try.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that we’re offering online classes in both cover and interior design (interior design is as important as cover design) run by Dean and WMG Publishing’s Allyson Longueira. Dean has designed books for several companies, and Allyson has a design pedigree that goes back years. These classes are hands-on, and will force you to do homework.
Dean also teaches a pitches and blurbs course that includes cover copy.
The next thing you have to do right is price. In the comment section last week, a number of people stated that they didn’t want to charge too much because they were new.
Sorry, folks. That’s day job think. Beginners get paid less than long-established people. Nope. A beginning writer, even in traditional publishing, can outearn a long-established pro on a first book. If traditional publishing believed that beginners had to work their way up to “real writer,” then traditional publishing would have run out of bestsellers years ago.
Price your books commensurate with other books of the same type. Trade papers should be priced the same as traditional publishers’ trade papers. You can charge less for hardcovers and ebooks because traditional publishers have inflated those prices.
If you don’t, if you underprice your print book, it won’t matter how much word of mouth you generate, no major distributor will take you on. They have to make some money on the sale, and they get a percentage of the cover price, just like bookstores do. If your cover price is too low, they don’t want you in their catalog or in their store. It’s that simple.
The other way to generate word of mouth? Availability. If you want people to talk about your book, make it easy to find. Yeah, you might not have your book in every brick-and-mortar bookstore, but make sure it’s in all the places that sell e-books from iBookstore to Kobo to Kindle. So you don’t make much on Barnes & Noble. Who cares? Honestly, the person who cares is the reader with the Nook who tried to order your book and couldn’t.
That reader will report to the person who recommended your book and say, “It’s not on Nook.” So the next time that person recommends your book (if, indeed, there is a next time after that), the person will say, “It’s good, but I don’t think it’s on Nook.” That means the reader with the Kobo device will think, Oh, it’s probably not on Kobo either, and won’t even bother to look for it.
Word of mouth fizzled before it even started.
Should you send review copies to book bloggers or review sites or take out ads in RT Book Reviews? No. Not unless you have a lot of books already available. Don’t spend any money on advertising or waste the time of book bloggers (like Gray above) unless you have many things that will appeal to all different kinds of readers.
There are lots of programs that you can buy into as a publisher. You can get up front placement in a chain bookstore if you have enough money. You can buy ads in Publishers Weekly. But it all means nothing if you don’t write a good book. It means nothing if you wrote a good book and have a cover that screams romance when you’ve written a thriller.
You want to be successful? You want to be in the same catalogs as traditional publishers? You want to be taken seriously?
Then stop haranguing bookstore owners and book bloggers and your friends, and learn how to write a good book, how to design a good cover, how to make the interior of your book readable, how to price your book so that it will sell, and how to write cover copy.
Write another book. Publish it with the correct materials, and repeat several times.
Then, maybe then, you can approach bookstores. By then, you might have learned the proper ways of doing so. And no, I’m not telling you what they are in this very general blog. Why? Because too many of you will skip the steps I just mentioned and go straight to the bookstore promotion. Then you’ll tell the bookstore owners that I said you should do this, and they’ll be mad at me.
If you ask in the comments, I still won’t tell you. Because I’m not doing that to my friends at the bookstores.
Nor am I going to tell you how to get the attention of reviewers and book bloggers except to say this: write a good book. Generate good word of mouth, and the book bloggers will ask you for a free copy. For gods sake, you cheap bastard, give it to them when they ask. And don’t be mad if they give you a bad review. They’re entitled to their opinions, just like those people who review on Goodreads and Amazon.
Don’t read that stuff. Just write the next book.
Improve with every single thing you write.
Keep learning until the day you die. Seriously.
Let the readers find you. If you’re quiet and don’t bug them, and if they love your work, they’ll do the promotion for you, even to bookstores. That reader who walks into his favorite independent bookseller’s shop? The reader who asks for your book by name? He has a lot more credibility (particularly if he’s a regular customer) than you ever will with your bookmarks and your free copies and your posters.
Cultivate your readers by writing good books.
Realize that your readers owe you nothing. They don’t owe you good reviews or likes. They aren’t required to buy your next book.
You have to convince them to do that by writing a book so beloved that they want another just like it.
If you can’t do that, then no amount of haranguing and advertising will ever make your books sell.
That’s true whether you’re traditionally published or not.
I don’t distribute this blog through traditional channels. It’s published here and I encourage you to share with your friends. I put this up for free so that you can have the information, but I do need to have these words pay at least a little bit toward my writing income.
So, if you’ve learned something or are getting something from this blog, please leave a tip on the way out. Thanks!
“The Business Rusch: Word of Mouth” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
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