I was reading and interesting article today about the publishing business. It presented contrasting arguments…on one side stood those who are ready to see the traditional publishing model finish swirling its way down the drain, and on the other, those who are adamant the world will repent of such foolish notions when the chaos of literary sludge floods virtual bookstores. I’m not here today to present either of those arguments, but if you’d like to see the article that tackles the concepts, hop over to http://kriswrites.com/2011/07/06/the-business-rusch-slush-pile-truths/ —after you’re done reading my post, of course.
The one separate concept the article raises that got me thinking is the problem of word-of-mouth, and perhaps how the age of social networking is changing the business of selling books. As I understand it, the book marketing model (up until recently) has gone something like this: an A list book gets the marketing workup from the publishing company’s advertising department, and before the book is released, they push it in all their researched channels. The book is released, with a bit more marketing push, it’s given a half dozen weeks to prove how it’s going to perform, and if it’s not good…well, it doesn’t last long on the shelves. The book (and possibly the author) are flagged as failed endeavors, and the publishing company moves on.
Well, in a time where publishers are as strapped for cash as the rest of us, they are doing less and less marketing, which leaves the success of a book highly dependent on the author. (Like you haven’t heard that statement a thousand times in the past couple of weeks. But I thought I’d better include it for those few have always been looking the other way when the monster lumbers by.) Seeing as most of us are pretty much broke and can’t hire an advertising firm to do what the publishing company isn’t, our only way of pushing our work is building word of mouth. Social networking has value here, along with physical appearances in appropriate venues. But it seems to me, the expectation in book marketing needs to flip a bit. Rather than the Hollywood model: big opening weekend and dwindling sales from there, book publishing needs to be a bit more patient, watching the flame of sales kindle just the corner of a page, until word of mouth spreads that fire and it consumes a significant readership.
Which means books need to sit on the market long enough to build momentum—to take full advantage of the exponential way word-of-mouth generates interest and sales. A launch may start very small, but if the book is truly good, if those who buy it insist their friends read it, then the train builds speed. Offering books in ebook and print-on-demand formats seems a viable way to me “lay the track” for this sort of growth in sales. After all, the book needs to exist long enough to be available once people finally start hearing about it, which could take years, not weeks.
The key component of this, however, is getting readers to talk. We writers have seen, again and again, how we can talk our heads off, but the circle of people who tend to hear us are other writers. I love other writers, but the fact is, comparatively, there aren’t that many of us. We need actual readers to insist like-minded friends give our work a chance if we are indeed ever to have one.
All of this leads me to exhort you, friendly readers: if you like something you read, don’t keep that to yourself. I know, if you’re a fantasy or science fiction reader, you can only admit that comfortably in certain circles—I get that. But we writers need readers to do more than read, we need you to talk to anyone and everyone who might like what you like. I sincerely believe this transition in the world of publishing hinges almost entirely, not on editors, agents, gatekeepers, or even authors, but on outspoken readers who have the power to launch or sink a book.
So get out there and tell somebody if you’ve read a good book lately.