The Power of the Reader

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.

About Rebecca Minor

Rebecca P Minor draws perspective from her pursuit of various art forms, including writing, drawing, and music (singing mostly, though there was a time when a trombone figured in.) A 1997 graduate from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Becky earned a BFA in animation. Since then, she has worked as a character animator, a freelance artist, an art teacher, and most importantly, a wife to her husband Scott and mother of three boys. She is in the process of republishing her current body of work. The first installment of The Windrider Saga, Divine Summons, is available as an ebook novella on Amazon. She also has short stories available under the umbrella of The Windrider Canticles.

17 comments on “The Power of the Reader

  1. Well said, Becky. I totally agree. Let me go tell my friends about this. 😀

  2. My Dearest Becky,

    I as a reader can agree and disagree with this chain of thought. I have found that if I casually put the statement out there then someone usually picks it up if they hear enough
    different people say it. On the other hand if a person badgers someone about reading a book, then a wall goes up and they want to hear no more. There is something about print that is final though. Did you ever notice that we go to the critics on line or in the paper to be confirmed of whether it is a worthy book or movie or whatever. So in conclusion I would say, “Tell your friends once, then let the chain reaction go from there.”

    • Yeah, pushing anything too hard makes people feel like they’re being sold Amway, you know? There is a degree the work needs to speak for itself once you’ve introduced it to a potential audience. Otherwise, people who might like you start avoiding you.

      And I also agree that the critical response to a book is still a powerful force. We live in a society that wants expert opinions.

      Great thoughts! Thanks for the input.

  3. You make a powerful point. The standard today of the big publishers is to shred after the first six months if a book doesn’t perform. Only the smaller houses seem to keep a back list.

    However, there are books I myself know I should read that I have not made the time to read. I am not sure if this is because someone praised it too much, or what. Somehow the buzz has not sat me down to read them. Sort of like TV shows as well. I have heard all kinds of great comments about Dexter and yet I have not watched one episode.

    So I guess I’m agreeing momentum needs time to build because the marketing dollars are getting fewer and fewer. But we also need to be careful about word of mouth as well because we could come across as a shill for this book.

    Still looking for that magic answer at the end of the rainbow to sell books. Someday . . .

    • It’s interesting…the dynamic where too much enthusiasm creates suspicion. If you gush too effusively, then people assume you’ve got an agenda, it’s absolutely true. And I tend to be one of those people who shies away from the “popular” just because it’s popular. It’s probably some deep-seated immature reaction to having always been a geek. 🙂

      Thanks for your thoughtful addition to the conversation, Jan.

  4. Absolutely.

    I was just talking to a friend about this. Before I started writing I not once read a book based directly on publisher or author marketing. I read books because *friends* would tell me about them. Or I’d see them sitting on the shelf at the library or book store. I suppose the book store thing would count as publisher marketing, since the books with the most money behind them get the most visible spots, but I tend to go into book stores with blinders on–heading straight for the section I want (fantasy/sci-fi, YA, and clearance mostly).

    But as authors we do need to learn where our readers are. There’s nothing wrong to help each other out as writers, but writers get caught in an avalanche of online marketing of other writers’ works and there are only so many you can review–and if your audience is the same as the other writers’ audience, you’re just telling people who have already heard and it never leaves the circle.

    • I agree about the avalanche. I feel like I’m not doing as much as I could to promote other writer’s work, but it’s a slippery slope. You can never promote just one. Not without guilt or justification, right?

      Thanks for visiting today, Kat. 🙂

  5. Quality post, Becky. Keven mentioned the need to tell readers, not just writers, about his book, and I’ve been thinking about how best to do that. Right now I’ve got three avenues of advertising books to readers: facebook, the afterglow at church, and people who walk by my security desk at work.

    Some avenues which could reach readers, but aren’t are my other social media tools and my local libraries (including my church library). My website, twitter, and goodreads are all followed by other writers, and I’m not sure how to change that. Goodreads has groups you can join, but I haven’t taken the effort.

    Rebecca Luella Miller wrote a note on facebook about how to get the word out to Christian bookstores (http://on.fb.me/oKzxb0), which is worth mentioning because of how it relates to getting the word out to readers. Inspired by that, one area that could be improved is my communication with local libraries. I’ve been reluctant because my first thought is that I should buy a copy of every five star book and donate it to my church library, but that hasn’t fit in the budget. Focusing on church libraries, if mine is anything like yours, we have a church website but nothing on it about latest book reviews or anything to get people to check out the library. There are a few rows on the bookshelf of new titles, but if that isn’t steadily growing, or if that info isn’t being advertised outside of its presence, then no new people are going to come in. I’m wondering if we can’t discuss with our church ways to improve the advertising of new fiction via website and libraries to spread the word.

    Anyway, I’m glad you brought this up. This is a key area in marketing that we’re all realizing is a tough one to grasp. I’m curious what other ideas you folks have for marketing to other readers. I guess lastly, I’d say starting threads in your local forum is a good way, but usually it’s other writers that join those…but I guess they still need to be told because then they can share with their friends and family.

    • Better other writers tell their friends and family, right? Because if we tell our own, they start getting that glazed over look or suddenly need a refill for their already brimming beverage. But that web effect you’re talking about, where one person tells a couple friends, and they tell a few more, and those few each tell a handful of their circle of influence…that’s exactly the chain reaction we need.

      Thanks for joining in, Tim.

  6. Great post 🙂 I will say it is word of mouth that has made me go out and finally read a book.

    As far as reviews, I try to be accurate and honest. I give very few 5 stars out. Those are for absolutely outstanding, blew my socks off books. I give out more 4 stars. But if I truly did not like a book, I will stay silent about it (guess I believe in the can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all). I’ll talk to people personally why I didn’t like a book, but I don’t spread my dislike of the book all over the internet. That’s how I would want to be treated 🙂

  7. Had another thought while reading the article you linked. My word of mouth (or blog or review) will reach readers that you do not have access too (and vice versa). Why? One, I live in Indiana and you do not. Right there, readers you may or may not have access to simply because you don’t live in the same area.

    Secondly, profession. I am a pastor’s wife which gives me access to various congregations who want to hear what the pastor’s wife has to say (and sometimes they don’t like what I have to say ;p). A teacher will have access to readers that I don’t. Same with a doctor, a salesclerk or even someone who volunteers down at the local animal shelter.

    Thirdly, networks/connections. I have access to some various networks that you may or may not. And I can use those connections to help promote your book. And you probably have networks I do not have access to.

    So by working together, we could all help each with our own word of mouth/reviews/blogs and reach even more people with each others’ writing 🙂

    • Great points, Morgan…my circle of influence may be limited, but for every person I convince to talk about my book, I gain vicarious access to their circles, which can only be good.

  8. Seems to me the best part of the print-on-demand era is the ability to keep a book in the marketplace without maintaining expensive inventory. That way, when a book does “take off,” a reader has a much better chance of finding other books by the same author.
    This is why it’s so important for an author to keep writing books. Quality hooks ’em, but quantity keeps ’em buying.

    • I just read a recent newsletter for David Wolverton that talked about folks who want to give the self-publishing thing a go, and he touched on something that overlaps what you’re saying. He basically insisted that if you’re going to self publish a book, you had better have not one book ready to sell, but several. That way, if you start getting the letters that say, “That was awesome, when is the next book coming out?” you can respond, “In a few weeks. Get on my mailing list and I’ll let you know when it’s out.” By being able to market a whole series practically at once, you multiply your chances of people buzzing how they need to get the next book and the next…and there’s no year or two wait. Interesting marketing strategy…it will be interesting to see if folks employ it and if it pays off the way Wolverton says it will.

      This advice doesn’t really apply to traditional contracts, other than to say you do well in genre fiction to have a product line, not a stand alone story. The trick is convincing publishers that’s true and worth the risk.

      • I am a small press publisher. As such – marketing falls a lot of me and my authors. I also consult. One of the people I consult with self-publishes. He has begun what he calls fiction light. This is an adult novel – 60,000 word count – easy to read so it is not intimidating.

        Before he released the first novel, he had three ready to go and the plots for the remaining two. They are set in the same location and deal with some of the same characters.

        Personally, I absolutely hate to wait for the followup book so I will wait for the entire series. So for me – what he is doing works.

        He is also doing a combination of E-books and POD, so he meets both audiences. Who knows what the new publishing paradigm will turn out to be, but I think this person is going in the right direction. His name is Bob Spear and he runs a bookstore in Leavenworth, Kansas with his wife called the Book Barn.

  9. Thanks for your real-world perspective, Jan. It sounds like some of what David W. is talking about is indeed in practice then, and it is working for both writer and consumer. I’m sure you’re not alone in your dislike of waiting for “the next book.”

    Which nudges me…I need to get my next book closer to publication ready. 🙂

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