The Era of Instant Word-of-Mouth

domeSo, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Not just because at 1,100 or so pages and three-and-a-half pounds, it kind of sits there like the guilty weight of all the things left undone in one’s life. And not because I intend to read it when I have a spare month or three. No, more I’ve been thinking about it because of the flap copy on the jacket.

There isn’t any.

Aside from the price and the usual gibberish publishers must slap on jackets, the flaps are as empty and clean as a newborn’s conscience. On the front and spine are the author and title, the always-weird designation “A Novel,” the publisher, and nothing else.

At first, on seeing this, I thought, Whoa, that’s nervy! Kudos! But later I realized: The book doesn’t need flap copy. That’s very rarely how books are sold these days, and in the case of a monstrous new Stephen King novel, flap copy is beside the point. Because we already know who he is (he has been doing this for a while), and, if we care, we already know what the book is about. How do we know this? The web, obviously. It has changed book-buying irrevocably, not just in terms of retailing, but in terms of customer behaviors.

Not all that long ago, I bought many of the books I read based on a combination of factors—did I like the author? did the cover copy sound groovy? was the cover itself cool? did the gog-eyed twerp who worked the register at Circus Bookshelf recommend it? This is how I stumbled upon tons of good stuff as well as a lot of not-quite-good stuff. But nowadays, thanks to constant grazing on Facebook and Goodreads and various blogs and on and on, I go into the bookstore with preconceived ideas of just about every single book I see. And the ones I know nothing about? Those I barely see at all.

Word of mouth—or word of net as the case may be—appears to be everything (short of an Oprah appearance). In fact, thanks to the web, we live in an era when word-of-mouth is much more powerful than just about any other factor in getting a book to sell. Is this the new model for how we buy books? Has browsing been reduced to the smallest of inducements for why we buy? If so, then the only way many books will succeed it in the marketplace is through quality—or instead, we’ll call it “delivering the goods”—whether those goods are literary quality or some other story goods a la Twilight.

I suspect this instant word-of-mouth world has been instrumental in killing the midlist in bookstores. Those so-so novels with their modest aims? They used to benefit enormously from readers browsing and not knowing what they were looking for. But because so few of us do that nowadays, those midlist books don’t stand a chance.

The implications for new writers are daunting. If your novel doesn’t get talked about in an ohmygodyouhavetoreadthis sort of way, you’re in trouble. Word will get out almost instantaneously about whether your book is great or just so-so, and the greatest flap copy and cover won’t be able to save it. Even with a big marketing push, you can only count on that initial bump of people you’ve duped into picking you up and giving you a try. But you won’t be able to count on career growth, because readers don’t keep coming back to writers who suck, and they don’t talk up bad books they’ve read. (Just ask G.P. Taylor, the writing vicar who gave us the execrable Shadowmancer. Many people bought that first book, but only a teeny tiny fraction bought the many novels he’s published since.)

Is this an oversimplification on my part? Why do you buy the books you buy? When is the last time you purchased a book about which you knew nothing until the moment you picked it up in the store? Does that even happen anymore?

  1. I still do enjoy going to the bookstore and reading through the flap copy on the jacket. I can understand how Stephen King may not require one. I believe the midlist book still has a chance. People like the experience of actually “shopping” for a book, looking through what is out there. Julie


  2. I went to WindyCon in Chicago this past weekend and bought 10 books from 3 dealers, none of which were on my “to buy” list. One, a collection of short stories by Cat Rambo, was goosed by its beautiful cover illustration and the rest were a combination of flap copy, author pull, and or reading the first page or two. I love supporting these independent dealers and the whole hands-on browsing experience.


  3. That’s mostly the ONLY way I shop for books. By the cover, the copy, the random page reads, and the price tag. Even in Barnes and Noble and on Amazon, I need the copy and the editorial reviews.


  4. Even though I have stacks of books on my “waiting to read” list that glare at me daily, I still like to go out and browse for something new. If I’m heading out of town on a vacation or something (which is not often) I like to pick up something I’ve never heard of. I think last summer I picked up a mystery called “A Beautiful Blue Death” by Charles Finch. Had no idea who he was but the book sounded pretty cool, and it ended up being a fun read. I don’t even remember how I found it. That’s just one example.


  5. But nowadays, thanks to constant grazing on Facebook and Goodreads and various blogs and on and on, I go into the bookstore with preconceived ideas of just about every single book I see. And the ones I know nothing about? Those I barely see at all.

    This is exactly how I work, too. I’m into YA and MG in a huge way, and scouring blogs and Goodreads is a part of my daily routine. By the time a book appears on the shelves, I’m already pretty darn sure whether I’m going to buy it or not (or try to find it at the library). Pre-pub reviews and buzz are everything, and if what I’ve heard doesn’t excite me, I probably won’t even glance at it at the store. However, this does set up huge expectations for the books I decide I do want to read. Usually by the time they come out I’ve been hearing about them for a year or more. When I finally get to read AWESOME BOOK X, it had better indeed be awesome. There’ve been a couple times this year I felt really burned by a book’s actual text after a year’s worth of good buzz and anticipation.

    And if I do see a new book on the shelf I’ve never heard about, my first instinctive thought is, Where did the author and publisher go wrong on this one? Not having online buzz on your book seems absolutely criminal in this day and age.

    One positive effect from all of this is that it may give new hope to books that have great online buzz but don’t get a good sell-in (or any sell-in) at the chain stores. A mid-list novel could find a new life through Amazon if the author is successful at promoting the book online, and if the buzz and reviews are positive.


  6. For me it’s a time factor. While there’s nothing more I love than browsing through the bookstore, I often don’t have that kind of time. I buy books based on recommendations from the gals in my book club, and one of my upcoming book club picks – The Heretic’s Daughter – was based on reading a book review. Okay, plus I think witches are just plain cool.


  7. I think flap copy gives too much away. It’s like, “Why would I even read the sucker now, you’ve told me everything it’s about?”

    I choose books almost solely on recommendations from friends/fellow bloggers and author interviews. When choosing books from the library, I usually read the first page and go with my gut.


  8. Over the summer I went into Borders, needing a book fix, but not knowing what to buy. Sitting on a display table was Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman. I thought the cover was cool and the flap copy was interesting.


    Hands down, best fantasy novel I’ve read in years. Can’t wait for the sequel.


  9. Michael, when I picked up Under the Dome and saw the blank jacket, I had the same reaction you did: Wow, that’s nervy, I thought . . . and then I smiled. King doesn’t need flap copy for all the reasons you gave. Plus, he’s cool. But it made me realize that if it’s a writer I trust to deliver, I seldom read the flap copy anyway.

    But a new book by a writer I’ve never read, yeah. Flap copy, bio on the back, reviews, Wikipedia sometimes. It’s only in used bookstores that I go crazy and load up on unknowns’ paperbacks.


  10. Having been burned by flap copy before, I’m almost entirely in the word-of-mouth camp, which leaves me feeling queasy about the future of the midlist (though it’s not like you can have a top of the list without a middle and a bottom).

    Some of the w-o-m is artificial, though. Publishers pay big bucks for some things and not so much for others. When they pay big bucks, they make sure to put out a lot of w-o-m. Sometimes books that are more in the “story goods” often get these huge advances. Not to pick on Lauren Conrad’s L.A. Candy or anything, but, well, murmur murmur.

    Of course publishers will spend money on marketing for these. And book catalogs are easy to scan for what publishers want to become big books vs. ones they’re rolling the dice on. You just have to look at the length of the publicity-efforts blurb.

    So maybe I’d nuance it a bit. There is word-of-mouth that comes from publishers. And there’s word-of-mouth that comes from readers, often driven by genius marketers like Jack Canfield and John Grisham. I think without one or the other, no writer can make a living at it. But it doesn’t mean there won’t be good books in the unsung category.


  11. I think you’re onto something here for the most part, but one of my great joys is going to a bookstore and seeing something new on the shelves that captures my eye. This is why I *love* our local indies… because the co-op tables have staff picks that aren’t just the same bestseller names over and over again. My husband and I actively seek out bookstores where we are likely to “discover” something good, without research, without mass media preconceptions.

    We are, apparently, a dying breed.


  12. I definitely shop by word of mouth. And since I blog about books, I know a number of other bloggers whose opinion I trust (and tend to have similar tastes with), and those are the ones I look to. I will also check out books from the library first (usually) before buying, unless I already know I love the author’s style (or it’s a sequel). I keep a running list of ‘books I must own’ — I just ordered six of those last week (yay).


  13. Not a dying breed CKHB, but a soon to be anachronistic one, and I’m right in that breed with you. For general pleasure reading, I love nothing more than to browse at a good local bookstore. A good cover will draw me in, and I can be convinced or deterred by a great first page. And if I don’t have time for that, then I will go without for quite some time. Afterall, I do have a stack of New Yorkers waiting to be read…along with all of those great kid’s books that I must read. Fortunately my father-in-law is a pretty voracious reader, and our literary tastes are quite compatible, so he sometimes slips me a volume or two. Not a lot of cyber influence.


  14. At the library, I take my sweet time seeking out the obscure—pouring over jackets, checking out copyright dates and so forth . . . . at the book store, I’m on a mission to buy a specific title by my favorite author who always seems to write in series and am unable to wait out my turn on the library waiting list . . . at book fairs, amidst all the chaos, I try to go back to a browsing mode, buying anything catchy or clever . . . .


  15. I know sales are everything in the business, but I first think about long-term– about books sitting in the library long after the word-of-mouth about them has died down. If you’re Stephen King, you probably don’t have a problem, true. But if the buzz is gone, people still need SOME way to find out what a book is about. Granted, I first read my favorite book as a beat-up library copy with no flap copy (or book jacket at all) and no prior knowledge about it beyond that it had won a Newbery. But I was in 4th grade and spent all my free time reading. Now I’m a mother of two small children and don’t HAVE free time, so I need to be pickier about what I pick up to read– I prefer to know a little bit about what I’m getting!

    But, since you asked about buying: I buy books I have already read and therefore know I’ll want to reread! Exceptions are books in series I’m already collecting. So I really don’t need flap copy for purchases. But for browsing the library? Yes, I appreciate it.


  16. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Upstart Crow, Calista Taylor. Calista Taylor said: IWord of Mouth & Your Book (via @UpstartCrowLit ) #pubtip #writetip […]


  17. When books are all digital the problem of limited shelf space — up or out — will disappear. A digital book can stay on the “shelf” forever at no cost. So you’ll be able to write a book and promote it now or next year or five years from now. It can be a surprise hit five years from now if events, or advances in your career conspire to make it so.

    The problem today is limited space. There are only so many shelves, so many end caps, only so much front-of-the-store space. Granted Amazon has a front page and that’s analogous to the front of the store tables at B&N, but the size of the rest of the store is effectively infinite.

    We’re moving to a “bookstore” (the internet) that will stock every single book on earth. Social networks and effective marketing will be necessary as pointers to books. But books will no longer die, no longer disappear.

    People should think about that while they’re dreading the move from dead tree to digital.


  18. I think some misunderstood my post: I’m not suggesting that books should go out there without flap copy. Just saying that I can see why in this instance it isn’t necessary, and then extrapolating from that about changes in customer awareness in general.

    And Michael, yeah, once the shelves are gone, it will really be a matter of who has the largest megaphone. We can already see that in the nonbook bestsellers—Lauren Conrad, Glenn Beck, and so on—people whose audience isn’t really made up of typical readers.


  19. Distribution issues stay the same whether books are physical or virtual. If people haven’t heard about your book, they won’t buy it. It’s true that stuff might technically never go out of print, but infinitely long lists of titles will be murder on an iPod or other such device. No one will wade through them.

    In this scenario, marketing is even more important. A really horrible day will be where the platform issues of nonfiction cross over into fiction. Unless, of course, you like celebrity story products.


  20. Marthabee:

    Of course if I’m selling my own books, directly to the reader, without cutting the publisher, bookstore, etc… in on the deal, I don’t need to charge nearly as much and can sell far fewer and still break even.

    I make 1.80 per hardcover. Two bucks to keep the math easy. So if I could move the same number of books I do now, I could sell them for 2 bucks each and make the same income. Or I could sell for 4 bucks and make twice as much per book, and sell half as many and break even.

    How many more people might buy a $4 book than will now buy a $20 book? Usually if you lower the price of a commodity and simultaneously increase its availability, consumption goes up.

    In theory I could sell the next book in my GONE series as a digital book for $4. I would double my royalty per book. And since I’d be selling the book for what amounts to a 75% discount on current hardcover price, I might sell even more. Especially since it would be available to anyone, anywhere who read English.

    Then I could still sell dead-tree rights and turn that into a second income stream.


  21. This isn’t new; they did the same thing with the last Harry Potter book.


  22. An interesting point, and at first I was about to argue it. I just recently bought a book (Poison Study) I knew nothing about, because I browsed across it in the book store and was taken in by the cover and first perusal. Then I realized that the reason this example sprang to mind is it was isolated, and further that I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying a book so much when I hadn’t been looking for it. Of course, since reading it I’ve facebooked it, and the book is currently out on loan with a friend, which only proves your point!


  23. I love browing bookstores, and I do read jacket copy. But, I also peruse blogs and if a blog recommends a book, or if a blogger has a book out, I’ll check it out if it sounds like something I’d be interested in (or I just want to support that particular blogger).

    I don’t know what I’d do without “word of mouth” for my novel – I have a small publisher without a big budget, so word of mouth, and buzz on the Blogger Community has helped me tremendously.

    Interesting post.


  24. Back when I had a job (approx. six months ago now. *le sigh*) the best thing I did every pay was go into my local bookstore and pick up a book I had never heard of before. Browse the shelves, find an interesting cover, read the flap jacket and the first page and if I liked it, bought it. One book every pay (ok, sometimes more) and it had to be on the basis of its ability to catch my eye right there and then in the store.

    I did it because I wanted to start reading outside the books I was getting recommended, to find something new. I didn’t enjoy all of them. And it was interesting how some of them became so familiar, as I saw them week after week and passed them over for something else, or occaisionally relented and gave them a try.

    I still bought other books, but just wandering in and letting something catch my fancy was awesome. When I have money again I am so going back to that practice.


  25. I finished Under the Dome last night, and those 1,000+ pages go by faster than some 300 page books I’ve read! When I sat down to start, I looked for the jacket description, which I usually read as a kind of hors d’oeuvre to a long book like that, but there was none. So, I figured, I guess I’ll just have to dive in. The lack of any jacket copy gave the book this very open, unknown feeling. Like Stephen King was inviting you to “just trust me, start reading. I know you won’t be able to stop.”

    And he was right!


  26. Kathryn,

    That’s a great way of looking at it! I expect I’ll read this monster over Christmas … once all the queries and submissions have been dealt with. 🙂


  27. That whole concept — a group of characters cut off from the outside world, forced to adapt to dwindling resources and choose sides in an existential battle between good and evil — is genius. Just genius!


  28. If I’m buying a book online, then yes, I will pay attention to Amazon reviews, or comments bloggers have made, but at the same time, I still buy books at random in stores. For example, if I’m at a train station and I’ve forgotten to bring a book with me, I’ll browse the shelves, and make a decision based on three things – the blurb, the cover, and the typography (I’m a firm believer that the font tells you more than the publisher intends). I like that cover copy, and I don’t like the idea that it’ll be jettisoned just because people have started discussing books online. Not everyone has Net access.


  29. I’ve been in the hospital and am only now catching up. I don’t usually comment on old posts but I just can’t contain myself. Shadowmancer is in my number one slot of books I love to hate. Oh, I could write a volume on how offensive that book was on so many levels.

    As for the rest of the post–I think this Internet marketing thing is exciting. I only buy books after reading about them from bloggers I trust. I can’t feel too bad for the midlist authors. Or for myself. I may never get published because I might never be good enough, but it’s some consolation that I’ll always be able to find the good books and I won’t be wasting money on many Shadowmancer types.


  30. […] Crow, Michael Stearns noticed an interesting thing about the new Stephen King book UNDER THE DOME: it doesn’t have any jacket copy. He sees this as a sign that instant word of mouth is quickly becoming paramount, and it’s […]


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