Word-of-Mouth In Action

Word-of-mouth is the only thing that ever really sells books.

While a glowing review in the New York Times will undoubtedly shift some copies, if the limited amount of people that actually read the reviews (and then purchase the book), don’t then spread the word, the sales bump will be temporary.

The 21st century world-weary reader is a hard person to reach. Our environment has become so saturated with advertisements that we tend to tune them out. Broadcasters need to resort to tricks like raising the volume levels of the ads to force us to pay attention.

We ignore ads because we don’t trust them. Exaggerated claims of the merits of one brand over another have been with us for so long that our automatic disposition seems to be skeptical towards the alleged virtues of any advertised product.

However, we still trust each other. If your neighbor tells you about a new detergent that actually does get wine stains out of a white shirt, or an insurance company that really will be there for you when things go wrong, that carries more weight than anything the cleverest advertising company can come up with.

Books are more subjective than most products, and a recommendation from someone only really carries weight if you know they have similar tastes to you. I have friends who are voracious readers but like very different books, and I’m slow to act on their tips. I know others who read less, but when they recommend something I invariably pick it up.

A glowing review from one particular writer for the New York Times is enough to make me avoid the book in question. And an ad in the same paper just makes me think that a publisher is spending a lot of money trying to keep that author happy.

Ads don’t really sell books. When you see the billboards for Dan Brown, they are just announcing to his existing fans that the book is out; they don’t aim to convert new readers.

What converts new readers is a recommendation from a trusted source. Word-of-mouth. This could be a friend, a family member, Oprah, a reviewer whose tastes are in sync with yours, your book club, your writing group, or the helpful bookseller in that independent store who has an eye for interesting reads.

The #1 reason readers always give for purchasing a book is having read and enjoyed something by the author before. The #2 reason is a trusted recommendation. Everything else (bookstore placement, cover, blurb etc.) is far in the distance. These two are what really shift books in big numbers.

Unless you have already had a bestseller on your hands (and your next book will essentially market itself), word-of-mouth is your only chance of breaking out.

We have all seen it in action. A friend presses a book into your hand – with a fevered look in their eye – and says you have to read this. Or someone gifts you a book on Amazon because they are so determined for you to read it, they don’t want to take the chance that you won’t act on their tip. I remember a friend refusing to talk to me until I read a particular book. It was that important to him.

When you get someone that passionate, they will recommend it to everyone they know. A book really takes off when all those people then become equally passionate and recommend it to everyone they know. Then word spreads exponentially.

I can see this on a very small scale in my own sales figures. For example, I sell maybe 3 copies a day of Let’s Get Digital in the UK. But then sometimes it goes crazy for a couple of days, and I might sell 20 copies.

Often there is a clear reason for the burst. I have all sorts of Google Alerts set up which will usually catch any reviews, blog/forum mentions, and I check Twitter every few days to see if anything pops up there.

But sometimes there is no reason, or at least none I can trace on the internet, and I can only assume that some passionate reader has convinced lots of others to purchase it.

I’m seeing the benefit of word-of-mouth in the US too. I sell anything between 5 to 15 copies of Let’s Get Digital a day. And I’m not promoting it anymore, aside from the ads on this blog, which only tend to reach the same people anyway (who have all probably made their decision to purchase or not at this point, given that it’s been out nearly a month).

I gave it a big push at the start, I sent advance copies to 20 reviewers, lots of people helped get the word out on Twitter, I had a launch party on Facebook, my contributors made some noise, and I did a couple of guest posts and interviews. But most of that was done in July.

I’ve sold more copies in August, and we are only just passed the half-way point. Even if I don’t sell another book this month, I have already sold more and made more than I did in July, and that’s without the benefit of any new release. This book cost me over $1,000 to publish and I have made over 80% of that back in less than a month.

Some of the sales bumps this month were easy to trace. I got a five star review from Big Al’s Books and Pals which was especially gratifying given that he’s a tough reviewer and I hadn’t submitted it for review. I also got lots and lots of blog mentions – too many to list here – for which I am very grateful.

However, the biggest bump was from Pixel of Ink, who highlighted the book on the 7th. It sold over 70 copies that day, which boosted it to #1,327 in the US.

Being in the top spots of a couple of genre charts is enough to guarantee some sales, but it’s not exclusively self-sustaining; you will gradually slip back unless something else is driving sales.

I have done little to promote the book this month. In fact, I have barely been online for the last week. My parents flew into town for my birthday and stayed for several enjoyable days. And yet I still sold a solid 12 to 13 copies a day, with a few shorts here and there for good measure.

Essentially, the book is selling itself; the numbers are holding at a nice level with little or no input from me.

I could probably put my shoulder to the promo wheel and drum up a few extra sales, but I am happy to keep a lower profile and let word-of-mouth do its job. I’ll be making more noise with my next release (probably October), and maybe it’s not a bad idea to give people a break.

Plus, it gives me more time to write. Instead of focusing on how many sales I could squeeze out of that one title, I am looking ahead to having five titles selling like that. Or ten. Or twenty.

It’s going to take me some time (and a hell of a lot of work) to get to that point, and I’m not assuming that sales will always remain this good. But I know that if I keep producing the best work I can, and I keep doing it regularly, I’m giving myself a chance.

If you are looking for a lesson to apply to your own efforts, I would suggest this: give your book a healthy push on release, then get out of its way. Get back to your real job: writing.

Your promo time should be limited to whatever time is spare after you hit your writing targets. If that leaves you no promo time, don’t sweat it. The greatest promotional tool is new work. If you do have time for promo, evaluate your efforts carefully.

You should always ask yourself a simple question: how many readers will this get me. And also: how will this get the conversation started about my books. There is no point reaching 1,000 people who don’t care for your book. You are far better off reaching one passionate reader – someone who will then sell the book on your behalf.

For this reason, I am skeptical about the value of something like a Goodreads ad. Aside from the money involved, the time would be far better spent taking the time to write a proper response to an email from a reader.

John Locke has tried every promotional trick in the book, but he said that the only thing that really sold books was engaging with his readers.

There is a lot in his “system” that won’t suit everyone (me included). However, you can always find bits you can use. One change I made was to make my email address very visible both here and in my books, and I invite them to drop me a line.

In short, if you genuinely value your readers, if you open a line of communication with them, they are far more likely to spread the word about your books.

And while they are doing that, you can write.


I have a new column over at IndieReader.com where I will be spouting off once a week or so. Come over and say hello!

When you are done with that, you should check out the rest of the site. They have some interesting stuff, such as a weekly Indie bestseller list that is compiled from lots of sources – not just Amazon.

You will notice that Rick Murcer holds the top two spots, and the site have an interview with him here.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.