Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The phrase every publisher craves: word-of-mouth success

JK Rowling, Dan Brown and Lynne Truss have all sold millions with word-of-mouth successes, but what is their secret?

Robert McCrum The Observer, Sunday 10 April 2011
Malcolm Gladwell’s success was aided by his talent as a public speaker. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Word of mouth, a phrase that first crops up in Twelfth Night, is the holy grail of book publishing. Good reviews and literary festivals are all very well. But with the wind of many voices in its sails, a book can reach millions. Word of mouth made Dan Brown and JK Rowling. As the world's publishers fly into London for the book fair tomorrow, word of mouth will be what they crave for their titles.

Some of them will go to any lengths to stimulate the phenomenon. One leftwing 1930s publisher, Victor Gollancz, used to bribe his staff to read his books on the Underground. No one could miss their lurid yellow covers. Perhaps a casual commuter conversation would inspire sales mania.

With the advent of social networking, word of mouth begins to enter the realm of science, at least in theory. Actually, despite Twitter, Facebook and the rest, publishers are finding it as difficult as ever to mobilise that elusive thing, the viral conversation about a new book that translates into worldwide sales.

That doesn't stop them from trying. John Murray is about to publish James Frey's The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, a transgressive version of the Gospels. Frey, a seasoned contrarian, is good at attracting attention, not necessarily of the right kind. Ever since he was exposed for passing off his fiction A Million Little Pieces as a misery memoir, he has been the object of controversy.

Murray has cleverly decided to exploit this with a YouTube video of vox pop interviews about The Final Testament. Murray's MD, Roland Phillips, says: "We are getting into a new arena. We hope to inspire word of mouth. It's the best way to sell books, especially today. People don't like to be told what to read, but to make their own discoveries."

What, exactly, is this mysterious phenomenon? A comforting short -hand to explain the inexplicable? Dava Sobels's Longitude got no more, or better, reviews than several other books in 1995, but sold like hot cakes. Tony Parsons's Man and Boy got a mixed press, but went straight to the top of the bestseller list. Is it just readers on trains and buses, or at dinner tables, telling their neighbour, "You must read this" that does it ?

I don't think so. The key to word of mouth lies in the milieu into which the unknown book is released. Appropriately, the classic case is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, a book about the little things that make a difference in the marketplace. When it first appeared in 2000, The Tipping Point excited only modest comment. The reviews were scattered and lukewarm. It was not until Gladwell, an entrancing speaker, went out on the road to talk to professional groups across America that The Tipping Point "tipped".

In a practical sense, Gladwell created his own word of mouth. To generate a surprise bestseller, the publisher needs to create a community around the book and its author in which the readers believe that their aspirations can be understood, their beliefs nurtured and their anxieties addressed. That's what a successful book will do.

Read the rest of McCrum's most interesting essay at The Guardian online.

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