What Sells Books: Word of Mouth or Something Else?

Are you worried that your books don't sell? "Discoverability", an awful newly-coined word, has become the name of the game in the publishing industry. Conventional wisdom has it that "word of mouth" sells books. And that as a writer, your only option is to write, write, write. Don't despair, "the cream will rise to the top",  that's another oft-quoted piece of wisdom.

Really? Consider the tsunami of new books. Last year, according to Bowker 3 million new titles were added to the pile (and Bowker only counts books with ISBN numbers, so the real amount of new books is probably much larger).

In spite of this, publishing gurus are optimistic, chief among them author Kristine Kathryn Rusch who is rarely given to flights of baseless fantasy: her latest blog post on the subject is a must read for any writer feeling the blues. But if you don't have time (her blog posts tend to be long, I love that but not everyone does), here's the gist of it.

She makes one basic assumption: what really sells a book is word of mouth, one reader telling another how much he/she liked the book.

So the story needs to be good to start with, that's fundamental.

Other things matter too and help to get word of mouth started:

1. A good cover, with the "right art and the right branding": it should clearly signal the book's genre. The e-book market is mature and the days are over when a book could sell with a crap cover even though it has a good story inside (the case of Howard Huey and Amanda Hocking - they both began two years ago);

2. An "active" cover copy: it should "tell the reader what the book is about without discussing a plot", it should be exciting, don't hesitate to use emotion-laden words.

3. The right price:  it should be "commensurate with other books of the same type." Check publishers' prices, keeping in mind that they've often mispriced ebooks (too high). Remember, too low only spells thrash, too high means you're out of the market.

4. Availability: make sure your book is easy to find. Put it on all the e-platforms from the Nook to the Kobo, even if Amazon is the biggest: there are still readers out there who don't own a Kindle. And, as K.K Rusch puts it, there are good news for Indies who until recently couldn't reach out to bookstores because they relied on publishers' catalogues and various trade publications (like Publisher's Weekly) as their only source of information to select books for sale. No more: now if you join CreateSpace's extended distribution system (cost: $25), your book will become available to all US bookstores.

5. Don't spend time and money on advertising, don't go after book bloggers and bookstore promotions - at least not until you have several "good" books, and even then, wait for them to come to you and ask for copies to review your book. Don't worry about bad reviews, they happen. 

In short, "just write the next book. Cultivate your readers by writing good books".

That's K.K. Rusch's best advice for you and when she put it out on her blog it got... 73 comments the last time I looked! 

But it still leaves the basic question unanswered: how do you jump start "word of mouth" if you're competing against, not just a dozen or a hundred titles, but millions

And consider there is yet an additional hurdle: everyone's eyes are focused on one thing only, rankings.

How do you climb the rankings? Ours is an exceedingly competitive society and we love nothing better than to "rank" everything, from the best tomato to the top model (no puns intended).

Best selling author Hugh Howey  recently pointed out on his blog that Barnes and Noble may be manipulating the rankings (see here). Coming from him, we should take note. After all, H.H. is something of a celebrity in the publishing world, he is the author of WOOL, a hugely successful serial novel that has brought back in fashion the format that made Dickens famous (serial novels were routinely published in 19th century England).

What is your take on rankings? Should we do away with them? For now, they are simply based on sales volume, so they are self-feeding. It's a vicious circle: the more you sell, the higher your sales.

Should we have more precise rankings, say focused on quality (for example, based on the number of reviews plus the number of stars earned? But we all know these are subject to manipulation too...)

Should we have broader rankings, say up to 5k, then stop and not give away any ranking that is higher up? After all, a customer who sees a book that interests her might not buy if she notices that the book is sitting at a stratospheric level of say, 50k or even 500k (after all, there are millions of books in the Kindle store!)

What is your opinion? No ranking? Specialized ranking? Or something else entirely, like an improved customer review system?
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