Word of Mouth – An Urban Myth?

Pedro BarrentoGuest Post
by Pedro Barrento

Ever since I’ve become a self-published author, I’ve heard people telling me that the secret to self-publishing success is “word of mouth”. If your book is good enough, and if you can somehow start that magical chain of recommendations, the whole thing will spread like a cascade of dominoes on a Guinness World Record attempt.

I accepted the advice in good faith, and started working hard to kick-start my first book by finding an initial set of sympathetic readers who would then tell their friends about my literary masterpiece. It all seemed rather intuitive and made perfect sense to me: one person likes the book, tells a couple of friends, they like the book, mention it to several other people and so on. You don’t need to be very proficient in math to see the geometric progression potential and to salivate at the promise of chart-topping sales.

As time went by, though, and I started digging into the dark arts of self-marketing and learning about the myriad details of Internet promotion, it became pretty obvious that something didn’t add up – the ratios and the processes involved were totally incompatible with the “word of mouth” scenario. In fact, with time, I became convinced that so-called “word of mouth” is nothing more than a total fantasy–one of those things that seems logical and obvious, but just isn’t.

If you’re twitching your nose and thinking I’m wrong, don’t feel bad about it – that’s the reaction I always get. But please bear with me while I try to expound my arguments.

Let’s start by analysing an area where word of mouth does exist: music.

You typically have 2000 kids in a high school, and most of them listen to music several hours per day. They also frequently extend their headphones to their friends and say “Hey! Listen to this. This stuff is good!” (yes, I’m trying to be moderate in the choice of words). Their friends listen for a minute or so and immediately decide if they like the music or not, and the process is repeated.

In such an environment, you can have dozens (or hundreds) of recommendations going on in one day, and their effect is immediate. It is not inconceivable to imagine a student entering his high school premises at 9 am being the only person to know a song that has just been released, and by 6 pm, thirty or forty kids have been exposed to that same song.

Now, by comparison, let’s see how things happen in the literary world.

Unlike kids in high school, readers aren’t in packs of 2000 in a building (or if they are they aren’t aware of it) – they are thinly spread around the country, they take months (sometimes years) to pick up a book, may take many more months (or never) to recommend one and the person who’s hearing the recommendation has the same ratio of taking months (or never) to pick up the recommended book and deciding if he /she likes it.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure that if someone creates a mathematical model of these interaction ratios. the conclusion will be that a book would take several millennia to reach any bestseller list from word of mouth alone.

Even in more concentrated reading environments, like Goodreads.com (the biggest readers’ site on the Net), recommendation ratios are incommensurably lower than anything you can get in music. If you don’t believe me, try recommending a book to your friends on Goodreads. After one month, go and check how many of them have read the book. You’ll be very lucky if anyone has. That’s time enough for a song to have reached thousands of people, starting from one recommendation only.

So I stand by my belief : word of mouth in literature is a fantasy. It simply doesn’t exist.

Although you may, by now, be half convinced, you’re probably thinking about several examples of self-publishers who sold appreciable quantities of their books before being picked up by a publisher – how did they do it, then, if not by word of mouth?

Well, first of all, I think each case is its own case. Different events may be primarily responsible for different books’ successes. Secondly, I would pay very little attention to author interviews where they suggest that it all happened by word of mouth. Sometimes they may simply not be aware of how it happened at all, but most of the times I think they have a pretty good idea but see no reason why they should explain it in detail.

Personally, I think in most cases it can be traced down to getting a lot of books into the hands of readers through free downloads and then having the good luck of being mentioned by people who liked what they read and who either have clout, have their opinions voiced in widely circulated media or are direct influencers of buyers (through Amazon’s recommendation algorithm, iBooks’ site recommendations, etc.).

Just as with the Medicis in the Renaissance, in the 21st century a patron goes a long way towards making an artist. A writer must create the initial wave, but the ratios involved are far too low for a self-sustained chain of events. At some crucial point, external help is required. Without it, I don’t believe self-publishing success is possible. And although external help is undoubtedly related to the contents (you may call it quality if you want) of the book, it ultimately involves a good dose of that most valuable and elusive ingredient in anyone’s success: luck.

My opinion, anyway.

Did you like this article? Why not tell your friends about it, let’s spread the word.

No, I’m not kidding. Unlike books, it only takes a couple of minutes to read an article. So, in this case, word of mouth can work.

Pedro was born in Mozambique in 1961. He is the author of two books: The Prince and the Singularity – A Circular Tale and Marlene and Sofia – A Double Love Story. You can learn more about Pedro on his blog and his Amazon Author Central page.

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43 thoughts on “Word of Mouth – An Urban Myth?”

  1. I need an influential patron – and no my impoverished hubby doesn’t count. lol

    I tend to agree. So far the only word of mouth that seems to have any effect for me is what comes out of my own, as in the people I meet and tell about my books. It doesn’t seem to go beyond that as those that read my books tend to loan them to others rather than buy them.

  2. It’s a cool theory.

    But the facts do not really support your thesis.

    A great deal of research has been done regarding how readers find new books, by people WAY smarter than me with a lot more money to throw at the problem. One thing has been consistently (and often frustratingly, for major publishers) clear: NOTHING matters more in the sale of a book than a recommendation from a trusted source.

    Not publisher, not author, not cover, not blurb. NOTHING consistently sells more books than recommendations from friends or other trusted sources.

    Now, there’s a catch. 😉

    People don’t always recommend a book right away after reading it. In fact, it might take years before they yank a copy off a shelf, or mention the ebook in casual conversation, and recommend it to someone. Word of mouth is a slow boil, not a fast burn. Word of mouth is what builds careers. It rarely helps one specific book.

    However, it CAN help specific books. Word of mouth is why “Fifty Shades” broke out, for example. People got talking about the book – both negative and positive things. Even the negative statements were still word of mouth. They built up more public interest in the books until you basically had to live in a hut on a mountaintop as a hermit to have NOT heard of them.

    Remember, obscurity is the greatest enemy of any media in the internet age. Every work has a large potential audience – the trouble is finding it. SOME works (Twilight, Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Fifty Shades, etc.) have ENORMOUS potential audiences – again, only if those people hear about them. For every Harry Potter that someone catches enough peoples’ imagination and gets enough conversations going to break out, there are hundreds of perfectly good similar books which just don’t.

    They aren’t worse than the book that broke out. They are a little tiny bit less lucky.

    So yes, word of mouth contributed, for example, to Amanda Hocking’s success. She got some book bloggers talking about her books, and they were picked up from there by other book bloggers, who spread the word to thousands of readers, who were SO EXCITED by the books that they spread the word to their friends. Enough people bought them that Amazon’s algorithms kicked in, and her books jumped up the charts.

    Today, jumping up the charts is perhaps the ultimate “trusted recommendation”, because readers know that a chart-topping book has tens of thousands of readers, and…all those people can’t be wrong, right? 😉

    So bottom line is – no, word of mouth is not going to solve all your problems. It’s slow, and takes time, and works better for some sorts of works (those which ignite and excite readers) than others. Explosive word of mouth is completely random, cannot be manufactured, and is just a lucky break. You can manufacture books which have the POTENTIAL to be break-out word of mouth successes (Stephanie Meyers deliberately wrote Twilight to have that sort of potential; she and her mentor David Farland have written extensively on the subject). But you can’t MAKE it happen.

    For most of us, word of mouth is a background buzz, slowly building as we release more and more titles. The more, the better. The more exciting to our audience, the better.

  3. Listen to Kevin.
    He knows.
    You realize that “viral” is the same as “word of mouth”, right?
    And that books like 50 Shades and Wool and Twilight got their enormous success based on mentions?
    The big question is an easy one…do you think people are more likely to read a book because you advertised it, or because a friend said they liked it and they should give it a read?

      1. Actually, it’s pretty well proven in those cases. Those authors are both really forthcoming on how things worked and there’s plenty of evidence and anecdote behind it.
        As a matter of sheer practicality… you get somebody selling millions of books, where do you THINK people heard of them? Paid ads? Social media? (Like that’s not the same thing, really)
        Here’s an experiment that might clear things up a little. Find a reader (yourself, possibly) and ask them where they heard about the last 5 books they bought.

  4. Thought provoking post, Pedro. I’m torn. Your example of word of mouth with high schoolers and a new song is the kind of thing we usually picture when thinking word of mouth, but is also too limiting. Word of mouth can take many forms. I think Kevin’s comments hit many of them. His point, that it can take a long time for word of mouth to bear fruit is also pertinent. That’s an advantage self-published authors have. They don’t have to build that momentum out of the gate although obviously that’s preferred.

    I’ve often called my review blog “amplified word of mouth.” It’s just a reader (actually a group of readers) giving their opinions to lots of friends. Kevin’s comment about word of mouth reminded me of something that happened recently.

    Last year Jim Devitt had an IU post about reusing blog content (https://indiesunlimited.com/2013/08/19/is-your-old-blog-post-an-antique-or-new-content/ ). The idea is that you pick up new readers, not everyone sees a post the first time, and even those who do might benefit from the repeat. I thought about what he’d said and decided to implement it, sometimes running an old review (what I call “reprise reviews”). Last week I ran one that first ran about 3 years ago. I got an email from one of my newer readers (she said she’d been following the blog for about a year and a half) thanking me for rerunning it because it was a book she’d never heard of and a niche of a niche of a subgenre she really liked. She immediately bought it. That’s an example of how slow word of mouth can be.

    1. “That’s an example of how slow word of mouth can be.” – exactly. If it’s slow and you make a mathematical model of it you reach the conclusion it would take several millennia to work, so it can’t explain books that reach the top in months.

      1. Actually, it would not take millenia. Please…
        But try this. If referral doesn’t account for those sales… what does?
        The idea that they heard about it from somebody is actually the most parsimonious explanation.

          1. Now ask Hugh Howey the same question.
            And it didn’t take millenia. It didn’t take many, many years.
            You’re thinking backwards. If you want to see what is successful, examine successful books.

    2. And how do you know they’re saying the truth? The problem is that whenever I do the math it doesn’t fit with what they say. I know a lot of tricks I haven’t written articles about. I assume they know some I haven’t found yet.

  5. I think these days its ‘word of the keyboard’ rather than ‘word of mouth’. We tweet, facebook and blog to spread the word about our latest masterpieces. It’s similar to telling your friends in the school playground, just on a different, and more global scale.

    Great article, by the way, but you missed a trick. At least one of your novels ought to have been mentioned in it, casually like, in passing…

  6. I think Lynne Cantwell talked about the number of times a potential customer has to hear about <> before they will give that something a try. So if we take a very slow recommendation method [word of mouth] and multiply the slowness by the number of recommendations needed [6 or 7], and then factor in luck…

    Gah, my head hurts. I can’t do the math but it seems obvious that word of mouth is part of the equation. How big a part is anyone’s guess. The only thing we can say for certain is that over night success is /most/ unlikely. 😀

  7. I’m going to take the unpopular side on this one. Personally, and I know it’s a matter of semantics, I don’t consider book bloggers “word of mouth.” That’s a venue specific to promoting books. I consider word of mouth to be people who know each other recommending books back and forth. Like that stupid shampoo commercial “they’ll tell two friends and so on and so on….” The people are actually supposed to KNOW each other.

    With that as the foundation for my comment, if I look at the READERS I know who have read my books (not the authors – who are wonderful and DO share my book posts), I almost NEVER see them suggesting my books to anyone. Maybe they’ll leave a great review on Amazon. Maybe they’ll send me an email telling me how much they enjoyed it. But never do they post “Wow! I just finished this awesome book by K. S. Brooks and you guys need to go out RIGHT NOW and buy it!” That is what I consider to be the epitome of “word of mouth.” I see people doing it mostly with restaurants, concerts, and movies, where they can post an Instagram with the recommendation. Very rarely do you see people post an Instagram photo of themselves reading a book with the caption “best book ever!”

    Anyway, those are my two cents. Which I got from my last book promo. 😛

    1. I think disagreeing on what counts as word of mouth is the only reason there is anything to discuss here. I think we all agree that me turning to a friend and (with my mouth) telling him or her what I thought of a book qualifies. I think we all agree that an author or publisher paying for an ad to try and sell a book does not. If anyone disagrees with these, speak up. ) Everything in between, opinions differ.

      I think Hugh Howey is a good example of word of mouth working extremely well, even though I think it is only part of the puzzle behind his success. Being a very friendly and personable guy helped. Writing a great book, helped. Having it come out as a serial, in installments helped. I’m sure there are a lot of other reasons.

      I heard (through word of keyboard) about Wool from multiple book loving friends from the 2nd or 3rd installment on, with the numbers increasing as the series progressed and being told again by the same people when the next installment came out. When they’d ask if I’d read it yet, I’d say “no, not my thing.” (I’ve since developed a liking for dystopian, partially due to this, but that’s another story.) Eventually one friend went so far as to gift me a copy of the Wool Omnibus (parts 1 through 5?) when it came out and tell me “you are going to read this.” I did. Loved it. Is this word of mouth so far? Then I reviewed it. (FWIW, when I vet reviewers for the database of indie friendly reviewers at The IndieView, the most common reason for having a book blog I see mentioned is “to tell people what I think about what I read or about the books I love”. It isn’t to help authors promote their books, although that as a side-effect is also good. It isn’t to make bucket loads of money – that doesn’t happen. To an author, a book blog is a promotional opportunity. To the blogger, it’s a megaphone so his or her word of mouth will be louder. To his or her readers, who knows) Then one of my reviewers said, “I keep hearing about Wool and after seeing your review decided I need to check it out. Since my review pushed him over the top, despite hearing about it previously, does that mean it isn’t word of mouth?

      It seems to me that how wide or narrow someone chooses to define word of mouth is going to have a lot to do with how much they perceive word of mouth as accounting for those books that do well.

      1. Okay, perhaps I shouldn’t have said “promoting books” as opposed to “reviewing books.” Oy. 😉 Your points are all good. I’m not sure where the line should be drawn. It begins to get very fuzzy after a certain point.

        1. I think that was the point I was trying to make (assuming I had a point). What constituted word of mouth when I was in high school (twenty bazillion years ago) was literally talking to each other. (“Did you hear the latest Perry Como record. It was the cat’s pajamas.”) Okay, maybe that was when my Mom was in high school, but it didn’t change much by the time I was there other than it being Aerosmith’s latest. Today, it is much more than that. It’s still people communicating their likes and dislikes to one another, but there are a lot of tools at their disposal to help do that and communicate to more people, some who they don’t even know. In some cases, as with the Amazon “also boughts,” the developer of the tool that helps also has a commercial interest, which fuzzes the lines even more.

  8. Um… Pedro, look what you wrote. What else is “the good luck of being mentioned by people who liked what they read ” but word of mouth? What else are “opinions voiced in widely circulated media” but word of mouth?

    I am a reader who rarely purchases for any other reason except through recommendation from others – that’s WOM. My own dozen or so published titles get circulated in much the same manner (I suspect … even though I am guilty of running the odd promotion). Like Big Al says – WOM travels a lot faster and more efficiently nowadays because the tools and means for dissemination of opinions, likes, dislikes, and recommendations are highly sophisticated … but pare them down, and many of them are good old-fashioned WOM.

    1. You split my sentences and they lost their meaning. Please read the whole sentence.
      If a New York Times journalist reads your book and writes a one page feature about it you’ll sell a lot of copies but that’s not WOM.
      Also if you fall on the good side of Amazon’s recommendation algorythm your book will be recommended thousands of times per day and will start selling. The author may think it’s WOM but it isn’t – it’s the algorythm.

  9. I think for me it’s been both so far. Word of mouth was the only promotion I did out of the gate (besides a few cover reveal posts, interviews on blog-friends’ blogs, and Twitter… things that probably lead to interest/exposure, but not a lot of sales). I didn’t pay for promotion, but people loved and recommended the book to enough friends that it showed up on a few smaller Amazon Best Seller lists and Amazon started recommending it as an also-bought and in e-mails. That’s when numbers went up (and reviews started coming in then, too… not sure how they fit in). Judging by sales at other vendors that are probably all due to word-of-mouth, WOM accounts for 1-5 sales a day. The rest is Amazon being amazing and knowing how to sell the things that people are buying. But the fact remains that Amazon never would have noticed my book if not for word-of-mouth recommendations and the resulting purchases. So I’m incredibly thankful for people who do recommend my book to their friends, because it does lead to sales… even when not directly. And I know I’m far more likely to buy and read something that a friend recommended than I am something I saw advertised to me.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  10. I’m really not sure what it takes to succeed in the way that some of the aforementioned books have; one or two of them are good, one or two of them are definitely not so good; the measure of their success has little to do with their literary merit, and that’s for sure. Is there a trick to it? I don’t know, I just know that you have to try what you believe will help, and keep on trying. What else are you going to do? And word of mouth (whatever you call it), someone passing on a good word about your book, can’t hurt.

    Actually, going by one of those “successful” books mentioned, where there were more bad reviews, more people saying that it stank, and in fact that each successive book in the series got progressively worse; however, because people were talking about it (negatively or not) it continued to sell squillions. Go figure! Word of mouth can even sell crap! You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned which book it is. I refuse to contribute to word of mouth for that particular, steaming pile of dog doo doo.

    Oh, by the way, Pedro, excellent, provoking post.

  11. Pedro, You undermined your whole argument when you said that success doesn’t come from word-of-mouth, but rather:

    “having the good luck of being mentioned by people who liked what they read and who either have clout, have their opinions voiced in widely circulated media or are direct influencers of buyers”

    Um… That’s word-of-mouth.

    Comparing it to the much quicker spread of music is nearly apples and oranges. It’s easy to show a song to a friend in a few minutes. You can’t say to a friend, “Hey, read this book really quick and tell me what you think.”

    Good advertising in the right places can also have an impact, but nothing beats a recommendation from someone you know. People do it with restaurants, doctors, movies, plumbers, private schools, etc., etc., and books.

    One could also say that book reviews are a form of word-of-mouth.

    Beyond that, I second everything Kevin McLaughlin said.

    1. “having the good luck of being mentioned by people who liked what they read and who either have clout, have their opinions voiced in widely circulated media or are direct influencers of buyers”

      Um… That’s word-of-mouth.

      No it isn’t, though I admit that paragraph isn’t very well written.
      If a New York Times journalist reads your book and writes a one page feature about it you’ll sell a lot of copies but that’s not WOM.
      Also if you fall on the good side of Amazon’s recommendation algorythm your book will be recommended thousands of times per day and will start selling. The author may think it’s WOM but it isn’t – it’s the algorythm.

  12. I have a few word of mouth books – all loans from friends who recommended them. I bought a recommendation about two weeks ago, the first in a few years. In my own experience, my friends lend me the books they recommend and I do the same by and large. Not exactly what you might call a brisk market.

  13. The poster makes some good points about the differences between WOM for songs and WOM for books. One thing to consider is that the landscape is always shifting and that whatever worked yesterday, might not work today. Howey, for instance, used tags (which Amazon no longer allows) to help his books become more visible. Amazon used to have other features that also helped make some SP books more visible — and helped spread the word. At one point, ebook freebies helped. Now, having the first book free in a series is almost expected. There’s a ton of free content, and unless you are paying to give it away through the use of Bookbub or one of its competitors, no one will even notice the giveaway. WOM has become an expensive and elusive commodity. What it comes down to is this — there are now gazillions of self-published books being uploaded all the time. The chance of any reader randomly finding yours is infinitesimal.

  14. Interesting topic. However, the music “consumption,” is a very different animal from reading. First of all, the material is very short, secondly, it is usually used over-and-over (if enjoyed). Other obvious differences are: reading needs undivided attention, music can run simultaneously. WOM can spread both products, certainly, but the products are very different.

    In my own case, I have one very popular book. Thus-far it has a narrow band of fans that I would love to see expand (of course!). The fans are in two groups, hikers and ham radio enthusiasts. There is a third group that I would love to have pay more attention to it, but have thus-far failed to garner their attention, and I think it goes to the topic of this discussion, Word-of-Mouth.

    The third group is people that have undergone heart surgery, especially bypass surgery. At first I wondered why the first two groups have so enthusiastically taken to the book, and the latter seemed so hard to reach. The reason is obvious: the hikers and ham radio folks communicate on a regular basis, the heart surgery patients, not so much.

    The first two groups belong to clubs, gather online, have outings and events, the patients don’t. Inevitably, the enthusiasts talk about things related to their interests and books are high on that list. The patients are more isolated and are not exactly thrilled about their membership.

    If you, as an author, can find groups to connect with that can relate to your work, you’re golden. Even though my book is written for a more general readership (humorous travel epilogue, centering on hiking, a little ham radio, and something of a memoir) getting that message out across a larger audience is challenging. The book itself is very my along the lines of Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods, and his story has sold millions of copies and I would venture, at least early on, WOM was his most powerful sales tool. I know I got my first copy for that reason, and have purchased many since, as gifts. When his book came out, the publisher gave away something on the order of 5,000 copies, just to generate that WOM interest, and it certainly worked.

    It worked for Bryson because the book is VERY good and for WOM to work, that is a necessary ingredient. Readers get books because they want to be entertained, just as they do for music, but there is much more of a commitment with reading. If you want to create WOM readers, find those target audiences that will spread the word. Now, I just have to figure out how to find all those heart bypass patients…I’m one, you would think I would know!

    1. Very good point. My article may not apply to books that target readerships that traditionally gather in big groups (football fans, etc). Those readers may behave a bit more like music fans. The ratios will still be a lot slower than in music (because reading takes time) but they may be above the required threshold for WoM to work. Also a book about Manchester United, for instance, probably has more photos than text and people don’t really “read” it thoroughly, just peruse it, in which case it will be very much like music.

  15. Pedro,

    I think I can help answer the (really astute) questions raised in your article. I have a mathematical model of how books sales work that I have been refining for the last three years. This model suggests that word of mouth plays a crucial role in the commercial success of “books”. That being said, I’m not sure exactly what your contention is. If you are saying that word of mouth is NOT the essential component to the success of any narrative fiction book, you are completely wrong. If you are saying that word of mouth, in and of itself, is insufficient to create success, you are 100% right.

    “Word of mouth”, which I would define as a reader spreading the good news about (i.e.endorsing) a particular story is absolutely necessary for success, especially for self-published works. [I define “story” as a narrative work told exclusively with words. The dynamics for non-narrative non-fiction is somewhat different.]

    Two critical factors are missing from your analysis. The first is the relative chance of success for each word of mouth interaction, that is, the likelihood that hearer will act on the endorsement. This likelihood will be influenced by a number of parameters, but the most important ones are the rate at which the hearer reads stories and whether the story is appropriately packaged (in this case, I’m referring to the title, the cover, the genre classification, and the story’s “tag line”). A relative small percentage of the population buys and reads most of the stories that are sold. The mega bestsellers are mostly sold to people who buy and read fewer than a half dozen stories a year. The success of all other stories is determined primarily by people who read and buy more than 50 stories a year. The more stories a person reads, the more likely they are to be “in the market” for a story. If the person is “in the market”, their buying decision will be driven by their assessment of the “fitness” of the story for their consumption. That’s where the story’s packaging comes in. If the packaging places the story within a person’s “comfort zone”, the person is far more likely to purchase and read the story.

    When a story starts spreading through a network of avid readers, success doesn’t take millennia. Romance novels by unknown authors become successful with no advertising on a fairly regular basis. There is a large, closely connected network of readers who read a lot of stories and enjoying talking about their latest “find”. Duplicating that with a quirky story of “literary fiction” is almost impossible. The network of readers is smaller, more loosely connected, and more likely to have very individual tastes.

    The second factor that is missing from your analysis is the interplay between “word of mouth” and other methods of bringing stories to the attention of readers. “Word of mouth” is reinforcing with algorithmic success and (intelligent) paid advertising. Breakout success for indie authors like Hugh Howey happen due to a virtuous cycle wherein word of mouth boosts visibility to Amazon’s algorithms which in turn leads to more readers spreading the word about the stories.

    This is a very complex subject made more opaque by the lack of good metrics. Every assertion made above is based on modeling word of mouth as a directed graph on interactions and comparing that to available but highly disparate sources of data. If you have questions about any of the points I’ve made, I’d be happy to go into more detail.

    By the way, I found your article by tracing it back from “The Passive Voice” which picked up a post from “Confessions of a Mystery Novelist” which referred to a post on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s blog which referred to your post. That’s not a bad example of how directed graph networks function.

    1. As soon as I saw your name, William Ockham, I was anticipating being enlightened. I even thought of this post when I saw the post at The Passive Voice you’re talking about. I had no clue it would track back to here. 🙂

    2. Interesting and lots of small details to keep me occupied for a while. Before uploading this article to my blog (this is supposed to be the fourth installment on my “Unorthodox Guide to Self-Publishing”) I had decided to try to improve this article and I have enlisted the help of a mathematician friend of mine. I’m presently waiting for his attempted formula to reproduce all the relevant variables in WoM. I’m curious to see what comes out of his logical mind.
      You state that some genres (like Romance) may behave like my “music model” while others (like quirky Literary Fiction – unfortunately exactly what I write) stand no chance whatsoever in that respect.
      What I argue in my article is that WoM alone can’t work. Personally I think that in most self-published success cases what has happened is that a small amount of WoM has triggered either the backing of Amazon’s recommendation algorythm or some big media backing (New York Times, BBC, whatever) and that’s what makes the book “explode”.
      My second book got into the hands of 26.000+ people in the last 30 days or so through KDP Select free download days. From my own past experience and from chatting with authors in forums and Facebook the ratio of people who actually read and comment on free downloaded books is pathetically low (sometimes as low as 1 Amazon comment per 500 downloaded books). With these ratios WoM is totally irrelevant. But the fact is the book is on 26.000+ Kindles. If the book gets mentioned on “Big Media” suddenly a big chunk of those 26.000 people realize “Hey, I’m pretty sure I have that book on my Kindle” and the ratios jump overnight from 1/500 to God knows what. And after that happens the success ratios of WoM also jump enormously because they are just reinforcing something that people read about in a newspaper or heard on some tv program.
      So for me WoM in literature (in most genres anyway) is a small component that requires a big help from some other source while in music you can have WoM alone creating a hit.
      I worked in the music industry before it mostly collapsed and there were CD’s that became huge bestsellers with zero advertising and no airplay at all – just because of WoM. In some extreme cases when the media finally took notice and kicked in the CD was already Platinum.

  16. Well said. To re-state what you explained, Word of Mouth (WOM) works for (a) fast consumables that (b) are widely consumed. Music, the example you used, and even TV series and movies can be consumed in minutes to hours, not days to weeks as is the case for books. Slower consumption, slower impressions, slower WOM, Secondly — and you were kinder in how you said it — we need to face that readers are a minority among the population when compared, again, to music, TV shows and movies. Among my friends and family I’m sad to say maybe one in five reads regularly. If I can’t even start WOM with them, fat chance. Without wide, pervasive consumption, WOM struggles on yet another level.

    1. Exactly what I think, in a shortened version.
      In the meantime a friend of mine has developed a mathematical model for WoM. I intend to republish this article (revised and expanded) in my blog and I will add the Excel WoM model. If you’re interested in being notified when that happens, just follow the blog:


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