The only thing that has ever sold books is word-of-mouth. A publishing cliche, sure, but one of the few to survive the paradigm-shifting disruption of the Four Horsemen: online selling, ebooks, self-publishing, and the global financial crisis. In other words, I think we can place some stock in it.
Even in this brave new world, word-of-mouth is still the only thing that sells books in any meaningful numbers to readers who don't know you already. But like the ancient Egyptians and the mighty Nile, we have been able to irrigate the previously arid plains of book marketing with its precious waters.
Word-of-mouth: we can simulate it, we can stimulate it, we can mimic it, jumpstart it, and corral it too.
You know when a friend presses a book into your hands and has an intense light in their eyes, an almost cultish fervor, and says, "You must read this. You will LOVE it." (And the unspoken subtext is that you will no longer be friends if you fail both of those tests...)
This is classic word-of-mouth in action - a recommendation from a trusted source. Historically, those trusted sources would be friends, colleagues, teachers, perhaps a high-falutin' critic from a highbrow broadsheet, if that's the kind of thing you enjoyed.
The phenomenon is only different today in the surface details: that trusted source can be an algorithm at Amazon or Goodreads, a book blogger who taste maps your own, bestseller charts at various online retailers, daily emails from BookBub, or a million other things in today's fragmented recommendation ecosystem.
What's particularly relevant is that all these newer expressions of word-of-mouth are a bit more... hackable. And while it can seem a bit hit-and-miss, it's infinitely better than what we had before.
In the old world, all we could hope for was that our agent would win us a big enough advance where we would get treated well. The publisher would print lots and lots of copies. The sales team would schmooze the book buyers and get spots on front tables. The PR team would ensure that galleys went to the right reviewers. And then we would cross our fingers and toes and hope that all that was enough to translate into a critical mass of readers buying and liking and recommending our book to enough other readers to get some momentum going.
It might take months to know if all this effort was a success. Far too much time for a course-change to address failures at any point in the chain... even if the publisher was willing.
And this is the red carpet treatment! Everyone else faced tougher odds.
What has all this to do with social proof? Well, one of the little irrigation channels I spoke about corrals this precious reader-powered word-of-mouth into something less ephemeral than a conversation at a water-cooler.
Reviews on Amazon don't go away, and neither do Likes on Facebook. Today's headlines might be tomorrow's kitty litter, but the internet is like The North - it never forgets. You can sell 10,000 copies in a week and then hit rock bottom, but you'll always be a New York Times bestseller. Sales and money come and go, but social proof only accumulates.
That's why it's important for you, but here's why it's useful for readers: while Amazon's Also Boughts can act as trusted sources to millions of readers, they aren't quite as convincing as your crazy-ass friend pressing that book into your hand.
As readers, we need more of a nudge, so we often scan the product page - or the marketing material we encounter - for more social proof, more signals that the book is good, or the kind of thing we like to read.
This can take the form of reviews - it might surprise you to learn that that the total number of reviews is what is important here, rather than the average score. A bestseller garland is AAA social proof, of course, particularly those from known publications. As is a nice quote from a book blogger, critic, fellow author, or even a plain old Amazon reviewer.
Five hundred Likes on Facebook for your cover reveal is pretty damn effective social proof. We can't help but subconsciously assign importance to something else our fellow humans are acclaiming in such numbers. I spoke about going viral in an email a few weeks ago - and going viral is basically just out-of-control snowballing social proof which becomes a self-propelling monster. Famous because it's famous.
Social proof is such a powerful tool that I recommend being very proactive about optimizing it - no matter what stage you are at in your career.
Bestsellers will need to curate it. Mid-listers will need to manage it. And everyone else will need to generate it.
This can take the form of simple, passive techniques like an enticing review request at the back of your books. Or more complex, hands-on approaches like mirroring engagement across all your Facebook campaigns. It's all worth the effort, especially the simple, set-and-forget stuff.
We'll dive into the details in future emails.
P.S. Writing music this week is a 17-year old Joan Baez.