Saturday, September 17, 2005

Booking III

The last two booking posts have been a casual experiment in word-of-mouth book promotion. Today we'll look at the results. I'll play chief lab rat.

People's book recommendations generally have three effects:

1. We read the book.
2. We don't read the book.
3. We can't decide to read or not to read.

In comments on the first booking post, F. O'Brien Andrew got my attention with this statement about This Perfect Day by Ira Levine: "I used to buy all the used copies in every book store I could find then give them away to friends and family."

I do the exact same thing with books I love, so this instantly registered as a true statement to me. F. and I are in tune; we share a common if at times somewhat annoying habit of being book tyrants, and I liked the rest of what he said. Result: I'm reading the book.

Phoenix, I'm going to pick on you for a minute, but only to illustrate result #2. In comments, Phoenix wrote of On the Beach: "Why? Because it's utterly depressing and makes you realize that life isn't that bad."

Two words hit me right away: utterly depressing. Phoenix does add a good save right after with a reason to read it anyway, as it: "...makes you realize that life isn't that bad." Other people enjoy this kind of fiction, but it's hard for me to get through seriously depressing books without becoming depressed myself. Result: I don't want to read this book.

Finally, one of you anonymous posters wrote of Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire: "...a book that makes you question why we did nothing and still do nothing."

To be picky again, I don't know this book or this author, or the subject matter, so this cryptic description doesn't help me get a handle on what it's about. What did we do, or not do? It could be a book about religion, war, civil rights, abortion, slavery, etc. I don't know and I need more information. Result: I'm waffling.

Does a personal opinion = truth? What is true for one person may not be for another; we all experience things individually. F.'s recommended book could be a bomb, Phoenix's recommended book could be a gem, and Anonymous's recommended book could be one I'd put immediately on my keeper shelf. One or more of them could also be exaggerating, downplaying or lying about the book.

The problem is (linguistically speaking) that we unconsciously invest opinions with truth as part of the natural process of comprehension:

"In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of." -- cognitive scientist George Miller

In the end, how much trust and validity we invest in word-of-mouth promotion like this depends on what resonates with us, and how much we're willing to allow that other person's opinions to guide our choices.

Thoughts, comments, wedges of cheese, anyone?


  1. Anonymous1:34 AM

    This is a really interesting way of looking at word of mouth with books.

    And I agree -- the part where someone loves a book so much they actually buy copies to give out to others. I'm like that with certain books, too (coincidentally, a couple of Ira Levin's, but often it's A Kiss Before Dying or what I consider one of the most perfectly written novels -- right up there with The Great Gatsby in terms of "not a meaningless word" -- Rosemary's Baby.)

    I meant to mention a book I've loved for years. The author seems to almost be blackballed in the U.S. because of the flop of this book.

    However, it's my favorite novel written in the past 25 years over and above all others:

    The Power of One by Bryce Courtnay. It just took my breath away and made me want to get back to writing books with the hopes that I can do for someone in a book what Courtnay did in The Power of One.

    I've bought copies for others I don't have a hardcover of it anymore, which saddens me. But I know I'll find one.

  2. I recently got someone to pick up Holly's Talyn book by knowing what she liked to read, having read those books myself (Robin Hobb) and making enough comparisons to tempt her.

  3. Just for information, Dallaire's book is about the massacre in Rwanda. The one where 800,000 people were macheted and burned to death in a civil war/ethnic feud. Dallaire is a Canadian general who was part of the UN peacekeeping contingent there. His calls for more troops were ignored by the UN.
    There was much international finger-pointing between the various countries who had troops on site,etc. I have not read it.

  4. Anonymous10:22 AM

    All opinions are the truth for the one voicing them.

    There is a fourth option for word-of-mouth sales. Someone may not buy a recommended book by a recommended author when told about it, but may become more attuned to the author’s name with repetitive mentions from friends and family. When that happens, every time they hear the author’s name and a book recommendation, they are more likely to buy the book than the time before.

    So, someone who heard about Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby may not have bought the book or started reading the author. But the author's name is in their brain now, logged and flagged as a recommended read. My post may not have been enough to get them to read This Perfect Day by itself, but when tied in with the prior recommendation, it might be enough.

    There is a cumulative effect.

  5. Anonymous10:40 AM

    Completely agree with F. O'Brien Andrew about the cumulative effect of recommendations. (Which is what buzz really is.) If one person is reading a book, you might think about it, but if everyone you know is reading it, there's a good chance you will to. That's how Harry Potter really took off. Cumulative reviews were also a huge part of the success of two recent movies: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," and "March of the Penguins," both of which were low-budget indies with minimal marketing budgets.

  6. I like books recommended to me by people I know read a LOT and eclectically so that I'm not getting a rave 'read this book' by a romance junkie (not that I have anything against romance - but to a romance junkie, anything in the romance genre is terrific - same goes for mystery buffs).
    If I get a recommendation by my bookseller, I will definitely listen (small independant bookshop - great readers) And I rarely read reviews because it's just one person's opinion. I'd rather choose a book by the blurb on the back cover.

  7. I don't mind being picked on. ;-)

    But thinking about how recommendations get through to me. I think some with the best weight for me is when somebody says "I had to read this for a class..."

    I don't know about everybody else, but reading for a class is usually different than going to a bookstore and browsing to something that suits taste. Sometimes you like it sometimes you don't. But how often do you recommend it?

    So when someone I know starts with that it tells me 2 things right away. First is that it is a book that they would never have picked up on their own, and second is that they think it's good enough to give props to.

    It definately catches my attention.

  8. I recommend books all the time, but it doesn't do any good unless the person I tell has the same likes. Bluntly, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.

    Advertising isn't meant to be honest, but to get people to spend their hard earned money. Personally, I don't think that traditional advertising sells books all that well. Most readers know what type of books they want to read. No amount of hype is going to make an avid SF reader suddenly start buying romances.

    What does get readers to change their habits is one hell of an author, especially the authors that take the time to blog or to participate in a forum.

    For example, I read Holly Lisle, including her paranormal romance. I don't see any dyke romance in them, but the story draws me in every darn time. I knew that it would because her blog draws me in evertime I sit at my computer.

    No offense, but I only started reading Stardoc because my gf bought Eternity Row for me. Now, I've bought the first five twice, your other SF in hardcover, Darkyn, and I'm not-so-patiently awaiting Rebel Ice.

    I've never been a fan of fantasy, but I decided to give it a try when I met Wen Spencer in a chatroom over at FM. I have now hunted down a copy of Tinker in hardcover and her Ukiah series.

    Us SF readers, IMHO, tend to be somewhat of technophiles. So, maybe the blogs, forums, etc. will only prove to be so effective for us, I don't know. But, they work.

  9. Most of us, as recommenders on a blog without a vested interest, are not afraid to provide opinions that are going to turn some people off. We will describe books as "utterly depressing." The thing is, a description like "utterly depressing" is far more USEFUL than the contentless blurbs on books that try to persuade you that everyone should like book X.

    And the truth is, there is virtually no book that everyone should like.

    It strikes me that the purpose of marketing should be not to sell as many books as possible, but to get the people who would like the book to buy it--and so it's worth it to be as honest as possible even if it costs you a few sales.

  10. In my former life as a bookseller the art of handselling is about listening to what people are looking for and then trying to find the right fit. Many times recommending titles I like or genres I enjoy is nowhere near appropriate and adjustments need to be made accordingly.

    The sucess of word-of-mouth has much to do with critical mass and generally (not always) works only on new releases. The manufacture and marketing of word-of-mouth is difficult and just as often has the opposite or negative effect.

    When I mentioned Slaughterhouse Five, and when I've handsold it in the past, it was not only for personal reasons but because it covers a lot of territory: It's a sc-fi book shelved as literature; It's a WW2 story mixed with time travel; It's social satire and genuinely moving; It's a classic but it's also fun to read.

    Asking blog visitors to pick and write about one title is fun but it isn't marketing, nor is it word-of-mouth -- it's list-making. Marekters are trolling blogs to get a sense of trends and gain insight into ways to market items to people but the actual sales tactics.

    Perhaps we should have been asked to choose a favorite book and pitch it with the intent of convincing others to pick it up. Would we have picked the same books, and written the same descriptions, if we'd known how they would be analyzed?

  11. Anonymous4:02 PM

    Good thoughts to ponder coming from all directions.

    David Elzey wrote: Perhaps we should have been asked to choose a favorite book and pitch it with the intent of convincing others to pick it up. Would we have picked the same books, and written the same descriptions, if we'd known how they would be analyzed?

    David, your comment sounds a little ticked off, and if my experiment offended you, I apologize.

    To me, word-of-mouth is more about personal feelings of the reader than the deliberate push, pitch and sell. Not everything is a test to see how smart or persuasive you are (although many folks in our industry feel pressured to make certain alliances by supporting group views so that they're labeled as legit, but that's a whole different can of literary bookworms.)

    Sometimes people do talk about they read honestly, without an agenda attached. Most of the time that happens casually, out of the spotlight, without any fuss. I was trying to duplicate that here with my experiment.

    In any case, it's never 100% accurate. When you gather opinions, you have to treat them like the answers to a psych test: some people are always going to say things geared to impress because they are more concerned about how they're perceived than being honest.

  12. My reading tastes tend to be rather odd, finicky and eclectic, so I rarely select a book because of word-of-mouth. Rather, I delight in the hands-on hunt for something that suits me, whether I’m digging through the stacks at the library, fingering books at a bookstore, or even devouring blurbs online. I’ll know it when I see it, and the discovery is sheer bliss.

    Sure, I’ll follow up on personal recommendations, but they rarely pan out. Why? Mostly I read for the sheer joy of escapism, meaning I’ll do anything to avoid dreadfully sad, hopelessly miserable this-is-what-real-life-is-all-about books, and those are the ones most often recommended to me. If I want to be depressed I can pick up the newspaper. I roll my eyes each time I hear (and this is often), “But, Daisy, Oprah recommended it! You should read it.” I make it a habit to stay away from should books. I’m sure most of Oprah’s picks are fine, read-worthy books, but downer books, no matter how poignant or beautifully written, just aren’t for me.

    My reading is usually mood driven, which means that one day I might feel like having the bejeezus scared out me with a grisly horror tome, while on another I may feel the need to delve into some meaningful literary masterpiece (rarely). Most often I seek out fiction of various genres that will have me laughing out loud, because I find it so healing and necessary. Then there are the days when the only satisfying read is something nonfiction, a book that makes me ponder why, or one that makes me drool (like my dog-eared copy of Maida Heater’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts).

    For me, reading, like writing, is powerfully therapeutic. Being whisked away, wholly enveloped in the unique world a writer has created, is such a satisfying and curative adventure.

    As a writer I’m immensely thankful that readers do have such varying tastes, as it gives each of us the opportunity to woo them with our astounding literary brilliance…or not. LOL

  13. When I shove books into people's hands, it's usually because I don't just love the book; I also can match the person's tastes and interests up with a book. My sister was thinking about making a short film based on Joan of Arc, so I sent her Ash: A Secret History, which is a trippy science fictional take on Joan of Arc. (She loved it). I pushed James Tiptree Jr. on my friend who likes feminist science fiction.

    ...And then I sent His Dark Materials to my fantasy-reading teenage sister who had, unbeknownst to me, experiencd a brief conversion to Christianity.


  14. Speaking of promotion that's not really word of mouth, PBW--if you need your blood pressured raised, come over to my blog and read the advice I give for promotion. (I hope you do because I wonder if you'll think any of it is worthwhile.)

    I do try avoid that "You MUST do THIS" mojo.

  15. No. No, no, no. Ticked off? No. (I knew I shouldn't have tried to get that post off as I was trying to get out the door.) My intention was to suggest that the mindset changes when the perameters change.

    For example, when I had a review copy of Maguire's Wicked I shoved it into as many hands as I could. I talked it up so much I had a waiting list of freinds who, by my enthusiasm, couldn't wait for the release. Perhaps counter to the idea of sales, I know, but I was really excited and I know that each of those people spread the word of mouth themselves so perhaps it all worked out the way word-of-mouth should in the end.

    Since then I've become more entranced with Maguire's take on Russian fairy tales called The Dream Stealer. Now, when I meet Wicked fans I stear them toward the children's section where a whole new world of possibility opens up to them.

    I guess I'm coming back to the idea that what we recommend is determined by the individual we're making that reommendation to and the reasons behind it.

    Is that too defensive a stance for a misunderstanding?

  16. Anonymous2:02 PM

    David wrote: Is that too defensive a stance for a misunderstanding?

    Not at all -- and sorry if I put you on the defensive, too. Sometimes it's hard to judge the tone of a comment.

    Kate wrote: Speaking of promotion that's not really word of mouth, PBW--if you need your blood pressured raised, come over to my blog and read the advice I give for promotion. (I hope you do because I wonder if you'll think any of it is worthwhile.)

    Went, read, made comment -- and I think my blood pressure's still okay. ;)

  17. Good comment, too. . . thanks!

  18. Anonymous5:34 PM

    So everyone else knows what we're bantering over, here's a direct link to Kate's post on self-promotion. :)


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