Word of Mouth

Recently twelve Book View Café writers participated in a Giveaway in a no-cost effort to try to reach new readers. On the last day, I asked here (mirrored here) how people discovered new books—if they liked newsletters, giveaways, publicity blitzes, etc.

No surprise that most people learn about, and trust, word of mouth over PR blitz, newsletter spamming, and of course the constant flow of Tweets and Facebook exhortations to “Buy my wonderful book!”

But I’ve discovered over the past couple years that telling each other that, yes, word of mouth is the best so get busy and spread that word, is a little like telling people they ought to be grateful: it tends to spark either indifference, impatience, a helpless sort of “When will I get the time?” or “Where do I begin?”—and of course irritation at yet another internet obligation.

For a time a year or two ago everywhere you looked there were these well-meant lists, especially about overlooked female authors, meant to give exposure to overlooked writers. A friend of mine, who is pretty upfront, said at in a panel last year, “Does anyone actually do anything besides scan those lists of fifty or a hundred names? Or am I the only one who looks at those lists only to see if mine is on it?”

The room erupted into laughter, and someone else admitted to dutifully reading the list until they came to an author whose work they couldn’t stand, at which time they felt justified in clicking away, because of course everything that came after would be as worthless. Some said they counted up how many they didn’t know against how many they knew, then moved on; a couple people said they dutifully made lists of new names to check out, then never got around to checking them out. Or checked out the first name, discovered the writer wrote in a subgenre they didn’t read, and chucked the list.

Pretty much everyone agreed that such lists, while well intentioned, don’t actually tell us anything about why the author is good, or what kind of book it is and why it stands out. When people get enthusiastic about a book over at Goodreads, posting a bunch of blinking GIFs followed by emoji signaling flails, or breathless superlatives, I click away because those GIFs hurt my eyes, and the emoji and superlatives about the author don’t actually tell me anything. But if the enthusiastic reader tells me what about the book got them excited, I read on to see if their taste aligns with mine.

I read very widely, and am always on the lookout for interesting books—biographies (about to start a new one about Hannibal after I finish a riveting, excellent memoir about refugees at the end of WW II ) and histories, historicals and space opera, romance and classics. Essays and letters, satire and fantasy.

It’s almost easier to say what won’t get me to open any book (basically the three H’s, horror, humiliation, and hectoring), but this is a post about the kind of book discussion that snags my readerly eye.

I need a good dose of Humor. From my earliest age I have had the least amount of resistance to the prospect of laughter, even if it’s subtle, or emerges seldom, contrasting to scenes of intensity. An endless dose of grim, or manufactured angst (wherein the characters are stupid in order to keep the conflict going) is going to lose me.

I used to be apologetic about the need for laughter in my fiction. (Non-fiction is a different matter.) I’m not anymore.

The critic Lionel Trilling wrote half a century ago:

. . . nowadays even the literate reader is likely to be unschooled in the comic tradition and unaware of the comic seriousness.

 The distinction between the serious and the solemn is an old one. . . Stendhal believed that gaiety was one of the marks of the healthy intelligence.

We suppose that there is necessarily an intellectual “depth” in the deep tones of the organ; it is possibly the sign of a deprivation—our suspicion of gaiety in art perhaps signifies an inadequate seriousness in ourselves. A generation charmed by the lugubrious . . . is perhaps fleeing from the trivial shape of its own thoughts.

If I am not reading for purposes of research, or for enlightenment, but for entertainment, I want to put the book down in a good mood. So word of mouth that promises that reading experience is going to catch my eye.

Agency is another quality that is likely to draw me in: the ability of the protagonists to do something about whatever conflict they are in is going to make me curious, and if the story presents agency with wit and style, then I’m likely to be a dedicated reader.

For example, right here at BVC, Sara Stamey’s taut thriller The Ariadne Connection mixes action, science, and a splash of the numinous in the brilliantly evoked setting of Greece. James A. Hetley’s atmospheric fantasy thriller Ghost Point, set on the coast of Maine, gives us complicated heroes to root for. And Kristine Smith’s emotionally and physically damaged Janni Killian is another hero with agency in the first of the vivid, high-octane SF series, Code of Conduct.

In all of these, intrigue plays a part, giving the reader situations in which what the characters know, what the author knows, and what the reader knows are all different, and revelations are cleverly worked out so that I can’t predict who will know what when, why, and how.

These are all very tautly written, veined with humor, the emphasis on agency, but they are decidedly at the intense end of the scale. At the other end of the gaining-agency scale, light-hearted and lots of humor are always going to reach me, such as in the new series coming out by Jennifer Stevenson, the Coed Demon Sluts. This fantasy series is sheer wish fulfillment, amid much laughter, but also hits home for female readers who connect with characters who have lost their sense of agency.

The first novel, Beth, now on preorder (and free until the end of the month) concerns a housewife who has faithfully done her best, hits middle age to find herself dumped. Not just dumped but robbed of everything, most importantly her self-respect. Beth is recruited by the Pitchfork Brigade, or as they style themselves now, the *kaff* Regional Office, which comes with Powers.

Though the book is sheer fantasy, the situation is grounded in reality–someone close to me is going through the exact same scenario as Beth, at age sixty. I read this book in draft and advanced reader copy, and loved it. Sometimes agency comes with a huge dose of therapeutic wish-fulfillment. Emphasis on the therapeutic. I am giving my friend a copy of this book for her next birthday; her tastes align with mine, and I think it will be immensely satisfying. 

Completely different in mood, setting, and approach, is another new fantasy series about to launch in a couple of days, Melissa McShane’s Convergence series, the first book, The Summoned Mage, being only 99 cents.

Sesskia, a mage forced to become a thief as mages are forbidden in her country, finds herself sucked into a kind of parallel world. As she struggles to find her way in an increasingly dangerous situation, we learn about magic, paradigms—friendship and love—along with her. This series of three books is really one story, which is why I am glad that the author has chosen to release all three at once, rather than make readers wait for the succeeding volumes.

Lindsay Buroker is about to release Stolen Legacy,  a new entry in her space opera series Sky Full of Stars, that began with The Rogue Prince. I love this series for the banter, and for the agency of the young characters as they tackle crazy situations as well as the big questions in a troubled world.

All of these are the sort of books released by authors who do not have big publicity budgets, so they depend on word of mouth.

I am very much in the same boat; my co-author, Rachel Manija Brown, and I recently released the third book in our postapocalyptic series The Change, called Rebel, (right here at BVC  or at Amazon), with, of course, a gigantic publicity budget of $000,000,000.00) Adventuring teens with powers! Diversity! Weirdness! Adults who are not stupid!

We all depend on readers talking to other readers about our books. So in this post, I’m trying to talk about why I like the books I am reading (or, um, writing) now so that others whose tastes might align with mine can take a look.

Please jump in—talk about discoveries of your own here, and what the appeal is, even if you only have time for a couple of lines.




Word of Mouth — 21 Comments

  1. Speaking of word of mouth, you just sold me on trying The Ariadne Connection and Coed Demon Sluts: Beth. It did help that the first one is currently only 99¢ and the second is free.

    The cover on The Ariadne Connection is terrific. The one on Coed Demon Sluts makes it look very unlike my kind of book; I doubt I would have gone for that one if it weren’t free.

      • It’s probably going to be a while before I get to them. A bunch of my library reserves came through this week, I have galleys to review, and I just downloaded the Hugo packet. It’s a nice problem to have, but it does push everything else back a ways.

    • Thanks, Aileen, for checking out The Ariadne Connection. (I’m late getting to this blog, though I hardly ever miss one of Sherwood excellent posts!) I’d love to hear what you think.

  2. I do look over lists if I’m interested in the organizing rubric, and I will add titles that sound intriguing to my to-read list. I like shorter lists better than longer ones; I’ll actually read the blurbs about the books if the list is only five books long, whereas if it’s 50 or 100 books long, I’ll only glance at it here and there.

  3. Something that had iritated me for a long time is goodreads “readers also enjoyed” and “listopia” – in theory both those should be tools to help readers find good books to read but in reality the “readers also enjoyed” is usually just books released around the same time in a broad genre – so its really no different than looking up “fantasy books” and thinking that because I enjoyed one I will enjoy all fantasy books.

    Listopia is even worse because its done by readers – ideally if the title is secondary fantasy with court manners – you could get a tight list of 10-15 books that strictly apply however it seems that people add hundreds of books that (again) are only slightly related and you have to weed through to get what you are looking for. (And I could go off on a rage for people who create lists based on the covers – “covers with girls in blue dresses” – are you serious?! – who is this helping?!)

    However I do enjoy reading goodreads reviews both by authors and bloggers whose taste I have come to respect – so I follow a few people and especially if more than one raves about a particular book I will read it.

    • Part of the problem with listopia is the many, many ringers: writers who get a bunch of friends to invent lists with their books at the top, or go around adding their books to various lists if they are even vaguely related. I don’t ever read listopias because that pool has thoroughly been polluted.

      I bet anything the “covers with girls in blue dresses” are kids.

      • Or people looking for a book they read once and can only remember the cover.

      • Or just pump them up with false identities. It’s the goodreads members that exist only to vote up one book that are a bit obvious.

    • It’s interesting to look at a “also enjoyed” and notice, sometimes, that you are the “readers” in question.

  4. I think WOM is very dependent on the knowledge of a person’s taste. I like things for example that I know Sherwood won’t, but I can also guess pretty accurately what she would like because I am familiar with her.

  5. Sherwood, somehow I managed to miss this post when it came out. THANK YOU for mentioning The Ariadne Connection!! I so appreciate the support of my fellow authors.