Word of Mouth advertising: inexpensive and unmeasurable

Whenever someone takes the time to tell me they enjoyed one of my books, I make sure two things are part of my reply. First, I say, “Thank you,” because it’s the proper response. The second thing I say is, “Tell your friends.”

There are many forms of paid and unpaid advertising the self-published author can use. Compared to the advertising big corporations can afford, all of these forms reach relatively few people. Yet, even for a large publisher, paid advertising would not be enough to carry a book to success. Never can enough people be influenced by paid advertising alone. If people who enjoy a book don’t talk about it, the book will not reach its potential.

Word of mouth is one of the most handy marketing tools available to the micro-publisher. It’s free and nothing carries more influence with readers than the opinions of trusted friends. The problem with word of mouth is it’s difficult to measure.

Easiest to gauge are the people you know, and even this is not so simple. Sometimes people who have enjoyed my books will ask to buy an autographed copy to give to a friend. This is an easy tally for word of mouth. You can mark it down, and it’s already sold you an extra book. Outward from here, things get murky. People may tell you they loved your book, but it’s usually hard to know if they’ve told that to anyone besides you.

Get the word out

“Hey fellas, let me tell you about this great book I just finished! After that, maybe we can go put out a fire.” (Image: Gordon Parks/US Farm Security Administration)

You don’t want to grill them about the number of people with whom they’ve shared their enjoyment of your work, because you don’t want to become that author. They just wanted to be entertained; they didn’t expect there would be homework. So you don’t ask, because you want them to remember their enjoyment, not that you robbed them of it by leaning on them to pimp your book.

It is always gratifying to hear that somebody enjoyed your book, but it can be frustrating not knowing if that enjoyment is being translated into any meaningful word of mouth. Once you come to terms with the fact that there will never be a good way quantify the number of times satisfied readers recommend your book, you can focus on the positive. Your hard work has resulted in a book people are enjoying. That’s a big deal because it’s the first prerequisite for successful word of mouth advertising.

Even though you can’t know the number of personal recommendations of your book, you do have the power to increase that number by continuing to work hard to promote your book. The more people you reach, the more people they, in turn, will reach.

You have to trust your readers. You’ve worked hard to interest them and touch their emotions in some way. If you’ve done it well, they’ll share it. But it’s not a breach of faith to drop in a polite, “Tell your friends,” after showing gratitude for a compliment.

Let the suckers write while you get rich

I was scrolling through the updates of friends on Facebook. You know, the odd bits that show up occasionally, between all the ads and the updates by people you don’t recall knowing. Posts by people I don’t think I know perplex me, but I don’t usually pay attention to the ads. Months ago, I clicked on one for a chance to win five bottles of premium scotch. It countered my tradition of not clicking ads, but come on, scotch!

This time, my eye was drawn to an ad about Kindle publishing, a topic of interest to me.

It touted a how-to guide for getting rich publishing on Kindle.

I didn’t click the ad, so I can’t say exactly what was being offered. Based on the image of two guys who looked like they could also teach you how to count cards in Vegas, I doubt it was about how to increase Kindle sales for the book you poured your heart and soul into.

For the self-published author, who wants to write, publish, and sell a quality product that he has invested countless hours into making as good as he can make it, ads like this are a problem.

There aren’t gatekeepers on Kindle (Nook, iTunes, etc.). On balance, this is a good thing. It creates a truly free market, with no one standing in the way of anybody else’s success. But it is also a land of opportunity for those who would make a quick buck without regard to how their actions affect the rest of the market.

Just sell it.

“Chief Talking Bull’s miracle elixir will make any trash you publish on Kindle worth its weight in gold.” (Image: Marion Post Wolcott/US Farm Security Administration)

People using Kindle as a get-rich-quick scheme are not pursuing the dream of making a name for themselves in the literary world. They are pursuing easy money. By throwing up on Kindle whatever comes to hand and using marketing tricks to sell it, they cheapen the brand. Customers looking for satisfying reading experiences are likely to become skeptical of the medium and unwilling to trust any author who is unknown to them.

I don’t know how Amazon feels about these make-a-quick-buck publishers. In the short run, Amazon profits from their sales. In the long run, they could turn Kindle publishing into a wasteland. It is Amazon’s right to allow whatever they want on their system. It is everyone’s right to get rich by whatever legal means they choose. I would not abridge either of those rights.

Yet, I’m disappointed when I hear Kindle customers say they will only download content from familiar authors or well-known publishing companies. That cuts out a lot of authors who have worked hard toward their goals. We’re just looking for a shot, and we’re probably not as slick at sales as the hit and run content providers. When their material gets chosen we lose, and when it turns a customer off to independently published material, we lose again.

Maybe the ad I saw really was for authors who take their work seriously. I hope so. Even if it was, there are many that aren’t.

What can we do about it? Not much. Not anything besides working to put out the best quality product we can, in hopes of winning one more customer over to independently published books.

Be careful where you step; there’s misunderstood artistic genius everywhere

Accepting criticism of your work in a positive manner comes in two distinct levels. The first level is reacting graciously. This means saying thank you to the critic for taking the time to provide feedback, even when that feedback seems harsh or off point. This is not easy to do, the first time that stinging critique comes back. But any writer who refrains from beginning his reply with the words “Your Mama . . .” is on the right track.

This level of positive response gets easier, until it becomes second nature. That’s good, because (a)getting into a screaming match with a critic never improves a writer’s image, and (b) this is the easier of the two levels.

The harder level happens within the writer’s own mind. Have you ever received a disappointing review and immediately thought, “They just don’t get what I’m trying to do here.” on your way to politely saying thank you out loud?

The harder level is reached when you don’t allow yourself to think that.

It’s very difficult sometimes, but it is key to better writing.

I'm so misunderstood

“They just don’t get what I’m trying to do here!”

The publishing delays I experienced with A Housefly in Autumn allowed me to enter it into consecutive ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) competitions. I achieved different levels of success, with a wide array of feedback.

One year, both judges of my 5,000 word excerpt were overwhelmingly laudatory in their comments. The next year, both judges (different people each year) had reservations. Their reservations were about the language used. It just so happened that the language was one of the foremost things “I’m trying to do here.”

I knew the language would be somewhat unusual to the contemporary reader. I hoped it would add some old fashioned charm to match the setting of the story. Since it wasn’t an issue the first year, I began to feel more confident about my choice.

My confidence was misplaced. Even though one of the second year judges admitted that the language grew on him/her, and that the excerpt turned out to be one of his/her favorites, the language was still an issue.

Having won two of four judges, and eventually converted the third, it would have been easy for me to discount the fourth judge’s opinion and bury it under the “They just don’t get what I’m trying to do here.” mantra. In fact, that is just what I was sorely tempted to do.

It would have been a big mistake.

That fourth judge is not just a single person. Judge #4 represents thousands of potential readers. Potential readers are not so easy to come by, and if a quarter of them find the writing awkward from the start, that’s a big loss.

Also, keep in mind that these judges were committed to reading the entire excerpt, regardless of their first impressions. In the real world, the third judge likely would have given up on the book before it had a chance to win him/her over and become a favorite.

That means that half of the potential readers probably would have put the book down because the language didn’t suit them. It would grow on none of them, because they would stop reading. This criticism had to be taken seriously.

If two of four judges “just didn’t get what I was trying to do here,” it was because I wasn’t doing it right. It’s not the reader’s responsibility to figure out my motives. It’s my job to entertain the reader, and not let my motives get in the way of that.

It's not your audience's job to figure out the secret genius to your art.

It’s not your audience’s job to figure out the secret genius to your art. That could take a lot more time than they have to spend.

It was time to go back to work. It was time to reassess “what I’m trying to do here.”

“What I’m trying to do here,” first and foremost, has to be to engage and entertain the reader. If not that, nothing else happens.

In order to do this, the language needed to be modified. It wasn’t as difficult as I feared. A word change here, a slightly different phrasing there, could alleviate the awkwardness to the contemporary reader without compromising the cohesion of the language to the story.

There may still be some readers who find the writing awkward. There’s always the danger of that. I go forward knowing that I did my best to move my motives out of the way of the story while preserving the story I needed to tell.

For that, I am thankful for the judges who “just didn’t get what I was trying to do here.”