The Era of Instant Word-of-Mouth
November 19, 2009

So, lately I've been thinking a lot about Stephen King's Under the Dome. Not just because at 1,100 or so pages and three-and-a-half pounds, it kind of sits there like the guilty weight of all the things left undone in one's life. And not because I intend to read it when I have a spare month or three. No, more I've been thinking about it because of the flap copy on the jacket.There isn't any.Aside from the price and the usual gibberish publishers must slap on jackets, the flaps are as empty and clean as a newborn's conscience. On the front and spine are the author and title, the always-weird designation "A Novel," the publisher, and nothing else.At first, on seeing this, I thought, Whoa, that's nervy! Kudos! But later I realized: The book doesn't need flap copy. That's very rarely how books are sold these days, and in the case of a monstrous new Stephen King novel, flap copy is beside the point. Because we already know who he is (he has been doing this for a while), and, if we care, we already know what the book is about. How do we know this? The web, obviously. It has changed book-buying irrevocably, not just in terms of retailing, but in terms of customer behaviors.Not all that long ago, I bought many of the books I read based on a combination of factors—did I like the author? did the cover copy sound groovy? was the cover itself cool? did the gog-eyed twerp who worked the register at Circus Bookshelf recommend it? This is how I stumbled upon tons of good stuff as well as a lot of not-quite-good stuff. But nowadays, thanks to constant grazing on Facebook and Goodreads and various blogs and on and on, I go into the bookstore with preconceived ideas of just about every single book I see. And the ones I know nothing about? Those I barely see at all.Word of mouth—or word of net as the case may be—appears to be everything (short of an Oprah appearance). In fact, thanks to the web, we live in an era when word-of-mouth is much more powerful than just about any other factor in getting a book to sell. Is this the new model for how we buy books? Has browsing been reduced to the smallest of inducements for why we buy? If so, then the only way many books will succeed it in the marketplace is through quality—or instead, we'll call it "delivering the goods"—whether those goods are literary quality or some other story goods a la Twilight.I suspect this instant word-of-mouth world has been instrumental in killing the midlist in bookstores. Those so-so novels with their modest aims? They used to benefit enormously from readers browsing and not knowing what they were looking for. But because so few of us do that nowadays, those midlist books don't stand a chance.The implications for new writers are daunting. If your novel doesn't get talked about in an ohmygodyouhavetoreadthis sort of way, you're in trouble. Word will get out almost instantaneously about whether your book is great or just so-so, and the greatest flap copy and cover won't be able to save it. Even with a big marketing push, you can only count on that initial bump of people you've duped into picking you up and giving you a try. But you won't be able to count on career growth, because readers don't keep coming back to writers who suck, and they don't talk up bad books they've read. (Just ask G.P. Taylor, the writing vicar who gave us the execrable Shadowmancer. Many people bought that first book, but only a teeny tiny fraction bought the many novels he's published since.)Is this an oversimplification on my part? Why do you buy the books you buy? When is the last time you purchased a book about which you knew nothing until the moment you picked it up in the store? Does that even happen anymore?