PUBLISHED MARCH/APRIL 2019
by Mark Coker, Founder, Smashwords —
Here, Mark Coker explains how to make your book market itself by tweaking your viral catalysts
Note: This is an excerpt from Smashwords’ Smart Author Podcast, episode 12, hosted by Mark Coker.
Most of your new readership will come from readers who weren’t originally looking for your book but somehow stumbled across it. Maybe they were looking for a book like it. Maybe they weren’t even looking for a book but found your book on the path to somewhere else. Now imagine your book as a stationary beacon hidden in the forest of millions of other books. How can you equip your book to continually transmit its location and attributes so that those who might enjoy it can find it even if they’re not looking for it? This is what I mean by autopilot marketing.
One tip is to tweak and iterate your viral catalysts. We would all love to identify the single magic bullet that helps propel our books into bestseller-dom. There’s no such thing. The truth of the matter is to become a bestseller, you must do many things right while avoiding the mistakes that can undermine your long-term opportunity. In my free e-book, The Secrets of Ebook Publishing Success, I identify the best practices of the most successful authors. I also introduce the concept of the viral catalyst. A viral catalyst is anything that makes your book more available, more accessible, discoverable, desirable, enjoyable, and sharable.
The viral catalyst concept creates a framework through which you can identify the many magic bullets necessary to reach readers. You’ve probably heard people talk about viral videos or other things going viral. Like the common cold, these things pass from one person to another by word of mouth. You want your book to go viral. Once you reach your first reader, you want your reader to love the book so much they buy all your other books and then they enthusiastically recommend your books to all their friends. In this way, your book starts with one reader and spreads to many.
This concept of virality has a simple but powerful math component to it. If on average each reader you earn was to convince two more readers to buy it, you would reach hundreds of thousands of readers in a matter of months. You can test this by pulling out a calculator, typing in two times two and then press the equal sign 19 times. You’ll see that after 19 iterations, you’ve reached over a million readers.
I’m a big fan of the TV series Game of Thrones. I’ve probably personally persuaded at least five friends to watch it who previously were reluctant to watch it. I watch other shows that I enjoy for which I’m less passionate, and for those I don’t go out of my way to recommend them to anyone. You want every reader to be transformed by your book so they become a passionate evangelist. This is how sleeper hits from previously unknown authors come out of nowhere to hit The New York Times Best Seller list. It doesn’t happen to everyone. For most good books, and even those that do go viral for a period of time, eventually viral decay sets in and the book spreads slower and slower and slower until it stops.
Maybe the book taps out its potential available market, or maybe enthusiasm wanes for some reason. The viral catalyst concept is one of incrementalism. Consider the chain of what needs to happen before a reader can discover and purchase your book. First, they need to become aware of it. Then they need reason to desire it. Then they need convenient access to it. Once they find the book, their desire must stay strong and they need to be able to afford it, buy it and read it. With every link in this chain, there’s potential friction that could break the chain. A reader could hear great things about the book, search for it, but then when they see the cover, they’re turned off by it, or they might see a typo in the book description, or the price is too high or too low, or the book’s not available in their favorite store.
In order for a book to go viral and spread from one reader to another, each reader’s enthusiasm for the book must pass to another reader. They need to infect another reader to the point that this new reader completes the same gauntlet that starts with awareness and ends by spawning yet another, more enthusiastic word-of-mouth reader who then spreads it to the next reader and the next reader and so on and so on. If one reader becomes less than one new reader, the book dies, but if one reader becomes another reader, your book goes viral.
Think of your book as an object, and attached to this object are dozens of dials you can twist, turn, and tweak to make your book more discoverable, accessible, desirable, and enjoyable to readers. These dials and knobs are your viral catalysts. Many of the best practices we’ve been discussing in the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide are viral catalysts. You’re in control of these viral catalysts. Every decision you make will impact the virality of your book. Examples of viral catalysts could be a better cover image, a better price, better editing, broader distribution, a better book description, better categorization, or, brace yourself, a better book. There are many more that I haven’t mentioned.
The opposite of a viral catalyst is anything that creates friction that breaks the chain of virality. The previous case study I shared about R. L. Mathewson showcased how this extremely talented, five-star romance author hit The New York Times Best Seller list simply by upgrading her cover image. Her previous cover image was creating unnecessary friction that prevented readers from taking a chance on her book. Once that was removed and she created a cover that made the appropriate promise to her readership, her sales took off.
If you can identify and minimize all points of friction, you have a much better chance of reaching more readers, but to do this, it requires an open mind and a keen sense of self-awareness. You must be capable of recognizing where your book is falling short. If you pay special attention, your readers and prospective readers through their actions or inactions will give you clues as to whether or not your book’s viral catalysts are resonating with readers.
For example, if you’re averaging five-star reviews but sales are low, it’s probably a problem with the cover, the book title, the description, or the price, but if your reviews average three and a half stars out of five, that’s a sign that reader satisfaction is the problem. Your readers enjoy your book but not enough to evangelize it. The likely solution here is either a major revision of the book or possibly better categorization–or maybe both and more.
Several years ago, I wrote a blog post over at the Smashwords blog that provided tips on how authors could do an honest self-assessment of your book’s situation. That post is titled “Six Tips to Bring Back Your Book from the Doldrums – Reading Reader Tea Leaves.” One great characteristic of indie e-books is that they are dynamic living creatures. As you develop your skills as an author and publisher, you have the ability to fine-tune your viral catalysis over time until you get the formula just right so that one reader becomes another. All the tips you’ve learned in this section on autopilot marketing as well as everything else covered in this book will help you get that much closer to achieving this end.
Mark Coker is the founder of Smashwords, a global distributor of indie e-books. His three free books on e-book publishing–The Smashwords Style Guide, The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, and The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success–have been downloaded more than 700,000 times and are considered essential references for e-book publishing best practices. To learn more, visit @markcoker and blog.smashwords.com.