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The secret of a bestseller? Why word of mouth beats algorithms

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How do readers find the books they love? Every year, the bestseller lists feature celebrity memoirs and works by dazzling and established literary stars — but also reader-driven surprises, from Sarah J Maas’s romantic fantasy series, including A Court of Thorns and Roses (2015), to Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry (2022), featuring a woman chemist in 1960s Southern California who faces misogyny but has a runaway success with a television cooking show. 

No algorithm can explain or predict what will become a word-of-mouth success — and though publishers and readers benefit from the determination of readers to fully back a particular book, author or genre, they can’t explain it either. Last year, a quiet mountaineer, teacher and journalist, Cédric Sapin-Defour, found that he had become a bestselling writer with Son odeur après la pluie (“His smell after the rain”), a lovely, thoughtful book about the relationship between dogs and humans, sparked by his grief after he lost his Bernese mountain dog, Ubac. 

Rather than through newspaper articles or Amazon algorithms, I discovered Ubac and Cédric after several friends in Europe told me that I must, I absolutely had to, read this book — which I duly did (through the French audiobook version). There is nothing more evangelical than a reader who truly loves a book: they will start by quoting their favourite bits, tell you to get to the nearest bookshop, and end by buying copies for everyone they know. And that is what makes word of mouth such an incredibly powerful force in the uncertain business of publishing. 

Claire Keegan credits readers with the phenomenal success of her short novel Small Things Like These, shortlisted for the Booker and other prizes and now a film. “A lot of the sales went through word of mouth,” the acclaimed Irish writer told The Guardian. “A lot of people bought the book for other people for Christmas.”

It was also readers who discovered JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and who turned the romance novelist Colleen Hoover into a publishing powerhouse (and forced publishers to pay more attention to the thriving business of romance in general); and it is readers who make books such as debut novelist Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures (2022) — featuring an octopus called Marcellus that helps a struggling young man to find a new perspective on life — into bestsellers. 

According to Canadian reading expert Danielle Fuller, a professor of English at the University of Alberta, most readers see “bestsellers” as a category created by publishing for marketing purposes — for them, reading is a community act. Confronted by too much choice, they shift between offline and online fandoms, forums and spaces ranging from Instagram to TikTok, seeking trusted recommendations. “Uncertainty about what exactly is being signalled by the bestseller badge is the reason many [readers] trust the assessments and reviews of other readers, especially if the recommendation is from a friend,” Fuller writes in her 2023 book Reading Bestsellers (co-authored with DeNel Rehberg Sedo).

The first reference to “word of mouth” was, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Bishop Reginald Pecock’s 15th-century clerical page-turner The Book of Faith, where he notes that the holy faith must have been taught “bi word of mouthe”, passing from “oon to an other” down the ages.

But this passing from “oon to an other” doesn’t obey modern-day established publishing cycles, where a book must achieve success within three months to a year after publication. Sometimes, like those Spotify playlists where 1970s hits by The Who, Queen or The Rolling Stones sweep BTS and Gojira off the top of the charts, the ripple effects left in the wake of a great book take a while to spread.

In 2013, Milkweed Editions published Braiding Sweetgrass, a collection of essays by the then unknown American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer that, after a slow start, went on to become a much-loved bestseller. “It found its audience relatively slowly,” the book’s publisher Daniel Slager explained in a newspaper interview in 2020, adding that every year, its sales had doubled — a steady and rare climb up the charts over several years. Kimmerer received ever more letters from readers. “And so the book was being passed hand to hand, almost as a kind of recognition of shared values,” she said.

Algorithms haven’t worked well for me in terms of discovery, perhaps because they insist on sending me more of what I already have or know. I prefer the wisdom of crowds. Even the most perfect algorithm might never get it right, because readers are an eclectic bunch — when you say “you must read this book”, you want everyone else to share in your sense of surprise and delight. 

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