I was at the William Saroyan Writer’s Conference recently when another presenter–Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup for the Soul fame–told me that I needed to read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. People are always telling me to read this book or that book, but I figured Jack probably knew a thing or two that I didn’t. So I ordered the book and read it on the plane coming and going to sales rep meetings in New York City. I think it was probably good use of what might have been wasted time. In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Gladwell shows that three factors, or "rules" as he calls them, combine to raise an idea, a trend, or a social behavior to a threshold that, when crossed, causes that specific idea, trend, or behavior to spread like wildfire. Gladwell calls these three rules "The Law of the Few," "The Stickiness Factor," and "The Power of Context." His rules may be applied to our industry when we are trying to understand why one book and not another equally good seems to reach the public’s collective consciousness and becomes a best-seller.
The Sticky Stuff & the Current Context
Because it seems basic and is perhaps the most important of the three, let’s skip to Gladwell’s second rule, The Stickiness Factor. This rule suggests that something people hear or learn about a book must be extra-memorable; it must be "sticky." The sticky stuff is often a minor part of the overall message in or about the book. For instance, let’s say that a new biography of John F. Kennedy breaks the story that he had an affair with an intern when he was President. While coverage of the affair is only a small part of this biography, the parallel between JFK and a later President’s affair with an intern may well provide the stickiness required to make this book a best-seller. Gladwell’s third rule, The Power of Context, says the current social environment has to be ripe to embrace a specific principle or concept. As I write this, I have on my desk a book proposal by an airline pilot on what to do if you are a passenger on a hijacked airplane. Undoubtedly the social environment today is more receptive to this book’s subject matter than it would have been prior to September 11, 2001.
The Few People with the Most Power
Gladwell’s first rule, The Law of the Few, states that a few people–the right few people in each instance–have the power to influence a great number of others. The few’s currency is word of mouth, and, as we all know, word-of-mouth publicity is the best type of promotion a book can receive. Gladwell breaks the few into three categories: (1) "connectors," those who know and are able to spread the word to a large number of others; (2) "mavens," whom others look to for advice; and (3) "salesmen," who are capable of persuading others to take some action. In publishing, the few often come in the guise of reviewers who write about the books, booksellers who hand-sell books they like, and the books’ authors.
How the Rules Apply to Books
So how can use this information to help our books reach the tipping point? By keeping all three factors in mind when we are writing and promoting our books. If you are a self-publisher, see what kind of sticky material you can build into your books while you are still writing them. Look for hidden meanings or conclusions that you can amplify. Find and document little-known facts, or, perhaps, say or reveal something scandalous. The idea is to put something in the book that the media and others can latch onto. If you are publishing other people’s work, look for projects that have identifiable stickiness factors. Discuss stickiness with your authors and ask them to try to identify and build stickiness into their manuscripts. If you’re marketing a book that is already written or already published, identify what detail or details about it are likely to be sticky and draw attention to these details in your catalog, back cover copy, news releases, pitch letters, and other promotional material. Take advantage of The Power of Context by selecting topics for your books that are currently prominent in the public’s mind. The Big Seven–money, diet, health and fitness, beauty, relationships, sex, and power–are always good choices for nonfiction, but if you can find a popular but less well mined topic, all the better. Spin or slant your promotional efforts to take advantage of the current social environment. For example, with a nonfiction book on family values, talk about how important mutual family support is when the economy takes a downturn. And finally, take your book to the all-important "few." See to it that appropriate opinion-makers such as reviewers, industry leaders, clergy members, university professors, and other authors who write within the book’s field or genre know about this book. Do this by sending them complementary copies or, at the least, copies of reviews your book has garnered. Obviously, get as many print and Web reviews as you can. Get yourself or your author interviewed on radio and TV shows. Augment all that with speaking engagements at every bookstore and to every group from which you can wrangle an invitation. There is bound to be a connector, a maven, or a salesperson in each audience who will become a word-of-mouth warrior on your book’s behalf. Reaching the tipping point isn’t necessarily easy, but whose books deserve it more than yours?