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What Makes a Book Go Viral? Goodreads Tried To Find Out

What makes a book spread virally? Book publishers are obsessed with that question. Not surprising since their business depends on selling as many books as possible.

Publishers have an arsenal of tactics that they use to help stoke interest in a book:

Book reviews – traditional book reviews and digital book reviewers/book bloggers. Do reviews sell book? It’s hard to track that empirically.

Reading group outreach – publishers routinely contact book groups about new books. And, many authors conduct Skype interviews with book groups.

Advertising – Buying paid ads either in print publications or online ads.

Publicity – Beyond book reviews, trying to get the author interviewed for profile articles or interviewed on radio/TV. The Daily Show’s author interviews have vaulted more than one title from obscurity to the bestseller lists.

Goodreads, the popular books/reading social network, recently tried to quantify the growth of interest in one book across their network – The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

Power of Habit

While the resulting study is obviously very Goodreads centric and not a comprehensive study of a book’s virality across multiple channels, it’s still interesting.

Several key things that Goodreads reported:


Readers discover books in a number of different ways.
 All these elements of discovery work together and amplify each other over time.

It pays to start early. Random House ran three different giveaways to generate advance reviews, which resulted in both Goodreads editorial coverage and a placement in the Goodreads recommendation engine.

Well-timed ads are crucial. The ad campaign, while not timed to the publication date, provided a nice boost at just the right moment, feeding the energy the publicity and marketing efforts had created earlier in the book’s life.

Word of mouth is the foundation. The red and orange areas represent people hearing about the book somewhere other than Goodreads or hearing about it from their friends on Goodreads. Notice how those two areas are present throughout the life of the book. They mirror the bigger moments in the book’s promotion, spiking during the media mentions and the advertising campaign, but they are always there providing that “buzz” that gives a book staying power.

Here’s a slideshare deck about the Goodreads study:

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