For Writers

Psst… Pass it on! The Power of Word of Mouth and MG Books

Just the other day I was enjoying a delightful scoop of ice cream at a breezy cafe here in Barbados when I saw something that made me shudder and nearly drop my cone on the tile floor…

A Silly Bandz.

I have to admit, I was sure (ahem, hoped), I’d left this fad far behind when my family departed the States last summer. (Now, just in case you’ve been living under a rock the last year, Silly Bandz are those annoyingly cute little rubber band bracelets shaped like guitars, unicorns, French fries, your Aunt Gertrude.) What is amazing about these things is that without one lick of advertising, they’ve become an international craze — creeping up the arms of elementary, middle and even high-schoolers, wrapping themselves around vacuum cleaner brushes, hiding themselves in couch cushions, terrorizing teachers and essentially threatening world domination. Pretty soon we won’t be able to see our children anymore. They will just be walking wads of silicone.

Scary, huh?

So now that you’re stuck hiding in the corner, you may wonder what on earth some innocuous palm-tree shaped bracelet on the arm of a ‘tween in Bim has to do with MG books? (And if maybe poor Jan needs to spend a little less time in the sun.)

Well, just take a look at this nifty little graph that charts book awareness by generation, courtesy of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab and the Publishing Trends newsletter:

Yep, more than any other generation, kids rely on word of mouth to learn about books.

Now, let’s take a look again at our friend the Silly Bandz. No Super Bowl commercials. No flashing displays in the front of Toys R’ Us. Hannah Montana doesn’t hawk them. Still, I dare you to find a kid who doesn’t know what they are. And lest you think this is just a phenomena of the internet age, to all those readers above the age of thirty I have two words:

Remember Mikey?

Yes, Mikey was that kid from the Life cereal commercials. The one who would eat anything (or was it nothing — I don’t remember?). Doesn’t matter, because Mikey’s next meal was a fateful combination of Pop Rocks and soda. And if you happened to be a kid on the playground in 1981, you know precisely what happened next.

He exploded.

Now, although this rumor has been proven untrue (Mikey allegedly lives in New York, where he is said to be, of all things, an advertising executive), I have yet to meet anyone my age who wasn’t utterly convinced of his horrifying demise back when they were eleven. No matter if they came from California, Minnesota, Mars — we all heard exactly the same story. And, mind you, this was back in the day when we relied on tin can and string for communication. Yet somehow, this rumor traveled far and wide enough that the makers of Pop Rocks actually took out full-page newspaper ads to proclaim the undisputed safety of crackling sugar crystals. Dentists worldwide recoiled.

So while the method and speed at which information travels may have changed, one thing hasn’t — the power of the Kid Network. And if we want our words to reach the broadest audience, it’s best to understand this elusive beast known as word of mouth and how it relates to children’s books.

(Now excuse me while I switch from my writer’s hat to my old PR and Marketing one, aka any excuse to post a picture of Jon Hamm…)

Anyway, back in business school we learned all about the Four Ps of marketing (product, price, placement, promotion). Here, I present Jan’s Four Bs of book marketing:

Be Knowledgeable

It’s a well-documented fact that the Kid Network operates on its own frequency. Need proof? Just ask an eight-year-old boy to explain Pokemon to you. After countless hours listening to my own son detail the difference between a Pikachu and a Raichu, I’ve become convinced that a synapse in the brain disconnects some time after age fourteen, rendering such distinctions incomprehensible.

But as children’s book writers, readers and promoters, it’s our job to reattach that synapse. We have to know what makes our audience tick. Not only must we remember what it was like to be a kid — we need to understand what kids are like today. How do they talk to each other? What are their dreams, hopes, fears? What are the books they read — and re-read and read yet again? What do they want to read more of? Some great ideas here on the Files about getting in touch with your inner kid and observing real-life specimens in action.

Be Connected

In his fascinating book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell details how trends spread much like epidemics. A key group in this process are the “connectors” — those influential people who know everyone. A prime example, Gladwell posits — Paul Revere. Every school kid knows of Revere and his midnight ride through the streets of Boston. What they don’t know is that another man made a similar ride. That’s because Revere’s call to arms was more successful — due in large part, Gladwell says, to the fact he was well-connected and knew exactly which doors to rattle to elicit the most support.

For the professional writer and book-lover, there are ample opportunities out there to get connected — blogs, Twitter, Facebook, the Blueboards, school visits, Skype chats, conferences. The KidLit community is an amazing one (which, admittedly, I am still finding my own way around). Now this doesn’t mean just go out and Tweet endlessly about what you ate for breakfast or slap up a web page and call it a day. It’s about getting to know other people in the community — making connections, cheering on your fellow authors, sharing information, giving back to your readers. Find your niche. Just don’t be a shill. Be genuine. Be respectful. Be interested and interesting. Your reach will grow naturally.

Be Patient

Overnight successes very rarely happen overnight. And so it is with word of mouth. Agent Kristin Nelson posted a very interesting discussion on her blog about client Ally Carter’s rise to the New York Times bestseller list… a mere TWO YEARS after her book debuted. And there’s probably not a writer alive that doesn’t know the story of Harry Potter’s multiple rejections, discovery by the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury’s chairman, modest advance and first print run… and well, we all know what happened next. While word of mouth no doubt drove sales of the books, that buzz couldn’t have happened without the last, most important B of all:

Be Unique… aka Find Your Inner Unicorn

Rubber band bracelets have been around forever… heck, I had an armful of them a la Madonna back in 1984. But it took one guy to look at a bracelet and say, “hmmm… what if that thing turned into a unicorn when you took it off?” … and a new trend was born. There are also countless tales of orphans who save the world, good guys who battle evil, kids navigating boarding school… yet, J.K. Rowling created magic when she introduced a certain boy wizard with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead.

So, what is your inner unicorn? What makes your character, your story, you special? If you can’t name it, go back to the drawing board. And no, I don’t think this means your main character needs to fly or have a dragon as a sidekick. Look at the Wimpy Kid series. Greg Heffley is a regular kid… who wraps himself in toilet paper when he gets chilled at the pool. I don’t know a single nine-year-old who doesn’t find that hysterical.

The key is that every story, every character, every word that resonates with readers ultimately has that special something — that extra spark that makes an old story new, a tired idea fresh.

And maybe — just maybe — becomes the Next Big Thing.

Jan Gangsei is a former journalist, PR and communications specialist who would love to create the next big thing (although she’d be happy just making kids laugh with her books). She’d love to hear your ideas on writing and promoting children’s literature. And if you have any suggestions for disentangling a Silly Bandz from the vacuum, she’s all ears.