Word of Mouth: Does it Still Sell Books? by Maggie King

 Renowned agent Donald Maass is a firm believer in word of mouth: “There are only TWO things that sell books…a good book and word of mouth. Period.”

If you ask mystery author and blogger Anne R. Allen how people discover books in the digital age, she’ll respond without hesitation: “The old fashioned way: word of mouth.”

Word of mouth turned me into a mystery reader. Like many young girls I was a huge fan of Nancy Drew and the Dana Girls. I’ll never forget the day my mother brought home The Hidden Staircase after a trip to the P.M. Bookshop in Plainfield, New Jersey. My friends and I started swapping tales of those intrepid girl detectives like mad.

But I put mysteries aside until my late twenties. A bout of flu kept me home for several days and my mother arrived on my doorstep with chicken soup and a stack of Agatha Christies.  I started with Thirteen at Dinner (British title is Lord Edgware Dies) and quickly became a Christie addict. For several years I read and re-read Dame Agatha’s accounts of the indomitable Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Again friends and I exchanged and recommended our favorites.

But it wasn’t until 1993 that I branched out to other mystery authors. I had no idea there were so many! I joined an AAUW mystery group in Santa Clarita, California. This group picked books based on theme rather than specific titles; when we met each member discussed her selection—no spoilers allowed! We did have someone who routinely violated the spoiler rule—I guess there’s one in every crowd. The first year we read by setting location, the second year by the sleuth’s profession; one year we even read according to the first letter of the author’s last name.

The Santa Clarita group introduced me to authors who I read to this day: Susan Wittig Albert, Lilian Jackson Braun, Jill Churchill, Mary Daheim, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Gillian Roberts, and many more. Mostly cozies. I don’t remember anyone using that term, but the members frowned on the more violent mysteries. We exchanged the books we read and spent time recommending others.

The Murder on Tour group in Murder at the Book Group is modeled after the Santa Clarita one, but embellished with a little murder. Needless to say, even a hint of murder in the real group would have set me on the run.

In 1996 I said good bye to my favorite book group when I relocated to Virginia. Here I’ve been in many groups, some devoted to mysteries and some to literary fiction. Mystery Lovers is a Richmond group led by Lelia Taylor, who runs the popular blog Buried Under Books. The groups here are traditional and discuss one book per meeting, but, as in the Santa Clarita group, we share and recommend the books we love.

I continue to discover new authors. While I still love cozies I also enjoy the Private Investigator and Police Procedural sub-genres. Michael Connelly, Robert Crais. Raymond Chandler, Dianne Emley, Naomi Hirahara, Sebastien Japrisot, Gabrielle Kraft, Rochelle Krich, Marilyn Meredith, Ann Perry, Joan Smith, and many, many more are on my fast-swelling TBR list. And I often return to the Queen of Crime herself: Dame Agatha.

Notice the word of mouth principal at work here? Word of mouth absolutely reigns as the best way to learn about new mystery authors. Or any authors.

The Internet has made word of mouth more important and easier than ever. Online I stumble across authors while web surfing. There’s the Stop, You’re Killing Me! website, a personal favorite; Facebook groups; Goodreads; message boards; online book groups. There are sites devoted to Golden Age mysteries, bibliomysteries, mysteries of the ancient world … if you have a special interest in mysteries you’ll find a site devoted to it.

In closing I have to tell you about a book I discovered while watching an episode of Midsomer Murders titled “Blue Herrings.” A character was reading The Widow’s Cruise by Nicholas Blake. I looked it up online and a reviewer compared it to an Agatha Christie story. Another entry on my TBR list! Word of mouth? Or word of eye?

 Readers, how do you learn about new authors and titles?

Did someone in your life influence your reading choices? As you saw in the preceding, my mother was my earliest influence. Later, it was friends and book groups.

 Nothing can kill a good book group discussion like cold-blooded murder. Especially when the victim is one of the group’s own. Cyanide is the topic du jour for the mystery fanatics of Murder on Tour, but for their poor hostess, Car­lene Arness—who just published her own whodunit—it makes for a surprise ending. One minute, Carlene is speaking animatedly about featuring the poison in her new book. The next, she’s slumped over in a chair, dead from a sip of tea. Did the writer take her research too far? Or did one of the group’s members take a love of true crime to the extreme?

Founding member Hazel Rose is rounding up suspects. Any of her fellow bibliophiles could be the killer. And she soon discovers that almost all of them had a motive. Even Hazel herself, whose ex-husband married Carlene, could be accused of harboring jealousy. The truth is, Carlene wasn’t just hard to read, she was also hard to like—and the scandalous secrets Hazel unearths would make Carlene’s idol, Agatha Christie, turn over in her grave.


Maggie King is the author of Murder at the Book Group, published in 2014 by Simon and Schuster. She contributed the short story, “A Not So Genteel Murder,” to the Sisters in Crime anthology Virginia is for Mysteries. Maggie is a member of Sisters in Crime and the American Association of University Women. She has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer service supervisor.

Maggie graduated from Elizabeth Seton College and earned a B.S. degree in Business Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology. She has called New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California home. These days she lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive.

Visit Maggie at www.maggieking.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/maggie.e.king, and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MaggieKingAuthr.



Hi Maggie & Marilyn,
I agree that word of mouth is still the best seller of books. Isn't that what we do via Facebook & Twitter?
Maggie said…
You're right Marilyn, the Internet is really just one big mouth! I think the phrase "word of mouth" may sound outdated, but the concept is a timely as ever.
Anne R. Allen said…
Thanks for the shout-out for my blog, Maggie!
I think this was a most timely post, Maggie!
Maggie said…
Anne, you have a great blog. It's so ... well, timely!
glen said…
very well written article.
Yes, agreed, recommendation from friend or family always works, and I loved the way the tv programme led you to try another book. I always peer at the title of a book read by a character on tv, hoping to find some more treasure.
Maggie said…
Carole, Did you ever watch As Time Goes By? The main character, Jean, was often sitting up in bed reading something by Ruth Rendell.
Linda Thorne said…
Maggie, I read about you on Maria Ruiz's website when she interviewed you a few months ago. I love your book cover and the purple with the other colors. As far as word of mouth, I think you and Marilyn are right on. I read books and send them to my sister who lives in a different state. When she likes a book she looks for that author where she lives and then buys more. I have a million other stories, but it would take too much time.
Maggie said…
Linda, I’ m glad you saw my Maria Ruiz interview. I so enjoyed working with her. The talented artists at S&S created that great cover design, reminiscent of Nancy Drew. I’d love to hear your other stories---I could put them in a blog post, quoting you (with your permission). If you care to share them, send them to me at maggie@maggieking.com. Thanks for commenting.

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