istock_book-with-mouseThe Information Age may have changed the landscape of publishing, but writers still rely on one age-old tool to push their craft: word of mouth. UK columnist Robert McCrum calls it the “holy grail of publishing.” J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown both owe much of their success not to brilliant PR or cutting-edge marketing, but to casual conversation between book-loving friends.

Word of mouth has taken on a new form since the advent of the Internet and social networking, of course. Whereas Victor Gollancz, in the early days of his eponymous publishing firm, had to pay others to read his books and get word around, the likes of Amanda Hocking merely have to self-publish their e-books and gain a steady following. Hocking, a Minnesota native, has become an icon of sorts for self-publishers after her books earned her a $2-million deal with St. Martin’s Press.

To be sure, success stories like Hocking’s are few and far between. But she is proof that it doesn’t hurt to try. The power of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have yet to be proven in publishing, but that of word of mouth is well-known. That’s why John Murray, who is set to publish The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by contrarian author James Frey, has started using YouTube videos to provoke discussion and push up book sales.

But word of mouth’s power runs deeper than coffee-shop talk (“This book is so bad/good, you’ve got to read it!”). According to McCrum, it’s about creating a community of interest for the book, and nurturing that interest. That’s what tipped Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference from a so-so book about sociology into a bestseller. By giving various talks on trends in the American marketplace, McCrum said, Malcolm generated his own word of mouth: formed a community of followers, piqued more interest, and got thousands of other mouths spreading the word for him.

Books that make it through word of mouth are picked up by readers with the intention of lending it to friends and family, who will then want to purchase their own copies. Science fiction and fantasy author Neil Gaiman saw his book sales triple after he persuaded his publisher to put American Gods, then already a strong seller, up for free on the Internet. The truth is that even as technology introduces us to new mediums (e.g. ebooks), successful authors, whether self-published like Hocking or traditional like Gaiman, will continue to bank on word of mouth for years to come.