'Horse' by Geraldine Brooks.
'Horse' by Geraldine Brooks.
Image: Supplied

In the book trade, word-of-mouth success is a maddeningly elusive thing. Nothing sells a book better than a personal recommendation. Good reviews are all very well; eye-catching in-store displays, too.

But books that get a word-of-mouth wind in their sails streak ahead out of nowhere: think Dan Brown, Fifty Shades of Grey (shudder) or, last year, The Girl with the Louding Voice and this year’s Lessons in Chemistry. All were routinely launched in bookstores and then steadily ignited as readers started pressing them into the hands of friends, telling them, “You must read this.” Because there is so much noise in the popular culture that surrounds us, threatening to overwhelm us, we seek out the opinion of people we trust as a valuable filter.

Publishers, paid bloggers, and big bookstores try to manufacture word-of-mouth buzz, usually in vain. Because it can’t be anticipated or created. Some even advertise books that will be "a sure-fire word-of-mouth hit”, but they’re fibbing. There’s a graveyard of books that got hyped and went nowhere. Readers aren’t fools. One way of fanning word-of-mouth sales is the increasingly rare notion of “hand-selling”. This is the practice where knowledgeable booksellers, who are familiar with the taste of their customers and have read the books on offer, personally recommend them to particular buyers.

Large book chains tend to be understaffed these days in their efforts to stay afloat, and booksellers are too busy to read deeply the tsunami of books that flow into the store. It is in the independent stores that you will find staff who know their smaller range better and can match you with the right one.

And so it was that Kate Rogan, the estimable owner of Love Books in Joburg, pressed a book on me, one which I would not normally have chosen. I’ve subsequently heard several people talking about it: a mention at a dinner, a discussion in a group of walkers, rave reviews in a couple of online book clubs that I keep an eye on. It seems the word-of-mouth contagion is spreading.

Brooks braids together several stories in different eras that turn around the central figure of the horse

The name of the book is Horse and it is written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Geraldine Brooks. I’m not usually drawn to the antebellum South of the US, or its civil war, but in this captivating book it makes for a fascinating background. Horse is ostensibly the true story of Lexington, the greatest race horse in history, “a horse so fast that the massproduced stopwatch was manufactured so his fans could clock times in races that regularly drew more than twenty thousand spectators. A horse so handsome that the best equestrian artists vied to paint him.”

Brooks braids together several stories in different eras that turn around the central figure of the horse. In 2019’s Washington DC we meet Jesse, an Australian scientist reassembling the bones of the animal at the Smithsonian Institute and Theo, an African-American academic who is uncovering the lost history of the Black horsemen who were critical to his success. There are the artists who painted him, whose pictures of him still survive, and the 20th-century dealers who collected and sold equine portraits. There are plantation owners, suffragettes, and abolitionists.

Brooks crosses backwards and forwards to the mid-1800s and to young and enslaved Jarret, who has a preternatural relationship with Lexington and becomes his groom and trainer. Throughout the book he is known by the name of the masters to whom he is sold: “Warfield’s Jarret”, then “Ten Broeck’s Jarret”, “Alexander’s Jarret”, until, finally, he becomes his own free man, Jarret Lewis. Through Jarret and the descriptions of life on plantations, Brooks creates a searing portrait of slavery and the violence of the most powerful over the least powerful in American society before, during and after the civil war, a violence to the Black body that plays out still in contemporary America.

Horse has all the elements of a sleeper hit: it surprises, absorbs, and transforms the reader. It is good, old-fashioned epic storytelling that lingers long afterwards. Now, word of mouth has changed gears with the advent of #BookTok: quick, short, lively videos of people talking about the books they are reading.

The books range in genre, but generally feature young-adult books, fantasy, and romance. It’s moving mountains of books, some out-of-print titles that publishers race to get back onto the shelves and some new authors who have rocketed in popularity, such as Colleen Hoover. Her wildly emotional stories have earned her millions of readers (who call her CoHo). In any given week she has several books on the bestseller lists the world over, including South Africa.

Publishers and booksellers are scrambling to get into the flow and influence the #BookTok influencers, but readers are leery of marketing and will find their way around it to genuine, authentic opinions. BookTok is a crammed, busy space. To cut out the noise, build a relationship with your bookseller.

Michele Magwood is an award-winning literary critic.

© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.