Thoughts on Critical Mass

Bouncing Atoms by Mr Jaded from FlickrI’ve noticed recently that I mention the phrase “Critical Mass” a lot when I discuss marketing. Actually, I mention it a lot and thousands of other people mention it a lot as well. The other day I was giving this phrase some thought and decided that a few words on its origin and what it means to me are in order.

So, critical mass is the amount of fissile material needed to create a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.


But what does that mean exactly? Well, oddly, nuclear chain reactions are pretty easy to understand. Not the nuts and bolts mind you, but the general concept.

You have a heavy atom. You shoot a neutron into it. When the neutron hits the heavy atom in a certain way, the heavy atom blows apart into 1) a lighter atom 2) another lighter atom 3) a neutron 4) another neutron 5) yet another neutron.

Again, we’re going with a bare bones explanation here. The type of atom needed is pretty important to the whole process. Also this is a fission chain reaction. A fusion chain reaction is possible as well. And it’s probably worth mentioning, seeing how it is the entire point, that this fragmenting of atoms creates energy…somehow.

But ignore that. You wind up with those five things listed above. Two new, lighter atoms, and three neutrons. The first two aren’t important. The last three are very important.

Note, you started with one neutron flying along which struck an atom. Now, after that happens, you have three neutrons. Why, what would happen if each one of those neutrons struck yet another heavy atom? By god you’d then have the same reaction three times over and would produce nine more neutrons, all of which could then strike their own heavy atoms and on and on and on and you have a runaway reaction capable of producing just crazy amounts of energy.

So where does “Critical Mass” come in?

Well, the critical mass is so critical because if you don’t have enough mass, your chain reaction fizzles out. Imagine this extreme example: you only have one heavy atom. You fire your neutron, your heavy atom splits, produces three more neutrons…and then they have nothing else to collide with because you only had the one original heavy atom. Thus, no chain reaction.

If you don’t have enough mass, enough of your fissile material, it’s possible for your initial event to only split a few more atoms and then the neutrons produced will miss striking other atoms and you’ll get no surge of energy.

Thus, critical mass.

Now, when it comes to marketing, this term is used to describe the audience an author tries to gather in order to achieve a real breakthrough.

The analogy is both good and bad, and pondering how well it works led me to some thoughts on the subject.

For starters, the analogy implies that you need a certain number of readers, a certain amount of mass, before your marketing can be a self-sustaining entity. This part makes perfect sense to me. If you give five copies of your book to readers, and they all love it, well odds are that still isn’t going to produce a giant runaway marketing surge. Those five people might decide to tell other people about your book, thus firing their own neutrons into new heavy atoms, but two of them might not have many friends who like that genre, and one doesn’t usually give out book suggestions so it kind of gets lost in the noise, and the last maybe gets two new people to read it. But then those two fizzle out.

On the other hand, if you get ten thousand people together to read your book at once and then let them loose to tell other people? Well…it’s quite possible to visualize just how different that event would be compared to the previous example of five people.

In other words, the number of readers your marketing efforts produce in one place and at one time is very important.

But this is already straying into the area where the analogy breaks down.

See, one heavy atom is another heavy atom is another heavy atom. They will all be structurally exactly the same. They will all undergo the exact same reaction if their nucleus is struck by a neutron. It will either produce the reaction described above, or nothing will happen.

This is very neat and pat.

People, however, are butt-ass crazy ape beasts that have no rhyme nor reason to them.

I dream of a world in which you can hand five people your book and get the exact same reactions out of all five of them. Even an “on or off” proposition sounds fantastic: nothing happens or the same exact thing happens. Great! Wonderful!

Alas, this isn’t even close to the case. You give five people your book and one might hate it, one might love it and want to tell everyone about it, one might love it and want to keep it a precious secret, one might be overloaded with that particular genre and turn their nose up at it despite absolutely devouring and loving three books right before it of lesser quality but similar flavor, and one might…I don’t know…decide that the cover is dumb and throw it out.

The point is, the reactions your work will instill in people will be all over the place. This is not an either/or prospect like neutrons hitting an atom, it is a spectrum of prospects.  And even if you only look at the positive end of the spectrum, the reactions will still be all over the place. Some people love to talk about books. Some people love to put their favorite books on their bookshelf and never talk about them. Some people can’t remember book titles. It’s beyond nuts.

And then you have to take into account what, if any, influence these people have. Maybe all five of them love your book and want to tell the world, but all five of them are soft-spoken and not really viewed in their social circles as places to go to obtain ideas for books to read.

Well then you’ve successfully turned on five readers, which, don’t get me wrong, is the point of writing, but as far as marketing goes you’ve produced nothing.

It’s confusing.

And annoying.

People should act more like heavy atoms.

But they don’t.

And then you have to start thinking about location and timing. How much does it matter that your readers be near each other be it physically or socially? Does it matter if they read your book at the same time?

Yes. I imagine these things do matter…

…but that’s maybe for another blog post.