David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Why You Bought That Book

After I posted a blog piece last week asking people Why Did You Buy That Book?, it turned into a nice little mini-meme. In addition to the discussions here and on my MySpace blog, there were also discussions on Jim Hines’ LiveJournal, Alma Alexander’s LiveJournal, John Joseph Adams’ blog and guinwhyte’s LiveJournal.

I know that there are scientists and pollsters vomiting blood when I say this, but based on the 40+ responses spread around these various locations, I’m ready to declare a winner.

Here’s how I kept score. I went through the comments one by one and gave one vote for each influencing factor. Multiple factors were allowed per book. So if a commenter said they purchased Book X because they had heard about it from a friend and liked the cover, I gave “friend recommendation” one vote and “cover/packaging” one vote. A lot of the comments were fairly nebulous, so I simply used my best judgment. (Mwuuah-ha-ha!)

  1. Familiarity with the author’s previous works (50 votes). Based on the evidence, this was the biggest factor by far. Science fiction and fantasy readers tend to be very loyal to the authors they like; or I suppose you could also characterize this as conservative. But once you’ve written a book or short story or even blog that’s knocked someone’s socks off, the bar for inspiring a purchase of your next book lowers considerably. That’s good news for already-published authors, and good news for those who tend to write series. On the other hand, it underscores the difficulty new authors have breaking in to the market.
  2. Recommendation by a friend or acquaintance (35 votes). Validation of the commonly held belief that word-of-mouth is what sells books. Get people to talk about your book, and you’ve got a leg up on the competition. Extra credit goes to MySpace user U is N as I is X who says, “I know a few people (over ten, but below twenty) that have bought your book as well as Mr. [Michael J.] Cavallaro’s book [Cybernetica] based upon me telling them about it and lending them a copy to preview.” Everyone, please whip out your checkbooks and send U is N as I is X twenty bucks immediately.
  3. Liked the cover and/or packaging (16 votes). In most cases, this seemed to be a secondary consideration or a reinforcing factor. Few people claimed to have picked up a book solely because they thought the cover was bitchin’; but many said that a bitchin’ cover helped convince them to buy a book that they already had a good feeling about.

After this, there were nearly identical scores of 7-8 votes each for:

  • read a glowing review of the book
  • impressed by the author’s blog and/or website
  • heard about the book from someone else’s website
  • spoke to the author in person or saw him/her at a public appearance (e.g. a con)
  • Amazon recommendations

Receiving 1-5 votes:

  • read good press and/or an author interview about the book
  • the book was nominated and/or won a major award
  • the publisher has a good reputation
  • impressed by the cover blurb
  • familiarity with film adaptations of author’s work
  • heard about the book by the author adding him/her as a MySpace Friend
  • book was on sale

How representative is this sampling? Well, again, this is a highly unscientific poll based on unscientific methodology, so if you work for the Nielsen company, you can feel free to snigger behind your cupped palms all you’d like. For one thing, all of the folks that responded to this survey are plugged into online SF communities to some degree, whether mine or Jim’s or Alma’s or John Joseph Adams’.

But what of the majority of science fiction and fantasy consumers that have never set foot in an SF convention, never logged onto an SF fan website or read an SF bulletin board? Consumers like, well, my dad? Obviously, I didn’t have any way to reach them. I heard somewhere — wish I could remember where — that 4 out of 5 SF/F consumers have no connection whatsoever with the so-called “science fiction community.” How are all those people choosing which books to purchase? Probably in much the same way, but this poll provides no evidence for that.

It’s also interesting to see the things that nobody claimed as an influencing factor in buying books. Such as:

  • seeing an ad in a trade magazine
  • book had prominent placement in the bookstore
  • book was recommended by a bookstore clerk or librarian
  • picked up a free promotional CD at a convention (alas)

Any marketer can tell you that just because nobody listed these factors doesn’t mean that they’re not pertinent. Quite to the contrary. Another statistic about book buying habits that my brain has spongily absorbed (while discarding the source where I heard it): some 70% of books sold by the major bookstore chains are sitting in a 20-foot radius of the front door.

So obviously there’s a lot more to the book buyer’s decision of what to purchase than the factors that the book buyer herself is conscious of. It’s all part of the shadowy underworld/seamy underbelly/sausage-like process/backroom manipulation of publishing that you and I don’t see.

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  1. Marie Brennan on December 11, 2006 at 3:51 pm  Chain link

    I picked up the link to this post from Tobias Buckell’s weblog, and belatedly realized that maybe I should post this comment here, in the main discussion, rather than off in a side branch.

    I was on a panel with the Nielsen Haydens once where one of them — I think it was Teresa — brought up this very topic. As I recall, she said that the number-one reason for book purchases is that the buyer read and liked another book by the author, and that the number-two reason was a recommendation from a friend. I don’t recall if the cover, etc ranked third or not, but the point she was making was how small a role traditional promotion (professional reviews, awards, advertisements, etc) plays in consumers’ decisions.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean such things don’t matter. I don’t remember where I picked up the notion of “sneezers” (whether it was from Teresa on that panel or not), but the idea is that, like people with colds who sneeze and spread their germs to a lot of others, there are people in the book world who read new books and then tell lots of other people about them. (Ugly metaphor, but it works.) Traditional promotion might succeed in getting a sneezer to pick up your book, and then from there, the usual machinery is in motion. So while ads may not directly account for many sales, they may do so indirectly.

  2. Matt Jarpe on December 11, 2006 at 4:54 pm  Chain link

    Shepherds tie a bell around the neck of the one sheep (the bellweather) that all the other sheep follow. That way they just have to chase one sheep into the pen instead of the whole flock.

    If only we could tie a bell around those book buyers who spread the word around. Of course it would be no fun for the bellweather, since there are about 10,000 shepherds competing for their attention.

  3. Fiona Avery on December 11, 2006 at 5:58 pm  Chain link

    I thought I’d just add to your *excellent* recap here, that although something like 20% of books sold in bookstores are at the first 20 feet of the bookstore — that’s probably books sold to mainstream readers. I think certain genre readers, whether it’s SF, Romance or Mystery, make a beeline for their department most times. So some factors don’t always apply to the (here’s that dreaded word) demographics.

    Thank you very much for this — it was incredibly interesting.

  4. PixelFish on December 11, 2006 at 6:01 pm  Chain link

    I am a huge book buyer, and weirdly enough I almost always bypass the stacks at the front of the store.

  5. David Louis Edelman on December 11, 2006 at 6:39 pm  Chain link

    Marie: I’m tickled that the Nielsen Haydens had the exact same analysis as the one my little poll came up with. If anyone’s an expert at this stuff, it’s Patrick and Teresa. Oh, and according to Tobias on his blog, it was Seth Godin who propagated the “sneezer” idea.

    Matt: Are you implying consumers are like sheep?? I’m outraged, sir, outraged.

    Fiona and PF, about the front-of-the-store thing: I’ve noticed that most of these big box stores seem to mix up the stuff right inside the door to appeal to the widest variety of folks possible. You almost always see the latest Robert Jordan and Orson Scott Card in these displays, for instance, just like you see the latest Stephen King and Sue Grafton. So I suppose that they count an Orson Scott Card sale as being from the front-of-the-store display, even if you went to the genre section to buy it. But that’s just a supposition on my part.

  6. Fiona Avery on December 11, 2006 at 8:45 pm  Chain link

    Good point, Mister Edelman! ^_^ I had forgotten about the cross-pollination of genres at the store front.

  7. Josh on December 12, 2006 at 9:00 am  Chain link

    So would it not behoove an author to go into a bookstore, gather up a stack of all their books and transplant them within 20 feet of the front door? I’ll make a ridiculous use of nonsensical math and say that this simple practice should boost your book sales by 70%…or it’s just way early and I haven’t had my coffee yet. Wait…I don’t drink coffee. Then what am I doing with this mug? Oh, it’s empty. Nevermind.

    Awesome survey though. You should do another. This time based on a writer’s beverage of choice while in the “groove.”


  8. David Louis Edelman on December 12, 2006 at 10:18 am  Chain link

    Sure, Josh, that would probably do wonders for your sales. Keep in mind, though, that publishers pay for those spots at the front of the store. How much? From $10,000 to $20,000 for a few weeks, according to this New York Times article. So you’re not likely to last long there.

  9. Josh on December 12, 2006 at 12:22 pm  Chain link

    But all’s fair in love and marketing wars, right? I mean, things like printing stickers with your name on it and pasting them over all the other author’s names, bringing in extra copies of your book jackets and slipping it over all the other books on the rack, peeling off the 30% discount stickers on every book but yours…hmm…what other fiendish methods might there be?

    I’m having too much fun trying to think up things now. Must stop.

  10. Yaron on December 12, 2006 at 1:31 pm  Chain link

    There are two more factors that can influence a book buying decision.

    The first is somewhat related to familiarity with an author’s previous work, and is the ability to sample the actual specific book.
    Which can increase the chances of buying the book for two different reasons.

    Buying a book is a gamble. You’re putting down money in the hope that you’ll buy something you’d enjoy enough to justify the cost. And all the book buying criteria are ways to make the gamble less chancy. If you read previous works by the author, there’s a chance the quality will remain consistent. If you get recommendations, other people liked it, maybe ones you know how to relate your tastes to, so you may as well. Even a high quality cover could indicate that the publisher invested in the other aspects of the book, so it’s likely they also carefully monitored the quality of the actual content.

    But sampling the actual book, that takes the whole gable out of it. You don’t have to guess and hope that you’d like the book. You know you do.
    Well, assuming you actually do, anyway. I hope this discussion focuses on buying books the reader will actually like…

    Sure, quality can vary inside a book as well, but that’s very rare. If you like the first chapter, or few chapters, you’d like the rest of the book. And once the book is a sure thing, that puts it ahead of the competition with other books which are still gables and guesswork.

    The second reason is that (assuming the sample is large enough to get a good idea of the characters and plot) the reader is already invested in the book. You started to read it, so you want to finish. And since the best way to finish reading the book is to buy it (unless both the entire book is offered, and the reader is one of those strange strange people who enjoy a book just the same if they read it on a computer screen), you’d buy it. Before you buy books you care less about and haven’t even started reading.

    This can give any book an advantage that is otherwise reserved for second, and later, books in a series. The reader already wants to know what happens next.

    Which kind of brings us to the other influencing factor. One which I think only has a negative influence, so there’s little chance of catching it on any “why did you buy the last few books” questionnaire.

    First books in a series are at a disadvantage over stand-alone books. First books in a series which are also the author’s debut… are in an even greater disadvantage.

    A series requires more investment in advantage. You know when you buy the first books that you’d eventually either have to buy more books, or will have to abandon a story in the middle.

    For a known author you really like that’s less of a problem, since you have a higher likelihood for believing you’d enjoy the entire series and won’t mind buying the other books. Sure, there are cases of series going downhill in the middle, but it’s far from being a rule.

    For a debut novel, though, and especially one where the author doesn’t have accessible short stories, or anything else published, it’s a big hurdle to pass. A debut is always a bigger gamble, but instead of gambling on one book the reader is asked to gamble on a series of books.

    There are also people who don’t want to read a series until it’s entirely out. Meaning that they’ll only buy a book in a series when they buy the whole series. And that’s even harder to do when you don’t have any experience with the author.

    It’s not a huge problem. I bought quite a few first in a series debuts myself. But it does get the book a harder time when prioritizing which books to buy.

  11. David Louis Edelman on December 12, 2006 at 1:37 pm  Chain link

    Thanks for that, Yaron. I agree with both your points, and I’m very pleased that Pyr is letting me post large swaths of Infoquake on my website (something like 26,000 words).

    You say: First books in a series are at a disadvantage over stand-alone books. First books in a series which are also the author’s debut… are in an even greater disadvantage.

    Now you tell me! I honestly thought I was being savvy when I started writing a series as my debut, but I’ve since discovered otherwise.

  12. Yaron on December 12, 2006 at 2:59 pm  Chain link

    something like 26,000 words
    Things like Amazon’s ‘Inside This Book’ excerpts are also good in this regard. Though not as good, since while often their snippets are enough, at other sometimes it leaves me with the sense that I really couldn’t read enough to get an impression.
    And that gets the opposite effect because what else should I feel about a book that I couldn’t get a clear impression of even after getting to read it? It may not the book’s fault, but that the not-surprising effect it gets.

    So do give excerpts, but give enough. It pays.

    Now you tell me!

    Well, you didn’t ask me earlier, did you? Not my fault for keeping you in the dark.
    The nerve of some people, I tell you… 😉

  13. L'Ombre de l'Olivier on December 13, 2006 at 1:33 pm  Chain link

    Why I Bought Those Books

    I just saw this interesting pair of posts asking readers why they bought three recent books and reporting on the results. Well, somewhat late to the party I shall list why I bought the most recent 6 books (it doesn’t matter its the SAME reason for al…

  14. Ellen on December 15, 2006 at 11:40 am  Chain link

    I used to be a bookseller, and though I’ve never bought any books that way myself, I did recommend a lot to other people, some of whom did end up buying them. (Say, 5 or 10 a week — though some of those were things I recommended as “similar to” rather than things I had loved myself.)

  15. Mark on February 7, 2007 at 2:22 pm  Chain link

    Very interesting!
    I can state that my own buying habits have changed in the past few years. It used to be “browse the bookstore, looking for interesting artwork and back-of-book blurbs”. The bookstore people never have a clue, minimum wage people who come and go.

    In the past years though things have changed. My primary source of non-fiction comes from magazine reviews..if the subject matter sounds interesting and it was given a review that makes it sound like I would enjoy it, I will consider purchasing. For fiction, I find I make heavy use of the “those who bought this book also liked” feature of the online websites such as Amazon. It leads me to books I never would have known existed. I also carefully read ALL of the online reviews about the book. In many cases the reviewer will give reasons why they did not like it and I can then agree or disagree (usually). I tend not to read any “professional” reviews as they usually are more concerned with things I don’t care about (just as professional movie critics rarely match my tastes).

    I find the “inside the book” features do not do anything for me, reading a page or two may give a taste of the writers syntax abilities but won’t help me choose if I like the books plot.


  16. Kung Fu Panda legends of awesomeness on January 8, 2016 at 10:47 am  Chain link

    I’d like to find out more? I’d care to find out
    more details.

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