Saturday, January 28, 2012

    Follow the Reader: Why We Buy Books

     . . . and why we don't. 

    Some books I've bought in the last few weeks.
    I've long marveled at the fact that our towns and cities are practically littered with bookstores, yet our population seems to read fewer and fewer books with every passing year. (Or is it: With the launch of every new reality television series?)

    Of course, the answer is simple: There is a wide gap between the amount of books people buy, and the number of books people actually read.

    This is where it gets interesting, because the question becomes:

    Why do people buy books? 

    Of course, I have some thoughts about this one.
    1. Because they have to

      Let's face it: A lot of people buy books because they have to.

      I gritted my teeth and did the math in this post, where I figured that, as a teacher, I am personally responsible for the sale of 480 trade paperback books every single school year. I like to think that my students enjoy reading these books, but the bottom line is that they buy them because they have to buy them if they are to pass my classes.

      According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were over 17 million students enrolled in undergraduate degree-granting institutions in 2009. That's a lot of book sales.

    2. Because they look good.

      Shocking but true: Many people buy books simply because they look impressive on the shelf. Did you know that there are companies dedicated to creating custom book collections for their clients? My guess is that the people who use such services don't actually ever read many of the books that populate their shelves.

      We live in an extremely acquisitive time and place, after all. People buy things just for the sheer pleasure of buying. Bookstores know this. They cater to a buying culture that relishes in the experience of the purchase--from that leisurely coffee in the store cafe, to the hour spent lounging in the big squashy chair on the sales floor, to membership cards tat make customers feel special, these stores know who their customers are and what they want.

    3. Because they love someone who loves books. (Or they just can't think of anything better to give as a gift.)

      I don't have any statistics to back this up, but I'm willing to bet that books rival gift cards and soap-on-a-rope for #1 on the most popular gift list.

    4. Because they love someone who writes books.

      There is an amazing, growing community of independent writers out there. I see them banding together and supporting each other through social media such as Twitter and blogs. These are passionate, supportive individuals who care about their fellow writers, and show their support by purchasing their books and posting reviews. They share insights into the trials and triumphs of the writing life. The talented and hilarious Kristen Lamb created the Twitter hashtag #MyWANA to help serve this purpose, and it has become a driving force responsible for creating a strong indie writing community on the 'net.

      As a reader, I'm excited to see this. For the first time, I can sneak a peak behind the curtain and learn about the people who are responsible for creating books, which happen to be my favorite things in the entire world. I love to see writers supporting other writers by buying their books.

    5. Because they love books.

      This is where it gets really interesting, because as dismal as it may sometimes seem, there is a large and enthusiastic reading culture out there. The popularity of sites such as Goodreads and Shelfari evidence this, not to mention the prevalence of giant bookstore chains and e-readers. (Did you know there are currently more than 6.9 million people on Goodreads, with over 240 million books on their shelves? This fact makes my reading specialist heart go pitter-patter.)

      But loving books is not enough. Readers don't just walk into a bookstore and buy the first book they see. As someone who is in the business of helping to create readers, I've spent a lot of time collecting information about reading habits, and thinking about what it is that motivates someone to actually purchase a book. Here's what I've discovered thus far:
    We trust our bookish friends.

    Readers will often buy a book sight-unseen if someone they trust specifically recommends it for them. 

    We trust the experts. 

    I spend my Sunday mornings with the New York Times Book Review, and I add books to my Goodreads To Read shelf as I go along. Similarly, I will buy books that my favorite experts in various fields recommend--financial gurus, television chefs, etc. If Gordon Ramsay puts his stamp of approval on a cookbook, I'll buy it.

    We judge books by their covers.

    I know where not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but we do. I know readers are amazing human beings, but we are still human, after all. 

    We buy books that feel good in our hands. 

    I love my Kindle, but I love my paper books even more. Some books just feel good in the hand. The paperbacks open easily, they aren't bound so stiffly that you have to break the spine to read the page. The covers have that satisfying, matte finish that is so easy to hold. They're just the right size to slip into a large purse, or a small bag.

    Some books feel like they were designed to be held. Know it or not, we are more likely to buy those books.

    We're loyal to our favorite writers. 

    There's a lot of author-worship that goes on amongst readers. If we've bowed at a particular writer's feet before, you can bet your bottom dollar that we'll line up for the privilege of buying her latest book. In fact, our loyalty is so blind that it will often trump a crappy cover, a mediocre blurb, or a terrible review.

    We love a great wordsmith. 

    I don't need to be familiar with a writer to appreciate his way with words. If your blurb or first few pages make me wish I had a pen to record a great line, that book is as good as sold.

    We feel something, and we want to feel more of it.

    We read to feel something, after all, and if you can make us do that after reading your Kindle sample, book jacket, or the first page, we'll crave more, and we'll buy the book. 
    Works every time.

    Now, I realize it may seem like we readers are an easy sell. Not so. 
    There are some things that immediately turn us off from buying a book. 
    Here's the inside scoop: 

    The promos make unlikely promises about the book.

    This is a trend I've noticed more and more with independently published books. A lot of books are compared to our Most Beloved Series of All Time, and authors to Our Most Beloved Authors of All Time. On its own, this won't turn off potential readers. However, when such promises are coupled with multiple reviews that set the record straight, or samples that don't inspire the same awe as the referenced beloved book or author, we move on.

    It's not that we expect every book to be the next Harry Potter, it's just that we have a lot of options out there, so we just don't have to deal with books that don't keep their promises. We have enough people in our lives that do that, already. Why add to the list?

    The authors are *out there*, but only to promote their own books.

    I love a writer who is also a reader. If a writer's blog has as many reviews of others' books as it has posts about her writing process, I feel I've found a kindred spirit. And I always want to read what my kindred spirits are writing. 

    On the other hand, if a writer uses social media to do nothing but promote her own books and reach out to other writers, not readers, then I'm not as interested. Fair or not, we favor people who are cut from the same cloth, and in this case, that means writers who participate in the larger reading culture.

    The authors don't mind their manners. 

    This one is about writers who go one step beyond my last point, and actually reject aspects of the reading culture. They don't realize they're doing this, of course, but it is one of the easiest ways for a writer to lose a potential reader. This includes: 

    - Writers who respond defensively to negative reviews of their work. Whether an author posts a comment directly on a negative review, or writes a cutting post about it on her blog, or speaks to it in an interview, it sends potential readers running in the opposite direction. I'm talking about writers who reject the negative review as being unreliable for whatever reason--the reviewer hasn't read enough books to know what she's talking about, the reviewer's claims are totally off-base, etc. Whatever it is, it's bad business. If a writer can't respect her readers, and accept a negative review and use it to inform her writing as she moves forward, I don't want any part of it.

    I understand that it's difficult to accept critical feedback, but I also know how powerful it can be if the subject of the feedback chooses to use it to her advantage. (I've been teaching for eight years. I don't want to do the math, but every single student I've ever had in class has filled out a feedback form on various aspects of my performance as a teacher. I've gotten a lot of reviews in my short time in the field, and the negative reviews are always the most powerful. In fact, they have transformed my teaching over time.)

    - Writers who publicly reject important aspects of the reading culture. I've read so many negative comments from authors about sites like Goodreads, and independent book review blogs. This is baffling. The people who choose to engage in these things are readers. They could be your readers! But they won't be, not if you reject their very participation in things that celebrate their reading habits. 

    I adore authors as much as I adore the books they write, and the people who read them. As we wade further into the unexplored waters of independent publishing, I would love to see more writers engage with the reading community as enthusiastically as they have been engaging with the writing community. Today's writers have unprecedented opportunities to get their work out into the world, and to interact with potential readers on a large scale. I look forward to seeing that happen. 

    So, what are you waiting for? Go buy some books! Go talk to your readers!

    I love to hear from readers and writers, alike. I know you have something to say, so please, post a comment and let it be heard.

    (Related: I detail why I bought 20 books over the last two months in this post.)


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