How readers choose what to read

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There are so many books to choose from that sometimes readers can be overwhelmed by the choice. So how do they end up making their decisions?

There are a number of factors and individual readers will rely on a unique combination of each. As writers, having an awareness of these factors may help us as we attempt to write and market our books.

Genre
It doesn’t matter whether the reader is old school and buys books in a book store or an early adapter of technology onto their third or fourth ereader, all books available for sale are grouped into their genre because as a general rule, readers like to read widely within individual categories.

Genre is a decision we make as a writer very early in the writing process and it’s often outside of our direct control, simply a product of the story we have chosen to tell. But one genre rather than another can be critical. It can be the difference between your book resting between James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell on the popular fiction shelves at the front of the store or hidden away in the much smaller literature section in the back.

However, making a decision on what to write or how to market your book based on genre alone can be fraught with danger. I would always recommend writing whatever is in your heart to write and letting the genres fall where they may.

Author
It’s not much help for new authors but once a reader has read a book by an author they like, they will tend to read more of the same author. However, I’ve seen stickers on the front of books by new authors proclaiming, “If you like James Patterson, you’ll love John Smith.”

I’ve even seen manuscript submission forms on publishers’ websites asking the author who is submitting their unpublished novel which other author their writing most closely resembles. (That was hard for me. When I did that online test to find out which famous author I write like by pasting in a couple of paragraphs of my book, the response came back that I write like JD Salinger. At the time, I’d never read any of his work. Having since read – and hated – The Catcher in the Rye, I’m a little bit miffed.)

It’s a difficult exercise to undertake by yourself. It requires honesty and objectivity. Your beta readers might be better placed to decide which famous author or series of books you and your novel most resemble and might similarly appeal to. But remember that this isn’t genre. Just because your book is about zombies doesn’t mean you should compare it to other books about zombies. This is about writing style.

Covers
No matter how much we agree with the saying that “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover”, many people do. I sometimes do. I look at those romance books with flowery font types and men in cowboy hats and women in lingerie and I am repelled. For those that enjoy that particular type of book, their reaction is likely the opposite. And it helps them out because they know automatically that it’s going to be one of those books they want to read.

A well-designed cover will always attract a reader’s eye, which is why so many people offering writing advice recommend having it done by a book cover designer or just a designer in general who understands the principles of good design.

Standing out from the crowd is difficult in an area that everyone has on their bucket list – writing a book – but a great cover is a good start.

Titles
A great title or series of titles can really turn readers’ heads. I’ve written before about terrific titles and because I know how hard it is to come up with the right ones, I pay homage to those who’ve done it well. There are a few routes you can follow:

*State the bleeding obvious – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
*State half the bleeding obvious – Project December: A Book about Writing
*Use half of a well-known phrase – Kiss the Girls (and we immediately think, “And make them cry”) or (keep your friends close and your) Enemies Closer
*Come up with a theme – this is especially important if there will be sequels such as in Twilight, Eclipse, New Moon, Breaking Dawn
*Let poetry inspire you – For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel by Ernest Hemingway but it’s also part of a wonderful poem by John Donne that ends, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.” And there are a lot of other titles taken from poems. I’m dying to write a book and call it “The Unforgiving Minute”, which is from a Rudyard Kipling poem, but I still don’t know what the book should be about.
*Go crazy – there are plenty of book titles that make little to no sense like The Sound of One Hand Clapping. (Isn’t that actually waving? And isn’t the sound it makes no sound at all? Granted, I haven’t read this book yet – it’s sitting amongst the pile waiting to be read – so maybe it makes complete sense. I’ll let you know.)

The thing about titles is the more successful a book becomes, the more brilliant the title can seem but before you know anything about a book’s success, the primary function of a title is to – like the book cover – attract the reader’s initial attention.

Blurbs
If the cover and the title have done their jobs, then the blurb is a way to seal the deal. Whether it explains exactly what the book is about, whether it eschews a traditional description for a memorable few paragraphs within the book, whether it barely resembles the book it is attempting to sell, it must be intriguing. It must ask a question that the reader is dying to know the answer to. Usually that question is, “What happens next?”

I’ve picked up plenty of books on the basis of the cover and title, only to read the blurb and then put them straight back down. It’s not always about how well the blurb is written. Sometimes it confirms what I was already thinking. Sometimes it deviates too far from what I was thinking. But I would never choose to read a book without having read the blurb first. I doubt I’m the only one.

Word of Mouth/Hype/FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
There is nothing greater for a book than to have everybody talking about it. I remember when Fifty Shades of Grey first came out (great title, by the way), everybody I knew seemed to be reading it. Nobody thought it was good but that didn’t seem to matter. It was the book that “you just had to read”. My sister was reading it. My colleagues at work were reading it. My friends were reading it. Everyone everywhere seemed to be reading it. EL James’s sales figures would seem to confirm this.

It might come as a shock, then, that I still to this day haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey. The closest I came, when the book was amongst a bunch of others available for sale in the lunch room at work, was randomly flicking to somewhere within the first third of the book, reading a few pages and being unable to stop laughing. I’d fallen for the hype when The Da Vinci Code came out and I’d sworn after that that I wouldn’t be sucked in again.

Of course, I have been sucked in plenty of times. I’ve read Twilight. I’ve read The Dressmaker. I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve read The Bone Season. All books I would never have read if it hadn’t been for the hype. Sometimes the hype is right. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s just about being able to contribute to the discussion that everybody seems to be having.

But readers respond to word of mouth, to hype, even to that fear of missing out when everyone seems to be reading the same book. It’s hard to generate. It mostly seems to be organic. But when it gets on a roll, it’s more important than the genre, the author, the cover, the title and the blurb all mixed together.

*****

As writers, if we can understand the impulses that turn browsers into buyers, our book sales might move into respectable territory. But then again, sometimes it’s all just a lucky dip.

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