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How People Decide to (Randomly) Buy a Book

I am not an impulsive buyer, and when it comes to book buying, I am very not impulsive. Rarely will I walk into a bookstore and emerge with a book I hadn’t heard of or planned to purchase. And when I do, certain planets must be aligned.

But unless you’re familiar with an author or have been referred to them, how do you choose to buy their book?

Marketers have been asking that question for the longest. What are the “triggers” that prompt one to “randomly” purchase a book? Apart from a recognizable name (Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Nora Roberts, Anne Rice, etc.), what moves a book from shelf to Cart… especially when its author is an unknown?

Some have turned this into a virtual science. Take this comprehensive Power Point  2010 Survey of Book-Buying Behavior presented by the BEA. (Click on the numbers at the bottom of their web page to view.) Not only do they statistically break down “avid readers,” their “purchasing behavior,” and the outlets they prefer, the survey charts the “Primary Factors in Book-Purchase Decision” (see graph). As you’d expect, “Author Reputation” and “Personal Recommendation” are at the top of the list. Interestingly enough, “Price” is the next most important factor, followed by “Reviews” and, not surprisingly, “Cover Artwork / Blurbs.”

Anyway, it’s quite a fascinating business. One that can make an author feel a bit… overwhelmed.

I was reminded about this “science” while reading writer pal Brandon Barr’s recent post about selling his book at an outdoor festival. He writes:

It was fun seeing the different ways people decide if a book is for them.

  1. There are the “back of the book” readers
  2. Then there’s the cover-art-sold-me-readers (no need to read the back!)
  3. The endorsement page inspectors
  4. The read-the-first-page-readers (there were also some who opened to a random page in the middle of the book)
  5. Lastly, there were those who, of course, did some combo form of the above 4 methods

You see yourself in there, don’t you?

The gals over at Bookslut, in a post entitled How to Choose a Book by Its Cover, whittle it down to these six components:

  1. Cover artwork
  2. Cover Font
  3. Back Blurbs
  4. Description
  5. Author Photo
  6. The Spine

Finally, someone who considers The Spine! (But, truth be told, a good book with a bad spine is a lot better than a bad book with a good spine.)

Alas, all this data can seem so clinical. We’d all like to think we are unique, but the fact is, when you decide to randomly buy a book you’re probably a lot like the rest of us — a pre-programmed, prototypical consumer. Of course, my “consuming” may be slightly different than yours. So in an attempt to “self-actualize,” let me share my top three methods for deciding to randomly buy a book:

  1. Read-the-first-page
  2. Description
  3. Cover art

I almost hate to admit it, but cover art is important to me. I hate to admit it because, for the most part, the cover design of a book is out of an author’s control. Yes, good books can withstand bad covers. And bad books can unjustly benefit from good covers. The bottom line remains: Good covers sway book shoppers. For better or worse.

Description is another huge factor for me. Some descriptions will immediately get my attention, like Atmospheric and Lyrical. And if the book is “atmospheric AND lyrical,” I am hooked. Of course, some descriptions are so overused as to damage first-impressions. Words like Pulse-Pounding, Page-Turning, Poignant, Stunning, Amazing, and Magical have zero effect on this consumer. To me, those words are like the guy in the Wiener suit dancing around on the street corner trying to get folks into Wienerschnitzel. Memo to book reviewers: Find some new adjectives / dancing Wieners !

But my ultimate test for buying a book is to read the first page. That’s it. If the author can’t show me up front that they can manage words and execute a story, I’m not coughing up. No amount of endorsements, crafty blurbs, or cool covers can make up for… poor writing.

* * *

So how do you randomly decide to buy a book? Are you an impulsive book buyer, or calculated? What descriptions do you think are overused? And what are your Top Three criteria for randomly buying a book?

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Nicole July 15, 2010, 7:33 AM

    Cover art matters to me, too. It’s my first contact. On the reading tours I occasionally find a book I like which I never would’ve picked up because of the cover–which is a shame. The cover didn’t do the book justice, or the title for that matter. It’s obvious who the marketers were attempting to appeal to, but the book was so much broader than that market.

    Back cover copy first couple sentences tells me the basic story and how the copy is written tells me how the story is going to be handled. That’s it. I don’t want much revealed. If I’m not sold on those first couple of sentences, chances are I’m done with that one.

    I rarely read recommendations unless I know the kinds of novels the person reads. If they have similar tastes, I pay attention. That’s why I always ask readers what books/authors they like before recommending books to them. Someone who loves chick lit probably doesn’t have a shot at getting me to read what they rave about. Two great authors I chose because of recommendations were Tosca Lee and Sibella Giorello. I’ll read anything they write now.

  • Jay July 15, 2010, 7:43 AM

    I buy books based on recommendation and author rep. But if I were to buy impulsively, I read the first page and also the last few paragraphs. I don’t know why.

    I also check the cover art, being a graphic designer. Books released independently generally have better art because (I think I’ve said this before), the mainstream book cover design market is about a decade behind current design trends. I seriously think there’s someone completely blind giving these designs the nod.

  • Ane Mulligan July 15, 2010, 8:11 AM

    I hate to admit it, but the cover tends to be the first thing I notice – or the name if the book is spine out. Then the description. Finally, the first page. Author does come in to play. If it’s one I know and whose books I love, I don’t have to read the description. I’ll buy it flat out. 🙂

  • Nicole July 15, 2010, 8:36 AM

    [Jay, this comment makes a lot of sense to me: “Books released independently generally have better art because (I think I’ve said this before), the mainstream book cover design market is about a decade behind current design trends.” The same faces on different books, the same poses, the same color trends from different publishers: not impressive. One of the best–or at least my favorite–things about self-publishing is working with the designer to get what I wanted for the cover.]

    • Mike Duran July 15, 2010, 2:19 PM

      I dunno. I can usually spot the cover of a self-published book a mile away. Not saying the mainstream publishers are always great, but I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest self-published books are, like, better.

      • Nicole July 15, 2010, 2:45 PM

        Some self-published books blare their unprofessionalism. But the well-known custom-publishers produce books which are equal to or surpass mainstream publishers, Mike. I’ve seen some pretty poor designs, paper quality, and lots of copy editing errors from royalty publishers.

      • Jay July 15, 2010, 3:16 PM

        My logic wasn’t too clear I guess. I meant that for all nicely designed books x, most of them (that I’ve seen) are self-published ones. Certainly there’s bad design no matter what the publishing background.

  • A. J. Walker July 15, 2010, 10:39 AM

    Good post Mike!

    Like you, I stopped being an impulse book buyer a long time ago. I’ve been burned way too many times on purchasing a book, no matter how much “research” I (thought I) did while standing in the store. And with the finances being what they are…well.

    But, what draws me first is an evocative title, which I didn’t even see mentioned. I think titles are probably one of the most important things that will make me pick up a book off the shelf for a closer inspection. Then, like you, cover art. If it passes those two test, I’ll read the back cover. I rarely (if never) look at who wrote the book since that doesn’t enter into the equation. I know there are wonderful stories being told by relative unknowns so a name really doesn’t impress me. Stories impress me. Which is probably why I don’t have a “favorite” author but I do have favorite stories.

    Then, I pull out my Windows phone, writer down title and author and look it up on Amazon or a Christian site, wherever, to get a better idea of story and what others thought of the book. After that, I’ll decide whether or not on a purchase either from the brick and mortar store or on-line.

    Mmm, doesn’t seem I fit the “typical” book buyer :S

  • Jill July 15, 2010, 2:34 PM

    Cover art and title first, then first few pages. Now that I read e-books, I rely solely on the first few pages. Beautiful flowing sentences will trap me immediately–the kind Ian McEwan writes, for example. I’m only slightly obsessed with McEwan’s books. 🙂 If other books make me feel the way his do, they’re must-haves.

  • Merrie Destefano July 15, 2010, 4:35 PM

    I confess, I am an impulsive book buyer. On top of that, I frequently buy books because I’ve heard buzz about them online. Here’s what influences my impulse buys inside book stores:

    1. Placement in the store. Hate to admit it, but it really matters to me if the book is in a significant place in the store. I especially like it when a bookstore has a section set up for new voices. I rarely hunt through the book stacks unless I’m looking for something specific.

    2. The voice of the writer. I can fall in love with a book in the first line (usually not a good thing from my perspective because then the book almost never lives up to that fantastic first line), or the first page. But the writer has to grab me by the end of the first page. Also, the book can’t be too internal. There has to be some conversation in the first ten pages or I don’t want to read it.

    2. The “hook” of the book; something must set it apart from all the other books. And I almost always want a story with some sort of fantasy or sci fi element in it.

  • Tim George July 15, 2010, 7:03 PM

    I confess my introduction to Mike Dellosso was a random buy at Books a Million. The cover was great, the back cover hooked me, and the 30 minute wait for my wife as I sipped Starbucks and read the first chapter reeled me in. That’s pretty much my test for an author I’ve never read. If I can leave laying on the table with my empty coffee cup it wasn’t for me.

    Nicole, you and your novel are exceptions when it comes to self-published novels. I read and review about 100 novels a year and a too can spot a self-published a mile away.

  • Jay July 15, 2010, 7:13 PM

    Okay, maybe I’m getting skewed data. A lot of the self-pub books I’ve come across are from musicians that also write, and they tend to have access to great designers or are designers themselves.

    • Mike Duran July 15, 2010, 8:42 PM

      Jay, please don’t misunderstand me. I agree with you that the mainstream book cover design market is probably behind current design trends. There is far too much of the same. Originality does seem more rare in the mainstream than independent presses. But even a bad cover at a big house often looks better than a good cover at a small house. Maybe it has to do with resources, money… I don’t know. I just, personally, have not seen a lot of great indie press / self-published book covers.

  • Nicole July 15, 2010, 7:28 PM

    (Tim, you’re so kind. Thank you.) Not trying to hijack this post or your blog here, Mike. Let me say this: if you want truly professional self/custom published novels: do WinePress Publishing/PODdivision:Pleasant Word. They require/send out for editing, they’re first class, and their product is on a par with any royalty publisher’s product.

  • Amy @ My Friend Amy July 16, 2010, 1:03 AM

    Recommendations from trusted sources are probably my number one reason to buy a book, but I definitely impulse buy as well.

    There are certain publishers, particularly smaller presses that I trust as well.

    And blurbs work on me even though I know there’ s apparently all kinds of politics involved. If a favorite/trusted author has blurbed a book it goes a long way, at least the first time.

    I like lyrical as well another word that gets me is haunting.

    • Mike Duran July 16, 2010, 5:36 AM

      Yes, “haunting” is also one of my fave descriptors. And as much as I’ve been burned by author endorsements (good author recommending mediocre book) and know the politics of it, an author blurb carries clout. Thanks for commenting, Amy!

  • Kaci July 17, 2010, 9:41 AM

    So how do you randomly decide to buy a book?

    Depends. I’m usually coming for something specific, and if something I didn’t plan catches my eye, I consider it. But I have self-imposed rules on book-buying to keep from just going nuts.

    Are you an impulsive book buyer, or calculated?

    Usually, it’s planned. If it’s a really good deal and it’s on the list to read eventually – I might go ahead. Otherwise, I’m likely to change my mind based on my list of book-buying rules.

    What descriptions do you think are overused?

    I think you listed most of them on Facebook. Riveting, captivating, and mind-boggling are a few I’m not sure were on your list. I’m a weird reader. As long as the idea is plausible (or adequately presented as plausible), it’s not really going to shock me.

    And what are your Top Three criteria for randomly buying a book?

    This varies. I’m picky with sci-fi and fantasy, which means I mostly go by a name I recognize or a trusted recommendation source.

    -Do I recognize this author’s name?
    -Is the subject appealing to me? Why?
    -Do I trust this writer and/or the person who suggested it?

    -How much is unread right now?
    -How ‘read now’ is this impulse buy?
    -Can it wait another couple months?

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