I read that there are eight reasons why people buy books. Do any of them apply to you?
1. Immediate entertainment.
2. Future entertainment (stocking up)
3. Obligation to read (e.g., a school assignment)
4. Social pressure (everybody is reading and talking about it)
5. To look smart (status “symbolitus”).
6. Need for a gift.
It would first appear that the list is not in order of highest in demand, but on second thought maybe so.
More interesting might be a list of why we don’t get to the books we do buy. We buy them, bring them home, and later we rediscover them and make the second commitment to read them. And again they sit. There seems to a disconnect between what motivates us to make the purchase and what subsequently drives us to open the cover and start to read it.
I think one of the primary reasons for the disconnect between purchase and actually reading a book has more to do with the discovery that the book is not quite what you thought it was going to be. My bookshelves are filled with good intentions, or perhaps mismatched expectations—books that by the time I got past the first few chapters they failed to match the expectations I had for them. The promises made on the back cover were not fulfilled.
Part of the blame for that is the long history of the way books are marketed—to appeal to your vanities or promise to fulfill your needs. But you actually do have to read them; and you actually do have to think about what you read as you read—trash reading for airport waiting areas excepted. But more importantly, telling readers the hows of anything doesn’t work if the readers make little or no effort at implementation. Acquiring knowledge has never been an easy task, but too often books are sold on the basis that they are going to make that effort easy and quick. Just take a look at the books on the table nearest the entry in most books stores.
It’s human nature to want every job or chore to be easy, so why not reading? We forget that even the easiest book about becoming or learning or changing or improving ourselves in some fashion requires the follow up—implementation, i.e., action. Books won’t make you better at this or that; at best they provide a blueprint or plan, or point you in the right direction. You have to adopt or adapt and then execute before any true benefit is achieved.
It’s ironic. Books are meant to be read, but they are marketed pretty much like other vanity products—those things that promise to instantly solve a problem, produce some desired improvement, of make you a better person generally, or become the one you want to be. In that regard, you can see how books have a lot in common with makeup and clothing.
Reading requires thinking but marketers want you see an instantaneous opportunity to get something or somewhere effortlessly. This doesn’t make publishers evildoers; it makes them like everybody else trying to sell something. In fact, most marketers don’t want you wandering around thinking. You’re likely to come up with the wrong answer—“What the hell do I need this for?” Most things, including books, are sold by appealing to your emotions or vanities. Their marketing targets that part of your being subject to being easily convinced that a want is actually a need. I’m not talking about necessities, but products that are voluntary purchases that target wants—real or perceived. You can’t be critical of publishers for doing what they do. Each of us has likely used the same technique to sell our parents on buying something we wanted . . . err . . . needed.
It’s a two-stage process: The seller targets some potential connection (typically emotional) and then primes you to convince yourself that whatever it is it’s something you need, not just want. We could call it self-imposed hucksterism. Of course, advertising and marketing are designed to assist you in making the emotional connection to a product or service that ultimately leads to a purchase decision.
The reality: there’s been a general decline in book readership, and readers’ attention to a given book is pretty much used up in the first 40 percent of the text. If you can hold them past that point, there’s a chance they’ll finish the book. But who cares if you actually finish the book. Booksellers are primarily interested in the immediate sale. Ideally you’ll become a return customer and some booksellers try to drive an ongoing interest and commitment to an author’s works.
There’s been a lot of time and money spent on making that initial sale, and as result of the growth in market research, you don’t just market a book, you target the market for your book. Who is most likely to read this and where do I find them and how do I reach them?
Here’s the scary thought to authors, from one source on book marketing: “There is also the phenomenon of the debut author who sells well, but whose second book flops. Readers analytics can show if completion rates were low despite good sales, which means the author did not build up a loyal audience who will buy his or her second book.”
I wonder if Mark Twain worried about such analytics. And just how do you overcome such negative potentials?
So the problem isn’t the need to market books, but how books are marketed? If you treat something like a commodity, it becomes a commodity. The best way to sell something is to make sure the something solves a problem. Make it specialized, or unique in some fashion! If there is no problem that a book solves, you need to create one. If you don’t solve a problem, then your book must make the reader a better person.
Oh you think all this sounds scary? Try this: “There are many paths to becoming a best seller, but word of mouth is a powerful one. For that to get going, buyers reading the book is [usually the] basic requirement, and now we can actually measure if a book is creating that level of engagement before it is published. Where a book shows great promise, we might wish to up the marketing spent on getting the viral feedback loop going on social networks and in reading clubs across the world.” That’s from an article by Andrew Rhombert on digitalbookworld.com.
Maybe someone will re-discover hiring people to walk around wearing sandwich boards that hawk products or services can generate book sales. But we don’t have storefronts anymore either, so that probably wouldn’t work. I can almost hear Professor Harold Hill planning his career change from selling band instruments and uniforms to hawking self-help books on how to start a boys’ band.
And you thought it was just about writing a good story! Maybe we need to focus on why people buy books and write stories that they might want to buy. Use the list at the beginning of this piece as a checklist of writer compliance. Would that constitute pandering? Probably.
Then there’s the idea of writing something because you are drawn to an idea and think there’s a wonderful story to be told about it. In that case, work on telling your wonderful story wonderfully. The rest might just fall into place.