Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How People Buy Books

Here is some interesting information found in David Wolverton's Daily Kick in the Pants: Writing a First Chapter:

Sol Stein, a famous editor, once made an informal study with several other editors who lurked in bookstores in New York, watching potential customers pick up books.

Customers, as you know, will typically be interested in a book based on the cover and title.

They might flip to the back of a book to see what kinds of blurbs other authors or critics might have given the book--but probably not. The cover and title are what they focus on. In fact, recently I was selling a children's book called Rindin the Puffer at some Christmas festivals. I'm very proud of the cover quotes on our book, but I found that of over 500 sales, only two consumers bothered to read them!

After glancing at the cover, the readers then open the book and read a bit. Stein says that his editors found that in every single case, the customer made a choice to buy the book that they browsed through based upon the first three pages. In fact, he found that some ninety percent of the buyers read only the FIRST page.

David Wolverton, of course, was using to say that authors need to write a very engaging first page or three. While that's true, I also think we need to look at why people read so little before deciding to buy.

At least for me, I use the back cover description of the book to decide whether or not to buy the book. If I'm not sure, reading the first few pages might be what decides me one way or the other. However, more often, I've already decided that the idea is intriguing, I just want to find out if the author's writing is a style I'll enjoy reading for 200-800 pages. Some styles turn me off, and the book goes back onto the shelf. Others engage me, and I'd be ready to read practically anything by the author because I enjoy the writing so much. After reading the book to make sure it lives up to its promise, I'm willing to buy the next one sight unseen. Other styles don't engage me as much, so I might buy one book by the author but not another.

I'm pointing this out because I think we often forget that agents and editors are readers, too. Our novels may be publishable, but truly "not right" for that agent because she doesn't want to spend hours reading and working on a story with a style that she doesn't like. If we aren't willing to spend money on a book which might be good, but we don't like the style, then why get angry at agents who don't want to spend their limited time on a book for the same reason?

On the other hand, I'll admit that it can be supremely frustrating to not know if a rejection is due to different reading tastes or a fatal problem with the manuscript.

No comments: