The Biggest Mystery in Publishing

What sells books?  Not who, but what?

This is one enigma for which opinions vary from publisher to publisher, agent to agent, media expert to media expert, and often writer to writer.

With all these opinions, though are very few facts or scientific data. How does anyone say with any authority what sells books? Is it the New York Time Bestseller list? Another list? Amazon’s online tools? Press releases? An author’s reputation? Media buzz? A movie version made and released? A clever title? A fancy cover? Word of mouth via social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, or Shelfari? Is it some or all of these? Or is it none of them?

Since it indeed a mystery to the publishing industry at large, I will address this with one opinion, my own, naturally. In other words, I will provide evidence of why I buy books and then ask you to do the same.

Clarification. The following is why I “buy” books, not necessarily what books I have finished reading or recommend to others.

In order from top reason, to bottom reason:

  1. I’ve read a previous book in a series by the same author and eagerly await the next installment. (e.g. Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss)
  2. I’ve read a previous book by the author and liked the story telling enough to buy other works. (e.g. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, Under the Dome by Stephen King)
  3. I’ve read a previous book in a series by the same author, am behind in the series, and have several more to read to catch up. (Brotherhood of the Wolf by David Farland)
  4. A recommendation from family or friends in a genre I like. (Harry Potter series)
  5. A breakout author in one of my preferred genres that is generating great reviews and buzz (The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Elantris by Brandon Sanderson)
  6. A recommendation from family or friends in a genre I don’t normally read. (The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho)
  7. A classic in my preferred genre recommended by online reviews or ‘best of’ lists (Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams)
  8. Random browsing in bookstores or online bookstores. I tend to find new writing books this way, not fiction. (e.g. Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld)

Okay, clearly the books I buy AND read tend to come from the top four or five reasons. Books from the bottom three reasons are books I purchased with intent to read, but did not finish either the book or series because it wasn’t compelling enough in some way or I had books from the top of the list I preferred to read first.

Reason #8 has been nearly all non-fiction and I read those topically as needed, not straight through like a novel.

Now let’s discuss #8.

Why is #8 last on the list?

What about an unfamiliar book or author on a bookstore shelf or in an online catalog can overcome our buyer’s defenses and help us decide to buy it?

Here are some thoughts on why books sell off the rack or online catalog in no particular order.

  • Book is on the shelf (or catalog section) of one of your favorite genres
  • Book is displayed so you can see the full front cover and title
  • The title is intriguing
  • The cover is interesting
  • The back cover blurb/synopsis interests you
  • The cover reviews increase your interest
  • You read the first few pages and the story pulls you in.
  • Either a bookstore employee or an online catalog recommends the book
  • Positive online reviews from others who have read the book

Which of the nine reasons compel you to buy a book from a new/unfamiliar author?  (select all that apply)

Thank you for your participation. Check back often and see what others rank as their reasons for buying books from authors they haven’t yet read.

While there are many reasons we ‘buy’ books, I don’t think we’re any closer to what ‘sells’ books.  And so it remains the biggest mystery in publishing.



5 responses to “The Biggest Mystery in Publishing

  • Stephen A. Watkins

    Yeah, so potentially any of these reasons could lead me to buy a book. But what really makes it work: more than one of these things going at once.

    I’d say general buzz is probably the best reason (genre-specific buzz, to be sure). If a lot of folks whose opinions I generally respect are saying that so-and-so is doing some great writing, or that such-and-such is a really spectacular book, then the seed of desire has been planted in me, and I will slowly find myself wanting this book.

  • Mark J. Taylor

    I actually can’t remember the last time I bought a fiction book by simply browsing the racks of a physical bookstore. I did find new authors this way by browsing library shelves. In fact, I got started reading Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, Robert Aspirin, Jack L. Chalker, from simply discovering them in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of the local library as a teen.

    However, I intend to try a few new fantasy authors based on their web sites, status as self-published authors, and a combination of presence on the Kindle bestseller lists and good reader reviews. I don’t have a Kindle, so I’ll likely buy a POD version.

  • E-Book Magic

    As a non-fiction writer and reader when I did browse the shelves of a bookstore I looked at the titles first. If it was catchy in some way I would then look at the cover, flip it over and then read the blurb(s) on the back. I would then open it up and read a random page. Then I would smell the book.

    Just joking!

    But if I like what I read in my random check I would usually buy the book if it wasn’t too costly.

    Authors were a little bit lucky in that regard. As ebook authors, e-readers can leave reviews and it can help or hurt sales. With a printed book I had to use my own instincts unless the book had a lot of people vouching for it such as:

    This is a masterpiece! – Ron Johnson, Detroit Free Press

  • E-Book Magic

    Correction: If I liked what I read…

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