Here's a question for you: what makes you decide to buy a particular book? For me as a reader, it could be one or more of a number of factors:
1. I’ve heard good things about it from someone I trust, be that a review site or a friend.
2. I’ve interacted with the author in some way that didn’t involve them trying to sell me their book.
3. It’s by an author I know I like, and/or it’s been released by a publisher whose other books I’ve enjoyed.
4. It’s on sale so I figure it’s worth giving it a shot.
5. I needed something to read in a hurry and this one caught my eye in the bookstore (physical or virtual).
As I approach the point where I’ll become a published author myself, I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit: what I, as a reader, do and don’t like when it comes to interacting with authors. And I think it’s noticeable that none of the contributing factors I’ve listed above are a result of direct self-promotion on the author’s part. Price clearly plays its part, but most of what sways me towards buying a book is to do with trust. OK, yes, and impulse buying – I’m an avid reader, it would be surprising if I didn’t pick up random books on a semi-regular basis. But in the main, I buy a book because I trust the author, the publisher and/or other readers.
So how does that trust develop? Traditional publishing is the, er, traditional method; in theory, readers should be able to trust that the books being released by traditional publishers are worth reading. I don’t want to get into a publishing route debate here, so I’ll just note that (1) this method does work for me as a reader, in that there are certain publishers whose new books I’m highly likely to check out, based on their output in the past (and I consider myself lucky that my own publisher is one of them); but (2) I certainly don’t limit myself to trad pub releases, because I have other ways to find books and authors I trust. That’s the beauty of today’s publishing world from a reader perspective – it has opened up so many doors.
So what are those other ways of building trust? There’s word of mouth, and there’s what the author him- or herself does online. Word of mouth is obviously an important one: if my friend or my favourite review site is raving about a particular book, I’m much more likely to pick up a copy myself. You might think that a similar principle extends to Amazon or Goodreads reviews – overwhelmingly positive reviews are another reason to trust the book, right? Well, actually, that isn’t the case for me, because I have no reason to trust the reviewers. They might be the author’s friends and family. They might have completely different taste from me. When it comes to a review, my trust is based solely on the content of that review, not on the star rating. If a reviewer has written eloquently and specifically enough about why he or she liked or disliked the book, my own feeling towards the book may be affected accordingly. But that’s very much a secondary form of trust. So for me as a reader, Amazon reviews aren’t nearly as important as authors might think.
And then we come to the author’s own behaviour. There are some writers who I know through being a writer myself – I’ve connected with them on writing sites or social media. I’m highly likely to buy their books because I know and like the people themselves. But for those writers with whom my relationship is reader–author, rather than author–author, what is it that makes me trust them? What is it that would drive me to buy their book after interacting with them on Twitter or visiting their website? Well, here are a few features of the authors who have got me to do just that:
Then there are other behaviours that seem to be accepted marketing wisdom, but leave me pretty much indifferent as a reader. Perhaps controversially, these include giveaways. Or rather, the kind of giveaways that bombard me with chances to WIN THIS NEW BOOK without going to the effort of explaining what the book is and why I’d like it. I’ve seen authors use giveaways very effectively as one component in a promo campaign – an enticement that’s backed up by more substantial content on a blog or website or wherever. But without that … well, let’s just say that I’ve entered various giveaways that weren’t backed up by anything else, and the number of books I’ve gone on to buy as a result is precisely zero – except in those cases where I was already intending to buy the book featured in the giveaway. I realise that often, the point for the author isn’t to sell books so much as it is to gain new fans, but a Facebook like or a Twitter follow is cheap – and since I’m the kind of reader who only joins a mailing list if I’m genuinely interested in the author, a giveaway won’t convince me to sign up for someone’s newsletter. Just like all tools, their effectiveness depends on their use.
Overall, it’s pretty clear to me that there’s no one magic bullet. As a reader, I prefer to engage with authors who are literate, professional, interesting to be around. Whose work is recommended by a friend or a reviewer or a publisher. Who seem like genuine people instead of relentless selling machines. I trust those authors to give me a good reading experience. And I think that’s what it all comes down to: a question of trust.
Still, I’m just one reader. What convinces you to buy a book?