>Books — why we buy them and how.


Louise and Dave’s Posts about genre and sales of hardcover versus paperback books got me thinking about why people buy books and how. So I surveyed the Vision E-list. Since these people are readers and writers of Speculative Fiction, I thought they’d be a good example of dedicated readers.

Here’s a snap shot of readers:

Q: Why do you buy certain books?

Most people buy books on a recommendation or they like the author’s work. Brooke B said she’d buy a book if ‘ the back cover blurb gave me goosebumps’. Lee C is currently buying books to fill in gaps in their reading. And yes, people do browse and buy, after reading the first few pages, then skipping to the last page.

Q: Do you prefer certain genres?

While everyone did have favourite genres, these ranged from two or three related genres, to a broad spectrum, including mysteries, paranormal romances, historical and factual books. In fact, Nicky S described herself as a ‘book omnivore’.

Q: Would you follow a favourite author across genres?

Everyone said they would follow a favourite author across to other genres and Nicky S, bless her, said she has even discovered author’s alternate writing names and hunted up their books!

Q: Do you read books for kids and YA or do you stick to adult books?

Here the split was quite definite, a little less than half read only adult. But, Scott R said, it wasn’t that he didn’t like YA, only that there were so many good adult books around, he didn’t have the time to get through them. The others (slightly more than half) read YA and kids books and loved them. Sally N reads more YA than anything else.

Q: Do you pick a book up because of its cover?

Only two people said no, because they were looking for specific authors and titles. Everyone else said a good cover would prompt them to pick up the book, then it was up to the blurb and the writing to convince them to buy it. Sue B says a bad cover will turn her off looking at a book, and she always reads the first couple of pages anyway. No one would you buy a books for the cover art alone, although Sally N will buy a graphic novel. (Being an artist, I must confess I’ve bought books for the cover alone).

Q: Do you buy most of your books based on the recommendations of friends?(My question was flawed, I should have asked if people had bought some books based on friends’ recommendations).

Satima F said her friends loan books to introduce a new author, or she might borrow a recommended book from the library. Sue B says she always tries to borrow the book first , and has to love it before she will buy it (she’s running out of book shelf space!). Most people would consider a book a friend recommended.

Q: Do you ask bookstore staff for good reads?

I was surprised by the answers to this one, because when I go into our local independent book store (Pulp Fiction), I ask Iain or Ron if there are any interesting books that push the genre, particularly from independent publishers. But most people said they rarely or never ask book store staff for recommendations. Kylie Q found that staff were too busy or didn’t know anything, which is sad. Edwina H said she did read the ‘staff reviews’ on the shelves.

Q: Do reviews (good or bad) prompt you to buy books?

It is just as authors fears. All those review copies our publishers send out don’t reel in the readers. Only a few of the people surveyed would look at book after reading a good review, some actively ignore reviews. Graham S took an interest in reviews but only for scientific non-fiction. And S Wilson would buy a book if the review revealed interesting details.

Q: Would you wait for a paperback version or would you buy hardcover?

Most people were like Karen T, who said she would usually wait and wouldn’t buy hardcover unless she wanted it NOW.

Q: Do you prefer hardcover to paperback?

Four out of every five people said no. Although, Nicky S said she preferred hardcover because HC were easier to read while lying in bed. Edwina H said she preferred paperback because they were more portable.

Would you buy book two of a trilogy if you didn’t have book one?

Many people would definitely not buy book two if they didn’t have book one, or would only buy it by accident. Brooke B said she would buy book two if she was sure she could still get book one. And Edwina H would check to see if book two had a discrete story, before buying it. AJ Kay would buy book two if it was on special, then wait until they could get book one before reading them in sequence.

Q: Would you wait for all of a trilogy to come out before buying it?

Most people were willing to read the books as the trilogy came out. S Wilson would buy book one, read it and feel frustrated until book two came out. Really dedicated readers like Scott R would buy the trilogy, but wouldn’t read it until they had all three books. I have to admire his strength of will.

Q: Would you prefer an omnibus edition of a trilogy?

Most people wouldn’t buy an omnibus because the printing is too small and they get sore wrists because the book is too heavy. I must admit I’ve bought collected works in omnibus form but these tend to be classic editions.

Q: Do you visit independent books stores?

Nearly everyone visited independent book stores. Edwina H preferred them because they had better range and the staff had a good knowledge of their stock. Some people didn’t visit independent book stores due to distance. Kylie Q would have to catch two buses to get to one. Graham S lived even further. His local book store is 150 kilometres away. And Dave F had to drive for 5 hours to get to his nearest independent books store.

Q: Do you mainly buy from chain book stores?

Brooke B confessed she worked for a chain store and gets a discount, so she buys her books there. And about half the people surveyed bought most of their books from chain stores.

Q: Do you buy your books mostly online and get them delivered?

Half the readers don’t buy online. The other half do, especially if they are after something that is hard to get. Living 150 Ks from a book store, Graham S buys on line and gets his books delivered. Sally N orders books on line because she likes looking forward to something fun in her letter box. And Lee C, who prefers audio books, buys these online and downloads them.


  1. >Thank you Rowena. A word of caution (your fisheries scientist speaking): These are no readers who are typical of the general public or even reading public, but of the subset who wish to write sf/fantasy and live (mostly) in a narrow geographical area.I would so like our publishers to actually scientifically and systematically research this subject and thereafter do an informed job of aquiring, distributing and marketing. Some are good at guessing the market, but I don’t like gambling on my future. I like it less when someone else gets to do the gambling.I do think they serve to emphasise how important cover is, however.

  2. >Like Dave, I wish our publishers would do an informed job of distribution; unfortunately, in the States, most of that has been turned over to the big chains. Some of them are sensitive to regional interest, but one–the worst, and the one probably soon to go out of business–just gives every book a number. Every store receives the same number of that book, sales be damned. I’d like to think that if Borders closes, independents will step in to fill the gap they leave, but it’s not looking good for our independent booksellers. We keep trying, though.

  3. >I always support independent books stores, Louise. I know the staff by name. How nerdy is that?Dave, I agree. The big publishers seem to be working on some arcane system to sell books. It would be more scientific to do a survey.

  4. >Rowena, to play devil’s advocate here, the problem is that any statistical excercise – that is remotely worthwhile – is going to be expensive, difficult and take experts to do it (and they’re rare) and experts in both statistical interpretation and publishing to get real benefit. At this stage I suspect those are the 1:100 million range of rarity. Or publishers willing to listen to their statistician, which is both unlikely and fraught with potential disaster if it did happen. And if there is one thing worse than operating on gut feel, it’s laymen operating on bad stats (such as those provided by bookscan). For the record and without malice (I hope that people at Neilsen Bookscan and in the decisive arms of publishing do get to read this.): Bookscan is the perfect example of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) as far as anything but the coarsest reflection of numbers sold is concerned. You’d be better off predicting trends by reading entrails from sacrificial pigeons. I need go no further than cite their placement of THE TIME-TRAVELLER’S WIFE as the best selling fantasy and also sf novel (as seperate genres) when in fact it is representative of neither.

  5. >Louise, I wrote a bit more about this in my post today, but in a nutshell the numbers are probably reasonably accurate (although bookscan does not cover certain outlets). They are however fairly meaningless for at least two reasons. 1)They’re hopelessly badly categorised in genre/sub-genre terms 2)They’re a raw measure of total number sold not of numbers per effort. To give a fisheries example again: A fishery landed 10 000 tons of fish last year and 12 000 tons this year – that’s the data bookscan gives. On that basis the fishery appears healthy. BUT when you look at catch per unit effort (say measured in tonnage of vessels or diesel use) you discover that last year 10 100 ton vessels brought in 10 000 tons, and this year 50 100 ton vessels brought in 12 000tons of fish, that fishery is sick, sick, sick. So without a measure of effort the input data is of very little value. To put it book terms Louise and Dave both have books come out in May. Bookscan says Dave sold 10K and Louise 5K. Therefore bookscan suggest a publisher would be wiser to buy Dave’s books… However when we add a measure of effort (say dollars spent on editorial, cover, print run, distribution, the polite word for kickback for special display that eludes me, returns etc.) We find Dave’s publisher spent 100K, and Louise’s 10K, we find Louise’s sales per unit effort = 0.5, and that worthless bum Dave’s sales per unit effort 0.1, we know Louise is five times as good a buy as Dave. (and this is a very simple and innaccurate measure of the effect of effort) Likewise the genre/subgenre should give geographically valuable data to say a seller of romantic fantasy. But unless the books sold are correctly recorded as belonging to a specific subgenre, and then considered thoughtfully (ie. does Brownsville buy tons of romantic fantasy… or does it look that way because of one locally popular book.) it’s also near worthless.

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