Why buy?

For all the time we spend talking about marketing and social media and discoverability, we don’t necessarily have much more than gut instinct to go on.  X works, Y doesn’t, prevailing wisdom says, but do we really even know?  The one thing we’re all confident of is that word of mouth is effective, probably so much more so than everything else.  But every once in a while, I like to stop and think about why I’ve chosen to read something.

The other day a client of mine got a not-yet-revealable blurb that made think, “Huh.  I think I’d actually buy a book with that blurb on it.”  Which underscores just how little they impact my choices.  I think I once bought a book because an intern recommended it to me and it had a blurb by an author I love, but blurbs alone don’t do it for me.  I still think they’re incredibly valuable for a million other reasons (the blurber might mention the book later, it helps to grab the attention of people along the chain between editorial and the customer, lends credibility, etc.).  But I don’t typically buy because of them.

I do buy books because of Twitter.  Usually it’s a critical mass question.  If everyone in publishing is reading something, I buy it (and eventually read it, though I’ll admit not always speedily).  Gone Girl; The Fault in Our Stars; Code Name Verity; and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? all made it to my house on the strength of the wisdom of the masses/fear of being left out.  Occasionally, one tweet reveals a book so perfect for me that I’ll rush out to get it, like My Beloved Brontosaurus, which I came across in a tweet from its editor Amanda Moon (@amsciam).  By title alone I knew it was for me.  My favorite dinosaur is still the Brontosaurus, and Pluto’s my favorite planet, and no lousy scientists with their knowledge are going to change that.  I not only bought it, I pre-ordered it (which I never do out of a combination of cheapness and impatience), and ordered one for a dino-obsessed friend’s upcoming birthday.

As someone who used to license first serial (periodical excerpt) rights for the agency, I always wondered how well magazine coverage translated to sales.  The trouble is the newspaper or magazine wants something that works in its own right.  But recently I read what was either an excerpt or an article referencing The Age of Edison, and I was really intrigued.  When I spotted the book at B&N the next day, I grabbed it.  Conveniently, it turned out to be my book club book for DGLM’s next book club meeting.

I do sometimes read the books that hit all the best of lists at year end, but I will admit that it’s an imperfect source for me.  It brings books to my attention, but I judge them with a critical eye before deciding whether to buy.  I’ll be reading Just Kids this weekend, which I kind of sort of thought about buying when everyone was talking it up, but never did till it became the selection for my book club.  Likewise, Beautiful Ruins abounded on the lists in December, but I didn’t read that till my book club decided I had to.

Incidentally, I adore the cover of Beautiful Ruins.  It called to me from everywhere.  But I resisted buying it because it didn’t sound like a book I’d like so much as it looked like a book I’d like.  So I’ll pick a book up for its cover, but it’s not a guarantee that I’ll actually take it home.  Until I had to, I just didn’t.  And for what it’s worth, I thought it was wonderful and well worth the read.

Word of mouth is really hit or miss for me.  It depends entirely on the mouth.  And there are recommendations I’ll take from someone and others I’ll disregard, if I think it’s clear the book doesn’t fall in the center of the Venn diagram of our tastes.  I have definitely at times chosen not to read something, based on who I know who loves it.

So I guess in the end I’m much more about critical mass than anything else.  Given enough reasons, I’ll pick something up, even if I’ve previously decided not to read it.  Why do you buy?  What works for you, and what decidedly doesn’t?

11 Responses to Why buy?

  1. Joelle says:

    I’ve only recently started buying books in hardback. The truth is, I didn’t think I could afford them, and so I always used the library. Now, I’ve come to think that it’s important for me as an author to actually try and buy a book or two each month, just to support other authors. I pretty much base my choice on two things: Does the library have it (or have it on order)? If so, even if there’s a long list, I wait. And: Is it by someone I already love to read?

    If Jandy Nelson released a book, I would buy it without a single review or recommendation because I think The Sky Is Everywhere is one of the best YAs to come out in years. I also bought A.S. King’s new book because I loved Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Because my budget is limited, I really try to get sure bets and the easiest way to do that is to buy authors I already love. I know that’s not so nice for new authors, but I read a lot of them from the library and if I like them, I’m more likely to buy their next book.

    Sometimes though, I will take a chance on someone new based on buzz or an interview. I recently wanted to buy Aaron Hartzler’s Rapture Practice after reading an interview from a Twitter link. But to be honest, the fact we share the same agent, and I heard him on Sara Zarr’s podcast probably was the deciding factor and so I purchased it. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m thinking I’m going to love it.

    I’ll pick up a library book because of a blurb, but I need more to purchase it.

    • Lauren says:

      Very interesting, Joelle! I will confess I never use the library and haven’t much since I was a kid/student. Having spent my whole professional life working in bookstores and an agency, I feel really guilty if I’m not spending quite a bit of money on books. But I bet I’d have a tiered system of Will Read v Will Buy if not!

  2. CabSav says:

    Critical mass doesn’t work for me. I find that just because a lot of people like a book doesn’t necessarily mean I will.

    Blurbs don’t have much impact either, unless I a) know the blurber (by reputation), b) know that they don’t recommend books lightly, c) like their work, and d) the blurb interests me.

    Best-seller lists don’t work for me either.

    I get most of my books through a combination of advertising, word-of-mouth and author sites.

    Plain, old-fashioned advertising dispensed through modern methods like the intranet is good. Put the book in front of me often enough and if it piques my interest I’ll finally look at it.

    I like reviews — Amazon and GoodReads. I also like places like John Scalzi’s Big Idea, where the author talks about the book.

    The final decider for me every time though, is the first chapter. I can’t think of a book I have bought in the last two years where I didn’t pop onto a site like Amazon first and read the first pages.

    • Lauren says:

      That’s always the answer I want to hear–that you let the work speak for itself. It’s funny, but I actually never do it myself! I think it feels a little too much like reading queries to me, so I just go for it and hope for the best.

  3. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    I find twitter blurbs are mostly just writers and agents talking back to each other; the public per se still gets most of their recommends from People Magazine and Entertainment Weekly, so that’s where I’d work to put a copy of anything I’d just sold. Bookstores have always been great places to hear about new stuff, but since outfits like B&N are cashing out for the 1% and other chains are slow to fill the gap, that’s not so great anymore unless you can find a Target employee who knows how to read…

    • Lauren says:

      Totally agreed that Twitter book talk (nearly all public book talk, I find) is interested parties. But my question is: where do you decide what to read yourself? Do you get tips from People and EW, or are you finding things from another source?

      • Kevin A. Lewis says:

        Hmmm…Interesting question. I pick up tips from EW, PW, (although Publishers Weekly is a lot less informative and interesting than it was about half a decade ago) and the New shelf at the library-since Borders collapsed and B&N decided to commit suicide for the insurance money, our part of CA is now nearly bookstore free. Of course, one sometimes picks up buzz from blogs like this one, of course. Teen and YA Authors Daily is occasionally interesting, although most of it is just authors plugging their stuff to an audience of other authors. Reading between the lines of the NYT bestsellers is fun, though far from an exact science…

  4. Lynn says:

    I don’t pay much attention to lists, blurbs or reviews. I buy books by my favorite authors without reading anything about the story, I just know I’m going to enjoy whatever they write (usually). The way I buy my other books is a step by step process.

    The book cover is the first step. Something about the cover has to pique my interest: the title, the colors, the subject matter, cover photo, etc.

    Once I have the book in hand, I’ll read the back cover. If it sounds interesting, I’ll read the inside jacket to find out more. Half the time I’ll abandon the book before I finish reading the jacket.

    If I do finish, I’ll open the book and go to the first page. This is where it’s a make or break deal. That first page is enough for me to know if I’m going to like the book or not and nine times out of ten, I know just from reading the first paragraph. Most books I pick up don’t get past that first page, but if it does, more than likely that book will be coming home with me.

    • Lauren says:

      Once again, I love readers letting the book speak for itself! Page one is a tough standard–do you find that you do tend to love what you buy, or does that method ever lead you astray?

      Ever since I realized that I’m disproportionately predisposed to covers that are blue, I stopped trusting that as my go to, but it can’t help but be persuasive to me when done right.

  5. Anonymous says:

    What I initially pick up at the store depends a lot on the cover, I’m ashamed to admit. At lest, this is the case when it comes to fiction. I need an artsy cover to call out to my psyche, and then I’ll pick it up.

    That first page is a huge factor for me. After spending some time as a slush pile reader at DGLM, the first page became critical. Sure, I would give writers a page or two of my attention usually, but if that first page was a train wreck, the expression on my face would reflect my every-growing concern about the author’s sanity. In a bookstore, if that book made it that far, that first page, nay, that first paragraph had better rock my world otherwise I’m moving on.

    I also prefer to see covers staring at me on stacks on a table versus hiding from me sideways on a shelf. What are you hiding? Look at me. Look me right between the eyes and tell me that I will be happy that I bought you.

  6. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    I couldn’t agree more, although when I worked in a bookstore (15 years at Borders) I always gave it two. I forced myself to do the first chapter of Harry Potter because of all the buzz and was glad I did, but I always make sure my rockets get off the launching pad with no sideslips or misfires. And a catchy title is as important as a great cover; I’ll never forget one of Anne Rice’s best vampire books that sank quietly out of sight because it was called “Vittorio the Vampire”, which is probably the most pedestrian name this side of “Assorted Supernatural Thrills, one 16 oz. box.” I’ll always wonder what she was on when she came up with that one.

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