Hard Cold Numbers for the Author

Self-promotion plays heavily into book sales. Why?

The first thing to study is How Readers Buy Books. Let’s take a look at some real numbers. We need a dose of hard reality.

A study in December 2011 by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Projectasked reader the simple question: “Where did you get the last book you read?” The report focused on print, audio and e-books.

Thinking about the last book you read, in any format, did you…

% of American readers age 16+, as of December 2011

Who Buys Books Pie Chart

Source: The Rise of E-Reading, published by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, April 5, 2012; http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/04/04/the-rise-of-e-reading/

  • Slightly less than half bought the book.
  • One-quarter borrowed their book at a library.
  • One-seventh received the book from another person.
  • About one-eighth reported “Other.” Theft? Gift from the author? Found in a gutter? Who knows.

Only half of all book consumption actually produces a royalty for the author. If only half of the readers actually buy the books they read, where do they buy them?

Another survey, this one from Bowker PubTrack using data from 2008 and presented in 2009, is pretty specific.

Where Book Buyers Shop

% of American readers by age

PubTrack 2009 report of book purchases

Source: Bowker PubTrack Consumer, 2009; http://www.slideshare.net/bisg/4-making-information-pay-2009-gallagher-kelly-bowker-1406744

Of those who bought the book online, most of them purchased the book from Amazon.com. Barnes & Noble’s website came in a distant second.

Of those who bought the book in bookstores, most of them purchased from a chain bookstore, with Barnes & Noble taking the lion’s share of brick & mortar book sales.

Readers buy books from retailers with very large title selections. We all love independent bookstores. However, limited sales volume and small selection at independent stores does not help authors.

The data shows, however, that many books are purchased in specialty retail stores and websites, and at author events. This should not go unnoticed by the emerging writer. Such places are ripe for getting noticed without considerable competition.

But generally, readers prefer to sift through hundreds of thousands of titles to find the ones they want to read. With so much to take in, how do they decide what to buy?

Primary Factors in Book-Purchase Decision

% of respondents deemed “Very Important”

Factors in book buying decisions

Source: Verso Digital’s 2009 Survey of Book-Buying Behaviors; http://www.slideshare.net/digitalbookworld/verso-digitals-2009-survey-of-bookbuying-behaviors

The biggest factor is the author’s name. Not good news for authors no one has heard of.

The second biggest factor is personal recommendation. Not good news for authors who have been read only by a few.

Otherwise, it seems emerging authors have to compete on price. Give the books away free until people recognize your name and they recommend your books to others.

Book reviews weigh in heavily. This is one place where emerging authors have a shot, now that book blogs have sprung up all over the internet.

So, what appeals to readers? They tend to look for books that connect with them. Mostly, they want to connect with an author or brand they have come to trust. Trust comes from familiarity. Trust does not come from great writing. This is contrary to what many writers and editors may think.

Readers do not buy books merely because they are written well. They buy the author or the concept, or both, once they come to trust the promise of a good book.

An additional factor makes it easier for nonfiction writers: people buy information they want to know, from a source they trust.

Trust, in either category, is vital. The surest way to gain a reader’s trust is by prior experience. If the reader has fallen in love with an author, a setting, a character, sometimes merely a unique sub-genre, the reader will tend to stick with that author.

One of the many maxims of marketing is that selling to one’s customer list is much easier than selling to new customers. But getting new customers is critical to an author, because without new customers, there can be no established customers, and the customer list erodes as readers die off or turn to fresh new authors.

Self-promotion is a quick and effective way to build trust. It creates a “prior relationship” with the prospective reader. Good writing then serves to keep them as readers.

Advertising, however, does not work. Self-promotion is the more efficient way to reach readers. The self-promotion mix includes reaching out to reviewers. This includes customer reviews, which combine online reviews with personal recommendations. It also includes book bloggers. These types of Web 2.0 reviewers are susceptible to friendly gestures from authors than they are to media kits from the publicists from corporate publishing houses.

Self-promotion and blind luck are really the only two ways an author can get readers to notice her in the beginning.

After that, conventional marketing and reputation take over. However, these require maintenance, or they will erode. To prevent erosion, self-promotion reinforces the trust and encourages the spread of recommendations to others, allowing the platform to grow.

What conclusions do you make from these numbers? How do they affect you as an author?

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About David Rozansky

Publisher of Flying Pen Press; Author's Business Manager; Author of Fishnets & Platforms: The Writers Guide to Whoring Your Book; Aviator; Author; Adventurer.
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