Meandering Thoughts About What Makes Books Sell

What makes a book sell? Is it cover art? Word of mouth? Glowing reviews on social media sites like Goodreads or Librarything? Is it getting the occasional blog post in The Huffington Post or Slate? Is it building a framework of fans and relying exclusively on their social networks via book blogs? Or is it a combination of everything I’ve mentioned plus a sprinkling of fairy dust for good measure? The short answer is nobody has a clue.

I’m serious. Readers are a fickle bunch and the marketplace has moved online, but let’s put the behemoth known as Amazon to one side and pretend it’s thirty years ago for a minute or two. Before the Internet we had bookstores and libraries. There were no blogs, Twitter was a spastic muscle reflex caused by sitting in an uncomfortable position for too long and Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t even an itch in his father’s pants. How did we buy books back then and more importantly, why did some books sell and some didn’t?

The marketplace in those day was comprised exclusively of bookstores and here in Canada, we had tons of them. Growing up in Calgary, I used to frequent a number of bookstores because the notion of big box stores like Chapters/Indigo Books hadn’t been conceived of yet. In fact,  I’m getting emails from them now where they no longer recommend books for me to read. They’re now recommending kitchen gadgets and smelly candles.  Actually, here’s a screenshot of all the crap they now sell besides books.


I suppose this is a kind of poetic justice. I mean, if Chapters/Indigo could turn a profit as a place where you buy books and nothing more, I imagine they’d be doing that. The big box stores started killing off independent booksellers and now Amazon is killing off the big box stores. I don’t think Chapters/Indigo will be around in a few years  because, well, why should I want to buy anything listed in the above image from Chapters/Indigo when I can get it way cheaper at Walmart or Target? Moreover, I can definitely get a lot of the stuff they’re selling cheaper from Amazon as well! But back to bookstores of thirty years ago for a minute.

I do not once remember getting a flyer in the mail or seeing any advertising of any kind for the bookstores of my youth. I’m going to check with my 79 year old mum and see if she remembers advertisements for books but I think I already know the answer to that question. So, if there were thousands upon thousands of independent booksellers three decades ago, how in the world did they turn a profit? That’s a good question and I wish I knew the answer to it. Sure, there were some bookstores that went under, but I think you have to look at what kinds of competition those bookstores of yesteryear had for the public’s attention. Video games were a new thing, we didn’t have a 500 channel TV universe and again, the Internet was still fifteen years away.

So what made a book sell?  Newspapers were still a primary source of information for people – they still turned a profit thirty years ago. They had big book sections with thoughtful reviews. I imagine people didn’t deliberately buy a newspaper to read book reviews. I might read the funny pages and then when I flipped the page over, there was a book section with big headlines that might grab my attention.  Flash forward thirty years …  newspapers are dying along with their book sections. There are gazillions of book blogs nowadays but I suspect the vast majority of today’s book consumers don’t read blogs. (Sorry bloggers … you know I love you.)

Here’s a question: if the public liked to go to bookstores thirty years ago, do they now browse the aisles of Amazon like they would have in a bookstore? I mean, bookstores didn’t have search engines. As a matter of fact, if you go into a bookstore nowadays, (even Chapters/Indigo, if you can get past all the housewares they’re flogging) there are book sections: Thrillers, Mystery, Non-Fiction, Romance, Canadiana … you name it.

I honestly believe that book buying three decades ago was linked to browsing.  Book browsing was always a leisurely pursuit … I could easily spend a couple of hours in a bookstore just scanning the titles and cover art until something jumped out at me. You can browse online … but it’s really not the same, is it? I also remember that if my library didn’t have a copy of a book I’d heard was really good, then it would give me a reason to go to the bookstore and buy it for myself.

Oh and hey … if books were free at the library (and still are) why didn’t libraries of thirty years ago put booksellers out of business? I mean .. who can compete with free, right? Or nearly free. Amazon sells books way cheaper than anyone else on Planet Earth. They’re so successful because they made books about the price instead of about the book. I repeat: Amazon made books about the price instead of about the book. Think about that for a second.

The reason people buy anything is because of what I call “the consumer buying equation”. It’s as follows:

Benefit (what’s in it for me)

_____________     = Value (I am now buying because I see value)

Price (how much it costs)

In order for people to buy, they have to see value. The way that high end products (read: expensive) manage to sell is because they’re not selling product. They’re selling “what’s in it for me?” A high end car means that you’ve made it in life. A $5000 purse means that you have a $5000 purse when all your friends bought their purses at the mall for $300. You now belong to an exclusive club of people! Voila!

See … books are different because books aren’t product. But they are. But they’re not. Okay, books are goods and they’re not goods. I think Amazon figured that out early on. I think they managed to turn books into products along the same line as any other consumer product. Never mind that books (even shitty ones) are art. Forget about the fact that a book takes years to write and that any traditionally published book that Amazon lists represents a collaboration between author, agent and editor. There aren’t any factories where books are being pumped out off an assembly line like the Model T. No wait .. there is! It’s Amazon’s self publishing arm!

I don’t want to sound fatalistic about the industry. I think there will always be books for people to read. I just wish it wasn’t so damned hard to compete with Amazon these days. I wish Chapters/Indigo would stop trying to sell me toaster ovens and I wish that I didn’t have to spend so much time trying to get people to read my stuff. I wish that I could get a review in my local paper. I wish that I didn’t have to Tweet so much or blog so much or arrange blog tours and do giveaways to people because it’s obligatory on the part of an author to do these things. I wish I didn’t see the words “check out my book haul” from bloggers who seem more interested in talking about all the free shit they got from authors who are struggling to make a name for themselves every time I sign onto Twitter. I wish there wasn’t so much self published crap (yes there are some good self-pubbed books, but most is shit) that I have to compete with now on Amazon because Amazon are the only ones making money. (Flood the market with self published books and skim pennies off the millions that you sell because you own the infrastructure to sell the self published books.)  I wish there were bookstores to browse in my community. We’ve really only got a couple left here in Saskatoon. I wish that my agent didn’t have to work so hard and I wish that more people would just stop buying online and buy the way they did 30 years ago.

I also wish more people were reading books because I don’t think they are – at least not in my country – what about yours?

I do have a way to get more young people reading though. It involves pizza coupons. I would have read the Holy Bible when I was fifteen if it meant a free pizza. Why aren’t there pizza coupons in the back of YA books?

(I’m serious about pizza as a book promotion tool and will be doing an experiment to see if I’m not entirely insane … or desperate.)

Anyway … I’ll keep writing. Maybe one day I’ll strike gold, get new hair and a fur coat.

UPDATE: talking with bloggers online about this post has given me another idea – maybe independent bookstores could sponsor book browsing clubs at local schools. Then book discussion groups, pizza … just thinking outside the pizza box here.

UPDATE part Deux: This was brought to my attention by @cheffojeffo on Twitter: Genius Pizza Joint offers Free Slices in Exchange for Education.


10 thoughts on “Meandering Thoughts About What Makes Books Sell

  1. Great post, Sean! I remember a few bookstores in our town when I was young, or store with book sections. I could browse for hours! Heck, my beta reader and I still do, but we only have one store big enough to do it in.
    I never, ever looked at reviews. I still don’t. I pick a book off the shelf and test read. Or click the handy “look inside” button online.
    What’s the fate of our Word World? I’m not sure, but I will always read, and I will always write.

  2. so true about the what amazon did with books. Pizza and a book… you might be onto something 🙂 I don’t know of any independent book stores in my area. There are a few used book stores, but even they are suffering because it is so much easier and cheaper to buy online. Used book stores sell books 1/2 off the cover price, but you can go find an online bookseller selling it for $.01 + $3 shipping and you don’t have to leave your house. I miss browsing too.

  3. Good observations, Sharon. See … I think bookstores need to make book browsing the “in” think, you know? Our big local indie bookseller here in Saskatoon is McNally Robinson Booksellers. They really do think outside the box.

  4. Yep, what you said. I’m becoming increasingly dejected, wondering whether it’s really worth all the poverty and misery to achieve my dream of being a successful – as well as published – writer. I’m sick of having to think about book sales (or in my case the lack of them) and how to obtain them, and what works and what doesn’t. As the corny old phrase goes, I just want to write.

    What used to make me buy books in the ‘old days’? Yes, it was browsing. Initially I joined ‘The Book of the Month Club’ (now that was a long time ago!) and browsed their mag for books I wanted – hardbacks at that time. Then it was bookshops, and endless browsing for maybe my whole lunch break. I could spend many hours in a SF bookshop – and sometimes did. I borrowed library books as well, but there were many books I wanted to own, to read again. And there still are. Mostly I borrowed library books of non-fiction, but when I did take out fiction books that again was from browsing, from looking through the shelves, taking my time and picking up those that sounded interesting.

    I suppose the contemporary method with Amazon is looking at ‘people who bought this book also bought’, or looking at the top selling books, but there’s no real replacement for those bookshop and library shelves, is there?

  5. I don’t know what the answer is – I used to love browsing at Barnes and Noble and then they just added too much other stuff and not enough books. Plus, it seems like they were always pricey – unless I could find something on the bargain shelves.

    I don’t mind paying more at an Indie store, but I’m not paying more at a big box. I’ll even order something and wait from an Indie store – B&N, not so much. Plus, B&N just doesn’t stock a lot of interesting books anymore – it’s all about the bestsellers.

    I do like browsing at the library, but, again, they aren’t really focused on things outside of the mainstream, so I go there for series books that I don’t want to wait for the paperback. Because, unless I’m going to read something more than once, I’m not shelling out for the hardcover.

    I used to browse using various book clubs and buying my books that way, but I really like the convenience of an eReader. For one thing, I can buy books and have them right away, so I’m never without a book. For another, I can adjust the font, which is a real plus for my middle-aged eyes. And it’s just a more comfortable reading experience, especially for longer books. I do still buy ‘real’ books if it’s something that I want to own and look at though, just not as many as I used to. Because – the space, oh, the space. I just can’t cram any more books into my house.

    I don’t think that books will ever go away and I don’t know that it was any easier to catch a break 30 years ago either. At least this way, there IS a way past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. If not self-publishing (because for every great book, there is a 1,000 terrible books), at least through the indie publishers.

  6. I used to buy from the scholastic books catalogs when I was a kid. Once I was older I joined a couple of book clubs. I would buy books recommended from friends and family. I still do. Now that I have started back writing I have bought a ton of books from authors that I have met either online or at a writer’s conference. I think now is one of the best times for author’s. They have more control and more options than ever before. True, there are some terrible books that are self-published, but in the past the good self-published may have never have seen the light of day because a “gate-keeper” didn’t like it.

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