What Sells Books Anyway?

I was in Jackson for a meeting today.  As I got down there with time to kill, I ended up stopping off at a Barnes and Noble a few miles up the road from the office.  Now, stopping in at a real brick and mortar bookstore is something I seldom have the privilege of doing these days.  We don’t have a good independent bookstore where I live, and I just don’t feel any appeal to trecking to campus for the B and N there.  I’m an online shopper–Amazon, Half.com, and a variety of other sites, depending on where Booksprice sends me with the lowest shipped price.  Consequently, a lot of the discussions I’ve read over the last year or so about what sells books (and by that token, marketing) without much more than an academic interest.  People talk about covers and titles and back blurbs.  There are discussions about getting your name out there as an author on social networking sites and maintaining a blog presence and all sorts of other ideas.

But I wasn’t thinking of any of that as I wandered the aisles after lunch.  After spending a few minutes simply going up and down the rows, enjoying that distinctive new book smell and chilling to the low key jazz playing on the intercom, I went in search of the mystery section.  What I found was a neat, alphabetized by author selection that was almost exclusively shelved spine out.  Forget seeing cover art.  The regimented lines of spines did nothing to draw the eye to a particular book.  Occasionally an eyepopping color or a cool font caught my eye, but mostly I just kind of scanned the shelves looking for names I recognized.  A few interesting titles made me pull a book to scan the back blurb or inside cover flap.

But really, if I had gone in there seriously planning to make a purchase and not knowing what I wanted, what in the world would have made my decision?  There wasn’t anything really to pull me to any one thing.  And God forbid if I’d gone in there without an idea of genre.  I could see someone getting just entirely discouraged and not finding anything.  It makes me wonder how anybody buys stuff from stores like these.  Strangely, I don’t have this issue of paralysis at my favorite used bookstore (also arranged spines out).  This is possibly because they divide things out a bit more specifically than just “mysteries” or “romance”.  There is also something more…I don’t know, inviting, I guess, about used books.  Someone’s already read and loved or hated it.  They aren’t standing straight in a row like a bunch of soldiers.

All other marketing ploys aside, what really sells books for me is story.  Everything I buy that isn’t on my automatic purchase author list, I pick up because I think the story sounds interesting or because someone told me about it.  In the end, it’s all about story and about word of mouth.  If you don’t take the time to write a solid and engaging story, no amount of expensive marketing is going to fix it.

There’s a fabulous article from the Writer’s Digest Newsletter about the importance of plot and story.  Check it out!  And for those of you not already subscribed, Writer’s Digest has a really great newsletter (sadly, I can’t remember how often it comes out–weekly I think) that anybody can sign up for, even if they don’t subscribe to the magazine.  Sign up!  It’s in a bar to the left side of the page.

5 thoughts on “What Sells Books Anyway?

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. It seems that the link to ‘booksprice’ is not set up correctly as it is sending to a ‘Error 404 – Not Found’ page.

  2. You have seen the awesomeness of our used bookstore in Knoxville. Since I have to go 45 minutes to get to anything that’s not Walmart, I don’t get sucked in there too much. It does have a much larger and more varied selection than B&N or Borders which are a similar drive time. I hadn’t thought about how much more it’s divided out into subgenres. Now that you pointed it out, I really do like that. I am constantly disappointed in the big bookstores. They rarely have what I went for–what I read about online that morning and decided I really wanted to start reading today. I’ll pick up something that looks really interesting only to find that it’s book 3 of something. There are 5 copies of book 3, 2 of book 2, none of book 1! So that’s a no. Or there is an entire section of shelving, often more, devoted to Nora with MULTIPLE copies of a lot of the books (and I’ve read most of them), but I can’t find the new-to-me author I read about whose work I wanted to check out. All the while, huge amounts of the floorspace in the “bookstore” are devoted to music, overpriced movies, calendars, and gifts–hey, if you’re going into the bookstore to buy me a gift, make it a book, please!

    The everything’s the same quality of the chain bookstores doesn’t seem to make it much easier for me to find anything, and I think it keeps any employee they get who actually loves and knows the books from creating any interesting displays.

    Gotta run, but you know I had to drop by with some complaints about the bookstores.
    PS. We have an independent. They had a sf/f section, but I don’t think they had ANY romance at all.

  3. I can’t believe I didn’t comment on this. I agree with what you’re saying. I know everyone goes on and on about how great it is that a big trade publisher can get you stocked on the shelves of major bookstores, but so what? If people haven’t heard about you first through some other source besides the bookstore, the chance that they will come in and pick up your book out of ALL the rows and rows of books to choose from, is insanely small.

    Like you, I go into a store either with certain titles already in mind, or certain authors. There is too much there. I don’t scan every single title. There is too much there.

    Another issue I have, and another reason I buy most books from Amazon is…I like to know how other readers feel about a book. Amazon reviews provides that for me, a book standing on a bookstore shelf, does not.

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