In 2017, I finished my first novel.
After so many years working with non-fiction, it was a real thrill. A treat. One of those childhood goals that I couldn’t believe I’d finally circled back to.
Currently, that novel is sitting with some agents and I’m waiting, hoping one of them will fall in love with it the way I have.
And while I’ve been waiting, I’ve been thinking about the questions every author probably asks herself.
What makes readers buy books?
If and when an agent does pick the book up, if and when a publisher decides to put it out into the world, what does my marketing need to look like? When it comes to reviews and blurbs and fast-paced opening sequences, what matters…and what doesn’t?
To answer these questions, late last year I created a short survey and I asked avid readers to tell me about their book buying habits. Where do they shop? Why do they buy? Who do they trust when it comes to books?
I got so many more answers than I expected.
I had aimed for 100 and in the end 355 people responded.
And, as promised when I put that survey out into the world, today I’m sharing the results here with you.
So, how and why do people buy books? Here’s what the survey says:
For our 355 avid readers, fantasy, contemporary, and mystery/suspense/thriller were the most popular genres, followed closely by non-fiction/memoir, historical fiction, and sci-fi. The vast majority (just under 95%) read adult fiction and quite a few (71.5%) read YA. A smattering also enjoy Middle Grade fiction.
Why They Buy
Now, to the million-dollar question: why do people buy books?
It’s common industry knowledge that the best way to sell your first book is to write your second. And survey seems to agree. A whopping 82% of respondents said they bought a book by an author they already knew they loved.
The second most common reason for buying a book in the last year was friend recommendations. Just under 77% of readers said a friend had pointed them toward at least one book in 2017.
Sales (or freebies), exceptional cover art, and recommendations from established authors are also good strategies according to our survey, with between 40% and 50% of respondents noting these as reasons they bought in the last year.
Other reasons for book purchases included Facebook (35%), Twitter (28%), Instagram (12%), and librarian recommendations (11%).
So, of all these book-buying reasons, which is the most common? I asked our respondents to tell me the most common reason they picked up a new book in the last year. The first time I asked them what made them buy, they could choose all the answers that applied. This time, they could choose only one answer from the list.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, new releases from beloved authors and friend recommendations rose to the top again—by a long shot. Each got about 23% of the responses, compared to just about 7% for the nearest two competitors (prominent placement in a store/online and sales/freebies).
The Buying Process
The next question on my mind was this: what does the buying process look like? Do people get that friend recommendation and immediately hit the purchase button? Do they read a sample? Peek at the back cover? Read the reviews?
Turns out, the answer is a little of everything.
Just under 82% of respondents said they read the back cover before buying a book. 56% read the reviews. And about 41% peek at the first chapter before taking the plunge.
Only 13% read the blurbs by other authors, 12% flip to the middle of the book to read a sample, and 9% read the end before buying.
Now, here’s another interesting question: when it comes to the 60+% who read a bit of the book before buying, just how much of the book do they read? How many pages do you have to hook them into your story?
Survey says for most the answer is just 1 – 2 pages. Over 1/3 of those who say they read a sample also say they only read a page or two before taking the plunge.
So, most readers are taking at least a little peek at your sample pages before buying the book. Now the question becomes: what is it in those sample pages that makes someone buy?
Of course, in some ways, that answer is an elusive one. Sometimes we all just go with our guts, our moods, our taste on that particular day. But are there common things that make us want to read more? Survey says yes.
The most common reason people cite for going from sample reader to purchaser is good writing, followed by a need to know what comes next (suspense). Lovable main characters can also push a book from possibility to purchase, as can a good sense of humor.
Factoring in Reviews
If 56% of those surveyed read reviews before they buy, the question is where do they read them and what are they looking for?
The answer to the first part of that is, as you may have guessed, Amazon and Goodreads, with 76% and 64% respectively. Less commonly consulted (but still significant) are reviews in newspapers and magazines (26%) and on book blogs (25%).
As for what we’re looking for in those reviews…mentions of typos and bad grammar are (by far) the thing most likely to put us off (self-published authors take note: hiring a copy editor is well worth it). A dragging middle (25%), unbelievable plot line (21%), ending people hated (21%), and unlikeable main character (20%) were also significant detractors. And 16% of respondents said they don’t want to buy a book with a cliffhanger ending.
What Makes Us Put a Book Down (Never to Finish)?
Now, to the nitty gritty: We asked our 355 readers to tell us not just about their buying habits, but about what happens after they buy. What, in the last year, has made them put down a book they were reading and never finish?
The good news for authors is that most of the time, it’s not you, it’s them. 52% said when they put something down, it just wasn’t their thing. Nothing wrong with it…just not for them.
As for things we can do something about, 47% said they abandoned a book because of unlikeable characters, 45% gave up because of typos or bad writing, and 40% shelved a book because it started too slow.
We also asked if there were any styles, formats, or points of view readers found off-putting. And there’s more good news for authors here: the vast majority of our readers (71%) said they’d try anything as long as it was done well.
The only format readers were a bit nervous about, really, was books written partly in poetry or verse, with 23% saying they probably wouldn’t give that format a shot.
Where We Buy
So, where are our readers getting their books? No surprise here: the top answer (77%) is Amazon, followed by (51%) the library.
About 8% said they get their books from Book Bub, 5% buy through author or publisher websites, and 10% of respondents said they get advance reader copies (ARCs) for review.
Buy vs. Borrow
Finally, what makes a reader buy your book instead of borrowing it?
According to the survey, the top answer (47%) is simply a desire to support the author. 45% say they borrow first, then buy the books they love and want to re-read. 43% buy because they already know they love that author. And 35% say they buy when it’s not available at the library (while another 31% will buy if the library wait is just too long).
Want to Share This Data?
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