How & Why People Buy Books: The Results of a 355-Person Survey

by Gigi Griffis

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:

Reading Habits

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).


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Tanya Chris January 11, 2018 - 8:42 am

Very interesting and helpful! Thanks for sharing

gigigriffis January 11, 2018 - 12:08 pm

Glad it’s useful!

Stacie Morrell January 11, 2018 - 9:45 am

Great info! No big surprises but interesting and definitely good for marketing. Thank you for this!

gigigriffis January 11, 2018 - 12:08 pm

No prob!

Eldonna Edwards January 11, 2018 - 11:41 am

Thanks for all your time and effort to crunch the numbers and the reader-friendly graphs. As a 2018 debut novelist, this feedback is enormously helpful. Sharing!

gigigriffis January 11, 2018 - 12:08 pm

Congrats on your debut!!

Mary Ann L. Barlow January 11, 2018 - 1:30 pm

Thank you for such a great tool for marketing along with writing. Your survey is quite beneficial to me and I’ve already saved it.

Ken Liu January 11, 2018 - 6:29 pm

This is good timing! I actually just started to write about books on my blog yesterday, and I’ve now added this survey to it.

Ray Bright January 12, 2018 - 1:40 pm

As an avid reader, I already knew much of this, vaguely. Thanks for the solid data.

Delphine Boswell January 25, 2018 - 11:24 pm

Finally ready for the plunge into self-published, so no wonder I found this blog highly informative and interesting. Thanks for the time and effort you put into it!

Tina Kirchner March 23, 2018 - 10:38 am

Thank you for taking the time to do the survey and write the results. I found it very interesting and will share with my writer friends (along with your link).

sharon rowe May 16, 2018 - 4:42 pm

I love this. As I just launched my first non-fiction book…I’ve been struggling to get marketing answers from my publisher etc. They’re a super group but publishing is a weird industry, really devoid of hard data and samplings. With your surveys I can create a much more cohesive, less dart in the dark, approach to getting my book to a wider audience. Just having a much better sense of total audience for non fiction business is helpful (note that it’s not even in your numbers)…Again, I like the way you approach with if/then and deductions.

Di June 19, 2018 - 9:06 pm

I usually read a few pages in the middle of the book to hear what the prose sounds like and see if the imagery and grammar stack up and I was surprised that a lot of other readers do that. Also a high number of people read the ending… I was surprised by that as I don’t like spoilers. And it was nice to read that people buy to support authors – us readers are a caring bunch. Very interesting data – thanks for sharing it

Aarushi December 6, 2018 - 12:51 am

Just what I was looking for :). Quick question – In which country you took the survey?

gigigriffis December 6, 2018 - 12:58 am

It was all done online and there may be a range of countries represented, though I believe the largest % will be Americans.

Ulises Troyo January 10, 2021 - 9:02 am

Very interesting and every author should take a look at it!

Doug Wolven February 23, 2023 - 10:12 pm

Very valuable information—somewhat scary or a bit sad for my books.

Corinne June 4, 2024 - 8:52 am

useful information especially for self-publishers, loved the figures from the survey straight to the point and explained well Good luck with your book ????


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