Hi. Barb here, covered in flour from head to foot from the Christmas cookie baking.
We’ve talked and written many times about how annoying it is to have writers, particularly writers you don’t know, shouting through their various social media outlets, “Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book.” It’s not that it’s impolite. “Please, please, please buy my book,” is arguably worse, because of the desperate, needy stink.
It is partially because of the used car sales approach of close, close, close, which is, of course, the entirely wrong way to sell a book. People buy from people they trust, and an author you don’t know, whose opinion about his own book is undoubtedly suspect, is the last person you’d trust for a book recommendation. Instinctively, we recoil.
Who do you trust for a book recommendation? People you know, especially people who have similar taste in books. These may be people you spend time with in the carbon-based world–your family, friends, co-workers, hairdresser, trainer at the gym. Or they may be people you spend time with online in discussion groups about–books, among other things. But in either case, you know them and you trust their taste.
The very best recommendations come from those who have read and loved a book. Which is more likely to cause you to act? “Have you read Joe Schmoe’s latest?” “No, you?” “No, me neither. It’s on my bedside table, though.” OR “Oh, my gosh, did you read Kate Flora’s latest Joe Burgess? I finished it before work this morning. It kept me up half the night.”
Recommendations are good, but the number one reason (by a huge margin) fans of mystery, thriller, suspense and romantic suspense buy a book is because they have read and loved another book by the same author.
So you see the similarity here? In both cases, the reason crime fiction readers buy a book is because someone has actually read the book. Books that people buy and leave moldering in their TBR piles, or in the huge, overstocked libraries on their e-readers, do the author almost no good at all. Because if buyers haven’t read the book, they can’t recommend it. And if they have it sitting somewhere waiting to be read, they’re unlikely to buy another book by the same author. Librarians are the same. If a book achieves next to no circulation, it’s likely to be pulled from the shelves and additional books are unlikely to be bought. All of this goes double, or triple or quadruple for series.
When I was in the software business, we had a name for this–shelfware–software that was purchased, but never installed, or never rolled out to its intended audience. Our software was sold on an annual license basis, and in the rare cases where we ended up selling shelfware, the transaction was regarded as an unmitigated failure. We knew we’d never sell that customer consulting or training or any other follow-on products. And when the annual license was up, the customer would never renew. Honestly, we believed that it wasn’t worth the time or effort it took to sell that initial license, even though we’d collected a hefty fee for it.
Which is why an author’s message should always be, “Read my book” and not, “Buy my book.” Because books that are purchased and not read are next to useless. (Of course, like good authors, we do not tell people to read our book, we show them how compelling and emotionally involving it is. After all, when we ask people to read our books, we’re asking for something more precious than their money. We’re asking for their time. But that’s another post for another day.)
Instinctively, writers know they are looking for readers, not buyers. This is why we speak at libraries where people have ready access to our books for free. And why we speak to book clubs where everyone attending probably already owns it. This why we go to bookstores and chat up the owner, even if no one shows up for our signing. We’re not looking for lots of people to buy our book. We’re looking for one or two people to read and love, love, love our book–and then to tell everyone they know about it.
Writers know this, but over the last decade or so, some of us have become distracted, by the pressure on the publishing industry, the message that we’re responsible for our own success and by the occasionally overt pressure to “sell.” We’ve focused on the sales in the back of the room, instead of the fan we created up front. And that’s a wrongheaded way to look at it.
I hear you screaming from the back, “What about my next book contract? I won’t get another one if nobody buys.” Or, “What about all the publishers today who are going three and out on series books? There isn’t time to build that fanatical audience.”
And that’s a problem. It’s a structural problem in the publishing industry and it’s a fact of our lives. But that doesn’t mean we should do the wrong thing. We’re looking for readers, not for buyers, and our conversations with readers should give them reasons to read, not buy, our books.