Why It’s “Read My Book,” Not “Buy My Book”

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.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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38 Responses to Why It’s “Read My Book,” Not “Buy My Book”

  1. Ruth Nixon says:

    Loved your blog. Yes I think the publishers are asking a lot of our wonderful authors and the readers to. I read at least !60-170 b00ks a year. I buy them, I get them at the library, I’ve had a library card since 1942, I win some and my son pays my kindle bill. I donated every book I have to my small town library if they will put it on the shelf. I pled for a cozy shelf and this November they did a bookcase by the front door and the sign said Lets get Cozy in November .It was wonderful and they promised me they would place on shelf the cozies I donate. I remember just picking up a book and returning it and never thinking about doing anything else. On the plus I’ve met authors and count some as friends which in the olden days they sat on a golden chair .I guess you need to keep writing and I need to keep reading..

  2. Calla says:

    I agree whole heartedly..the accessibility of authors has been what made me have to “read the book” and in many instances “buy the book”. This blog resonated and was exciting as I meet more authors and come to count them as “friends”!

  3. Jewel Hanley says:

    Good advice well written.

  4. Gayle Lynds says:

    What a terrific post, Barb. I’d been operating on instinct about libraries and the importance of reading and hadn’t translated that into acquiring reader loyalty. From my viewpoint, Maine has one of the most active author-library relationships in the United States, and a lot of that is due to the writers on this blog. Thank you one and all!

  5. MCWriTers says:

    Great post, Barb. It helps explain why I so love going to libraries, where I always know I’m going to be speaking to an audience of readers like me. When I was a kid, the library was kind of a temple…a magical place…and I really did think authors were somehow anointed and special. Actually, I still think both of those things. And in the hubbub of marketing and tweeting and face booking, it is easy to lose sight of the essential thing: that what I love most about reading is getting immersed in the world of the book and lost to this one. And I try to do the same thing when I’m writing. If I’m not captivated while I’m writing…if I can’t wait to get back to the book I’m writing, readers won’t be either.


    • Barb Ross says:

      Yes, yes, Kate! I was going to say that to Ruth and Jewel above. Writers are first and foremost readers. Perhaps this is an application of the Golden Rule. We must treat readers as we would wish to be treated.

  6. Lea Wait says:

    Thank you, Barb! (And–WOW! — Thank you, Ruth!) It’s hard. I hate to keep saying, “see? My book?” but when life revolves around reading/writing/promotion (note I put writing second!) it’s kind of like those folks who post daily about their babies or cats. Yes, they’re cute. Yes, we like seeing the pictures. But not EVERY day. So .. onward. With hopes that, yes, people will buy our books so we can keep publishing (and eating,) and that, yes, even better, people will read our books. You’re right — they’re not the same thing. Lea Wait

  7. Preach it! Excellent (as always) essay, and great advice.

  8. Great post, Barb, and a timely reminder to keep priorities straight when each new book comes out.


  9. Great post! It was a good reminder who I write for…readers 🙂

  10. This post is predictably brilliant and right-on, Barb. You always nail it, and this one is no exception.

  11. Well said, Barb. The balance between promotion and connection is a tricky one. Thanks for the great reminder.

  12. I’ve heard a couple of authors I know say, “I don’t care if they read it, as long as they buy it” and I didn’t agree, but hadn’t formulated a reason why. But this is precisely why. If you’re writing good books, you should want that person to read the book more than anything, no matter how they got the book in their hands. Sharing this post today!

  13. Linda Kleback says:

    I was so glad to read this! I read many, many cozy authors and could never afford to buy every book new. I worked in libraries all my working life and use them heavily. I’ve always wanted to know how authors felt about libraries and hesitated to ask. I know libraries buy thousands of books. Readers like me would be lost without them. I do buy some books new from authors I love best.

  14. Mark says:

    I love this. As a reader, it is so spot on. I have lots of books waiting to be read. I could go a year without buying any new books and still have books in the condo I haven’t read or want to reread and haven’t in the last 15 years.

    Of course, I’ll keep buying new books by authors I already know I like. But I won’t buy a second book by an author I haven’t read yet.

    And you know what will turn me from a buyer to a reader? Positive interaction with the author, either at a face to face event or over the internet. (Or sometimes many events. There was one author I wasn’t going to try, but after chatting with her at several book festivals, I decided to give her a try, and she’s a favorite today.)

  15. Kristopher says:

    Great post Barb. I was happy to share this around on FB earlier today.

    In this day and age where disposable income is at a premium, authors should focus on getting people to read their books however they can. Forget the massive readers like myself who will buy books regardless, think about that person who reads casually and is on a fixed income. They are not going to buy a book from someone they have never heard of, but if they get your book at a library, win it, or are given it by a friend as a gift, if they LOVE it, they might buy your next book. Or a book that is similar to yours.

    I am a reviewer, I know the power of a review. But more important than that is my word of mouth recommendation. And that is not because I am someone special, but because I am someone my friends trust. Don’t you trust your friends? Word of Mouth is publicity you can’t buy – and it doesn’t discriminate over how that person obtained the copy of the book they might rave about, just that they got it and read it.

    • Barb Ross says:

      So well said, Kristopher and thank you for sharing this post.

      Many of the books I now purchase, even in hardcover, are ones I discovered at the library or received as gifts.

      I agree with you that reviews are important, and we often find trusted reviewers whose taste in books is similar to our own. In this way, we learn to trust them, as we do our friends.

      • Kristopher says:

        This is very true Barb. I prefer to read reviews by people I have followed for years – of course, many of them I know personally at this point, but even before that – because having a track record with a reviewer allowed me to more accurately base my decision on their review.

  16. Stephanie Jones says:

    What a wonderful blog. You have hit the nail directly on the head.

    As a reader, I value the word of mouth recommendations of book club members, friends, and fellow readers in Facebook communities of like minded readers. I also love to share my favorite authors with these same groups. I used to frequent a wonderful indie book store where they knew my likes and dislikes, and often set aside books they thought I would enjoy. Sadly, the store closed, and my “personal shoppers” in the book realm are gone. I depend upon recommendations from friends more than ever now.

    I will post reviews of books that I like on the various web sites, in the hope that I can help like-minded readers. I will try to explain why I enjoyed the characters, story line, etc. I read reviews looking for the same type of information.

    And, once an author gets me hooked? They have a reader for life. Not only the initial series, but others they may have written. I will pre-order the next in the series, and follow them, recommend them, and enjoy the results of all their hard work. That’s when the sales numbers will add up.

    I feel badly that publishing companies have put such pressure on the writers. It must be difficult to write, edit, promote and make the social media scene as much as they seem required to do. Unfortunately, like my indie bookstore, the harsh economic reality is that these conditions exist.

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

  17. Paul Doiron says:

    Excellent advice, as always, Barb. I often have readers come up to me and admit, also with embarrassment, that they don’t buy my books but wait for their libraries to have them. My response is always the same: “Thank you for reading them.” (I might jokingly nudge them to tear a page or two so the library has to buy a new copy.) Individual librarians have been great advocates for my novels — but so have libraries as institutions, which have offered my books up to thousands of readers who wouldn’t have otherwise given them a look. I’ve also found that people who start as library readers often end up as buyers, either for themselves or for friends and families as gifts.

  18. Reine says:

    Amen and merci.

  19. Thank you, Barb! I’m an indie author with the 5th book in a traditional/cozy series currently in the works. I write because I love to. I read because I love to. I want others to enjoy what I’ve written as much as I have. For that reason, I give books away, especially the first in the series. Not just in the online give-a-ways, but to friends, bookstores, libraries…. And a funny things happens whenever I do this: sales of the other books go up. Sure, I’m spending a lot just handing out books, but what I gain is readership of the entire series, and that’s what I want. The icing on the cake? I now have people asking, “When is the next one coming out?” (Answer: February 2016!)

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