by Barbara Linn Probst
A silver lining during this terrible pandemic has been the incredible outpouring of support for debut authors. One after another, Facebook groups have opened up their sites to promote authors, especially those launching their first books. They’ve offered interviews and other virtual opportunities to replace the canceled “in-person” ones. This generosity has brought debut novels to the attention of a wide and welcoming audience.
Extraordinary as this movement has been, it’s only step one.
Hearing about a book by a brand-new author doesn’t guarantee that people will buy it, read it, or review it. Something must happen to make a reader take that second crucial step of selecting that particular book from among the countless other books published each week.
What is that “something?”
It’s natural to gravitate to the familiar. If you’ve enjoyed a book about a crisis that reunites estranged siblings, then you’ll look for other novels that have similar themes, with the expectation that they’ll appeal to you as well. That’s the basis of Amazon’s “Customers who bought this book also bought…”
It makes sense. With so many books to choose from, we need ways to narrow our search. That way, we hope to optimize the chance of investing time (and money) in something we’ll end up liking.
This is why people tend to buy books by authors whose prior novels they’ve enjoyed. We expect to like the author’s newest book. And we will, unless our expectation is disproven. It’s the opposite for an unknown author with no “up front credit.” For an unfamiliar author, positive regard has yet to be earned.
Exposure and awareness
Seeing something “everywhere” brings a sense of familiarity, trust, and inevitability. It can be hard to resist feeling that “everyone” is reading a certain book right now, so it must be good. Certainly, some debut novelists have hit that jackpot. Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing, is a recent example.
For most new authors, however, that doesn’t happen. They have to build awareness interview-by-interview, tweet-by-tweet, hoping that readers will give them a chance. Debut novelists—and I’m one—are, in effect, competing for the attention of people who don’t have the time to read every book that comes out.
How do readers choose?
When faced with an array of novels by unknown authors, why do they give some a try and not others?
I posed this question on ten different Facebook groups for readers: “Would you give a new author a try? Which of these (if any) might make you buy a book by a brand-new author?” I followed this with a list of possible reasons, asking people to select as many as they wished. Although I didn’t ask people to rank their choices, some did.
As a former researcher, I dislike ”forced choice” questions in which the possible responses are pre-determined; they don’t leave room for answers the researcher hasn’t anticipated. However, previous Facebook surveys had shown that I’d get far more responses by offering a list and I wanted to cast a wide net.
One of the items on my list was “seeing the book on this and other Facebook groups.” This was, of course, a version of “recommendation from a trusted source”—and no surprise that it was one of the reasons cited most often, since I was asking the question on Facebook! The popularity of the response was circular and predictable, given the population I was polling, so I set it aside; had I asked the question at live book club meetings, people would probably have told me that they picked novels that fellow book club members had praised.
The other options reference a book’s cover, title, awards, and reviews from Amazon, Goodreads, newspapers, and “trade reviewers” like Kirkus and Booklist. Within three days, there were 750 responses.
Overwhelmingly, what made respondents “give a new author a try”—other than a trusted recommendation—was the book’s cover and title. In other words, their first impression. That didn’t mean they would end up loving the book or even finishing it, only that it would motivate them to pick it up, open it, and purchase it. Together, cover and title accounted for fifty percent of the responses, with some people adding a note to apologize for “judging a book by its cover.”
Many people added another reason: the book’s short summary description. Recommendations on Goodreads and Amazon reviews were of intermediate importance. Many people explicitly said that they “didn’t trust” reader reviews, which they considered to be too subjective, not necessarily corresponding to their own taste, and suspicious—authors asking their friends to post excessively glowing reviews.
Awards and praise from newspapers, Kirkus, Booklist, and other professional sources didn’t matter very much to these readers. Awards came in lowest of all, although some respondents felt that an award was a “signal” that a book had merit.
Most people chose more than one reason. People who cited “cover” usually cited “title” as well, suggesting that the two work together to form an overall visual impression. If their first impression drew them in, they would read the summary blurb and then decide. Conversely, if the first impression wasn’t strong, most were unlikely to proceed further.
Obviously, this wasn’t a comprehensive survey. As with all studies, results were shaped by how the question was worded, who was asked, and how. Because the data was collected from readers’ groups, it reflects the perception of consumers—that is, people selecting a product—and not necessarily the perception of bookstore owners, bloggers, reviewers, or anyone in the book trade. For those groups, media reviews and awards may carry more weight.
What does this mean to authors?
The results offer some indications that debut authors may want to consider.
If you’re a new author about to launch, keep an eye on book cover trends; a particular look may not be your “style,” but it may be what readers are gravitating toward. Remember priming theory: if your cover resembles the covers of successful books, that might be a good thing. You don’t always have to be unique.
Experienced cover designers know what catches a reader’s attention, especially in the thumbnail versions that appear online, so listen to what they say about font, color, and composition. At the same time, it’s your book and you have the right to ask questions and to speak up if the cover doesn’t feel right. If you’re hiring your own cover designer, don’t skimp or settle. If your publisher is designing the cover for you, ask for options and for the rationale behind the various concepts. The cover should reflect the story in some way, as well as being visually pleasing.
It’s common for a publisher to want to change the book’s title, and the new title may feel strange or even wrong if you’ve lived with another one for a long time—as if your child started school and the teachers suddenly decided to change her name!
But the publisher may have a very good reason. Go on Amazon and search for books with titles similar to yours. If you find a long list, you may want to shift to something fresh. Go through your manuscript and look for phrases that capture an important aspect of the story. If you find a title you like, ask people what they think it means. A misleading title can backfire.
Decide Your Focus in Advance
Consider where you want to focus your energy as you prepare for your book’s launch. You can go high and try for endorsements from well-known authors or celebrities, awards, glowing reviews from newspapers and trade publications—with the idea that these will “influence the influencers” who can place your book where it will be seen. Or you can go wide and make friends with people who host book clubs, book fairs, or online groups for readers and writers—with the idea that these are real readers who will spread the word about your book to other readers.
Neither strategy is “better,” but you may not have the time or resources to do both. As you work to convince people to “give your book a try,” you’ll have to decide which approach suits your story and temperament.
Remember, you only get one debut! And ultimately, your aim is to move from being an unfamiliar author to a familiar one—someone who makes people say, “Oh, I just love her books!”
What makes you most likely to buy a debut author's book? Do you have any other purchasing reasons, either for or against, to add?
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Barbara Linn Probst is the author of much-anticipated Queen of the Owls, published by the visionary, award-winning She Writes Press. Queen of the Owls has been chosen by Working Mother as one of the twenty most anticipated books for 2020 and is the May 2020 selection of the Pulpwood Queens, a network of more than 780 book clubs throughout the U.S. To order or learn more, please visit http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/.
A chance meeting with a charismatic photographer will forever change Elizabeth’s life. How much is Elizabeth willing to risk to be truly seen and known?
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A version of this piece first appeared on Jane Friedman’s blog on November 14, 2019