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.
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.
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.
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?
* * * * * *
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
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Interesting question, because I don't know that I've ever paid attention to whether this was a 'debut' book. Recommendations, and also price matter to me in a 'new to me' author regardless of where the book falls in their publishing career. Book description and also reading a sample weigh in as well.
Thanks for your thoughts, Terry! I think the point about "debut" is that there's not yet a name recognition, track record, "priming" to like it. For many of us, including myself, if I see that a new book is coming out by an author whose prior works I've enjoyed, I'll have a look. I might not buy it, but I will definitely check it out with the hope/expectation that it's something I'll want to read.That's where the two things you mention—description and sample—will kick in! So it's a two-step process!
Good information here. I bet much of it applies equally to a previously published but not-quite-famous author? I have six traditionally published Mysteries out there, to modest success.I’d enjoy seeing a post about ways an author who’s had books out there a while can persuade readers to look and buy.
A useful point, Carole! The common element is a lack of immediate name recognition and the need to attract a reader's attention. Stop and have a look. Buy. Read. Review and/or recommend. Four steps in the process, and no sure-fire techniques for us authors! I did find it interesting to consider this from the reader's point of view, however. Readers and writers might not always see things in the same way 🙂
I very much enjoyed reading this. Seven hundred fifty responses is a strong indicator. I've read other posts/articles that also found that readers pay less attention to reviews than we might think. So, to get a foot into the "House of Being Noticed," an enticing cover and a strong title are essential. Also, those of us who've gained publication via small presses still face similar challenges as debut authors. We're still relatively unknown. Thanks, Barbara!
Yes, it kind of surprised me how little those reviews seem to matter to readers. Many were rather cynical about them, in fact. That's quite a different attitude than among writers, who agonize over what Kirkus or Publisher's Weekly say about our books! My sense is that what people trust is the recommendation of someone who actually knows what they like, specifically. Not what the New York Times or Kirkus likes!
I love this post and I found it so interesting. When I love an author, I make it a point to go back to their debut book. I did this with Alice Hoffman, Toni Morrison, Nora Roberts, etc. I want to see where they started, and how they've progressed. But for authors I've never heard of, I almost always pick them up because of a recommendation - from a friend, a bookstore, or a library.
Example: I adore Lisa Lutz's Spellman Files series and I would never have known about them if not for Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena. Ditto for David Sedaris' books. I started reading those from a recommendation at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.
What an interesting idea, to go back to an author's first book to see how he or she developed! They might have simply "changed," rather than "improved. But I do love authors who take risks instead of repeating ... which is the other side of the question i.e., an author's "debut" in a new genre or style!
I have seen it happen often that people's second book can take off bigger than their first- I believe people really focus a lot on their debut, when they should be looking broader- the series, other books, other genre- produce more and move forward rather than bemoan low sales on the first book. The other thing that of course helps is an injection of money and resources into make the book more visible. Having a plan first before a release is always the best avenue for a steady fan build and not to be afraid to ask your current fans to share and promote you.
The question of the second book or "sophomore book," as it's called, is complex. I've also heard the opposite—that the second book tends to be a disappointment to readers, since it isn't a clone off the first one, which they loved! So here's another complex question: do I, as an author, look for my "style," my "brand," my kind of story, so I can (hopefully) build a following of those who know what they'll find when they pick up a book with my name on it? Or do I try to grow as a writer and explore different ways of writing? Over to you!
This is a timely post for me as well. My debut, IMPACT, is arriving on June 25th! As I navigate the weeks coming up, I am aware of how important looks and author brand aspects are whenever I interact on my platform.
My favorite comment in your post is about going beyond the promoting of one's book, but to develop relationships with those in the book community. It makes sense that this will form a more loyal readership over time.
Thanks for the promotion ideas!
I'm glad the post resonated with you! Yes, first impressions matter. "Developing relationships in the book community" also means, of course, promoting the books of other authors. I've had to struggle a bit with this one. If it's a book I genuinely love, I don't hesitate to shout about it. But there are authors I know whose books I don't love, so that's tricky, especially if that person has already raved about mine. Hmm ... I see another post in the making!
Recommendations from an author in the same genre go a long way with me.
I agree, Denise!
What a great post! I only recently realized how much titles matter. My former agent insisted I change the title of a manuscript, because she needed a better title to grab an editor's attention. I wish I'd read this article a long time ago (although it didn't exist a long time ago).
"When we know better, we do better." Maya Angelou's wisdom has helped me through many moments when... I wish I'd known that!