The Most Fundamental Question in the Publishing Industry

How do readers choose the books they buy?

It was a topic that came up on our Yahoo board recently, stemming from the original subject of promotion, and some of the comments/answers surprised me.

As a writer whose agent is shopping her manuscript at this moment, I am naturally looking toward my future, anticipating marketing and promotional tasks.  (Positive thinking here.)  And, honestly, I find it daunting.

There are so many facets to promotion.  Speaking, blogging, social media, advertisement, reviews, book signings, radio, interviews, articles…  The list goes on and on.  And I’ve discovered over the years I’ve been writing and watching other writers go through the promotional process, that publishing’s eccentricity as an industry holds true even in the area of marketing.

Generally, most companies follow their marketing efforts closely.  Often, there are teams and budgets set up just to graph and chart the success and failure of a particular marketing campaign.  In book promotion?  Let’s just throw money into the wind and see where it lands.

Sure, there is some level of measure—say, for example, how many click-throughs and/or sales a particular internet ad produces, but honestly, I doubt most authors know how to (or can afford to hire someone to) follow and/or calculate such statistics.  I’m pretty good with computers, could probably figure it out, but I’d really rather spend my time plotting my next book.

I’ve always believed that the best answer to the question “how do I sell my service or product?” will come from your customer.  So instead of going out there from a writer’s point of view and try to “guess” what would make a reader want to buy my book, it seems only sensible to go straight to the reader and say, “what makes you buy a book?”, then modify your marketing efforts accordingly.  Because, the bottom line to sales is, if you provide what your buyer wants, you’ve been successful.  If you fill a customer’s needs or desires, they will return for more fulfillment.

As an inquiring writer speaking to readers (which is everyone reading this blog and beyond, including all you writers out there and probably some of the most voracious readers), I’d like to know how you choose the books you buy.

Are you influenced by promotional items? If so, which ones? Why?  Is it a book cover, a copy blurb, a title?  Do you stick to a particular genre or two or do you genre hop? Do you buy by recommendation only?  Do you read reviews?  If so, which ones?  Do you stick with the tried and true authors?  What would make you take a chance on a fresh/unknown voice or name?

For writers:  What types of promotional efforts have you employed?  Are you able to track sales related to your marketing efforts?  If so, how?  What types of promotional items have you utilized and how have they worked for you?

Looking forward to all your valuable insights!

50 responses to “The Most Fundamental Question in the Publishing Industry”

  1. Hi, Joan. I don’t blame you for feeling daunted by self-promotion when you look at what’s involved! Is there a course on promo for introverts?

    How do I choose the books I buy? At the risk of sounding superficial, striking cover art makes me pick up a book. If it has an enticing blurb to go along with it, I’ll buy or put it on my to-purchase list. Reviews on sites like the Romance Dish and mags such as Romantic Times also influence my purchases. Then there’s the good old word of mouth. I have one friend in particular with impeccable taste, so anything she recommends is a guaranteed good read.

  2. Tamara Hogan says:

    Great topic, Joan! I’m struggling with the issue of promo right now, because I know that some of the promotional activities we as authors are told we should undertake don’t influence my book buying decisions much at all. I’ll be the first in line to admit that some of my opinions and perspectives can be radically outside the Romancelandia mainstream. 😉

    The factors that influence my book-buying decisions are decidedly old-school: reviews, word-of mouth recommendations, a great cover and back-cover copy, and a quick skim of Page 1. I don’t tend to visit individual author blogs, or enter contests for promotional items, or watch book trailers, or read author interviews – unless the author is discussing some aspect of craft.

    I’m certain that at least some of this is an issue of time. How many individual author blogs can one person possibly visit in a typical day, week, month, when you’re spending 12 hours a day in front of a glowing screen as it is? But I think another factor in play here is that, as a reader, it’s more than enough for me that the author simply write a damn good book.

    • Joan Swan says:

      Ah, yes Tamara — the number one thing a writer can control: writing a damn good book. That aspect often gets overlooked.

      And I think your views being outside romancelandia is a good thing. Fresh perspective never hurt!

  3. Liz Talley says:

    Yeah, as someone whose book comes out in less than two months, this has been on my mind.

    SInce I sold to Harlequin, some of my books will go out automatically to book clubs. But other than that, I have to rely on Super readers picking me over their fav Super authors and giving me a whirl. I think cover and blurb really play a lot in this.

    As to blogging, etc. I’m not sure. I’ve tried recently to be a little more out there in the writing communities because I think the most voracious of readers are writers too. And grassrooting (is that a word?) can bring lots of new readers.

    As to actual promo items, I just got my fabulous bookmarks that Liz designed in the mail yesterday. I’m thinking of doing what Tamara suggested and punching a hole and threading through black cording and beads to create a nicer bookmark that hopefully won’t go immediately in the trash. One of the Superromance authors did this and had a good response. I’ll use these to give to potential readers I come across, to drop off at local libraries, and to give to my mother (who will force them on random strangers)

    This is a great topic. I’m interested to see what others have to say on this.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      —-> I’m thinking of doing what Tamara suggested and punching a hole and threading through black cording and beads to create a nicer bookmark that hopefully won’t go immediately in the trash.

      To give credit where credit is due, I was describing the fabulous bookmark that author and chaptermate Helen Brenna created for her “An Island to Remember” series for SuperRomance.

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Having your mom force stuff on strangers….from what I can guess about your mom, this sounds like powerful promo to me!!

    • Your mom sounds eerily like my husband who worked for an unnamed phone/TV/Internet provider and he tested their Internet service by pulling up my website, thereby forcing them to look at it.

    • Joan Swan says:

      Love the idea of dolling up the bookmarks to increase the chances of being kept and used longer.

  4. Ditto!

    I bought the cutest little book because of the bright, beautiful cover and the funny back cover blurb. It ended up being a dog…couldn’t finish it. Then I was trying to give it away at a gathering, and my mother picked it up. I nearly jumped on it like a grenade to save her from the misery. And she said it had the most adorable cover and the back cover blurb amused her. I told her it was a trick.

    I was getting my books from thrift shops, yard sales and book exchanges. That’s how I found Janet Evanovich (now I buy her books new). I found Sue Grafton from my mom who swaps books with me (she goes to the library to get many of her books). Now I have such a pile of books I’ve been given or won from blogs, I may never have to buy another book again. The last books I bought was at Christmas. I bought books that my friends and chapter mates had written.

    But here’s how I buy a new book from an author I don’t know. I look at the cover, read the blurb, and read the first page, but even that has come back to bite me. I found an amazing first page hook in a book, bought it, and then the rest of the book did not deliver.

    What am I going to do for promo? A little blogging, contests, give-aways, bookmarks…I’m not sure what else. I’m not on Facebook or twitter. I’m terrified of public speaking. I’m useless when it comes to most technology, including making a book trailer. I’m hoping my writing will resonate with readers. I’m praying people will tell other people to read my books. I’m hoping and praying for good reviews. Is that enough? I don’t know.

    • Joan Swan says:


      You’re with the rest of us — no one really knows. Kills me, coming from a marketing background.

      I’ve come across a lot of dogs lately. Very disheartening, although I have to admit, I’m not very patient for things like backstory dump, lazy prose, telling. Haven’t gotten past page 20 in a fiction book for…oh, shoot, a very long time. Which makes the mantra read, read, read a little hard to do. I end up reading a lot of non-fiction self help, inspirational, etc.

  5. Elise Hayes says:

    Back in the old days, when I was young and had time to browse bookstores (pre-internet), the cover, blurb, and first page were how I made my book purchasing decisions.

    Now that I’m older and a heck of a lot busier, I’m a word-of-mouth gal. My reading time is limited–as is my blogging time and my time to look over book review sites–so I have a core set of friends (with very different reading tastes) whose recommendations I take. Once an author or book receives multiple recommendations, I’ll go online and buy the book without ever looking at the cover or blurb.

    Or a really insistent single recommendation (usually accompanied by the book being shoved into my hands with a “Here, you HAVE to read this NOW”), may get me to read one book by that author–and then I’ll get back online and order more.

    I wish I could say that I looked at all the fabulous book review sites out there (or even one of them on a regular basis!), but I don’t. I do see the recommendations that come from the Ruby Sisters, though, and that’s shaped some of my purchasing decisions (Thank you, Elisa, for your repeated recommendations of Joanna Bourne that made me get off my duff and order her book online.)

  6. Keli Gwyn says:

    Joan, how exciting to hear that your agent has taken your book out on submission. I hope you receive good news soon.

    Lately, the majority of my book-buying decisions are based on reviews I read on blogs. I like getting the back-cover info as well as the reviewer’s impressions. A nice cover doesn’t hurt either.

  7. Elisa Beatty says:

    Such a great question, Joan. For years and years, I had only my auto-buy favorite romance authors, or read things on my sister’s recommendation. Bought lots of other kinds of books from browsing in bookstores, but never romance.

    After the ’09 GH final, I started hearing about lots of authors I hadn’t read before, and have been casting my net more widely. I definitely check out author websites now when I read a book I like, and that’s been a way I’ve learned about other writers (on the if-you-like-so-and-so-you’ll-also-like…. principle.) My TBR pile is getting ridiculous….

  8. Elise Hayes says:

    Several people have mentioned book covers. Can we talk about that for just a wee bit? I’ve got to say that I’ve never been one for the sexy guy on the cover. For contemporary romantic comedy, I like the fun cartoonish covers. For paranormal, I’m pretty open to a variety of types of covers (although I particularly like the tattooed heroine depicted on the Patricia Briggs “Mercy Thompson” books, ’cause I’m a sucker for tough chicks).

    So how do others feel about the sexy guy on the cover. . . or the embracing couple on the cover?

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I personally would like to see more variation in cover art. (Does any kick-ass UF or paranormal heroine NOT have a back tatt and wear low-slung leather pants?) And while we’re on the subject, I’d love to see more realistic looking tattoos on book covers. Real tattoos fade over time. The edges blur, come less sharp.

      • Ha! If I see one more UF cover featuring a roided-out pretty boy with a $0.25 rub-on “tat” I’m running for the hills.

        The trouble is, the cover needs to express subject matter but NOT look like every other book in that genre that’s already been printed. Frankly, if a cover looks too much like the cover of another book/series I loved, I view it with suspicion. Like, why are the book designers trying to trick me into buying this book? Maybe the copycat book is great, but I’d rather read something with a twist than a copy of an old beloved.

        I recently read Jennifer Armintrout’s “Queene of Light” mostly because of it’s intriguing cover (also because it ended up on my bookshelf, somehow). It was my first UF, so it’s not like I’m burned out on the genre, but I’m suspicious of all the lookalikes with a sexy brunette in tight, dark clothing showing seven inches of midriff and holding some kind of weapon. I’m sure there are lots and lots of gems in there, but I have no idea how to sort them out.

        • Oh. I was just thinking more about this, and I realized that I love being able to walk down an aisle and pick out the books that appeal to my dark historical-mystery sensibilities. I do this based entirely on their covers, which must mean that there are certain “copycat” elements on these covers, too. But I don’t mind. I just want to find what I like. If book designers got more creative, I might not be able to find what I’m looking for!

    • Elise Hayes says:

      So what makes you say, “Ohh…that’s a great cover!”?

    • Katrina says:

      I hate covers that show faces. I want to imagine what the hero and heroine look like, not have an image put in my head. And I rarely find them attractive.

    • Joan Swan says:


      You question on covers made me think and laugh at myself a little. I typically won’t buy a really sexy or explicit cover because I don’t want people judging me by the fact that I’m reading something with a racy cover. Some of them can be so sexual. What I read is my private business, and a lot of times, the cover is sexier than the content.

      So, while I don’t mind a hot hunk on the cover, HOW he is depicted makes more of a difference to me.

      Would never buy a bodice ripper — ever. At least not in the store or for reading in public.

      Weird little hangup of mine I didn’t realize I had until I thought about it. 🙂

    • Hope Ramsay says:

      I am so tired of the bare-chested covers. Everyone has them, which suggests readers actually like them. (ugh) It’s like I’ve heard that category coers featuring a pregnant woman outsell the ones without.

      Since I write home & hearth stories I think my cover is going to be very Debra Macoberish, which suits me fine. I’m waiting on tenderhooks, though, for the cover art…

  9. Kristi says:

    I think that’s the question that everyone–including publishers–are asking. Sometimes a book just hits you in the right mood.

    I will admit that since I started writing, and therefore reading author blogs and book review blogs, that I will often pick up a book that I’ve seen reviewed online several times.

    But a couple of years ago I relied more on 1) Authors I’d already read 2)The “new releases”, end caps, “co-op” sections (not that I knew what that meant at the time) 3) borrowing whatever my mom had in her bookshelf 4) browsing for a cover that appealed to me and 5) some of the “others who bought this book also bought….” links.

    Until joining RWA, I don’t think I’d ever received (or looked for or cared about) an author’s bookmark, pen, pencil, letter opener, sewing kit, etc. As a reader, I can say that I would have used free bookmarks and/or pens, but they wouldn’t have influenced me to buy a book.

    I think an author’s best bets right now are to get their name and their cover in as many places as possible. If a consumer sees something in enough different places, they will start believing that its worth reading. Give away a few free copies to readers (on blog contests or whereever) to get your name out there and hope like heck that the free recipient passes your book to a few friends who will love it so much that they’ll pre-order your next release.

    • Katrina says:

      I agree with you, Kristi. I buy books I’ve seen reviewed on sites I trust. I find new authors by winning books on blogs (and some authors whose books I’ve won have become auto-buys for me), and by checking books out at the library. If I like a book, I’ll check out that author’s back catalog. And I don’t really care to have bookmarks, etc. Post-its are useful, but none of it influences me to actually buy an author’s books.

      • Tamara Hogan says:

        —-> I buy books I’ve seen reviewed on sites I trust.

        I got into an interesting (albeit short) exchange on Twitter earlier this week about what makes a reviewer “trustworthy.” I responded that, for me, two important components were honesty (did the reviewer like the book or not) and clarity (please explain why).

    • Joan Swan says:


      That is a KEY marketing techinique for anything: your name in a variety of places. I’ve read statistics on this, but can’t remember them exactly.

      It’s like someone has to see your name/logo/product 3 times for it to even register in their brain, 7 to make them actually remember it and I can’t remember how many (some ridiculously seemingly unattainable number) to actually invest and buy it.

      I’ll have to look that up again.

  10. Patti Mann says:

    What a great question. I never thought about what drew me to the books I read. Typically I follow two publishing houses, selecting many of their different lines. However, now that I’ve begun writing again, my time is limited. I’ve had to choose one or two lines and then, only one or two books from them.

    Now don’t think I’m limiting myself. There are a few series I try to follow faithfully. In the past month I’ve bought three books based on their content, and not in my general genre choice.

    Once in a while I let a cover call to me.


    • Joan Swan says:


      The neat thing about your process is that if you are following a LINE then you are reading various AUTHORS which is a pretty cool way to experience different voices.

  11. As a reader, I tend to keep promo items that are useful–pens, post it, markers and highlighters. As an author, though, I also do cards, bookmarks, ect so that I have something fast and easy to hand out with information on it or at signings. I like adding a bookmark to the signed books. It’s also handy if you happen to run out of books at signings to have something to sign while you’re there. 🙂

    • Joan Swan says:

      Good info, Michelle. I like the ideas of a bookmark in lieu of a business card — very few readers will hold onto a business card.

      At the RWA convention, authors quickly sell out or give away their books, but they often still have promotional items to offer, like you suggested. Great idea!

      Thanks for coming by, Michelle.

  12. Vivi Andrews says:

    My buying habits have changed some over the years, but I’ve never cared about cover art at all and never bought a book based on a review. I used to browse & buy on blurbs & excerpts, but now my TBR pile is so high, I need additional inducement to get me to the checkstand.

    These days I buy books based on (in order of prevalence):
    1) A new book from an author I know and love (by far the most likely reason for me to buy a book, but no help for newbie authors)
    2) Recommendations from my aunts, friends whose taste match mine (I will read anything Kate Diamond tells me to), and my editor (which is no help promowise unless you know Kate, my aunts, or my editor)
    3) Books written by writing buddies (no help promowise unless you know me in which case, guaranteed sale, spend your promo dollar elsewhere)
    4) RITA noms, DA BWAHA noms, and books by “that author everyone is talking about that I feel like I must live under a rock because I’ve never read” (so get everyone I know to talk about you=promo success! …but by then you’re probably already a best seller anyway.)

    Good luck cracking the code, Joan.

    • Joan Swan says:

      *snort* Cracking the code. 🙂

      Actually, your comments help, Vivi, because what it says is: in your case, an author has no control over why you would purchase…EXCEPT…my number one favorite: writing the best damn book you can!

      In that case, Kate, your aunts and your editor would recommend and you would buy!


      Oh, Vivi, you didn’t mention promo items. I know you were blogging with my CP Elisabeth Naughton recently and she gave away an ARC of Marked.

      What kind of promotional activities/items do you use?

      • Vivi Andrews says:

        I can tell you about my promo activities, but I can’t tell you what works because it is impossible to track.

        I’m currently doing a blog party ( with over 20 guest authors and daily prizes (some provided by me, many by the wonderful authors who are kind enough to visit), as well as a Sony ereader giveaway designed to expose the entrants to all five of my currently available releases (, & a charity drive in conjunction with the release of The Sexorcist. I’ll have a basket in the Brenda Novak Auction & I’m going to RT where I will attend a bookseller luncheon (with my bookmarks & books in tote bags for booksellers) & two signings. I’ll do guest blogs/chats surrounding The Sexorcist release & give away a few copies. I had two ads in Romance Sells (for my two available print books) but decided not to take out my first RT review/ad until my fall print release. I don’t do much on Twitter/Facebook/Goodreads, but I do have a token presence on each one.

        Is any of it working? Heck if I know.

  13. Hope Ramsay says:

    Before I went to the Kindle, I bought my books at the bookstore and I bought them based on the cover, the back blurb and a quick read of the first page. Since I like Rom Com I was always drawn to the cartoonish or humorous covers. I also chose books based on recommendations — mostly from Critique Partners. I never read any reviews. And I read a lot of fantasy, and would seek out female fantasy writers.

    My buying habbits have changed, radically, though, and I have a feeling I may not be alone. Because I only read books on my Kindle any more, I don’t go to bookstores and browse the way I used to. The Kindle has a 3G link to Amazon’s store, so I can buy books directly from the device, however because the screen is black and white and relatively small, I can’t see the covers. So, instead, I’ve been relying more and more on recommendations from Amazon based on the books I’m already reading. I will browse the recommendations and then I still read the blurb. If I’m not sure, I download an excerpt.

    In addition, at the urging of my daughter, I joined Good Reads, and then joined a romance reading challenge group. This group has begun to influence my buying choices, through word of mouth recommendations.

    I think the advent of readers and social networking groups like Good Reads are having a radical impact on how people select books to read. It makes it all the more confusing to find oneself publishing in the midst of all this change.

    • Joan Swan says:

      Ah, yes, Hope. You bring up the emerging trends. Will be very interesting to watch. There was a post by one of the people I follow on twitter regarding “humanizing” the ebook and I know with Kindle (et al) the covers are really mute. So that brings up a whole other issue/key, doesn’t it?

  14. Kristan A says:

    Most of the books I buy are new releases or backlists by my many tried and true authors.

    Still , I also like to discover new favorites. Recommendations and books swapped with other readers who know my taste are always a good thing, but I don’t rely on those as my only source. I spend time every few weeks browsing bookstores (print and online) to check out new releases. If a cover and title draw my attention, I read the blurb. If that hooks me I may buy right away, but often I read an excerpt to see if I like the author’s style and voice.

    I follow a few blogs and online reviewers (especially Smart Bitches and sometimes Borders Romance or Mrs. Giggles) and will check out books they feature or review – and sometimes those that advertise on SBTB – but I never buy unless the book would have appealed to me anyhow. Occasionally at online bookstores I see reader reviews that recommend additional authors, and that may draw me to look at authors I might not have seen otherwise.

    So for me, I guess there are lots of sources but nothing beats getting the book into my literal or figurative hands to see if it connects with me.

  15. Joan Swan says:

    Good stuff, Kristan. Sounds like you are connected to a lot of powerful sources!

  16. I don’t care about covers or blogs. I’ll pick up a book at the store, read the first five pages and if it grabs me, it’s a sale. If it’s an author I’ve already read and liked, I don’t need anything but the book. Reviews don’t play a big factor.

  17. Joan Swan says:


    FIrst five pages gives a really good idea of the book. Gotta get past the first line or page b/c we all know they’ve been polished beyond recognition…but as you get deeper the true pattern starts to emerge.

    If I get past the first few pages, I turn to 1/3 of the way through and see how it looks.

  18. Reviews from certain sites (Dear Author, Gossamer Obsessions) get my attention. Then it helps a lot if the writer has excerpts on her site. I’ll never forget stumbling across part of “The Leopard Prince” on then-unknown-to-me Elizabeth Hoyt’s site and thinking, “Wow, this is someone I’ve got to read!”

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      I think the seeing-something-enough-times-to-register thing is happening to me with Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Leopard Prince. Eloisa James just mentioned it on her website, and I saw it in another place too before your mention of it. All 3 mentions were very positive. See, now I’ll go order it.

      • FYI, I actually think “The Serpent Prince” is Hoyt’s best book. But it was “The Leopard Prince” that first made me sit up and take notice of her.


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