I will be launching two books into the world over the next year — Off the Clock in May, and then Juliet’s School of Possibilities, a time management fable that Penguin Random House will be publishing in March 2019. Since I’ve been through the book launch process a few times before, I’ve become quite fascinated by the question of why, exactly, someone might choose to buy a book. From what I can tell, a few conditions must be met.
First, the person must be a book reader. Theoretically, according to the Pew Research Center, more than 70 percent of adults read a book, in whole or in part, per year. The mean number of books is 12, but means are driven up by outliers. The median number of books read, in whole or in part, per year is 4. The odds are pretty good, for most contemporary authors, that you won’t make it into those 4. We’re really looking at a much smaller proportion of the public that is willing to go into a bookstore in person or online (or walk into a library) and emerge with a new title.
Second, the person needs to know your book exists. There are a lot of books published per year. The US figure is something like a million, though a lot of those are self-published titles with extremely small markets. If you consider more mainstream commercial publishers, the number is still something like 300,000 titles per year. But even that’s not the extent of the competition, since plenty of books don’t cease to be available after the year in which they were published. So you need to bring your book to people’s attention, within the context of many things demanding their attention.
Finally, the person needs a compelling reason to bring your book into his/her life. The biggest reason someone might decide to spend time and money on a book is that he/she feels like a relationship exists with the author. The reader has read one of the author’s previous titles. The reader has met or heard the author and enjoyed the experience. Alternately, someone the reader has a relationship with (or at least a perceived relationship with) highly recommends the book. A third possibility is that the book itself offers a fabulous benefit, but this is trickier, because how do you know? Maybe you like to read about baseball, but there are still a lot of books on baseball. Why does one, over others, get hours of your limited time? Or of more interest here: all time-management books promise they’ll help you get more done. So why read mine?
Most authors can do little about the first condition. Some books create new readers (like Harry Potter) but most won’t. Getting mentioned in various media outlets is helpful for the second condition, which is why authors try to do lots of interviews and appearances around the time of their book launches, and aim to be quoted as experts and write pieces at other times. But the second condition alone is generally not sufficient. The third is the real clincher. Oprah Winfrey’s magic touch with books isn’t just about her letting readers know they exist. It’s that for years she was in people’s living rooms at 4 p.m. daily and so there is the sense of a relationship (however one-sided it might be!)
Of course, people do pick up books for other reasons. I’ve bought a few books at that San Francisco Airport book store because I realized I’d finished the book I’d brought for the trip on the flight over, and needed a new one for the return. I didn’t have specific titles in mind; I was just browsing for something that looked interesting enough to pass the time. I read books if I’m getting paid to review them, or if I might be interviewing the author about a topic, and feel I should be familiar with what he/she has said about it. In the right circumstances, a cool cover can be a compelling reason.
Or maybe your boss got taken with the idea of a book and purchased 200 copies for everyone in the office, and you feel compelled to act like you’ve glanced at it when she asks.
As you think back to the last few books you’ve read, why did you decide to pick them up? What was the rationale behind the last book you purchased? How about the last book you read?