What makes you pick up a book?

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?


42 thoughts on “What makes you pick up a book?

  1. I read a lot. This year, a lot of my book choices have come from Book Riot’s 2018 Read Harder Challenge.

    The book I’m reading now, Astrophysics for Busy People by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I picked up because I just started watching Cosmos. My 5 year old is really into space, which has rubbed off on me!

    When it comes to self-help style books, I will only pick them up if I have read a review – like on a blog – endorsing it.

  2. I read a lot (relative to many). I use goodreads to track and get ideas for what to read next (in addition to your picks and WSIRN/Modern Mrs. Darcy). When I’m getting low on books, I use goodreads to request books from the library. Lately I’ve been using Overdrive and reading e-books or audiobooks. My commute increased with a recent move and audiobooks have been a way to keep this hobby going while having small children at home.
    I like series as I get to know the characters, and it is easy to get into the next book. I read cozy mysteries to relax at night, then intersperse more meaty books occasionally. I tend to listen to non-fiction on audio (or business/time management books), as it fits into the work mindset of my commute.

  3. I get continuing education credit for my Project Management certification by reading relevant books, so that drives some of my business/non-fiction choices. I try to choose books that look interesting and that I would read even if I didn’t NEED the credit for them. I will totally look at the cover and title and see if they look interesting enough to read a random page. If that page grabs me, then I will buy/check out the book.

    This is harder on Amazon, obviously, so I almost always buy a specific book on Amazon based on a recommendation from someone I know or a website rather than browsing for random items. I have gotten burned too many times with bad self-published stuff that way.

  4. Recs from people I know and from blogs like MMD and a couple others are my main sources. The other big source is the NYT 100 best books of the year list which comes out in Nov/Dec and then drives much of my reading for the next year. If someone recommends a book or I read about it on a blog, I pull out my phone and immediately put it on hold at the library. I rarely browse through bookstores anymore but when I did I would often look for new titles by previous favorite authors.

    1. @Emily- yes, 100-best lists can be great for this sort of thing. A few months ago I found a list of 48 short books (or some such) that provided novella reading for a few weeks. One of the best aspects of MMD is that she creates a lot of lists and so even if you don’t like a few books on a list you might like others.

    2. Dumb question, but how do you manage your Holds list at the library? I often find that several of my Holds come up available at once and I am then overwhelmed with too many items to read, and then have to get back on the list to get the more popular ones 🙁

      1. @ARC and Emily — ooh, library people problems! My suggestion would be to think of the hold list at the library as a way to be more economical in book reading, but not completely take buying out of the equation. So if you’re on hold for 3 great titles and they all come up simultaneously, you get through what you can – maybe 2 of the books in the allotted time? And if you start the third and are liking it, then buy it.

      2. Some library systems will let you set the activation date for a hold request for a certain date in the future–I do this a lot when too many holds are coming in at once.

  5. I recently read A Gentleman in Moscow (Towles) because it was recommended by one of the few blogs that I read (MMD, I think?). I then checked out Towles’ other book (The Rules of Civility) from the library. The next book on my list (The Friend) was reviewed by an acquaintance; I saw the review on my FB feed and thereby learned of the book’s existence.

    The last book I purchased was an inexpensive paperback for one of the classes I teach.

    Almost all of the books I’ve read recently (fiction and nonfiction) have been from my university library. Occasionally I will ask the university to purchase something it doesn’t own if I’m going to need it on an ongoing basis.

    Books purchased generally fall into the following categories:
    a) inexpensive classics that I might assign for class (for something expensive I would request a review copy);
    b) research materials that will get very heavy use and in which I want to underline; and
    c) fiction that I’m very confident will be good (though lots of this I get from the library, too).

  6. As a librarian a lot of what I end up reading I find at work (I like to joke that this job is a special kind of torture–so much great stuff to read and not nearly enough time!). The last several books I purchased were all because I read the blogs of the authors (so, the relationship aspect), I was interested in the topic, and they also all happen to be works of nonfiction, which makes it more likely that I will return to the book again and again for information. I rarely re-read novels so often don’t purchase them, but do check them out from the library. Reviews from library resources, having enjoyed the author’s previous work, and recommendations from the website Book Riot as well as from colleagues, friends and family also make me interested in seeking out a particular book.

  7. There are half a dozen factors that determine whether I pick a book up at all: it has a catchy or intriguing title, I know and like the author, I’ve heard of and been meaning to read this book or author, it’s got a publisher or imprint I’m partial to, the typeface and cover art are attractive and/or suggestive of genres I enjoy.

    Two factors then determine whether or not I decide to read it:

    1) There must be on the back or inside flap a plot summary or synopsis of at least one paragraph setting forth clearly and concisely what the book’s about; books with nothing but effusive blurbs are automatically out of the running.

    2) If the substance of this appeals to me, I’ll then open to a random page to see if I like or can stand the style of writing; the harder it is to put down, the likelier I am to read the whole thing.

    1. @Gwen- fascinating on the synopsis requirement plus the random page test. I will sometimes look at both when picking up a book in the library or book store, but hadn’t really thought about it.

      Blurbs are, I agree, not a big factor for me but I imagine they must be for some people or publishers wouldn’t keep doing them. (I assume!)

  8. I read a lot of books my family passes me. We have a similar taste on novels so they rotate the books from home to home.
    But last year I read a lot of Murakami books, after I read your mention of one of them. When I read your post I remebered I started to read one of Murakami books in a plane to Cancun with my friends. One of my friends bring the book to the plane but she wanted to sleep so she lent it to me for a couple of hours but then she asked it back. So when I read your post I remembered the book and ask my friend to interchange books. After that I bought 2 more books and asked my husband to give me 2 more as a gift for xmas and birthday.

    1. @Jessica F- so glad my post helped you remember liking an author! It’s great to discover an author who’s written a lot of books, because that solves the problem of what to read for a while. (I had this experience after reading Jayber Crow. I think I read half a dozen Wendell Berry books last year. Some better than others, to be sure. Also a lot of Willa Cather and Edith Wharton.)

  9. The last few books I read:
    Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan – the series was recommended by Sarah (Hart-Unger) on her blog.
    All the Light We Cannot See – Indigo kept sending me recommendations about it and it generally feels like there’s been buzz about it. Not sold on it yet though.
    Last book purchased – reading material for my Bible Study!

  10. For non fiction I maintain an Amazon wishlist, and whenever I see a book mentioned that sounds interesting, I put it in there. Then every now and again I go and buy a few from it. I re the mentions on blogs mostly, but also annual bestseller lists, and occasionally from work colleagues.

    For fiction, I read science fiction that my husband and kids find mainly through top ten lists from random people on the internet. That’s a great filter, because I only read about a third as many books as they do so I get the best.

  11. I tend to go on author streaks. After Infinite Jest, there was All the David Foster Wallace. After The Course of Love, Alain de Botton ruled my Audible app. Similar things for Marilynne Robinson and Wallace Stegner. Oh, and the guilty pleasure Stephen King – the Dark Tower series is such fun, and some of his other works (Joyland, 11/22/63) are imaginative and delightful.

    Initial recommendations generally come from MMD, husband, or general knowledge that the author is worth reading (see DFW).

  12. I am currently working through my TBR which was created through goodreads, buzzfeed, business insider, levo league, MMD and other blogs. I am focusing on finishing the 100 books to read before you die and 30 before 30 type lists, but have thrown in additional books written by authors I have loved in the past or books recommended by my real life friends. I am also attracted to certain catchy titles or cover art when browsing my library or bookstore.

  13. My reading really slipped off the radar during early grad school. I finally got a library card and a Kindle, and clocked 59 books last year! I hope I can keep up the streak, luckily, 20 minute bus rides are just the perfect amount of time!

    I read Kristen Lavransdattar on your recommendation on a trip to Sweden this summer. I know that Norway isn’t Sweden, but to be amongst those ruins and buildings and history and read that story was enthralling.

    I do love your summaries every month, and between you, a few other blogs (MMD), and the Times book review, I have an ever growing list 🙂

  14. I like the konmari principle that you should read books when you first discover them so my tbr pile is tiny although my Goodreads list is huge. I find things through blogs, a newsletter that highlights books published each week, and a browse of the bookstore.

  15. Couldn’t articulate what makes me pick up a book (previous experience with author helps prioritize her/his other books), but I know that I finally pre-ordered your book once I knew there were goodies and sneak peaks involved! 😀 I’m still not always the best at planning weekends, so I’m looking forward to your book!

  16. For me, picking up a book for myself to read and buying a book are two very separate things. For my own reading, I almost never buy books – it is mostly borrowing from the library, either hard copy or via Overdrive. Things on my TBR list often find their way there via Overdrive browsing, library shelf browsing (usually involves reading the first few pages), book podcasts (What Should I Read Next, Smart B*tches are two favorites – even if I’m not interested in the books that are discussed, I love hearing them talk about the book with some depth) author interviews on Fresh Air (particularly for memoirs or the more obscure non-fiction topics – there is nothing like an author talking knowledgeably and passionately to make me want to pick up their book). If I’ve a hankering for something specific, I will just to a google search and I’ve found some pretty good recommendations/ lists that way- particularly when it takes me to a good Reddit thread. Book award lists. The “By the Book” section of the NY Times. One thing that moves books from being a recommendation to actually being chosen to be read is, honestly, whether or not it is available on Overdrive or at my library. The last couple of books I’ve picked up (still working through some of them):
    1) Evicted by Mathew Desmond (popped up when I was browsing something else on Overdrive and I liked how specific the work was and it had won some major book awards and I was looking for non-fiction)
    2) Half of a Yellow Sun (I wanted to read a fiction book about Africa and this came up on a Book Riot list and was immediately available on OverDrive. Book Riot is great for lists)
    3) Station Eleven (From a Cup of Jo blog post about audiobooks, this came up a lot in the comments)
    4) Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (I was working on an opera based on one of her short stories and wanted to read it)

    As for actually buying a book – these days I buy books for two reasons: 1) as a gift, or 2) for my kids (though, that is really a gift too, so I guess it’s the same thing). Books I choose for gifts are often ones that I’ve read before or which contain useful information. The last couple books I’ve bought (all gifts) are:
    1) When Breath Becomes Air (for my mother – I had read following all the buzz when it first came out and thought she would enjoy)
    2) AMC guide to hikes in the DC/MD area (for my dad, I had first borrowed from the Library to make sure it was relevant)
    3) Miles of Smiles (Children’s book for a friend’s children – I had first read it at a library – it is about neighborhood bonds and my friend were moving,so I thought it would be a good book)
    4) Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat (for my daughter – a book I had read growing up and thought she would be interested in reading)
    Oh, I did buy the audio book of “How to Train Your Dragon” for a road trip because I had audible credits to use. Because, well, David Tennant.

    I used to buy lot and lots of book, but then I realized that I’m not much of a re-reader and that they were taking up a lot of space for something that I could easily find at the library. If I had limitless space and money, I think the books I would be most interested in adding to my physical collection would be cookbooks and knitting/crocheting pattern books.

    1. @DLC – the space issue is certainly a real issue. I buy a lot of books, and I like to read physical books. Yes, I read on my Kindle a lot too, but I really like turning pages. Once I’ve bought a book and read it (and liked it) I tend to want to keep it. It’s like a reminder of the happy experience.

      But sometimes the pile starts getting overwhelming. Like in the photo on this post.

  17. I am not a publisher’s ideal reader, as I rarely buy a new book. I’m pretty cautious about trying to ensure a good reading experience, so I gravitate towards classics or books I have heard a lot about and seem like a good fit for me. I read MMD lists, including the Kindle Daily Deals email. The only first-time authors whose books I have bought recently were bloggers I read (Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson and Soulful Simplicity by Courtney Carver), but I would say it wasn’t so much about ‘relationship’ as that I knew and liked their writing styles. A few years ago, I adopted a “book in, book out” rule to keep my shelves under control!

    1. @Susan – I think knowing and liking someone’s writing style constitutes a relationship, even if it is one-sided. You feel like you know the person, and hence you want to spend more time with their thoughts.

  18. I like the amazon feature that tells you if you read this, you might like that. I read reviews of books in magazines, or blogs, and keep them in mind. I was more likely to buy a book if it is written by a blogger or podcaster I have been following. I had to stop going to my book club meetings, but missed the books- and didn’t trust myself to read a book if I didn’t have a group accountability so I went searching for a book delivery service and found Book of The Month. The pick a few titles and then I pick one book for the month. I had a coupon code for my first month and got a 2nd book for free. I have loved all of the books I picked and look forward to picking the next month’s book.
    This post is reminding me to pre-order your Off the Clock!

  19. I spend a lot of time in my favorite bookstore, Boswell Books in Milwaukee, and our city libraries looking at books and selecting books – usually non-fiction- that will help me grow my family’s wealth, inspire me, help me grow professionally.

  20. Books I read ( often from the library both because I’m cheap and because then I don’t have to store or dispose of the book when I’m done):
    1) any new releases by authors I’ve enjoyed before (known quantity), especially if continuation of character or world I’ve enjoyed (I read a lot of fantasy & sci Fi)
    2) non- fiction books that apply to a particular part of my life (parenting, nutrition, other specific interests)
    3) fiction recommended / reviewed by a trusted source that sounds like I’d find it interesting (MMD/WSIRN, you and Sarah, the Tor newsletter and blog)

    Books I buy:
    1) kindle deals from MMD that seem like I might want to read them someday (I have an embarrassing hoard of $2 or less books)
    2) books written by people I feel like I should support because I appreciate their free content (I preordered Off the Clock and bought Reading People on this principle)
    3) gifts or books I know I want to read and pass on to someone else
    4) knitting and other reference books (cook books fall in this category too)

    1. @EmilyVA – thanks for pre-ordering, and for appreciating the free content. I love blogging and podcasting in any case, but I’m very happy when it sells books too 🙂

      I, too, have a shocking number of 99 cent kindle deals…

  21. I used to be a librarian, and I still default to getting most of my books from the library. I read a lot of books, but I now make a deliberate point of buying about 10 or so of my favorite reads each year. That allows me to support my favorite authors without being overrun by books! I think you introduced me to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I read and loved earlier this year!

    However, I’m really posting a comment to say that this post inspired me to preorder your book from my local independent bookstore. I’m a regular reader of your blog, if an infrequent commenter. I enjoyed the first chapter, and I look forward to getting Off the Clock in May!

  22. I’m currently reading two non-fiction books: Believe Bigger and Bloom. I checked out the first book from the library because I heard her on a podcast promoting the book she just released and liked what she had to say. And I wanted to know all the details of her finding out her fiance was cheating on her the week of her wedding. The last book I purchased was Bloom. I’ve been following her blog for years and I’m so frugal, I rarely do things to support the bloggers I love (not even buy things from affiliate links!). So I decided to purchase her book in support, and also because I think she’s a great author with great things to say. The last book I read before that was Meet the Frugalwoods, because I follow her blog too.

    Now that I think of it, the blog is what will usually push me to buying a book.

  23. I read a lot and I do buy a lot of books too. My split is about 1:3 non-fiction/fiction.

    My thought process is if I can get it at the real library or Overdrive, I’ll do that first. Other than that, i only pay full price for a book if I need it for book club. Otherwise, I happily wait for it to go on Kindle sale and then I’ll get it.

    I have all of your books (I bought All the Money in the World after being advised by Modern Mrs Darcy’s kindle deals) but I’ve bought all months later when they go on special.

    I add to my stack regularly through Kindle deals and our book club also rotates books so I get about 15 new-to-me books that way every year.

    As an example, I currently have 32 fiction and 9 non-fiction on my Kindle to-read list with about 5 audible books waiting for a listen.

    Of the last 7 books I read (this month’s list), I’ve bought 1 audible and 1 Kindle. The rest have been from the real library, Overdrive and 1 was borrowed from a friend.

    Hope this helps!

  24. One more suggestion–a few days later. Lithub.com. Lists of books, new books, and often essays that are so interesting that they lead me to find other works by their authors such as Steve Edwards-Breaking into the Backcountry.

  25. I have NEVER bought a new book, and will not, because they are too expensive compared to getting them from the library, or used. And, yet, I have a whole 6 shelf bookcase filled with books to be read—from library sales, yard sales and book swaps, and amazon used books when I determine I like and MUST HAVE a book.
    I usually pick books from authors I know and love, but will go out on a limb if the cover or title interests me, and then checking inside to see what it’s about. I never watch Oprah, or the morning shows, so I miss all the recommendations and publicity of what’s current and trending. I am enjoying MMD, but all the lists are overwhelming.
    I DO go to book stores to see what’s happening, although I live 90 miles from the nearest one. I take note of new books by my favorite authors, the NYT Bestsellers, and books the store features. Then, I take my list to the library! The Library rarely has them (small budget) but they can order them from other libraries.
    I like to own books that I really like, so that no only can I re-read them (altho I do that rarely—too many books, too little time to re-read!) but I can easily lend them to others. If you TELL someone about a book, they, 95% of the time, will forget the title, the author, or that I even told them about it. They probably won’t go to the library to get it. But, if I own it, and put it in their hot little hands, voila! Easy. ( I do keep track of who has what book and get them all back.)

  26. It varies a little by book type. My last few fiction books bought and read have been due to the fact I’ve watched the tv show and want to read the book, due to the mrs darcy reading challenge, or a favourite author. Non-fiction is usually I need to learn something or know something. Amazon and google are great way of finding books that suit. My other option is going to a book store and see what books they have to solve my problem. Downside, I’ve learnt I’m more likely to actually read the book if it’s on my ereader. Yes I’m one of the 5 per cent who read a lot.

  27. This is an interesting question because practically my entire TBR list (all 2k+) comes from online recommendations, and I really can’t remember how I used to find books to read pre-internet. I think I just browsed the library shelves for interesting covers, but I can’t be sure!

    1. @Maryalene- 2000 books! That is impressive. Most people won’t read 2000 books in their lives…

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