Buy my soap–it’s rounder

By Kathryn Lilley

Publishers could learn a lot about market research by studying soap makers.

Consumer brand-makers have long studied every nuance of customers‘ shopping habits; they understand what makes a shopper reach for a particular product–why they reach for Dove soap, for example, as opposed to a nearly identical brand. Size, shelf placement, branding, color combinations, labels, price points–it’s all been studied, calibrated, and expertly wielded to part you from your money the next time you’re in the grocery store.

But in the publishing world, consumer marketing research seems to be woefully lacking. What makes a book-shopper shell out $25 for a hardcover book by an unknown author? Does anyone really know? Damned if most people in the publishing business seem to.

Authors don’t know, either. We’re always told, “Just write a good book, and readers will come.” I have visions of writers building ball parks in Iowa corn fields, waiting for Shoeless Joe to arrive for a book signing.

I’ve decided to run an unscientific poll to learn exactly why people bought their most recently purchased book. Is the conventional “superstar” theory correct, and did you buy a book by a major author? Or did you hear about a book or author from a review? From a blog? Did you wander the shelves and get drawn like a moth to a compelling cover and jacket copy? Or were a couple of factors involved?

Visit my poll, vote, and let me know how you made the decision to purchase your most recent book. Let me know how the poll can be refined or tweaked, and if there are any other polls you think would be worthwhile.

I’d also be interested to hear if anyone is aware of any hard core data about reader buying habits. Right now I get the sense that writers and publishers are simply wandering the corn fields. And we’re going to be stuck out there for a long, long time.

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11 thoughts on “Buy my soap–it’s rounder

  1. William Goldman’s Axiom of Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything,” certainly applies. If there was a surefire formula for a hit each time out, it’d be followed. It’s an alchemy, and while a superb book may not find a large readership, it seems to me it’s still the only thing we, the writers, can control.

    I do remember buying Tell No One without knowing anything about Harlan Coben. I was browsing the new release table. The book’s cover was stunning, virtually crying out to be picked up. The dust jacket copy and the first chapter were grabbers. The book, of course, is superb. Everything worked in that instance, and I was turned into a fan for the next books. And Harlan keeps delivering, so now his books debut at #1. That is the ideal sequence, isn’t it?

  2. The Harlan Coben formula–sounds perfect! I think in the backs of our minds all writers hope that’s the way it’ll work. How does it wind up that so many book covers are lackluster or lame? That’s what I want to know: Whatever the measurable factors are that lead to a customer purchase, why aren’t publishers all over it? Maybe they think they are, but…not so much, from the look of things. Jill, when I get enough responses I’ll write it up at the Kill Zone, thanks!

  3. The fact is the publishers don’t want your input on covers. You get a letter with the cover that says in effect: “We hope you LOVE this cover as much as we do.” I’ve had great covers and the worst possible covers. But compared to most authors I’ve been lucky. Remember that the art directors at the houses do hundreds and hundreds and no formukla works forever. My last cover was done by Harlan Coben’s artist. Great cover, I must say.

  4. Your books do have great covers, John! In general, I just don’t see what publishers are doing to actually measure the decision factors that go into book purchases. If we had a solid breakdown of what it was that caused you to fork over cash for this book, that would be extremely useful to know. If these types of studies have been done, I’d love someone to point me to them. People seem to simply accept that it’s all unknowable and obscured by mist, somehow. Other industries don’t make these types of assumptions.

  5. My last several books were bought on recommendations I got at Bouchercon panels, or because I liked an author’s panel and looked for a book. Blogs and social networking are my most common ways of finding new authors, and, of course, past performance.

  6. This is intriguing stuff, Kathryn. You’re right when you say that publishers don’t seem to grasp the concept of attention-grabbing covers. It seems too many of them fall back on screaming big print and/or stock photographs {:>p

    At Bouchercon, I was told Megan Abbott is worth checking out, so I saw her first novel, “Die A Little”, in the Bouchercon bookstore. The cover leaped off the table and slapped my face. It’s sensational, and even more so when you realize it came from Simon & Schuster, who are not exactly celebrated for their avant-garde approach to the business.

  7. Mike, I know authors are always complaining about covers, but–dang–it’s Marketing 101. Most authors have very little say over our covers, and if we complain, we’re branded as “difficult.” And covers are just one factor in the equation. What I’m not seeing is data that measures how people are actually deciding to make purchases. If I were a publisher, I’d have a business unit devoted to that.

  8. If I remember correctly, Harlan Coben’s “Tell No One” cover was a solid blank, bright yellow. No particular art at all. I was at Magna cum Murder a couple years after that came out & Harlan was the guest of honor & somebody asked him why, after 5 or 6 books, that was the breakout. He said he didn’t know and neither did anyone else. It could have been the cover. It could have been that he’d built up an audience with his previous Myron Bolitar books and was ready to break out, it could be the story, it could be the publisher push, it could be that it was a standalone…

    The truth is, and it drives us all crazy, is that nobody knows. One of my former agents commented that if publishing knew what made a bestseller that’s all they’d publish.

    In terms of market research, one of the problems with publishing and novels is the very nature of the product. If Toyota makes, say, a Prius X7T or whatever, they can then create focus groups specifically for that car and then sell a million units or more of essentially the same product. A publisher’s books tend to have far more variation than a car. A car company, or a consumer product like an iPod, has far less variation within the market than a book. And even from book to book by the same author, there’s going to be variation that’s much wider than a car or an iPod or a widget. Makes it tough.

    That said, most successful commercial magazines do a tremendous amount of analysis of who their readers are, where they come from, how they respond to ads, what their professional background, etc., is, where they’re buying the product… (and still going out of business, so go figure), but although I think publishing does some of this, I don’t really get a sense that they track it all that well. If you were to ask what the commonality or demographics are of Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol,” I really don’t think you’d get a very concise answer. And maybe there is no commonality, but I doubt if anyone actually knows if his readers are mainly Caucasian Catholic females ranging in age from 45 to 96 with 3 years of college living on the east coast.

  9. Very valid points, Terry, and interesting about Harlan Coban’s breakout book. I sense that pieces of the puzzle are out there, able to be studied (and of course, a “good” story will always be a major factor). When I posted a sponsored book video on YouTube a while back, I was able to see detailed data about the people who were clicking on it. I was stunned to discover that the vast majority were adolescent girls who had been searching for Twilight videos. That really surprised me–I’d been assuming that my audience is mostly 25-and-over. And maybe they are, but it’s the kids who’ve been watching the video. I never would have known that without running a marketing test.

    For what it’s worth, my little poll so far indicates that most people recently bought books by authors they’d previously read and liked. My other poll so far indicates that most people who bought new books, bought them at Amazon. So much for what I was told a while back, that publishers “don’t pay attention to Amazon sales.” If they’re not worried about Amazon, they should be.

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