Updated: Nov 23
What mining my own data taught me as a publisher and what authors and writers can learn from that
As a longtime indie book publisher and an avid nonfiction reader, I have long been aware that my own reading habits do not line up with the vague, idealistic idea of a reader that we often fall back on in the business: A person who hears about a book and then buys a copy at her local bookstore or on Amazon!
We all know better, for we are readers ourselves. Most of us who love books and read a lot of them simply can’t afford to buy, at least new and at full price, all of the books we read. For those whose income depends on books being purchased at a decent price and in sufficient quantities, this is an inconvenient truth that we don’t often give its due attention in our big-picture considerations and financial models.
Recently, as I was adding my latest read to my LibraryThing account as I have with every book I’ve read in the past several years, I realized this collection point made it easy to mine data on my own reading and buying habits and started taking notes on the last 250 books I read. What I discovered was eye-opening at the curiosity level, but also valuable for my thinking and planning as a publisher, and for you as a writer or author.
Here’s the data:
About 25% of the books I read were encountered by happenstance. These books came into my life from browsing used book sales, book fairs, Little Free Libraries, and my building’s book swap box. Or, I happened to meet the author, or I found the book in a vacation rental, hotel room, or on a table or in the new book section at my local library.
Another 25% of the books I read came from referrals or social circumstances, meaning a friend wrote the book, it was assigned for a class, someone I knew referred the book or author, or the title was a pick in one of the various book clubs I’ve belonged to.
In 23% of the cases, my personal interest in the subject was the primary driver of reading a book. I came upon a book because I like the author or it was next in a series; perhaps it was on my bookshelf for years or I discovered it through general research or Amazon browsing on a topic. A full 9% of all the books I read I first learned about because they were referenced in another book I was reading.
15% of the books I read, I learned about through media of some sort, whether print or online newspapers and magazines, broadcast media, blogs, social media awareness, email ads and newsletters, or from multiple media hits because the author was famous and/or a public figure.
I am just one reader and this is just one set of data points, but not-so-hidden in these numbers and notes are some commonsense insights about book reading, book selling, and book buying. Much of what we read is encountered rather than sought out, meaning social circumstances and day-to-day habits can heavily dictate what we read, which books we know about, and where we get our books from (and if/when we pay for them).
This means that our books and word of our books need to be as many places as possible so that they can be discovered. Once our book actually makes it onto someone’s radar, it has to be relevant or appealing enough for them to then purchase or read. Finally, this network of activity naturally involves plenty of readers of our work that have never paid for it, but also, some buyers who will never read it.
More specific reminders I take away…
Create quality work that’s meaningful to readers’ lives. In terms of endurance and visibility and word-of-mouth exposure, nothing beats excellence and significance. Ryan Holiday gives an in-depth treatment of this subject in his 2017 book, Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts.
Have books available for sale where people go most and as many places as possible. For starters, this is why having books for sale online at Amazon, BN.com, your local bookseller’s website, and niche outlets is critical. The place most of us go most often is online and for a good portion of the day, too.
Where else are people going? Grocery stores, drugstores, convenience stores, department stores. And then — and only if these stores are in their path, they have a specific mission, they happen to be at a mall, or they are true fans of some sort — will they go to gift shops, specialty stores, and, sigh, bookstores.
It’s true for me. If I lived in a neighborhood where I could walk to a bookstore, I would buy more books at bookstores. But I don’t. And I will read books whether or not there’s a bookstore by me. I won’t go out of my way to a bookstore if good books find their way to me before I happen to be near one. The publisher that I am winces. But it’s true. Other places people go (i.e., will go back to after the pandemic) are events — festivals, book fairs, classes, lectures, booksignings, parties, meetings.
Get books mentioned everywhere. If you are promoting a book, contact or pitch 5–10 people who can write or speak about you/your book/your book’s topic, 5–7 days a week, every week, for as long as you intend that book to sell. Keep a running list and work it. Contact the same people multiple times with different angles. This includes traditional media (big and small, print and broadcast, general and niche), bloggers, podcasters, social media stars, scholars, opinion leaders, public figures, newsletter writers for clubs, your neighborhood gossip.
While some PR firms focus on the biggest media outlets (not a bad strategy at all…80/20 thinking works), I personally prefer the everyone, everywhere approach of an agent for hip-hop artists I met years ago. She had a list of 700 media contacts who loved, wrote, spoke, breathed hip-hop from radio superstars to small-time bloggers, and she contacted each of them individually every time she had news and new music to share.
When I specialized in Chicago books earlier in my career, authors from other houses would say to me, “I see and hear about your books everywhere!” It wasn’t actually true, but I loved to hear it! What was true and created the illusion of everywhere, is that different books and mentions of them would appear in all sorts of places and places one wouldn’t normally expect. We always went beyond the obvious and it helped create random encounters.
Use your connections and relationships and your Google search skills. This is just an extension of have your books everywhere and get them mentioned everywhere. See #7 Your Connections/How Other People Can Help You section of my “Tap Into Who You Are and Bring What You Have to the World” article for more specifics on leveraging your relationships in service of book promotion and sales. Recently I promoted a book on the Irish history of Milwaukee and I contacted stores, museums, libraries, clubs, and associations related to Milwaukee, Irish-Americans, Irish culture, immigrants and immigration, local history, and genealogy in Milwaukee, in the U.S., and in Ireland, asking if they’ll sell the book, review the book, mention the book to their audience, interview the author, etc., etc. All made possible by Google or your favorite search engine.
Make it easy for people to share your books and information on them. A few top ways to make it easier for others to share all things good and wonderful about you and your book: Give them the content (actual wording, images, video). Have social share buttons available on your website and in your emails. Ask them for what you want: online reviews, introductions to event coordinators, book club referrals, a Twitter shout-out. The bold can invite criticism and controversy as a way to increase exposure.
Get your book into libraries. In the past, if I encountered a book during my workday that I knew I wanted to read, I’d hit a few keys and hold that title in my Amazon cart. It became my de facto to-read list regardless of where I would ultimately get the book. I’ve since discovered that my public library offers me the same thing and have moved my keystrokes to their site. As I need to, I move those books to the library request list. When they’re pulled and waiting for me, I get an email notifying me that I have a few days to pick them up. This is now where and how I get most of the books I read. In fact, now I’m more likely to buy a book after I have read it. I’ve read it and know I want to own it.
Libraries get their books from wholesalers like Baker & Taylor and Ingram; some I know buy single titles from Amazon when the price is right. They learn about books from their trade publications, from the media and “general awareness” we all are exposed to, and from patron requests. Find out what you need to do to get your forthcoming book carried in these outlets and reviewed by the journals librarians read. Have those you know request your book from their local library.
Have book clubs read your book. Where do you find book clubs? Google searches, Meetup.com, libraries, bookstores, churches, private clubs, museums, neighborhood lists, friends, and more. In the last month alone, I’ve helped an author book a program with two different book groups within private clubs, I pitched two museums with a monthly book clubs on author titles, and I reached out to four niche book groups on behalf of another author.
Consider the ripple effect of a book club. Several people are either buying your book and/or requesting it from their local library. Then they are discussing it with others at length, meaning that if they continue to talk about it afterwards, they are equipped with a host of more organized thoughts and opinions to share with others.
Go anywhere people congregate. Book fairs, festivals, events, and book clubs have all been mentioned already. The next category to consider are the places likeminded people congregate regularly, clubs and organizations, especially those with regular meetings that require a steady stream of speakers and programs. What groups do people who might want to read your book belong to?
I like to remember that an author of what I would have thought to be a hard-sell topic (history of a city’s drainage, sewage, and water treatment issues) has spoken and sold books at libraries, historical societies, ecology centers, university planning departments, private engineering firms, and clubs/organizations (Underwater Geography Society, Chicago Maritime Society, and many more). (Read Author Events 101 here.)
Getting books read is part of getting books sold. A book will be (and should be) read more times than the number of copies sold! Don’t bemoan the nonpaying readers. They may not have bought the book but they have actually read it and are in a position to talk about your book to others, to spread the word. Putting your book in the path of these readers is a fun way to get rid of the dinged up copies of your book that you may not be able to sell new anymore (you can also try selling them directly at a deep discount to used bookstores). Swap them for a book for yourself at a Little Free Library. Leave one behind on the bus, in a hotel room, or at the airport. Give them to bookstore employees, gift shop owners, and teachers for review copies. Of course, sharing digital copies of your book is even easier (try LibraryThing and GoodReads for an endless supply of readers who like talking books).