Bookstore Reflections, Part 1: The Eye

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Bookstore Reflections, Part 1: The Eye

Slate grey skies deposited a steady stream of rain outside the bookstore in suburban New Jersey near Manhattan. As I sat in the bookstore café, I felt the familiar invitation to relax and read that for me always accompanied a rainy morning. On such days, I used to go to a bookstore, too—but I hadn’t for years. Yet here I was as I awaited my ride to the airport for the long flights home to Tucson, so I decided to observe the few others who were there and watch how they looked at and shopped for books.

What I learned will benefit you as you strive to capture the eye, mind, and heart of your readers as a book author—or as a writer of any type of writing.

One customer mulled over the shelves in the self-help section. Even though some books were facing fully outward so she could see the full cover, none of those seemed to interest her. Instead, she selected two books based solely on what she read on the spine of the book. This meant that the title or the author was enough to get her to take the first step to hold the books. She glanced at the back cover of her first selection and quickly reshelved it. However, she held the second selection long enough for me to assume that she read the back cover copy. This copy is vital; in most cases, if it doesn’t do the job of teasing the content inside, the book will not be read. Apparently, the copy failed the test. She put it back on the shelf and moved on.

I took a sip of my mocha and turned my attention to a gentleman in the sports section. He found one book that interested him; I saw that a baseball stadium was on the cover, but I couldn’t make out the words from a distance. Again, he flipped to the back cover copy, read it, and then took the next key step: he opened the book. Clearly at random, he looked at different sections of the book. Once I saw him smile. But after a few more moments, he reshelved it. The content seemed to actually engage him emotionally. Yet he did not buy the book.

I glanced at the clock on the wall. My ride wasn’t expected for another half hour. That’s all this day will be, I thought. Hurry up and wait—at LaGuardia and then at Midway in Chicago before I finally get home. I sighed, hoped there would be no weather delays, and turned my attention to a woman perusing the romance section. She was standing at an end cap, the end of a row of shelves where featured books are displayed. I knew that publishers often had to pay a premium to have a book displayed on an end cap, and recalled how one of my self-published authors had given a bookstore a batch of his books on consignment to get an end cap placement. In two author signing events at that bookstore, he sold about fifty books—a smashing success even if it didn’t seem like much. Bookstore sales are hard to achieve nowadays.

She bypassed the end cap, though, and found a book that interested her in the same way the earlier woman did. She grabbed the book, read the back cover, and then opened it up and stood for about a minute as she read a section. Satisfied, she closed the book and kept it in her hand. She just might buy that one, I mused. Good for that author!

I sat and finished up my drink and then felt a need to stretch my legs. I walked over to the sports section and found the book the man had looked at earlier. It was titled When Shea Was Home, and chronicled the year that New York’s baseball and football teams—the Yankees, Mets, Giants, and Jets—all shared the stadium in 1975. I opened it up and, just like the gentleman, was engaged by the copy. I decided I wanted to buy the book.

I closed it and looked at the price on the back cover. Whoa, I thought. That’s a lot. I can probably get it for less on Amazon. So I returned to my table and jotted down the title.

Later, my ride arrived. As I was on my way out the door, I saw the romance novel lady at the cashier counter. She was alone. I didn’t see the book she originally held onto among her purchases. A twinge of sadness went out to the rejected author. I hope that person has a good website. Maybe she’ll buy the book there. Or on Amazon.

Even when potential readers fulfill the four steps to buying a book, it still may not be enough to secure a purchase in a bookstore. This is the harsh reality facing any author today—and is the reason why so many authors, self-published or not, cannot rely on bookstores to sell books. But don’t worry—there are other ways you can sell your books. I’ll share more next week as we delve into the mind of the customer as we try to turn them into a buyer—and reader—of your work.

I want to hear from you!
When was the last time you bought a book in a bookstore? What caused you to make the purchase?


Andrea Arthur Owan

August 17, 2016at 5:39 am

Boy, am I envious! You actually had TIME to sit in a bookstore, while enjoying a warm cup of your favorite liquid, while it RAINED outside! I almost swooned reading about it! But my attention deficit issues distract me from the real subject, and questions.

BAC (before, I would peruse bookstores for hours, in my chosen section(s), and usually select at least one book to purchase. When my boys were much younger, the three of us also spent hours in the children’s section, where I would encourage them to make at least one selection for purchase—which they always did. (My younger son picked out a little kid’s cookbook, complete with primary-colored measuring spoons one year. He’s 21 now and still uses those spoons and cookbook!)

Today, though, I rarely “wander” into a bookstore to browse and buy, unless it’s a dedicated Christian bookstore. Yet even for that, I am usually there—in the first place—to buy a card, Bible, or music CD, and then end up perusing the shelves for something I hope will encourage or stretch my faith. Otherwise, I do most of my shopping on line, (yes, through Amazon), for a book I already know about and want to add to own. Or I’ll just search for books in a specific topic or genre. Sometimes I get the book first at the library, read it, and then make a decision on whether it warrants a permanent home in my ever-growing personal library. (Which is another reason I no longer make as many book purchases; I don’t have room for them!)

Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to have the luxury of wandering among the stacks of a REAL bookstore! (I went through mild depression when Borders shuttered their doors.) The smell and feel of printed paper, the visual stimulation, the reverent hush of readers as they look and lounge and read. It’s really a lost art. And since I have such limited time, and more focused interests, I follow some rules when I do buy books.

First, unless I intend to buy the book at the physical bookstore, I don’t shop at the physical store. I’ve been convicted by the biblical passage: “Give the merchant his due.” I’m no longer comfortable going to the brick and mortar bookstore to “check out” books, and then go home and buy them for a cheaper price on Amazon. In Jewish teaching, you are not even to go into a store to pick a merchant’s brain about a product or item unless you fully intend to buy there. (Ouch!) So that first rule alone keeps me from visiting bookstores more often than I do. (I will add, however, that I am motivated by the coupons I receive from Barnes and Noble via email. Although on my last attempt to purchase a book from them didn’t go well. The salesperson sold me the wrong book, I had to go through the trouble of driving back to return it, and then they didn’t have the version in stock that I needed.)

Second, I do read the back cover copy, which, as you point out, is critical to teasing a potential buyer and can make or break a sale. If that interests me—and the book has a jacket—I’ll read the front and back jacket sleeves to see if I can get more of the story. And I almost always read the author bio. Call me goofy, but I like to know their background, and if they have the “authority” to write the book I’m about to purchase with my hard-earned money. (I’m more interested in authority for non-fiction books.)

Third, if I’m still attracted, I’ll read the first chapter paragraph (or two) to see how the the author writes; to see if it draws me in. Sometimes I’ll look for dialogue to make sure the book isn’t loaded with language I would find offensive or uncomfortable to read. I’ll sometimes read the foreward to get more of the book “personality.”

Fourth, I will get on right there in the bookstore to read the book reviews. If they’re good, then I’m more inclined to make the purchase. If not so much, the book usually gets passed.

And I’ll do the same thing in the library. Some time ago I picked up a large historical fiction novel by a popular author to give the once-over. The back cover and author bio sounded great, but I didn’t get through the first page before being sickened by the vivid descriptions of immorality. Add in some distasteful dialogue, and the book was promptly snapped shut and re-shelved. A contemporary YA novel I recently borrowed from the library (to study the writing technique of a famous YA author) failed the same test and was quickly returned.

So, the answer to your question: When was the last time you bought a book in a bookstore? my answer would be a little over a year ago. And that’s the book I had to return due to the salesperson’s mistake. It was a book for a Bible study class at my church. The time previous to that, I was looking for a specific reference book and was drawn to other books in that section. What led me to purchase two additional books were the back covers, the reviews inside the book and on Amazon, and the first chapter writing. I bought both of those books and loved them! Even recommended them to friends, and bought a copy of one of them for each of my boys for Christmas.

That’s a very long-winded answer to your questions, but that’s my “science” behind book buying.

But your vivid description of your rainy day bookstore with hot drink visit has inspired me! My book holding hands are getting itchy, and I may convince my husband to go to the local Barnes and Noble for date night this weekend!



    Andrea Arthur Owan

    August 17, 2016at 5:45 am

    P.S. I just remembered a very recent time, which was a Christian bookstore. I was there to buy a CD and found several inspiring books I just had to buy. I took them through the same tests, and I wasn’t disappointed! One of them is going to become this year’s Christmas present to all of my girlfriends!

      Adam Colwell

      August 17, 2016at 6:33 pm

      I have to believe, Andrea, that such “surprises” occur less often in an online setting than they do in a bookstore. It’s an encouragement to all writers and authors to remember that your content will find its readers, and at times in the most unlikely of ways. As I often tell my Christian authors, if God has indeed told you to write a book, He has already gone ahead of you to prepare the readers that He knows needs to know your story – so tell it!

    Adam Colwell

    August 17, 2016at 6:29 pm

    Hi Andrea! Be sure to let me know how the date request goes; it sounds delightful. 🙂 Thank you for sharing the detailed look at your book buying experiences – and your convictions about merchants and the content of the books themselves. It is good to know there are still thoughtful people like you who actually go through an honest-to-God process in selecting what you read. It’s instant inspiration for all editors and authors. I especially appreciated your fourth step of using your smartphone to look up the online reviews. There are times, of course, some of those reviews are “canned,” written by a person the author selected (or even by the author themselves). But those are usually easy to spot. On the most part, those reviews are indeed helpful to the buying decision – and points to the importance of social media marketing for any book author.

    Most of all, I’m thrilled that I inspired you! No writer can receive higher praise. Thank you!

Adam Colwell

August 16, 2016at 6:10 am

Hee! It had been a while, Suzette, since I had that kind of “chill” time, so it was nice. Yes, the challenges of making sales is one of the realities I emphasize with my book author clients often, and letting go of the expectation that big sales in a bookstore can be an expectation is a great place to start. As you pointed out, that then allows me as their editor and coach to focus them on the marketing strategies needed through platform development that will help them sell their books and build a readership – as well as make sure they reach each reader’s eye, mind, and heart with their writing and overall product.

Suzette Howe

August 15, 2016at 8:56 am

Way to draw me into the real message you wanted to convey…travel & chill time w/a cafe mocha! The ‘chance purchase’ reality hurts to think about, but is part of the reasoning for strategic planning. Well done my friend!

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