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?