Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Makes You Pick up a Book? (Also, a warning about sociopaths)

As a compulsive reader I am interested in the answer to this question because I have a crazy number of books teetering in stacks around my house and sometimes I am paralyzed by the choices.

As a writer I am curious about the answer too, because what I am really thinking is: what is going to make a person-- a stranger somewhere out in the world-- pick up MY book? -- especially when there are so many other books and entertainment options (in addition to books) competing for his or her attention.
(example: Binge-watching a TV show
as my husband and I are presently doing
with the compelling series House of Cards)

Yeah, I know. There is an entire industry built around the question of what makes a person buy/read a book.


I've learned quite a bit about marketing over the past few years as I attempted to promote my book Thin Space. I had a publishing house behind me doing their Thing. Stuff like designing a book cover and ensuring that the book made it into the hands of professional reviewers, setting up blog interviews and author tours, figuring out bookstore placement.

Not being an expert in marketing, but wanting to do everything I possibly could to help, I helped. But I never knew if what I was doing was working. I had a Throw the Spaghetti on the Wall and Let's See If It Sticks approach to marketing and promotion. If someone asked me to do something, 99% of the time (because of the lessons I learned from my writer friend Mike Mullin), I said Yes. 

Interviews, guest blog posts, school and library visits, book festivals, bookstore signings? YES

TV and radio programs? Gulp. Okay. Yes.

Book tours? HELL YES.

Do some of this stuff for free? Um, yeah. okay.

Let us pay you? SURE

Did any of these translate into book sales? Yeah, but how many and which ones were most effective? Uh. No idea.

Or I guess I should say, Some idea. But it's not something you can control or count on. Someone likes the book and tells someone else. That's at the heart of it.

And the key seems to be if that Someone is in a position to tell MANY others. Example: a bookstore owner. A librarian who happens to be the president of a librarian association. A librarian who sits on a committee to choose books for a state's reading list.

It's Word of Mouth many times over and it all comes down to what makes a person pick up a book in the first place. What makes her READ it. Like it. Like it so much she wants to tell another person. 

Which brings me back to my teetering stacks of books.

For the sake of analysis, here are the last few books I picked up and why I read them:
1. (Reading now) The Outlander, Diana Galbadon. Why? My book club chose it.

2. Perfectly Good White Boy, Carrie Mesrobian. Why? I read her book Sex & Violence and loved it. Plus, I was interviewing her for a group blog.

3. Gone Too Far, Natalie D. Richards. Why? Natalie is my friend and I loved her other book.

4. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. Why? Book club chose the book.

5. Behind the Scenes, Dahlia Adler. Why? I know the author from online interactions.

6. Kiss, Kill, Vanish, Jessica Martinez. Why? Did a joint book-talk/signing with the author.

7. The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma. Why? I know the author, read and loved all of her other books.

8. The Living, Matt de la Pena. Why? The book is on the Florida Teens Read list and I heard the author speak at a conference.

9. Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, Jenny Torres Sanchez. Why? I knew I was going to meet the author at a book event.

10. Burning Blue, Paul Griffin. Why? The book is on the Florida Teens Read list and I knew I would meet the author at a conference.

11. The Killing Woods, Lucy Christopher. Why? Natalie Richards told me to read it.

12. The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout. Why? Someone was tweeting about the book and it seemed like it would be interesting. (it was)
13. Wicked Lovely, Marissa Marr. Why? Another author suggested it because she thought it sounded like a comparable for a book I am working on. (it's not)

14. The Journey that Saved Curious George, Louis Borden. Why? Met the author at a conference and the book sounded interesting. (it was)

15. Ghosting, Edith Pattou. Why? The author is a new friend.

16. David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell. Why? The book was a gift from my brother, plus I've read several other books by the author.

17. The Likeness, Tana French. Why? I read the author's other books and liked them.

Hmm. So, some of this is "work-related." I know I am going to be on a panel with a particular author or I am going to meet him or her at an event.

Some is friend-related. Over the past few years I've gotten to know other authors-- writers who live in the area, writers I've met on the road, as well as writers I've interacted with online. I want to read their books, and I take their book suggestions seriously.

(Books by Ohio authors featured at Cover to Cover Bookstore
for a Support Local Writers' Display.
I've read many of these books
and the ones I haven't yet, are on my TBR list.) 

The others on the list are books that are written by authors I've read before and/or books selected by my book club.

The only outlier is The Sociopath Next Door, which was a book I'd never heard of, by an author I'd never read, and suggested by a person I do not know, on social media.

The book was fascinating.

It's non-fiction, written by a psychiatrist who started noticing a pattern in her patients' experiences--many of whom had been hurt (sometimes had their lives ruined) by sociopaths. Turns out 1 in 25 people are sociopaths and they're not the people you'd expect. ie Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, but often a seemingly normal person-- who happens to lack a conscience. I could not put the book down and the idea of it-- that we might interact with and be manipulated by sociopaths without realizing what's happening, is truly creepy.

It's also made me look at House of Cards through a whole other lens.

Take it from me--writer, reader, blogger, friend-- pick it up and read it.

PS: What makes YOU pick up a book?


  1. There are tons of books I want to read at some point for various reasons, but the reason I pick up a particular book *now* is that it meets me where I am at the moment. For example, right now I'm reading a lot of books about downsizing, simplifying, reflecting. When I'm in my Kerouac mood, anything by beat writers jumps to the top. When I need something light and refreshing, I reach for humor.

    This may be why book sales are so difficult to predict--the book has to catch not only the right reader, but the right moment!

    1. That's so true about the "right" moment. Even now, with the sense of obligation I have about reading before panels and conferences etc., I still have to decide which books to read. And I interact with a lot of writers online, but don't always pick up their books. So something is speaking to me about the book or the person. For example Dahlia Adler's book is a light teen romance and I rarely read those and I know I wouldn't have picked it up if I hadn't interacted with her. I really enjoyed the book and it was exactly what I felt like reading at that moment.

  2. Grumble grumble stupid technology. Wasted 5 minutes composing comments, then the sign in process erased them. Grr.

  3. OK 2nd time's the charm. As a librarian I read lots of books for the same professional reasons as you: meeting an author at conference, book clubs (4 every month. Am I insane? ! OK 2 are with teens for work), friends with an author (usually from having met them at a conference. Awesome perk!), sequels or new books from favorite authors, or recs from friends and colleagues (curse you Goodreads for my unending Want To Read shelf). But if none of that applies, I am reading a book because I love the subject matter (Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean I'm dying to read next, for example) or the genre (I brake for high fantasy), or, I'm not ashamed to admit, the cool pretty cover. I have a background in graphic design so nice unique covers get my attention. Usually it's a combination of flap copy/blurb/cover/genre. And that probably doesn't help you at all, I'm afraid. ...

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Four book clubs a month? You are now my professional reading idol. I'm starting to think all of the marketing stuff really IS throwing spaghetti at the wall because so much about why we pick up books is personal--with a variety of factors involved. I'm glad you brought up cover design too. People say not to judge a book by the cover, but who are we kidding? If you don't know about the book (through recommendation or review) what else BUT the cover is going to make you pick it up?

  4. Also, PS or whatever. House of Cards? Amazing show! ! Interesting point about sociopaths.

    1. PS: Sociopaths are evil but apparently you can count on them to get stuff done --as long as it is in their best interest too : )