Afternoon in a Bookstore
Last week my youngest daughter turned 9, and one of the things she wanted to do for her birthday was go to Barnes & Noble. (Cool, huh?) So my girls and I spent part of an afternoon hanging out in the bookstore. They love to browse the stacks, grabbing books off the shelf, sitting on the floor to read for a few minutes, putting them back and moving on, eventually deciding what to buy. That gives me a lot of time to walk around the store doing some browsing of my own.
I have to admit that I spend so much time on Amazon that I don’t get to the brick & mortar bookstores as often as I should. I’m saying this to myself as much as to you: As writers and publishing professionals, there is no substitute for getting to the bookstore regularly and spending an hour or so looking around. Each time I go, I learn something new or have some kind of a revelation about books and publishing. And each time I go, I remember why I wanted to get into publishing in the first place.
This time, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of books, the incredible number of words sitting there in that store. It put the latest publishing figures (400,000 books published last year) into rock-solid perspective. I saw and felt what it really meant.
I love reading. But I have a limited amount of money. And I have a limited amount of time for reading. How will I choose which books to buy, out of all those thousands?
Some books caught my eye because they had a compelling title. Some had a really cool cover design that made me want to pick them up. I was attracted to familiar author names and picked up some of their books to see if I wanted to read their latest. Finally, what made me pick up certain books to take a closer look was that other kind of recognition factor:
Hey, I think I heard about this author on NPR.
This name sounds familiar, doesn’t she write a column in a magazine?
I read a review of this book in People magazine.
I saw this author on the Today show.
This is the book my friend told me about.
In other words, it’s platform, it’s publicity, it’s word-of-mouth—it’s anything that gets your name and/or book in front of people more than once so that there’s a recognition factor that finally reaches a tipping point and causes them to buy it.
Mary DeMuth wrote a blog post about how it typically takes seven “touches” before a consumer will buy a book. (Read it here.) My point today is that unless you are “out there” spending some time in the retail stores, you won’t have a strong feeling for why this is true. I think walking amongst the stacks gives you a visceral, gut-level understanding of some of the realities of the publishing marketplace. It gets you out of your own head, away from your own deep desire to see your book on those shelves, and helps place it in context.
The market is crowded. There are so many books, which on the one hand is a wonderful thing because there are so many kinds of people—it’s nice to have “something for everyone.” But on the other hand, it makes it much more difficult for the individual consumer to find what appeals to them. And it makes it more difficult for each individual writer to see their own book published one day. There is just so much competition. This is why we are always harping on platform.
We spent about an hour and a half in Barnes & Noble, and I admired the way my kids chose the books they wanted to buy. They took their time. They browsed, they opened books and read. Since I had the luxury of “time,” I did the same thing. But usually, consumers don’t have the luxury of time. They need to make their decisions more quickly. Hence the need for the many “touches.”
I find I choose different books when I’m standing in the bookstore than when I’m shopping on Amazon, and this is one of the reasons it’s so important for me to get out there. Usually I’m looking for something specific on Amazon, but in the bookstore, I’m open to anything that catches my eye.
I bought three books for each of my girls, and three for me. (An expensive day!) I buy books at least once a week on Amazon, and sometimes I forget how fun it is to browse, choose, and walk out of a store with a bag full of books. Just for kick, here are the books I chose for myself:
Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs From Killing Your Soul by David L. Goetz. I had never heard of this book nor the author. (I never would have found it by shopping on Amazon.) The title captured me, and I opened to page 1 and started reading. I didn’t want to stop! It captivated me and I’m looking forward to finishing it. What made me buy it? A catchy title, a strong message, and compelling writing.
Revision and Self Editing by James Scott Bell. I’m always looking to expand my library of books on the craft of writing and editing. This type of book helps me continually get better at editing my clients’ books. What made me buy this one? Tons of word-of-mouth recently, plus the fact that I think the author is a terrific writer and he knows what he’s talking about. Really excited to read it. (This is one I would have bought on Amazon because I was planning to get it anyway.)
The Host by Stephenie Meyer. What made me buy it? I’ve heard so much about this author and read countless reviews of her work. I haven’t read the Twilight series yet, although I want to. This is Stephenie’s first book for adults and I’m dying to see what the fuss is all about. However, I don’t know that I would have gotten around to buying this on Amazon. The physical presentation sold me… it’s a beautiful, weighty, mysterious-looking book. One of those that reminded me why I love books. I couldn’t resist.
By the way, this one’s 619 pages which is somewhere between 150,000 and 190,000 words… for those of you who may think I have some sort of prejudice against long books, I don’t. The market does, but there are always exceptions… especially for already-bestselling authors.
Have you been to a bookstore lately? What did you buy? If you haven’t been to one in awhile, I challenge you to try and get there within the week, and tell us about your experience. Happy shopping!