What Makes Shopping for Books so Wonderful? #PoweredByIndie

Background image from ShutterStock.

Background image from ShutterStock.


Consider the following Tale of Two Stores.

You walk into a department store. What do you see? Sony. Levi’s. Apple. Nike. LazyBoy. Everything is branded. You’re in a big business. Many of the products for sale were manufactured by big businesses. Ultimately, people were involved at some stage: design, manufacture, assembly, shipping, merchandising, advertising deals, etc. Much of the work may also have been automated.

Now you walk into a bookstore. Obviously, you see thousands of books. And there are big brands around, if you look closely enough to see the names of the popular publishing houses. Yet the experience is vastly different.

Most of the books were conceived of and written by, to a large extent, a single human being. You’re surrounded by thousands of such works. They share unique experiences. They store knowledge. They weave words together in unique ways.

Shopping for books, and reading, these are very personal experiences.

Think about that the next time you’re browsing for a book to read.

Even if it’s not in a bookstore. At Amazon, for example, when you’re searching for a book in your pajamas, you have millions of books at your fingertips. And each work offers a personal experience for you.

Not all of the books are published by the big publishing houses. Many are published by small, even family run publishing houses.

Well over a million are published by indie authors. When a single author handles not just the writing, but also plays the supervisory roles of cover design judge, editing overseer, interior design judge, marketing coordinator, etc. (perhaps even doing much of this work independently), the experience is arguably even more personal.

I’ve read several indie books lately, and I enjoy that personal touch. From unique chapter headers to the little thank-you notes in the back of the book, I appreciate how their personal touches spread from cover to cover and even show on the product page (not just in the author’s biography, but in the product description and selection of editorial content).

Many indie authors have learned, through experience or by necessity or by motivation (or probably a combination of all of these), a great deal about marketing. One of the points that many authors agree on is that the author himself or herself can become a very strong brand.

That’s because readers aren’t just looking for a story or knowledge.

Readers like to feel a personal connection with the author to some extent. Learning more about the author, the person, the man or woman behind the words, even little personal notes… all of these things can help to enhance such a personal connection. (So, authors, you have the chance to begin this personal experience in your marketing.)

Shopping for books and reading can be personal experiences.

A book is much, much more than a mere product.

Chris McMullen

Copyright © 2017

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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Do You Support the Underdog as a Shopper?

There are many crowd-pleasing movies and books where the protagonist is an underdog who will beat the odds to triumph in the end. So as an audience, we tend to root for the underdog.

Is the same true when you’re shopping?

All other things being equal, would you prefer to buy a product from a major, national company or a small, local business?

Ah, but the question isn’t that simple because very often those other things aren’t equal. The big business may offer a better price or greater selection, or may provide more appealing financing. The small business may provide incentives of its own, by going the extra mile or being closer to your house.

There is yet another way that it’s not so simple to call the small business the underdog. Suppose, for example, that a huge company brings very low prices, saving people a great deal of money. Suppose further that this helps many low-income families live a little better. Aren’t those families the underdogs? So maybe if a huge business is helping people who could use the help in some way, then the business is supporting the underdog.

Here’s an interesting puzzle: When it comes to buying books from Amazon or a local bookstore, who is the underdog? Amazon is the huge company. Does this make the local bookstore the underdog?

Amazon supports millions of underdogs: indie authors, indie musicians, indie filmmakers, small business owners, small publishers, etc. This is in addition to underdog consumers who may derive benefits from shopping at Amazon. Furthermore, Amazon features success stories of indie authors and small business owners right on their home page from time to time.

Yet the local bookstore is an underdog, too, right? I don’t think it’s so clear-cut in this case. I know many people who would argue the point each way, and both arguments sound good to me. One is an underdog, but the other supports many underdogs. (Now maybe there are other underdogs who are being disadvantaged in the process… I don’t know, but if there is, that’s yet another complication to consider.)

Let me back up. It’s not always right to root for the underdog, is it? Suppose the favorite has worked tremendously hard, learned much from experience, and has rightfully earned the spot as the favorite. Should we automatically root for an inexperienced underdog who comes along just for the same of favoring the underdog? That doesn’t seem right to me.

If you think about the movies and books that feature an underdog, very often the protagonist displays positive character traits and is up against an evil villain.

My point is that character is important, too. It’s not just about figuring out who the small guy is. If the big business has a positive influence on the community, while the small business shows some signs of negative character, for example, that changes everything. Or at least, it should.

Suppose you’re an author (which will be easy to do for many of you because you are). Let’s say that you walk into a bookstore and discover that they have a flat-out “No!” policy regarding self-publishing or the management treats you condescendingly or you otherwise have a bad experience there. Are you likely to support that bookstore in the future?

(I’m not saying that they have to carry all self-published books; just that they should be open to the idea and base the decision on the merit of the book. If they have a few indie books on a shelf for local authors, that will earn my support. How they treat the inquiring author is very important, too.)

If instead you walk into a small, local bookstore that makes you feel like a royal prince, wouldn’t you feel compelled to drive traffic their way and do your shopping there, too? (You should.)

Does the underdog support other underdogs and treat other types of underdogs well? How about the big business? Also look at character. These are important considerations to me.

When it comes to buying a product, quality is also important. Perhaps the big business and small guy don’t have equivalent products. If one has superior quality, it’s more like comparing apples to oranges.

Finally, let me mention one more thing about buying books. This time, let’s look at the publisher instead of the bookseller. The indie author or small publisher is the underdog compared to the big publishing giants, right? Maybe not.

A book may have a small-time author who got a contract with a big-time publisher. And the big-time author was an underdog once upon a time, until many readers supported that author enough to turn the author into a success.

I suggest that there are many gray areas here.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

What Makes People Buy Books?

Buying Books Pic

It’s awfully silly to start marketing your book until you first devote some time to a couple of basic questions:

  1. What causes people to buy books? (Equally important: What tends to deter sales?)
  2. Who is your specific target audience?

Knowing the answers to these questions can significantly affect your marketing strategies. In this article, we’ll focus on Question #1.

(1) Browsing for books on the top 100 bestseller lists.

More than any other method, customers buy books by shopping the top 100 bestseller lists. There are New York Times bestseller lists, there is a special bestseller section in most bookstores, and Amazon lists their top 100 sellers in any browse category. You can even search for the top 100 authors.

Evidently, these books were good enough that many other people read them. Many of these books are traditionally published and were written by popular authors. But more and more indie authors are starting to break through, especially on Amazon.

Bestselling books sell dozens or hundreds of copies per day (of course, it depends whether we’re talking overall or just in a particular category or subcategory, and the precise number can be sensitive to a number of factors). So bestsellers account for a huge percentage of book sales.

You might not like the fact that many customers look to see what’s popular and shop for books based on this. But that’s irrelevant. Unless you have an idea to change the way millions of people shop for books. It’s just something to consider.

If you can succeed in earning a spot on any of the top 100 lists, this amazing exposure can lead to wonderful things. Provided that your book runs with it; some books get onto the list and fall right off.

There are tens of thousands of authors doing all the right things (and others doing wrong things) to try to get their books onto these coveted lists, and you’re competing against popular authors and traditional publishers. But you’ll find some indie authors there, too (studying what they’ve done right may prove to be valuable research).

If you feel strongly that you have a book with the potential to get onto these bestseller lists, go for it!

  • You need a book idea that has a large preexisting audience. Find a genre that you’re a good fit to write in and research what this audience expects. Develop your writing and storytelling toward this end. Become familiar with the rules of the genre, and understand why these rules exist.
  • Develop a fantastic story and memorable characterization for fiction, or valuable content for nonfiction. Write in a way that your audience will enjoy the read in terms of both making the words flow (or not, when the occasion arises) and use of grammar blended with style. Perfect the book cover to cover in terms of front matter, back matter, editing, and formatting. You don’t want anything to detract from the read. Give people reasons to leave positive reviews and recommend the book to others, and avoid giving reasons to say anything negative (it’s unavoidable, but strive to minimize this).
  • You need initial sales to get things going. A history of poor sales rank is a challenge to overcome. So build buzz for your book with cover reveals, letting people discover that you’re writing a book, interacting with people who ask how your book is coming along, getting feedback on various aspects of your book (cover, title, blurb, first chapter, draft) on different occasions from different groups of people in person and online. Focus groups, contests, promotions, etc. can help you get people excited about your coming book.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of packaging. The book has to absolutely look like it belongs in its genre. If you want a top seller, on top of everything else, the cover has to quickly register as being the kind of book that the customer is looking for. If the cover attracts the wrong audience, there won’t be any sales. Research the covers of bestsellers in the genre. Design a professional-looking cover that will attract customers who are accustomed to seeing those covers. The title, cover, and blurb need to send a unified message and grab the target audience’s attention. Craft a killer blurb that will entice interest without giving too much away. The Look Inside needs to close the deal.
  • Do premarketing. Don’t wait until your book is published. Look for bloggers in your genre who occasionally review books well in advance of publishing, since they may already have numerous requests and reading takes time. Make a professional press release package. Contact local media. Try giveaways on Goodreads. Arrange signings and readings. Have a book launch party. Why wait until your book is already available and not selling well to do all the things you should be doing? If you’re going to market your book anyway (and you’ll discover the hard way that you need to), do it right and help your book take off with a bang in the first place. Even if you don’t think the 100 bestseller list is realistic, doing your best to get your book on this list gives you the best prospects for success.
  • Believe in your book. Visualize success. Not just you sitting on a pile of money receiving praise from everyone you meet. Visualize the path to your success that makes this vision realistic and work diligently to get there. If you don’t show belief in your own book, how can you expect others to believe in your book? Your lack of confidence can deter sales. But don’t get overconfident as bragging tends to deter sales.

(2) Shopping for books by their favorite authors.

When customers like books, they sometimes search for other books written by the same author. Indeed, books are frequently sold this way.

This affects all authors who’ve written more than one book (well, unless you write one children’s book and one book that’s not for children, for example).

Write two or more related books. Or better yet, write a series of books. Then you can benefit from such sales.

Ah, but there’s a catch. The first book they read has to be good enough to make many readers want more. The book has to be seem like a good value (and the subsequent books can’t seem like a rip-off), and should provide a sense of satisfaction by itself.

  • Memorable characters give readers a reason to continue the series.
  • A great storyline in one book creates high expectations for more of the same.
  • Editing, writing, formatting, and storyline mistakes discourage future sales.
  • The subsequent volumes need to live up to expectations in order to merit good reviews and recommendations; if they don’t live up to this, there may be negative referrals (e.g. “Stay away from that series”).

Discounting book one, making book one free, creating an omnibus, promoting temporary discounts, contests, etc. can help generate sales. The more people who read one of your books and love it, the more of your other books you are likely to sell. Plus this improves your sales rank, chances of getting reviews, and prospects for word-of-mouth sales.

(3) Recommendations from trustworthy sources.

An editorial review from a highly reputed source, like the New York Times, can have a very positive impact. This isn’t realistic for most indie authors (or even many traditionally published authors), but there are many ways that every author can benefit from recommendations.

The most accessible is word-of-mouth sales. If the book is good enough – see the points from (2) above – for a percentage of the customers to recommend it to others, this can generate valuable sales. If a thousand people read a book initially, and a hundred recommend it to their friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances who read similar books, and then a fraction of those people recommend it to others, and so on, sales can really grow in the long-term.

You have to be patient. First, you need the initial batch of people to read your book. If sales are slow (a few a day), that can take a long, long time. See the points from (1) above for a few marketing ideas.

Once people buy your book, they must read your book. They might already have other books to read first. Then when they do read your book, it might just be in their spare time, which they might not have much of. As soon as they finish reading your book, they won’t go scream from the mountaintops. They might not mention your book at all. The more they love your book, the more likely they will recommend it. But then it might not be until it naturally comes up in conversations, which might not be for some time. Then those people might not buy your book right away. It can be weeks after they hear about your book before they consider buying. Not everyone who hears great things about your book will buy it.

It can take several months for word-of-mouth sales to build up. And your book has to be good enough to receive those recommendations. You can do your best to perfect your book, but you can’t control customer recommendations. All you can do is wait and hope.

If someone very social falls in love with your book, that can be quite fortunate. If people who are really connected in the social media world enjoy your book, this can potentially be big. Just imagine the buzz in social media when Twilight was coming out. Reproducing that might not be realistic, but it shows the potential. If a blogger in your genre falls in love with your book, or if a book reviewer for an online magazine loves your book, or even a customer who often reviews books on Amazon loves your book… recommendations help, especially when they come from trustworthy sources.

You can try to solicit reviews from bloggers in your genre who sometimes review books. Maintaining a blog and being active in social media might help make some valuable connections. But remember that some bloggers receive an insane number of requests and that it takes time to read books.

Put together a press release kit with advance review copies and contact local media. For indie authors, it may be easier to get an article or review if you write nonfiction, have something unique going for you (like being a triplet, but there are many other ways for the press to take interest in you), or if you have a very small local paper.

You also have your own friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances. If you succeed in building buzz for your book – see point (1) above – then they may help stimulate sales by recommending your book to their friends, coworkers, and acquaintances.

Another trustworthy source that’s very valuable is the retailer itself.

Once a book sells a few times along with another book, it can show up on Customer Also Bought lists. The more frequently your book sells – and the more effective your marketing efforts – the more these lists can help give your sales a significant boost.

Excellent packaging boosts your chances of getting sales from Customer Also Bought lists – see point (5) below.

(4) Discounts, promotions, and contests.

People tend to love sales. But they have to know about the sale, which means that you have to promote your discount. And they have to want the product. The book has to be a good fit for them. Which means you have to find your target audience and market your promotion toward them.

A temporary discount entices customers to buy before the sale ends. If a discount is too frequent and regular, people will learn to wait for it, and sales may be much slower in the interim. Contests and giveaways can help stimulate interest, too. Like the giveaway program at Goodreads (but you need to have a hard copy, like paperback).

Amazon sometimes discounts books. They have been doing this more frequently in 2013 for indie authors, especially with CreateSpace paperbacks. There is no guarantee that a retailer will put your book on sale, and you have no control over this. (But with CreateSpace, you still get the full royalty, provided that the book sells directly through Amazon.)

(5) Searching for books by keywords or browsing for books in categories.

Shoppers do go to Amazon and other online booksellers to search for books by keywords or just browse page by page through categories (or do a search within a specific category). Browsing page by page without a search tends to put the bestsellers up front, like point (1) above. But customers do search for various keywords.

A greater percentage of books sell other ways than searching for keywords. However, there are so many customers buying books that this still represents a very large number of book sales.

The problem is that there are tens of millions of books to search for.

  1. Millions of books sell this way, but there are also millions of books. On average, most titles sell fewer than one a day through this method. Fewer than a hundred thousand titles sell multiple copies per day through online search results. (The top couple hundred thousand books on Amazon sell one or more per day, but many of these sales are not from keyword searches.)
  2. Books that show up on the first page of one or more keyword searches are much more likely to sell through keyword searches. Most books don’t show up on the first page of any search results. Only a few books show up on the first page of very popular keyword searches.

Amazon tends to reward books whose authors and publishers (scrupulously) help themselves. The better your book and the better your marketing, the greater your sales rank and the more reviews you will draw, which can help to improve your book’s visibility. It’s not just sales rank and reviews. More sales might mean you’re selling more books through keyword searches, which may have a greater effect on visibility than from sales rank along.

Once your book becomes visible in one or more keyword searches, you need for it to get noticed.

Excellent packaging can make a marked difference once your book becomes visible. It has to attract the right audience. If it looks like sci-fi, but it’s really action, then the people who click on the book won’t be the people who buy the book. Research books in the genre that sell regularly to see what customers are accustomed to seeing in search results. You want a professional-looking cover that clearly signifies the genre in order for keyword searches to work for your book. You also need a title, cover, and blurb that send a unified message about what to expect. A killer blurb that attracts interest without giving too much away can help immensely, provided that your book is getting noticed. The Look Inside needs to be good enough to seal the deal once shoppers become interested.

(6) Personal interactions with the author.

If you’re not selling books the other 5 ways, this is your best opportunity. Even authors who are selling books the other ways should be taking advantage of this. A very significant number of books sell through personal interactions with the author. Strive to provide the personal touch with your marketing endeavors.

It’s a treat to be able to read a book where you’ve personally interacted with the author. When people interact with you and enjoy the interaction, they are much more likely to read your book, enjoy your book (because they read it in a good frame of mind, whereas we often read critically or with skepticism), and review your book.

Especially if you make each person you interact with feel special. If they interacted with you and felt like you were a salesperson, they probably won’t feel special. If they meet you, ask what you do, discover you’re an author, and enjoy your discussion, what a difference that makes. But don’t interact with people just because you want to sell them something. Interact with them to get to know them. If you really care, this will show and can make a huge difference. Be genuine.

Charm them.

Who is your target audience? These are the people you want to interact with personally because they are many times more likely to buy your book than anyone else. If you write a romance and market it mainly to people who rarely or never read romance, your marketing will be a disaster. Think long and hard where and how to find your target audience. And then you don’t want to be there just to sell your book. You want to provide help (volunteer work), knowledge (a seminar, a blog), or entertainment (a reading), for example, to help attract your target audience, and have them discover that you wrote a book that may interest them (happen to have bookmarks to pass out?).

You can start with friends, family, acquaintances, and coworkers. If you have a large (or any size) social media following, you can tap into this to help with initial sales. (Remember, close friends and family can’t review your book on Amazon.)

You can meet people anytime. They may or may not be in your target audience. If it comes up naturally that you’re an author, even if they don’t read that genre they might have a friend who does.

But you can’t rely on luck. You have to find your target audience. In person is best, but online interactions help, too.


1. http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/06/22/part-2-where-people-discover-and-get-their-books/

2. http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2013/02/27/the-trouble-with-finding-books-online-and-a-few-solutions/

3. http://www.forbes.com/sites/suwcharmananderson/2013/02/20/half-of-amazon-book-sales-are-planned-purchases/

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Bookstores Versus the Internet

First contestant: brick & mortar bookstores

Do you remember the joy of standing in a bookstore aisle, staring at hundreds of books, trying to find some good books to read?

  • Most of the books were turned sideways such that all you could see was the spine. You weren’t choosing the prettiest covers.
  • There wasn’t a number attached to the book to tell you how well or poorly it had been selling.
  • The only reviews of the book were great quotes about how awesome the book was on the back cover, dust jacket, or first pages. You didn’t see an average star rating right beside the title. There wasn’t anything bad written about any book in the store.
  • If you wanted to find a possibly neutral book review, you had to read a newspaper or magazine article. Not just anybody could express a written opinion about the book in a highly visible place.
  • Books definitely didn’t come with any reviews that spoiled the endings.
  • When you picked a book up, it didn’t come with a list of books that other customers had bought. When you brought a book to the front counter, the cashier didn’t set several other books next to it and say, “Other customers who read that also purchased these.”
  • After you read the book, the bookstore didn’t contact you and ask you to review the book. The bookstore also didn’t contact you to let you know when those authors released new books.
  • There weren’t customers standing around in the aisle trying to sell you their used books for less (or even more!) than the list price (plus shipping!).
  • Most of the books were presented side-by-side without any special treatment. We didn’t see the books stacked in some order determined by the bookstore. We didn’t need to scroll through several pages to find the least popular books.
  • We never bought books with dog-ears, cover wrinkles, ripped pages, or any other visible imperfections without realizing it prior to the purchase.
  • There weren’t twenty million books to choose from. There weren’t nearly as many books in any particular genre.
  • The chance of the bookstore freezing or crashing was fairly remote, and if you picked up a virus, it usually went away after a few days and a little medicine. Even if the system was down, you could still pay cash.
  • When the book was in stock, you didn’t have to wait several days for it to arrive in the mail.
  • Every book in the store met some minimum standards. There was a limit to poor writing, the number of typos, poor formatting, storyline issues, etc.
  • The free sample was 100%, not 10%. Just imagine if all of the books on the shelves only had 10% of the pages, and you only got the rest after you checked out.
  • When you approached the register, you found an assortment of fashionable bookmarks. Sure, you can still buy bookmarks if you search for them, but you don’t see them when you check out. You also don’t need one for your e-reader.
  • If you had a question, or when you checked out, you interacted face-to-face with a person.
  • You probably didn’t have family members, friends, and acquaintances begging you to read and review their books.
  • There was a slim chance of meeting a cute someone in the bookstore (a plus if you preferred to date people who actually read books).
  • Many bookstores allowed you to take a break and drink coffee. The next time you order a book online, see if they will deliver some coffee to you while you’re browsing.

(Why was this written in the past tense? Brick and mortar bookstores haven’t completely died out yet…)

Second contestant: online booksellers

Let us not forget the wonders of technology:

  • In the old days, you wouldn’t buy a book wearing just your underwear or pajamas (or less). If you did, maybe reading would have been much more popular…
  • You don’t need to go to the bookstore on your lunch break. Traffic won’t cause you to get there after the store closes. You can buy books at two o’clock in the morning, if you please.
  • You can have the book delivered right to your doorstep. There is no need to leave the house.
  • If you have an e-reader, you can even purchase an e-book at two o’clock in the morning in your underwear without leaving the house and start reading the e-book right then and there.
  • People who are addicted to cell phones or who love using laptops and PC’s can browse for books on their favorite devices, and even read them that way as e-books.
  • You don’t have to find a dictionary if you read an e-book. It’s right there on the device. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone will take a moment to find out what the word means…)
  • Millions of books are in stock or will be available in just a few days. There are now print-on-demand books that are always available.
  • With twenty million books on the market, there is a much improved chance that the book you’re really looking for actually exists. If it doesn’t exist, nothing at all prevents you from becoming the author to write and publish it.
  • Through self-publishing, authors have much more freedom in what to write and how to write it, which provides greater selection to the reader.
  • You may be able to buy the book for less used. Some books sell for just a penny plus shipping and handling.
  • You can resell your used book after you read it to recover some of the cost.
  • All e-books mark themselves; you don’t need a bookmark. The e-readers will even let you highlight text.
  • It’s very easy to find the top-selling books, and to see how well or poorly a book has been selling, in case you wish to judge how popular a book is.
  • Read customer reviews to see what other customers had to say about the book. Some opinions may contradict one another, some may be helpful and others not, some might not even be pleasant, and it might be entertaining. You can even vote on how helpful the review is (or you can ignore the wording and just vote on whether or not you like what was said).
  • It’s very easy to ship a book anywhere in the world; e-books can be gifted.
  • You don’t need to find your receipt to return the book.
  • Adults books can be read with greater discretion as e-books.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers (Volumes 1 and 2)