How Do People Buy Books?


If you want people to buy your book, it makes sense to first try to understand how people shop for books. Such knowledge is power that you can use in your book design and marketing decisions.

How People Don’t Buy Books

Let’s begin with a very important double negative:

People don’t buy books that they can’t find easily.

Who Cares How People Buy Books?

So you wrote a book. (That’s awesome by the way. Jump up and give yourself a huge high-five.) You edited and formatted until you turned blue in the face. Then you added a cover. You finally hit that publish button. Ta-da! Now all you have to do is wait for those royalties to come pouring in.

And wait. And wait. And wait… and wait. a.n.d. w.a.i.t. a..n..d.. w…a.…i…..t.

You put so much energy into the writing process. That gets the book completed. Then you put so much more effort into transforming your manuscript into a book. That gets the book published.

But the book probably won’t sell until you try to master the buying process. And use your knowledge to your advantage.

How People Shop for Books

There are a variety of ways that people go about shopping for a good book to read.

(1) Very many customers shop for bestsellers.

You can agonize over this or philosophize about it all you want, but it won’t do you any good (except, perhaps, relieve a little stress).

There are two things you can do that are constructive: Try to understand it, and strive to get your book on one of the top 100 lists.

Why do people shop for bestsellers? It’s simple, really:

  • They are very easy to find.
  • They come with expectations (e.g. the author is established, many other readers have enjoyed the book).
  • They tend to show up higher in search results (not just because of their sales rank, but because so many customers have already searched for them and then purchased them). If you don’t want to buy a bestseller, you must first scroll past these books.

Amazon tends to reward authors who help themselves. That is, if you produce a highly marketable book and market your book effectively, Amazon’s algorithm will probably help you out in many ways. If you do this well enough to get on any top 100 list, you can really get some nice exposure.

(2) Many customers shop for books by authors they have read before.

Trying out a new author is a risk.

Buying another book by an author you like seems like less of a risk. Not only that, it’s easier to find an author’s other books than it is to browse for something new. Most authors have multiple books and keep writing more, so as long as the author continues to deliver, the fan base will keep on growing and supporting.

You can learn two things from this:

  • If you have books that readers will enjoy, anything you do to put copies of your books in the hands of your target audience can pay great dividends in the future (some authors go to the extreme of making one permanently free).
  • Authors who have several books on the market appeal to readers in two ways. First, they look like established, professional authors who are making a career out of writing. Secondly, they see a possible reward: If they like your book, there is a whole lot more where that came from.

There is a huge IF here. If they don’t like your book, neither point above has any value for you. Write books that people will love and these two points can do wonders for you in the long run.

(3) People are greatly influenced by the book’s cover.

Whether they see your cover in search results, on your product page, on your website, in your advertisement, on a coffee table, in a bookstore, or anywhere else, the cover is a huge factor in whether or not they will check your book out.

Only a fraction of the people who see your book will check it out. The cover determines what this fraction is. The better the cover appeals to your target audience, the greater this fraction will be.

It’s hard to get people to see your book. So when they do see your book, you want them to check it out.

People aren’t studying your cover. They glance at it. Either the cover appeals to them or it doesn’t. Either they check out your book or move on.

Customers see your book next to many other books in search results, on a bookshelf, etc. The cover that has the greatest appeal with the target audience will get the most attention.

It’s not just about having a fantastic cover. It’s about appealing to a specific target audience. Otherwise, the people who check your book out immediately put it down. “Oh, that wasn’t what I was expecting.”

There are two percentages that matter: the percentage of people who see your cover who check out your book, and the percentage of people who check out your book and make the purchase. A target audience mismatch (even a slight one, like romance vs. erotica) can kill this second percentage.

Your cover is also important for branding. People often don’t buy a product when they first see it. You want a memorable cover that makes a favorable impression, so the next time the customer sees your cover, they think, “I’ve seen this before and I remember being interested in it.”

It’s worth researching cover design and browsing the top selling books in your fiction genre or nonfiction category. Here are some cover design tips.

(4) The blurb and sample greatly influence purchases.

Once shoppers discover your book and decide to check it out, there is just one more hurdle. The blurb and sample will make or break the deal.

A concise blurb is often most effective, especially in fiction. It shouldn’t give away too much, should make expectations clear, should appeal to the target audience, should read well (one mistake here doesn’t bode well for an entire book), and should get the reader interested.

The beginning of the book has the same goal. Most customers won’t invest much time here. The book needs to grab their interest and run with it. A slow build will lose many sales. A beginning that doesn’t fit the genre and expectations will lose many sales. A sample with formatting or editing issues will lose many sales. A sample with a writing style that doesn’t appeal to the audience will lose many sales.

The customer is wondering such things as:

  • Does this book seem professional?
  • Does the writing style appeal to me?
  • Does it seem interesting?
  • Is the content relevant for me?
  • Is the presentation a good fit for me?

Write in a way that appeals to your target audience. Edit and format professionally. Create interest right off the bat. Ensure that the sample is a good fit for your target audience, and matches the expectations created by your cover, title, and blurb.

For an in-depth discussion of what makes a book highly marketable, read this article.

(5) Customers are more interested in books that are recommended to them.

At Amazon, recommendations come in the form of editorial and customer reviews. Customers like to see dozens of customer reviews. Why? Because this improves the chances that they will find reviews with advice that they deem to be useful. They like to see a variety of opinions and good balance.

Off Amazon, recommendations come in the form of book reviews, including blog reviews.

The most valuable recommendations are word-of-mouth (or word-of-fingers) referrals from people they trust.

The more marketable your book is and the more effectively you market your book, the more books you will sell and the more reviews you will get. Publishers send out advance review copies, but doing this on a large scale can result in many reviews not showing as Amazon Verified Purchases.

If you find bloggers who have a significant following in your target audience, properly approach them, and allow ample time, you can get helpful blog reviews.

If your book is very good—there are hundreds of thousands of good writers and hundreds of thousands of great ideas, but not all of these result in books that will greatly please a target audience—then the more your book gets read, the greater your chances of getting word-of-mouth referrals. It can take several months to get them, but if you have an amazing book, this can result in a many long-term dividends.

Another kind of recommendation is an award. There are many contests out there that you can enter. Win one, or just get into the later stages, and that offers you a little publicity and provides you with a little note that you can mention to add to your book’s credibility. Again, it comes down to writing an excellent book.

(6) Customers like sale prices and contests.

You (or your publisher) control the list price, while the retailer controls the sale price. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t still have a sale.

If you control your list price, you can temporarily lower it to create a sale. (For e-books, KDP Select members can use a Countdown Deal, which shows customers that the book is on sale.)

But price doesn’t sell books. Marketing and marketability sell books.

That’s why many authors lower their prices and then express their frustration that they didn’t sell many more copies of their books. Price alone doesn’t do it.

Your target audience needs to learn about your sale in order for a discount to be effective. You need to promote a sale effectively to take advantage of the possibilities of offering a short-term discount.

It’s not just the lower price that helps to stimulate sales, but also the looming deadline. “Oh, I better act fast; this sale is almost over.” If customers don’t know about your sale or the deadline, your sale won’t make a difference.

An alternative to a sale is a contest. Similarly, you must promote your contest effectively for it to work.

Here are a few ideas to help promote a sale.

(7) Customers do browse categories and search with keywords.

This isn’t one of the top ways that customers shop for books, but since huge numbers of books are purchased every day, it’s still significant. On the other hand, there are millions of books in search results.

The books that show up on the first page of a category or the first page of search results get much more exposure. Books that show up several pages down the list aren’t likely to be found.

But here’s the thing: You don’t need to show up in the first page of the romance category or the first page of search results for “suspense.”

While it would be awesome exposure for your book to be number one in a broad category or for broad keyword searches, this isn’t a realistic expectation. That’s okay because you can still get good exposure with a wise choice of categories and keywords.

Look for keywords that aren’t too popular, but are searched for periodically, which are very appropriate for your book. You have a reasonable chance of showing up high in search results this way, and if the keywords are searched for periodically, your book will get some exposure.

Customers also search for keywords within subcategories, which helps you out by narrowing down the search results.

It’s very important to choose the most relevant subcategories for your book. It’s also very important to choose relevant keywords. It doesn’t help you at all to show up at the top of a search where 100% of the customers will think, “Ugh! What in the world is that book doing there?”

Don’t waste your keywords. Don’t use a keyword that:

  • is so popular that nobody will ever find your book in that search.
  • will almost never be searched for.
  • isn’t highly relevant for your book.

Do go on Amazon and search for keywords in your category (not in All Department or Books) to see what’s popular and which types of books show up in the search results. Also, check out this tip (hidden in the KDP help pages) for getting listed in special subcategories (look for the heading “Categories with Keyword Requirements”).

(8) Customers are more likely to buy a book when they’ve personally interacted with the author.

This item is last on the list, but most important for indie authors.

This is something every indie author can offer. This is why indie book sales are very significant compared to traditionally published book sales. Many effective indie book marketers are personally interacting with members of their target audience.

People might take a chance on a book by an author they’ve never heard of, but they are much more likely to support an author they’ve met in person where they enjoyed the interaction.

You can buy an antique that’s kind of cool and set it in your living room. When people ask where you got it, you tell them where the store was. But it’s really cool when you know the history of an antique. Now it means something to you, and it becomes a conversation piece.

A personal interaction adds meaning to your book. It shows that you’re a real person, not just a name. A positive interaction shows that you have character and an intriguing personality. If they sense your passion for your work, this adds to their interest.

There are so many ways to interact with your target audience. This is what marketing is all about. Help your target audience discover you, get to know you a little, and learn that you have a product or service that suits their needs.

Charm them, so they enjoy the interaction and want to check out your book.

Social media, readings, signings, seminars, blogging, conventions, community service… The goal is to meet and interact with your specific target audience.

How cool is it to be able to say, “Hey, I met the author of this book, and that person was pretty neat”?

Get coverage from your local paper or support from a small, local bookstore. Many people like to support local talent, and so might check your book out. The next step is for your book’s cover, blurb, and inside to make the deal.

Who Am I?

Chris McMullen.

I’m not just a name. I’m a person, too.

I have a Ph.D. in physics, but don’t let that scare you. I love to read and write. If you just look around my blog or at the books I’ve published, you’ll see that I love to write. I’ve come to understand and appreciate the marketing aspect, too. I didn’t like it when I first started publishing, back when I naively thought marketing meant salesmanship and advertising. Now that I realize that marketing is more about branding, showing that you’re a person and not a name, and letting your target audience discover your passion—and more meaningful and subtle things like these—I’ve come to enjoy it. I hope to reveal the enjoyable and fascinating side of marketing—the parts that aren’t so obvious—to other authors. Focus on this side of marketing, and you may find yourself more motivated to do it, the process more rewarding, and hopefully better long-term results.

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I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles by clicking one of the following links:

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