Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been reporting on observations that Jellybooks has made about readers after collecting data about when, where and how they read. Do readers rant or rave about books? Do they read fast or slow? Do they even finish the books they begin reading?
One of the more interesting phenomena we observed was that there are books that sell well but are not read, or at least they appear not to be read by many of the people who buy or otherwise acquire them. Our first reaction was to ask, “Can we trust the data?” But we then came to the conclusion that, indeed, we could (more on data integrity, sampling bias and statistical validity in a future post). Having convinced ourselves that the observations were genuine, we started wondering as to the reasons and started thinking in more depth about the question, “What motivations do readers have for buying specific books?” Below, we outline some of our thinking on this topic, which is also a manifesto of sorts for future research.
1. Entertain Me Now
2. Entertain Me in the Future
3. Inform Me
4. Obligation to Read
5. Social Pressure to Read
6. Makes Me Look Smart
7. Need for a Gift
Reason 1 – Entertain Me Now
This is the most obvious reason. We buy books, especially works of fiction, and to some extent also non-fiction titles, to be entertained. This represents several hours worth of light or deep entertainment. We escape into an imaginary world in our minds. These are books we buy and start reading within days, if not hours. If we like these books, we finish them, and if we really like them, we recommend them to our friends and acquaintances.
Books in this category have high completion rates, a high recommendation factor (Net Promoter Score) and high velocity.
However, some of these books are what many might call ”guilty pleasures”—books we don’t want to admit reading and which, as result, we are less likely to recommend to strangers or friends we are not close to. The latter are books with high completion rates and velocity, but comparatively low recommendation factors. Some, but not all, genre fiction falls into this category. Andy Weir’s The Martian, for example, certainly did not suffer from a lack of recommendations; it was not so much a “guilty pleasure” as a “you must read this book, I was smitten by it” title.
Reason 2 – Entertain Me in the Future
There exists a surprisingly large number of books that are bought not for instant gratification, but as options for future entertainment. Books, in other words, have high optionality. Our hoarding instincts comes into play, especially when it involves a Kindle countdown deal, Bookbub deal or special price promotion.
Books in this category often show huge sales spikes but are left unread. This is particularly noticeable for ebooks that can quickly become “invisible” in the depths of our digital libraries (out of sight, out of mind), collecting electronic dust and perhaps never being read.
These books create revenue for authors and publishers, but their completion rates are low, their velocity (the time it takes the median reader to finish the book after opening it) approaches infinity, and as a result, their recommendation factor is often negative, as books that aren’t read are not recommended.
Reason 3 – Inform Me
Sometimes we buy books to inform or educate us. These are mostly works of non-fiction. Depending on their quality and how well they address our needs, they may have high or low completion rates, they may not be read linearly from start to finish, they may have mostly low velocity, and their recommendation factors may be outstanding or terribly poor.
Failure to finish these books is often a function of their quality. A special case, however, is business books. Many have extraordinarily low completion rates even in view of sky-high sales because most buyers read only the first chapters. Readers get the gist of the book or absorb the main proposition and then move on to something else, leaving most of the book unread. These titles form a special category that have very low completion rates but may nevertheless have very high recommendation factors or net promoter scores.
The fact that most of the book goes unread does not impact on readers’ perception of such non-fiction titles. In fiction, on the other hand, this would be the kiss of death.
Reason 4 – Obligation to Read
These are the books that we don’t choose entirely voluntarily but, for whatever reason, we are assigned to read. These may be book club picks, but more often, these are books we are assigned in school or college, and are considered the greats of literature by some unspoken consensus.
These are also the textbooks that our professor assigns to us, the professional titles that our profession prescribes, and the educational books that we buy for ourselves for guided study to enhance our skills.
These books do not quite conform to the normal reader analytics patterns, and we will discuss them in a separate data-smart publishing post in the future. Many of the books in this category enjoy something of a captive audience.
Reason 5 – Social Pressure to Read
Sometimes we feel social pressure to read a book, if for no other reason than everybody at the office, at the bridge round or the country club is talking about it. Whether it’s 50 Shades of Grey, The Lost Symbol, The Name of The Rose or something similar, we feel compelled to buy these books because the rest of the world is reading them. Sometimes we finish them, but sometimes we don’t really get into them.
These are the books for which we at Jellybooks see a lot of page and chapter flipping, as readers fast forward but don’t give up outright on the book and abandon it, as they feel pressure to read the book and be “knowledgeable” about it. These books are veritable gold mines for authors and publishers, but in terms of completion rates they are not the top performers.
A book that is purchased due to social pressure is not the same kind of book that is a word-of-mouth hit that people have recommended to us, as a title we will really enjoy. The latter shows incredibly high completion rates and a very high recommendation factor, which these “social pressure” books do not exhibit. A 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James is not the same kind of book as The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, which is a genuine word-of-mouth blockbuster.
Reason 6 – Makes Me Look Smart
Books are also status symbols, as Ben Evans, now at Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital group, Andreesen Horowitz, once pointed out to me. These are the books we put prominently on the shelf in the living room to say something about us. Often these are books that we have not actually read, but want the world to believe we have read.
Now we are getting to the heart of our earlier observation: some books are bought in large numbers, but not read.
These are the literary trophies, the Man Booker winners, the Pulitzers, the Nobles—books that society or some elitist gatekeepers have deemed to be outstanding and have thus been specially marked. In some cases, these books mix with social pressure, as in the case of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.
Predicting which books will be bestowed this special status is fiendishly difficult, and reader analytics can tell us nothing in this regard. But make no mistake: some books are bought as status symbols, not so much to display conspicuous wealth, but rather to flaunt educational and societal status.
Not surprisingly, these are once again physical books—especially hardcovers—not ebooks. The signalling function of the latter is near nil, as nobody can usually see what is loaded on our Kindles, Nooks and iPads (unless we choose to show them the cover on the device, but then we are real showoffs)!
Reader analytics often reveals that these books have low completion rates but very high recommendation factors among those who read them. Their velocity is usually low, as it takes the median reader, who does read them, several weeks (or at least several weekends) to finish them. They are usually not light entertainment, but a task to read.
Reason 7 – Need for a Gift
The graphic below is adapted from the US census figures for monthly in-store book sales and shows two prominent peaks per year: summer reading season and Christmas season. Book have been the perfect gift for many people for a long time, and rarely more so than at Christmas.
Not every book makes a good gift, though. Physical books make much, much better gifts than do ebooks, but titles are also selected as to whether they might be enjoyed by the reader, whether we think the recipient should read them and, not to be forgotten, what choosing the book says about us. There is, in other words, a very strong social and status component to book gifting, and not every title makes a great gift.
This is an area we are actively researching. Can we distil the central factors that may make one title a better gift than another? After all, book gifting is a major, major revenue driver in publishing.
Reason 8 – Impulse
I mentioned how we buy books that are deeply discounted in Reason 2, but sometimes it is not simply the desire for future entertainment, but the fear of missing out (FOMO) that motivates to buy a book. Today’s deal may not be available tomorrow, and low prices push us to buy books on impulse—even hoard them.
Another form of impulse book buying occurs when we buy in a certain context, like while planning for a vacation, attending an author reading, or during a similar event. Certain environmental stimuli make us particularly interested in an author, subject or topic and, being in a certain state of mind, we buy a related a book on impulse.
This is not to be underestimated in the case of museum bookstores, for example, and similar “special context” environments. Personally, I once bought The Natural History of Table Mountain (and read it) after a delightful visit to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and (as usual) exited through the gift shop. To my eternal shame, I gave it to somebody else as a gift, thinking I would just re-order it from Amazon. Bad luck on that one: it was a limited run done for the local market only, and hence not available from Amazon. It was not even available from the publisher. I’m enduringly sad about that one. FOMO can be a real feeling.
So those were my eight reasons for why people buy books and why sometimes the books we buy are not read. If you think I have omitted a major pathway or motivation for purchasing books, then please add it in the comments section. Debate and feedback is very much welcome. I should also note that many of the reasons and pathways overlap for some people and should not be viewed as mutually exclusive.
Note: All the data reported in this post was collected in pilot projects financed by Innovate UK. EPUB3 files were modified with candy.js by Jellybooks so we could record, store and extract the user’s reading behavior when using iBooks, Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) and selected Android reading applications. The data stored within the ebook file was extracted when the user clicked a “sync” button in the book. All users were informed about the presence of the analytics software.
Earlier posts in the data-smart publishing series:
• “The Internet of Bookish Things”
• “Reading Fast and Slow – Observing Book Readers in Their Natural Habitat”
• “Start Strong or Lose Your Readers”
• “What Books Have the X-Factor? Measuring a Book’s Net Promoter Score”
• “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, But What About Readers?”
• “How Does Age Affect Reading?”
We will also be holding a workshop on data-smart book publishing at the upcoming Digital Book World Conference in New York City. The workshop takes place on Monday, March 7th from 2pm to 5pm, just prior to the main DBW conference. We will look at the challenges publishers face in collecting data, making sense of data and applying it so they can publish smarter, more efficiently and more profitably. The workshop will include speakers from Elsevier, Piper (Bonnier Germany) and others sharing their experience of turning themselves into data-smart publishers.
To get all the ebook and digital publishing news you need every day in your inbox at 8:00 AM, sign up for the DBW Daily today!