a completely unscientific look at book-buying: part 1

INTERN has been doing a lot of thinking about why people buy the books they buy. Head Ed says it has a lot to do with where the book is placed in the bookstore and other marketing-type stuff, and this is very true. But their are other, squidgier reasons: people buy also books out of guilt, or self-pity, or indulgence, or a feeling of righteousness, or need, or even terror. It's all very Catholic (and INTERN is allowed to say that because all her elementary school teachers were nuns).

INTERN's mom says she buys whatever books are necessary to keep up in the dog-eat-dog world of her ladies' book club (terror).

INTERN's hipster friend who works at a Borders in a fairly small town says pregnant women come in to buy pregnancy books, then slip in romance novels the way people slip chocolate bars into their groceries (indulgence/deservingness).

INTERN is thinking about the last few books she paid cash moneys for. As an intern, INTERN gets a lot of free books already, and she doesn't have much extra $ for buying stuff— so actually paying money for a new book is a big deal. Not counting used books, INTERN has bought in the past two months:

-poetry book by unknown author (philanthropy/psychospiritual need)
-field guide to edible plants (justified as "useful")
-poetry book by INTERN's friend in New Zealand (supporting friend/psychospiritual need)
-how-to book about building mud shelters ("useful")
-history/how-to book about tying knots ("useful")

When it comes to getting book-buying $ out of INTERN's pocket, the key is a little bit of guilt ("must support small presses!"), and a lot of utility.

INTERN is not alone in her suckerness for books that promise to be useful. Utility is why publishers love slapping titles like "The 8 Secrets of X" or "Sleep Better Tonight Using Y". Humans are complete suckers for promises of benefit. This is why some publishers will find any way possible to wring a "high-benefit" title out of a non-fiction book—it sells.

Even though INTERN reads way more novels than any other kind of book, she buys more "useful" books than novels because she can justify the purchase on some deep level: it's a "need" not a "want." A field guide is a productive "tool," not an indulgence. In a weird way, INTERN sees poetry on the same level as non-fiction/reference books: as necessary, and therefore morally OK to spend her meagre $ on.

Way back when the novel was a new form, the mere act of novel-reading was tied up with guilt for a lot of people. It was seen as a solitary, apparently frivolous activity—morally suspect. INTERN suspects that this feeling still lingers in our cultural memory, and accounts somewhat for higher sales of non-fiction books. At least when it comes to INTERN's book-buying habits, it does.

Now, question: do novels with titles that mimic high-benefit non-fiction titles sell more copies? To be continued...

Comments

  1. LOL! This reminds me of my brother-in-law's choices in reading. He gravitates towards deep or literary books. Yet, he doesn't actually like reading these books! He confessed that it takes him weeks to force his way through the books, but he said it's worth it because it improves his mind and sometimes, months later, what he read clicks in his brain and makes sense.

    His favorite author is Chesterton because it's deep but a bit easier to read.

    Me, I go for more mainstream fiction and/or YA because I like reading to escape. I do love some good memoirs or biographies as well though -- real people are utterly fascinating.

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  2. Knot tying, mud shelters and edible plants. I do hope you're not planning on shipwrecking on a deserted island anytime soon.

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  3. Tying knots? Boy, those nuns really did a number on you, didn't they? ;-)

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  4. I like nice covers. I should be shot.

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  5. You need to know how to built a mud shelter??!!!

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  6. I buy children's books as gifts. Most of my school books came used from a local, non-school, store. Everything else gets borrowed from friends or the library. I ask my library to purchase many books from new authors.
    The nuns have nothing on me, so I proudly read sappy love stories before bed, guilt free.

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  7. -field guide to edible plants (justified as "useful")
    -how-to book about building mud shelters ("useful")
    -history/how-to book about tying knots ("useful")



    INTERN would be a useful guest in the jungle with Monkey Mama.

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  8. No offense...but...

    Sounds to me like yon Intern is bent on becoming a survivalist. Do you know something we haven't heard out here in the boonies and burbs?

    Are you supplementing your frugal diet by free-range grazing in Prospect Park?

    Is the poetry in recognition that (wo)man does not live by browsed weeds and snared urban rodents alone?

    Or does the knot guide suggest planning for a more drastic option in the event things really do hit rock bottom?

    And there just isn't time to blow town and fashion a mud hut on friend's lawn in New Zealand?

    You have my attention.

    Now um skeered. dylan

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  9. We all have different reasons for buying books. Mine are support and desire. The three types of books I buy most are comic strip collections, mysteries with humor, and science fiction with humor. If I find an author I enjoy I become filled with desire to read the author's other works. It took me decades and the birth of Amazon's used books for me to buy all four mysteries written by Vince Kohler.

    A book with a hint of humor tempts me like a naked brunette. My bank account suffers because of these desires, though I have been more successful finding books with humor than naked brunettes.

    Support often comes when I find an undiscovered author that appeals to my desires. I bought the "Complete Chance Purdue" despite owning every paperback featuring Ross H. Spencer's private detective. I might even pay Kindle to read a blog I read for free now just to support the underpaid author.

    Michael

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  10. Did you ever read Anne of Green Gables as a child? The MC loves to read, but since novels are morally suspect, she has to hide them in her school books. Her guardian tells her, "When I was your age, I wasn't allowed to so much as look at a novel." I think in some ways this attitude has persisted, though it is diminished some.

    Pleasure reading, which is what novels mainly are, seems to be what people shunt to the side to do what they feel they must do, and they feel ashamed of the pleasure reading, as they feel it indicates that they aren't reading the "useful" books.

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  11. yes, INTERN must know how to forage, build mud huts and tie knots! because INTERN and techie boyfriend are going to run away to the wilderness once the internship is over...for real :)

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  12. Wilderness Techie Boyfriend - I smell Reality TV series...

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  13. Stephen King talked about how many people do, indeed, buy fiction that has a learning/non-fiction element to it for exactly these reasons:

    Other popular writers, such as Tom Clancy and Patricia Cornwell, are more story-oriented, but still deliver large dollops of factual information along with the melodrama. I sometimes think that these writers appeal to a large segment of the reading population who feel that fiction is somehow immoral, a low taste which can only be justified by saying, 'Well, ahem, yes, I do read [fill in author's name here], but only on airplanes and in hotel rooms that don't have CNN; also, I learned a great deal about [fill in appropriate subject here].'

    (from On Writing)

    I've also read articles about how a learning/non-fiction aspect to a book may be responsible for certain books with cross-over gender appeal among young readers. Little House in the Big Woods has a female protagonist, yes, but boy readers can learn about making maple syrup candy in the olden days, so it's cool for them to read it, too.

    I'm currently on a campaign to attend more book readings/signings (if I don't show up for those authors, how will I have any right to ask people to show up for me when I get published?) and I always buy a book at those events. I'm mostly attending events for debut novelists or 2nd novels, but there's also a James Ellroy reading coming up in two weeks! Ha-cha!

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  14. dylan: cavemen were the first techie people, you know! all those sticks... :P

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  15. My grandmother used to talk about sneaking a paperback novel into her local tea room like she was smuggling in hard-core porn. My mother-in-law still prefers nonfiction, because it is "useful." I need a healthy dose of both fiction and nonfiction to support my tedious little neuroses. But no, gimmicky titles don't pressure me, unless they are puns or something cleverish. I'm far more likely to fall for a slick cover or glowing blurbs from authors I like.

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  16. Oooh, we buy the same books, Intern. I have books on natural building techniques (straw-bale rammed earth, etc), building stacked stone walls, basketry, making willow furniture, gates and trellises, edible herbs and flowers, edible and medicinal weeds...I could go on. One of the most recent I bought was an Elliot Coleman book about 4 season gardening. I made DH build me a greenhouse out of wood, cattle panels and plastic sheeting and I'm trying it out this year. :) Useful books I can justify.

    Buying fiction for my DH and my boys is easily justified, too, but I can't really justify (or afford to buy) all the novels I read. I will buy them *after* I love them--all those I want to have on my shelves for future comfort reading (I put them in my Amazon cart and wait for them to go on sale, usually). Or sometimes I'll buy sequels at full price that I can't wait through 50+ holds for at the library (Catching Fire is the most recent) and I justify those purchases by saying I'm using money I've saved by learning DIY stuff from those "useful" books I buy. ;)

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  17. It's interesting that "success"-oriented titles will help books to sell. I've never really thought about that, but it makes sense. Titles are always important marketers...combined with a cover, they form the dynamic duo of selling tools. I'm not sure success titles could ever work for fiction though...I like creative titles when it comes to fiction. Intriguing. A title that makes you say Huh, I wonder what this book is about, so you pick it up and start flipping through it...next thing you know, you're in the check-out with it.

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  18. I remember seeing Nick Hornby on some talk show when HOW TO BE GOOD was published, joking that he chose the title to cash in on self-help sales.

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  19. I'm shameless. I read for hedonistic pleasure both books I'm proud of and books no one will confess to reading at a cocktail party. I tend to avoid non-fiction and self-help gives me hives. About the only thing that would embarrass me is getting caught with an Oprah Book Club selection. (Although I am sure some of them have been fine books.)

    On the other hand, I righteously eschew reality t.v. in nearly any form. I'll scuttle off with my brand new Artemis Fowl while you watch "Surviving Bachelors Date Ex-Fat Chicks in The Amazon."

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  20. INTERN...
    All my elementary teachers were nuns. Is that what's wrong with us?

    Haste yee back ;-)

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  21. Per this theory, I changed the name of my memoir to

    LOOKING FOR MR. RIGHT.COM; how I found love online*

    *and you can too

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  22. I am an unabashed fiction buyer. I guess the way I see it, if it's non-fiction (something I'm interested in...edible plants or living in a mud hut), I can look it up on the internet.

    I feel absolutely NO guilt about buying novels. I feel bad for people who read NOTHING.

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  23. Irishspartan,
    You'd be surprised how relaxin' fillin' yer head with NOTHING is!

    Haste yee back ;-)

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  24. Once I realized that I was not going to get a tenure-track position, I stopped buying nearly all books. The library in My Fair City is wonderful (I can have books delivered to the branch that is close to where I work! for free!), and it's much easier to have a three-book weekend when I haven't had to pay for the books. The books I buy are by Sherri Tepper, Richard Russo, Ursula LeGuin, or Neal Stephenson. An occasional other novel sneaks in (I get cheap editions of Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen, e.g., because I know I will reread them), or, occasionally, Good Pron (because getting that from the library? ew, plus I Would Never Read That Anyway, Nope, Not Me) or a series I know I'll want to reread multiple times (Dorothy Dunnett and J. R. R. Tolkien I'm looking at you). Sometimes a cookbook, but I have so many at this point that it would have to be really really really important that I add another one. Also: the occasional style manual, if an editing job necessitates it.

    So, no, the instructional stuff, not at all. And the travel reading I get from the library, too. So the intern probably thinks I should actually buy more books, damnit, of ANY kind!

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  25. I've just bought Armed and Magical by Lisa Shearin because Waterstones didn't have the Cory Doctorow book in that they were advertising. Really, I prefer sci fi to fantasy but I'll take what's available.

    I do use the library but you do have to remember to take books back or else there's a fine to pay. I can order books from other libraries for £1 a go, so I usually prefer to spend that on buying a book from a charity shop.

    Although I read for escape, I don't feel guilty about it. I can't help feeling that reading is good for you and as a means of escape from daily life it easily beats drinking or even chocolate.

    Someone has to buy fiction, or what's the point of everyone writing it?

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