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...