The Choosing Behaviour of Readers

There are countless theories around, of course, that tell us how readers pick their books, whether they choose for the cover or the blurb or for other reasons.
Today there was a second hand book fair in the city where I live and I had donated a large amount of my first edition books, so I went there not only to find books for my personal interest, but also to see if my books were getting any attention.

Since mine were first editions I cannot sell anymore, they had that never-before-opened look to it and were consequently displayed on a table with countless bookshop left-overs. Since most people go immediately to the section that have their preferred genre, I didn’t think that would help, so I moved some of them to the respective “young adult” (In the Real World) and “science fiction” (Of a Note in a Cosmic Song) sections and then stood around and observed people going through the rows of books, talked to people and listened to their conversations.

As far as I could see, nobody really read any blurbs. Most people glanced at the books, picked up those that had an attractive cover – I changed some of mine around a few times, because the cover of part one of my science fiction series wasn’t very eye-catching in the first edition – and then looked for famous names. Most people do turn the book over for a moment, but never long enough to read even the smallest blurb. During the three hours I was there, I saw only one other person actually opening a book to read a bit – which is what I do when I want to get a feel for the prose.

“Where does this Titi person come from?” one guy asked about my books, as if nationality is the key to a good read – especially in that genre.
“Where are the reviews?” a woman wanted to know, although most books from big publishers also don’t come with a list of reviews or praise on the back cover.
“Never heard of him,” another person said and put it back down before even looking for a blurb.
And those were the people who talked. Their behaviour gave away that most other people thought similar things.
In the Real World got picked up by some young people, but never by any adults – who were the vast majority looking in that section – probably because the cover of my book makes a strong social statement about a topic most adults prefer not to question.
The cover of The Happiness Inquisition makes an even stronger statement, but I never found the book myself until much later, because it was hidden away in a shelf.

So, what conclusions did I draw from this tiny little observational survey?
That having too explicit a cover image is not necessarily a good thing, unless the message of the book is in congruence with what everybody already thinks – which makes writing a book about it a useless exercise.
That people reject out of hand a topic that makes them uncomfortable.
That people accept the quality of a book if it is endorsed by the current popular opinion or a list of praise on the back.
That people don’t really judge a book by its cover, but by the expectations they already have.

The sheer amount of books there was overwhelming and made me feel a bit hopeless. If so many famous books are just sitting there and most people don’t even look further than that, what chance will I ever have of selling my books?
Because it is not just readers who make their judgments so selectively. The owner of a local children’s book shop never bothered to read the blurbs either when I came in to ask if he’d be interested. Of all the review books I have sent out in the past, only one newspaper actually bothered to review one of my books: The Happiness Inquisition.
The reviewed books in other papers are invariably those submitted by the established publishers, from which I conclude that most reviewers also accept only that which has been preapproved by the establishment. And of course, publishers don’t even give you the light of day unless your story is likely to bring them money, which means expressing the popular ideas or being a famous person.

I know I have said all this before and that some people do seem to get past these hurdles. But I don’t have countless friends who can write reviews on Amazon, no expansive social networks – I am an introvert, which is why I write in the first place – and I don’t have the money to pay for advertising.

The standard reaction I get is that if a book is good enough, it will get recommended anyway. But the thing is that a book doesn’t even get noticed if it is not first recommended. If it never even gets opened, then how will they judge whether it is “good enough”?
I short, if I want to be acknowledged for my ideas, I will first have to write something I don’t believe in. And that is called freedom of speech.