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How do readers decide to buy books?

How can you influence them to choose yours?

You may not realize it, but your communication with your reader begins long before they ever read your book’s stunning first line.

Marketing is the method by which you can influence a potential reader to take the next step toward purchasing your book.

If you understand marketing fundamentals, you will understand why certain tactics work, or why they may not work for you. Your marketing will be far more effective, and your readers will thank you for making their decisions easy.

Now, some authors think the fundamentals of marketing don’t apply to their book or their situation. But the longer I work with authors, the more I observe how important these fundamentals are.

As we examine the book-buyer’s journey, we will use the term “customer” because you, the author, haven’t yet earned them as a reader. If we influence the customer in the right ways, they’ll finally become a reader at the end of the journey.

In this article, we’ll only examine the in-person customer journey that takes place in a physical bookstore, but the steps for the online journey are similar.  

1. The customer decides to visit the bookstore.

The harsh author reality is  half of Americans never visit brick-and-mortar bookstores. From the start, authors must realize we’re only talking to the kind of people who read books.

But the folks who do read, visit two types of bookstores.

Destination Bookstores. Barnes and Noble is a destination store because people drive there specifically to buy a book.

Interruption Bookstores. These are bookstores at the airport, grocery store, or the spinner rack near the register at the pharmacy. These are book sales locations that “interrupt” normal activities.

Knowing the distinctives of these  bookstore types gives us important clues about the customer, because different bookstores attract different readers.

Three Types of Destination Bookstores and their Readers

Big Box Bookstores

Customers who shop big box bookstores are general readers. One customer might shop for their next great read not knowing exactly what it might be. Another customer may be on a mission to buy a specific book. A third type of customer might stop in for a five-dollar cup of coffee and browse the shelves as they sip.

Amazon Bookstore

That’s right, Amazon’s brick-and-mortar bookstores utilize a fascinating approach to provide customers exactly what they want..  

Used Book Bookstores

These stores attract budget readers. Customers are conscious of the cost of books because they tend to buy so many.  

Three Types of Interruption Bookstores

Airport Bookstores

Airport bookstores appeal mostly to wealthy readers.

There’s a high correlation between a person’s wealth and how frequently they fly. People who earn a six-figure household income travel a lot and they fly a lot. They’re constantly in airports for work and for pleasure.

If you’re writing a business book, an airport bookstore is key. Business leaders travel and generally have influence. If a traveling CEO buys your book in an airport bookstore and likes it, she’s likely to make it required reading for all her managers. One sale in an airport can turn into a dozen sales online.

Walmart Book Aisle

Walmart sell a lot of books. They target a different kind of customer than airport bookstores. Interestingly, Walmart does not share sales data with NPD Group. Only the publishers of the books that Walmart stocks know how many copies Walmart sells. I suspect that if Walmart shared their data, different books would be on the bestseller list, because the kinds of people who shop at Walmart are different from the kinds of people who shop at airport bookstores, which do report sales.

Grocery Store Bookstores

Grocery store book spinners target infrequent readers who don’t buy a lot of books. They may buy one or two books a year, but when they purchase, they typically buy the most popular, best-selling books. If it’s not a bestseller, it’s probably a specific nonfiction book addressing their specific problem.

Authors and publishers must be conscious and intentional about which stores they reach out to because different stores target different kinds of readers.

2. The customer chooses a shelf or section to browse.

If your book is placed on a shelf where it doesn’t belong, your book will appear before the wrong kind of customer, and it will fail.

Shelving your book in the correct place is a conscious, strategic decision. Often minor tweaks to the book can shift where it is placed. For example, the age of the protagonist may determine whether your book is eligible to be placed in the young adult section.

The key is to assign a genre or micro-genre to your book that will attract the right kind of reader and ensure it is placed on the shelf where that reader shops.

That’s why the shelving instructions on the back of the book are so important.

One of the most common mistakes indie authors make with their physical books is to neglect shelving instructions above the barcode on the back of the book. Most of the time it’s left out because indie authors don’t know to do it. If they haven’t listened to our episode about book covers, they don’t know about shelving instructions.

Traditional publishers always include shelving instructions. They’re vitally important because they tell the young employee taking books out of the box where to place the book.

This marketing fundamental is aptly called “Placement.” It’s one of the five P’s of marketing which we cover in episode 61.

3. The customer chooses a title

On the chosen shelf, the books are either face-out or spine-out. Amazon bookstores display all books with their covers facing the customer. At used bookstores, all books are displayed with only the spine facing the customer. At most bookstores, it’s a mix. 

An author must earn face-out status by selling lots of books. For example, books by Stephen King are placed face-out. You’ll also notice on their covers, the largest font is reserved for their names. The actual book title is in smaller type than their name. As such, they’ve earned the moniker, “Big Name Authors”, and their newest releases are displayed with the cover face-out.

A book may also earn face-out status when the author is famous for something besides their writing. For example, when Michelle Obama’s book released, it was face-out at the front of the bookstores. Mrs. Obama already had a level of celebrity by virtue of being the wife of a United States President.

Most books are displayed with only the spine facing the customer. If you’re not a celebrity, you’ll have to fight it out in the trenches with the other spine-out books where the only thing the customer sees is your title.

Your book will rise or fall based on the title of your book.

Strategies to Help Your Book Stand Out

There are some strategies for getting your book’s spine to stand out.

Eye-Catching Design

One company has built a million-dollar empire publishing books that aren’t designed to be shelved face-out. The bright yellow spine of the “Dummies” books pop off the shelf. Their iconic color and titles promise to help readers learn a new skill by using language anyone (or any dummy) can understand. Thus, we have titles like, Computers for Dummies and Auto Repair for Dummies.

On-Shelf Reviews

Another strategy to help a book stand out on the shelf is for the bookstore staff to place a review underneath the book. In an Amazon bookstore it’s an algorithmically generated review.

But for independent bookstores, a staff person will write reviews of the books they’ve read. Many times they are taped to the actual shelf, and these reviews are very powerful. It’s potentially even better than being face-out. If you’re curious on how to persuade bookstore staff to write and display a review of your book and recommend it, check out episode 195, “How to Work with Bookstores.”

If your book hasn’t yet been reviewed or doesn’t sport an iconic spine, the customer will take their next step on the buying journey based on the title and subtitle of your book. (In episode 172, we discuss how to test potential titles using the split-test method with Facebook ads. It’s an inexpensive way to gather data to help determine which title is best.)

4. The customer pulls your book off the shelf.

After pulling your spine-out book from the shelf, the customer instinctively looks at the front cover. Two to five seconds later, they will decide whether they want to learn more about your book. 

Customers view dozens of covers at a bookstore, but they’ll only buy a handful of books. 

Most covers are rejected most of the time, so having a good cover is key in successfully guiding your customer toward a purchase.

5. The customer evaluates the front cover.

In those few seconds, the reader—especially a fiction reader—is asking, “Does this book look like the kind of book I’ve enjoyed in the past?”

Readers aren’t looking for some revolutionary new cover. They’re looking for a safe bet. 

There’s a certain amount of psychological guilt people feel when they buy a book and then don’t read it. Because of the way they were raised or the education they obtained, they feel obligated to finish every book, even though they know they don’t finish most the books they buy. Because of this, they’re more careful buying books than they are buying other products.

If it does not look like the kind of book they’ve enjoyed in the past, there’s still a slight chance to win them over, because they’re also asking, “Is this the kind of book I might enjoy in the future?”

It’s hard to win the customer on this second question.

The best graphic designers at big traditional publishers occasionally pull this off. But just as often as they succeed, they fail. A book cover that sticks with the tropes and adheres to expected symbols, graphics, and type are far more likely to sell. If you’re writing a dragon book and the last ten bestselling dragon books all had a dragon on the cover, then don’t put a guy holding a sword on the cover. It’s not going to work. Put a dragon on the cover.

Military science fiction generally has a spaceship or a space marine on the cover, because those are the images and symbols that work to sell books. 

We’ve discussed book covers in the following episodes:

6. The customer flips to the back cover.

After deciding your book is indeed the kind of book they’ve enjoyed, or might enjoy in the future, the customer turns the book over. Although the structure of the back cover can vary, you’ll want to choose from the following components of back cover copy and lead with your strengths.


If you’re writing nonfiction and your bio is driving the credibility of the book, you’ll put your bio at the top so it’s the first thing your customer reads.


More often, the blurb is the very first thing the customer reads on the back. If you’re publishing independently, don’t be afraid to hire this out. Writing blurbs is difficult, but it’s so important because it also it shows up on your Amazon book page. If your blurb is weak, and often it is when you write it yourself, then it really torpedoes your sales.

We have several episodes aimed at improving your back cover copy:


On the back, the customer will also see how much your book costs. Price is another of the five P’s of marketing (Episode 61). In Episode 201 we discuss “How to Price Your E-book,” Be watching for an upcoming episode on pricing print books.


Authors often feature one or two of their very best endorsements on the back cover. This is a very effective component of your marketing if the endorsement is given by someone the reader or customer has already heard of.

The words the endorser writes about your book don’t matter as much as the celebrity of the endorser.


Your author photo, and your bio if it isn’t at the top, are also placed on the back cover for the customer’s consideration. Check out episode 79, “How to Write a Crazy Cool Author Bio”  and episode 98, “Seven Tips for Best Selling Author Portraits.” There are also articles on with instructions for finding and working with a photographer.

A surprising number of readers make book buying decisions based on the author’s photo. You owe it to yourself and your book to have a photo that puts you in your best light. And, here’s a bit of relief, it’s not about looking young and beautiful. It’s about having a quality photo that lends credence to your message and authority.

7.  The customer opens the book.

Curiosity has been building as they’ve walked through these steps, and finally the customer opens your book. This is the moment of truth where the quality of your writing matters.

If the customer has said “no” on any of the previous six steps, it doesn’t matter how good your writing is. If they don’t pull your book off the shelf, they’ll never read your writing.

This is why marketing is so important. Each marketing strategy assures that the customer will move toward opening your book, because they will never know if they like your writing if they never open your book.

Depending on the book and the reader, they may flip to different sections.

Fiction Readers

Fiction readers usually read the first page. More experienced readers may be suspicious of the first page and may flip to a random page in the middle where, presumably, a better, less curated sample of the author’s writing can be found.  A certain kind of rare reader will flip to the last page.

In order to coax your customer onward toward purchasing, the first page must be strong. Your first sentences sell the rest of the book, so you want to start your novel off with a bang. It doesn’t mean you have to drop a dead body in the opening scene, but there’s a reason all craft books put so much emphasis on this first page.

You need to write an amazing first page, and then you must write the rest of the book with the same kind of wow-factor you put into page one.  

Nonfiction Readers

For nonfiction, the quality of the craft is far less important, at least in terms of how good the writing is. Nonfiction customers first turn to the table of contents. So write compelling chapter titles.

Many authors believe the purpose of a chapter title is to describe the contents of the chapter. But the purpose of a chapter title is to sell the content of the chapter. If you only describe a chapter’s content, the reader won’t be interested.

Typesetting also plays an important role in nonfiction. Including visual elements such as call-out quotes, charts, or infographics make the book easier to skim and the customer can get the gist of your book quickly.

Unlike fiction readers, nonfiction readers may jump around in a book, skipping chapters they deem less applicable. Headings, bullets, and other visual elements help a reader find and remember information. Be warned though, if you’re publishing independently, these features will add to the cost of typesetting, but they may be worth it.

8. The customer makes a buying decision.

If the customer said “yes” throughout this process, hopefully they will go on to decide to buy your book. If you’ve grabbed them by the neck on the first page, if they already care about your character, you’ve hooked them. They want to know what happens next.

Customers can exit this journey at any point. Maybe the cover didn’t compel them, or it looked boring or too stressful. Maybe the blurb wasn’t interesting. For any number of reasons, the customer can exit this journey early by saying “no” at any point.

But sometimes they leave the buying journey early because they’re absolutely dying to dig into your book. They’re ready to  shout, “Shut up and take my money!” Every author dreams of this happy ending to the customer’s journey.

This happens most often when the customer has already read the first two books in your series and they see book three is available. The reader knows you, they love your other books, and they are sold.  

In this situation, you don’t have to walk through all these steps. But if you’re just getting started,  you must walk customers through all of these steps while they’re deciding whether or not to take a risk on you.

9. The customer becomes your reader.

Deciding to buy a book is different than deciding to read a book. 

The average book buyer in America only starts about half the books they buy, and they only finish about half of the books they start. They’ve only finished 25% of the books on their shelves. Their reading habits determine how likely they are to finish your book. Somebody who reads 300 books in a year will complete 90% to 95% of the books they start.

On the other hand, the person who buys ten books in their lifetime may only finish one of those books because they’re not a big reader.

A short-sighted author might argue, “Well, I don’t care if they read my book. I just want them to buy my book because I want their money!”

Why the Book-Buying Journey Can’t Stop at the Register

But that is very misguided, because ultimately what makes a book a success is word of mouth. People love telling their friends, “You’ve got to read this book because I want to talk about it with you.”

The customer has walked through their buying journey. Since they finished and loved your book, they tell their friends, “Buy this book!”

Their friends walk straight to the section of the store where your book lives, pull your book off the shelf, and take it straight to the cashier because they’ve already made their buying decision based on a friend’s recommendation before they entered the bookstore.

It’s a long process, and it requires diligence on your part. Maybe the journey would be shorter or less complicated if people were forced to buy and read your book. But that’s what college textbooks are for. You’re not writing a textbook.

You want to write books readers love talking about. You want to write books that change people’s lives for the better and help solve their problems.

Understanding your customer’s buying journey helps you help them. If you spend the necessary time, effort, and sometimes money, clearly guiding the customer to your book, you’ve helped them even before they noticed, and even before they’ve cracked the spine.

And that makes you an author with a book worth talking about. 


5 Year Plan to Become a Bestselling Author

I crafted this plan with bestselling and award winning author James L Rubart to be a step by step guide through the first five years of your writing career. Learn each quarter what to do to succeed and avoid the mistakes that hijack the success of most authors. Learn more at

Debra B. Diaz, author of Woman of Sin (Affiliate Link)

Alysia of Athens is sold into slavery during the turbulent reign of Tiberius Caesar. When she runs away, she finds herself in the battle-torn land of Palestine, where her life is forever changed.   

You can become a Novel Marketing Patron here.

If you can’t afford to become a patron, but still want to help the show, you can! Just leave a review on Apple Podcasts. 

Personal Update

Baby #2 is almost here!  We will have some reruns and pre-recorded episodes over the next several weeks so I can spend time with my family. 

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