8 Reasons Why People Buy Books

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
8. Impulse

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.


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