I wrote a post in January about how long it took me to decide to purchase the memoir, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. (It was 70 seconds.) I think it’s important to consider book-buying habits from time to time because what we all want to do is write books that readers will actually read. What this means is that, in addition to learning how to write better books, we also need to consider how readers decide to read the books they read– and why they make those decisions.
 
I have been thinking about this lately for a variety of reasons. One of the primary ones is that I bought a book that is an outlier in terms of my typical book-buying habit. It’s calledSeven Brief Lessons on Physics by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. When Breath Becomes Air was right in my wheelhouse – a memoir about death. I probably have more than twenty such books on my bookshelves. I love memoirs and I love books about death. But a book about physics? I have A Brief History of Time, which was published in 1988, but that’s about it. So why did I buy the book on physics?
 
The short answer is that I was drawn in by a review in The Wall Street Journal, and in particular by the well-crafted headline:
 
Carlo Rovelli’s Poetic Contemplation of Physics
 
A poetic contemplation of physics? What does that even mean? The subhead of the WSJ piece gave me a clue and piqued my curiosity even more:
 
How ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,’ an Italian professor’s short primer on seven key ideas in modern physics, became a best-seller
 
Here's what I then thought:  a.) how can a primer on key ideas in modern physics be SHORT and b.) how can a book on physics be a best seller and c.) why have I never heard of it? I was drawn into the article to answer those questions, and I knew I would buy the book the moment I read these lines:
 
His professional life, like his book, is closely linked to philosophy. “Science is about writing the fundamental equation, finding the big picture and being aware of what you’re doing,” says Mr. Rovelli, who teaches courses on the philosophy of science. “For all that, philosophy is essential.”
 
That intrigued me, because doesn’t that sound like what WE are doing in writing? Looking for the fundamental equation of a story, for the big picture, for the awareness of what any of us are doing? A scientist who thinks like that is a scientist who can speak to me.
 
When I read these lines of the article, I knew I would love this book:
 
Publishers attribute the book’s success in part to Mr. Rovelli’s knack for putting complicated things simply. Asked to describe gravitational waves in the space of a tweet, he pauses for a minute, looks out the window, then answers: “Space wiggles like the surface of a lake. Actually, it’s true!”
 
I actually purchased the book after my husband mentioned the same WSJ article to me, which he had stumbled upon the same day I did.
 
So I read about the book from a trusted source and I got confirmation from someone else I trust. It took two “events” for me to take action to buy the book (the WSJ piece and my husband’s mentioning it) and I also needed a strong personal connection to it. That’s what tipped me over the edge – the two events plus the personal connection. (A quick aside -- I have loved this book. I am only on Lesson #5 but it is changing the way I look at the world and increasing what I know and making me smarter. If you want a clue about what I mean, I urge you to go look at Rovelli’s website. It’s elegant and poetic and artful and fabulous in every way. )
 
Okay so what about other books?  Does it always take two events + a personal connection? I decided to do an analysis of the last seven book purchases I made to see if that equation holds. Here is a thumbnail of my grid.


You can download it here:
 
>>>> Download Jennie’s grid
 


What Did I Learn From Doing This? 

  • The personal motivation always has to be high for me. That is a given.
  • 5 out of the 7 books were purchased because of a recommendation from someone I know. I was surprised, because I would have thought that I buy most books based on reviews in the newspapers I read or on NPR. But people turn out to be a larger influence than I thought.
  • I bought 3 books based on the author’s reputation.
  • I bought two books based on their physical manifestation – one was a beautifully made gift book, one was just pretty.
  • I bought 3 books based on only one “event” but they seem to be books I did not feel as compelled to read, or did not enjoy as much, as the ones that had two.

 
Conclusions

  • Readers buy books when people they trust recommend them. So it's up to writers to do something to inspire people to talk about the books we write.
  • Readers usually need to hear about a book at least twice before they buy it. So it's up to writers to talk about our own books, or write about them, in places where our ideal readers are likely to hear about them.
  • An author’s reputation matters. So it's up to us to write and keep writing and to nurture how our readers feel about our work.
  • Sometimes the physical reality of the book matters. So we need to support our bookstores.

Do the Same Things Hold for You?

If you want to use my template to do this little exercise, you can!
 
>>>> Download the grid template HERE and SAVE AS your own
 

  1. Write down the last seven books you bought. (If you can’t remember – i.e. if it’s been many, many months -- think about that. If you’re not buying other writers’ books, how can you expect people to materialize to buy yours?)
  2. Next to each title, write down how you became aware of the book. How did you go from having no clue to wanting to buy it?
  3. Write down what motivated your purchase. Why did you buy it?
  4. Determine how many “events” it took you to decide to make the purchase.
  5. Can you see any patterns? Draw any conclusions?
  6. Share them below!

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