OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
Most writers and authors also buy a lot of books. I certainly do, and you probably do too. So what makes you buy a book?
I buy books primarily based on the following:
- Recommendations from others mostly found on blogs I read and twitter
- Browsing the Amazon Kindle store in the categories I read, as well as how Amazon uses suggestions on other books I have read. I download lots of samples and then buy the books that take my fancy.
- Browsing physical book stores, although now I note down titles and then go buy them on my Kindle as they are 1/4 of the price of the physical book
I definitely do not buy books based on the publisher. In fact, most of the time I wouldn't know who the publisher was anyway and in a brief survey of other book buyers they have a similar experience. This raises a couple of very important questions for authors and writers, and perhaps publishers as well.
- If book buyers don't care who the publisher is, why is there a stigma to being self-published? (it's changing but it is still there). If you have a professionally edited and interesting book, with an eye-catching cover, buyers will not know the difference anyway. I have the same Amazon shelf-space as any other books. What do you think?
- If book buyers don't care who the publisher is, why do authors care so much? Do we all want a 10 book deal with Harper Collins because it means more physical distribution to bookstores, potentially world rights and more publicity budget? and is that scenario very likely for most authors. I don't think so. The reason must be ego and I will freely admit to being one of those authors! I would love a 10 book deal with Harper Collins! But I know that I will still need to do my own publicity and marketing, and I may well make less money than digital publishing. It is important to identify the why behind what you want for your book and your career as an author. Why do you care who publishes you?
- If book buyers don't care who the publisher is, whose brand is associated with the book? In A brilliant audio to the indie publishing industry a few weeks ago, Seth Godin challenged the audience on brand. He basically said that publishers should be aligning with audiences and brands and become the “go-to” publisher for that audience e.g. be the publisher for civil war books, or for coeliac disease sufferers. I can think of a couple of publishers who have this right at the moment. O'Reilly Books is for tech books, and Harlequin is for romance, but do the readers go there to spend money? I find branding to be a fascinating topic for authors and the publishing industry and right now, you need to consider your branding in a very crowded marketplace.
[Update: This piece was written a week ago, but I just saw the interview with Mark Coker from Smashwords where he says the same thing:
“Readers typically don’t pay attention to the name of the publisher on the spine of the book. They pay attention to the author and the story.”
Do you buy books based on a publisher? and do you care who publishes your book?
Jane Alexander says
I used to buy books by publisher when I was younger – can clearly remember my ‘all-white’ bookshelf filled with Picador and King Penguin titles. But now? No. Not at all. With so many imprints, it’s hard to keep track of who is actually the ‘big’ publisher in the first place. I buy favourite authors, browse widely and also check out recommends on Twitter and blogs.
But I confess I do tend to buy most books from relatively mainstream publishers – because, on the whole, I have found they still do act as a filtering service. I have bought a fair number of self-published books and, while I’ve found the odd gem, a large number are really crying out for decent editing, rewriting or, on occasions, someone giving the author a brutal reality check.
I’ve been published (non-fiction) by a large variety of publishers – HarperCollins, Bantam, Piatkus, Carlton, Gaia etc – and yes, the bigger the publisher, the more potential there is for marketing and publicity (though it has to be said that the quality of PR isn’t always great in the bigger houses – the smaller ones tend to be more inventive). Maybe it’s a case of ‘small fish, big pond’ or vice versa. I guess if your book is up against the new release from Jilly Cooper or Dan Brown you’re not going to get the lion’s share of publicity!
And yes, I’m looking for a major publisher for my YA fiction. Why? Better chance of a decent advance; of author tours and signings, of mainstream media coverage. And, okay, hands up – it would give me a heck of a kick to be a stable-mate with some of my favourite authors!
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Jane. I also mentioned I would love a big publisher, for the kudos and the distribution! They get the sales without needing the brand I guess.
Up until recently, I bought books based solely on the author and the genre (not necessarily in that order). In the last year, I’ve become more interested in where the books come from (besides the author). With the emergence of e-mail newsletters and the like from publishers (Tor, Baen, etc.), the publisher is much more noticeable these days. It has become clear to me that the publishers have finally figured out what authors have known for quite a while: The Internet can help them.
I would say that in the last year, one-quarter of the books I bought were based on who published them.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Dawn, That’s interesting. I don’t think many publishers are doing e-newsletters at the moment but it is definitely the way to go. Amazon has the great advantage here though, they have my email and they have my buying preferences for kindle and paper books. They get me with pretty much every email now. They never mention the publisher though! They just hit my favorite genres every time. That is why publishing with Amazon Encore will be an increasingly attractive option I think.
Actually, more publishers than you think have newsletters — most are to let you know about upcoming publications. Some you can sign up just for the authors you are interested in, others are not as precise. I currently get newsletters from Baen, Tor, Harper Collins, Del Rey and Simon & Schuster. At the end of most books is “Please visit us at ________.com”….. I have a feeling that not too many people in the grand scheme of things actually check out the publisher sites, but they’re interesting and informative.
Looks like I’ll be in the minority when I say I definitely buy based on the publisher. I would consider almost anything published by NYRB or Melville House, for example, as the experiences I’ve had with them both are so good that I have enormous trust in their choices. To a lesser extent I also favour New Directions, Pushkin Press and Dalkey Archive. I guess that reflects my taste. These are all small(ish) presses and I’m happy to support them as they have a (relatively) niche focus and publish quality material in generally well produced and presented formats (especially true of Melville’s novellas).
I’m always on the lookout for a new “team” to follow – my most recent discovery was Peirene Press whom I’ve bought 2 titles from.
In terms of the mainstream, I would always choose a Penguin edition if presented with a choice. Vintage Classics aren’t bad…a lot of mainstream houses though let themselves down badly by publishing weak material and creating (ironically, appropriately) poor physical objects.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Ian, That’s great to know – you clearly have an allegiance and those publishers stick to books that you like. This is definitely the way publishers will need to go in order to continue selling. Thanks.
Cliff Ball says
As a reader, I could care less about the publisher, since I follow the author if I get into their books. I know Simon & Schuster(Pocket Books) or Del Rey publishes some of the novels I like to read, but I’m not reading them for their names.
As an independent author myself, I think my novels are just as professionally set-up and edited, sometimes better, than those big name authors by those big name publishers. Would I like to be published by Tor, Del Rey, Penguin, etc? Sure, but, I’m not going to hold my breath, and I prefer doing everything myself anyway. I enjoy the challenge that is being independent.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Cliff. I’m with you on that. I’d definitely love a great publishing deal but in the meantime, I’ll get known by my own name and see how that goes!
As a reader, I can’t personally agree with the notion that people don’t care about the publisher of the books they read as it’s one of the primary reasons why I pick up books in the first place. When I go browsing in book stores, the myriad titles are, for the most part, stacked with their spines on display, therefore prominently showing off their publisher’s colophon.
As I sail down the aisles, scanning the books as I go, I take little notice of the authors’ names but instead follow these logos. I’m not beholden to any author, and would find it maddening to limit my literary diet so, and so finding publishers that I can trust the output of, through past experience, is what helps me direct a book from store shelf to home shelf.
Joanna Penn says
A great view Stewart and it’s so good to see that we all shop differently!
Stephen Tiano says
Well put, Joanna. But also, I think, no surprise. Tho’ one might learn to peruse certain publishers first for the genre they publish, it will pretty much always come down to subject matter, does the flap or back cover copy or first page grab the potential reader, and–sometimes maybe–who the author is.
All the business about self-publishing still being a stigma, I happen to think, loses its importance as we become less a world of readers. That, of course, can only go so far before there simply is no potential for any book. So I don’t imagine it pays to view that in any positive way. But it is worth noting that, to a point, folks who don’t have a use for books–print or e-version–help the cause by not caring one way or the other about the method of publication.
I, of course, view the whole proposition differently than anyone who would author books. As a book designer I favor the method that will
bring me the most paying work. But that is also to a point, as I have no desire to be associated with books that exist for no good reason but untalented authors’ vanity. That is still–and I guess always will be–the hitch to taking self-publishing seriously: Is there a process for knowing up-format that a boo is unworthy of being on a bookshelf. I suspect that production values–Does the design and layout look too amateurish to be taken seriously?–will more and more become the “entrance exam,” if you will.
Joanna Penn says
Good points Steve. I think all writers want to publish a fantastic finished product so focusing on doing the best we can in all aspects is important.
David Perez says
First things first: you provide a great service to writers everywhere. Gracias!
I work at an independent bookstore in Taos, New Mexico (25 years in business, whew!) and my experience has been that buyers choose books based on many factors: publisher loyalty, author following, genre fan, staff recommendations, discounted titles, intriguing covers, enticing blurbs, and provocative book descriptions, to name just a few. The problem is: what books even make it into the store? As much as we support and stock local authors – and as many small and mid-sized publishers as possible – we’re limited in our shelf capacity and still carry a lot of mainstream big publishers. So our customers’ choice is limited as well. This is certainly not as big an issue when shopping in Amazon.
That said, a great many people, perhaps the majority, simply want a good story – and will eat it up in whatever forms that are available.
Again, great job, Joanna!
Joanna Penn says
That’s a very useful perspective David. As a businessman you must choose books that you can sell, that people want to buy. I think your recommendations would make a big difference to sales, and so I’d tie that into author marketing. Would you recommend an author you have heard a lot about or only already read?
David Perez says
Actually I only work at the bookstore; I’m not an owner. Still, I do recommend books to order for the store, and I make suggestions to customers as well. I would recommend any book I’ve enjoyed, or one that I’ve heard a lot about from fellow readers and/or bookstore staff.
David Sanford says
As an author, as an editor (100+ books), and especially as a literary agent (300+ volumes), I’m the last one who wants to admit that the vast majority of book buyers don’t care if Amazon/CreateSpace, McGraw-Hill, Random House, or Thomas Nelson publishes a book. Sadly, most people couldn’t tell me the difference between Simon & Schuster and Wiley & Sons if I paid them. Those names sound familiar, but most people don’t know what they represent. Proof? Head to the nearest Starbucks, buy a $25 gift card, and then turn around and offer it to anyone in line who can tell you which publisher named above is owned by a massive German conglomerate, and why it matters. No matter how long the line, or how long you extend the offer, no one knows or cares. Frankly, I do know and…well, let’s just say I’m not so sure anymore.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks David. That is a great viewpoint from an industry professional. I really appreciate your comment and honesty. It doesn’t mean that we don’t value the publishers – it’s just that it’s not their brand we follow. Although as above, some publishers have got it right and they are clearly in the genre specific niche.
Geri J. says
I actually have bought books based on the publisher. Back in the day, I bought almost everything put out by Virago. It was a great way of discovering new-to-me women writers. Top quality stuff.
Cynthia Briggs says
Good article, and I couldn’t agree more. Most people who have purchased my books (even close friends and family) wouldn’t know the name of my publisher if their life depended on it. My first book was published through a POD who encouraged me to send people to their website to purchase my book…what a joke! The book has been out for 7 years and I don’t think one book has been purchased from shoppers on their website. In fact, last time I looked my book was so buried it would take someone forever to find it. It’s also a crying shame how much they charge for postage. The publisher’s site is actually a rip-off for the author and the buyer…can’t blame anyone for going to Amazon.
You are right, publisher doesn’t matter and the work for the author is still the same (possibly more).
Thanks for all you do for writers and authors.
“Pork Chops & Applesauce”
Wodke Hawkinson says
I read your article with just a touch of skepticism, but halfway through you had me convinced. I asked myself if I ever checked who the publisher was when buying a book. Before starting my own writing career, I did not. You are right. I think what will sell a good self-published book the right combination of exposure, positive reviews, an attractive cover, and a blurb that appeals to the reader. Thanks for this article. I found it uplifting to say the least!
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Wodke. I think the Kindle makes it even easier for people to buy with no regard for the publisher. If they catch a glimpse of something good, download a sample and enjoy it, they will buy. Yeah!
Judith Briles says
I definitely agree with your thoughts here. I don’t actually mind much on who the publisher of the book is for as long I can find quality writing, excellent story and amazing characters in the book, it is worth buying. Like anyone in a business sector, we tend to stick to resources that always have the best names in the industry. The same is true when we buy, we stick on buying the most popular brand and forget that when we wear or eat something, people don’t seem to care for the brand. Although publishers with popular names in the industry are sought after because they already established reliability in work output as well as created connections and strategies that can easily and quickly help your book get promoted or up on sales, nevertheless readers don’t seem to care. If you work on much effort with your own ways on publishing your book, you will always generate similar outcomes with having a traditional publisher do the work for you.