Would You Buy Your Own Book?

While teaching about writing and publishing I have, on occasion, asked the question, “Would you buy your own book if you saw it on a shelf but didn’t know who you were?” I’m met with a variety of reactions. Laughter. Pensiveness. Surprise. And even a few scowls.

The question is meant to provoke you into describing why your book idea is unique. Why it will stand out among the noise of the competition.

It is unfair to ask the author this question, of course. I assume you would buy your own book. There is no one who knows your book better than you. But that isn’t what I’m asking.

It is not a question of whether your book is important or valuable or even well written. Don’t hear it that way. It is actually a question of commercial viability.

The greatest problem of today’s writer is obscurity. The industry uses the word discoverability to describe how a book can be discovered. You may have heard that ebook piracy can be a problem for writers. But if no one knows about your book no one will steal it–and no one will buy it either!

This is why the competitive analysis portion of your book proposal is so important. Help the agent help the publisher create space on the physical or virtual shelf. Help them position your book, so it rises from obscurity into viability. With thousands of new books appearing online every day, there must be something that makes yours interesting.

Imagine you are standing in a physical bookstore. (I know it’s hard to imagine, but play along.) Go to your favorite section of the store. Now lightly run your finger along the spine of the various books shelved there. What makes you stop and pull that one down to look at it. The author? The title? The color? The binding? What magic is in that moment for you as the consumer. Then ask, “Why did I just do that?”

Would you buy your book if it wasn’t written by you?

This can be as “simple” as a dynamite title. Or it could be a strong platform that stands out in the crowd. Or the skill in the writing is so amazing that the book creates word-of-mouth buzz that spreads throughout the world.

You know the question is coming, so prepare your answer. Would you buy your own book if it was on the “shelf” next to an über-famous author on the same topic or in the same genre?


[An earlier version of this post ran in November 2011.]

16 Responses to Would You Buy Your Own Book?

  1. Avatar
    TC Avey November 14, 2011 at 6:04 am #

    Funny Kathy,
    My first smile of the day. Thanks!

  2. Avatar
    TC Avey November 14, 2011 at 6:57 am #

    Wonderful advice! I remember a book I bought completely off the cover. I was delighted to find it was a good read as well.

  3. Avatar
    Timothy Fish November 14, 2011 at 7:31 am #

    Interesting. Certainly, it helps if a book is well written. If a book is very poorly written, it won’t get its point across and will fail, but I would love to see what you’re basing your claim on. I don’t see it. I’ve seen plenty of poorly written books that have done very well in terms of book sales. What you don’t see are people saying “Here’s a book with an ordinary story, but the writing is great. You should read it.” Instead, you hear people saying, “The writing is a little rough, but you really need to read this story.”

  4. Avatar
    Timothy Fish November 14, 2011 at 7:53 am #

    Cover design, like writing, is very subjective. But you make a good point. When I buy a book, I’ve already made a decision before I look at the actual content of the book. The whole point of the book cover design is to communicate what is in the book so the reader doesn’t have to read the book to find out.

    So many people think the first page of a book is important, but to me, it has little importance because the cover has already sold me on the book. Unless the first page is terrible, the cover has already told me enough for me to read several pages in search of the story it promised. Sadly, some authors spend a long time working on the first page, but they give little thought to the back cover.

  5. Avatar
    Timothy Fish November 14, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    There’s much truth to that. In the first book I wrote and the one I’m writing now, I would want the book for the Appendix alone. I’ve actually used my first book for the information that is back there and I expect I’ll do that with the one I’m working on. But while I can say that my novels will transport someone to different world several hours, that is true of so many novels. I don’t know that that is enough for my novels to stand out from the one by the Famous-Author.

  6. Avatar
    Timothy Fish November 14, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    I heard that saying “I haven’t read anything like it” is deadly for a book deal.

  7. Avatar
    Timothy Fish November 14, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    As the saying goes, that’s a good question.

    Unfortunately, I only know one person who can answer it and he only answers when he is ready. Publishers might have a better idea than author, but even they don’t know for sure until the books are on the shelf.

  8. Avatar
    Deb Kemper November 30, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

    I would most definitely because I stopped reading romance when I turned 40. Romance has been written primarily for the young adult, as though those of us with a little gray aren’t eligible. How very wrong you are, if that’s your opinion. Love isn’t fabulous, romantic, and funny until you know each other. Nothing like the passage of time gracefully ripens love. It’s almost impossible to find a romance written with the subjects over 40, or heaven forbid, 50. Yet I’m working on one and have another with an editor. I’ve interviewed about 100 women over 40 to share my theme. Each one has shared a story and all are enthusiastic about the release.
    I write romantic adventure with real people who have real problems. There are even a few men in my circle who can’t wait to critique the next chapter.

    • Avatar
      Gina Gates November 30, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

      Deb, I was intrigued to see your post because my new book, “Falling in October” is about finding love again in midlife. It is not fiction, but has some very romantic elements. I’d be interested to hear more about your book.

  9. Avatar
    Catherine Painter June 14, 2012 at 7:39 am #

    I would buy it because of it’s title explains exactly what’s inside: So, You’re a Christian! Now What?

    It’s a 12-week Bible study comparing 12 ways of spiritual growth with identical steps of physical growth.
    For example, Lesson One:
    The physical baby must first be born.
    The spiritual baby must first be born-again, and so forth.

  10. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 6, 2019 at 6:49 am #

    That I might consider a book,
    two factors stand out, vital,
    that call me to a longer look;
    they are content led by title.
    I read for subject matter now
    and not for “Hmm, why not?”
    So author, wise titling’s how
    to use the chance you’ve got.
    Then I will peruse the writing
    but I’m not a snob of words.
    As long as it’s fair-made, inviting
    and I can feel the clash of swords.
    Just say by title what you’ll deliver;
    that’s the sharpest arrow in your quiver.

    Ah, the limitations of the sonnet…here’s a quatrain that I wanted to use, having just seen the film version of ‘First Man’ and having been disappointed that it did not deliver on its promise…but it just didn’t fit.

    I way hyped to see ‘First Man’
    and the journey into Space,
    but for too long they wouldn’t pan
    from Ryan Gosling’s face.

  11. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson May 6, 2019 at 6:59 am #

    And if you’re not famous (which means you and me), you need a dynamite title, a dynamite book cover, dynamite writing, competitive pricing, and a solid platform to launch from.

    No rocket reaches space without a solid platform to start on.

  12. Avatar
    Carol Ashby May 6, 2019 at 11:01 am #

    Great questions to ask ourselves, Steve. In these online shopping days, cover (which includes title) counts most. If it ain’t good clickbait, it ain’t gonna sell. That’s true whether indie or traditional. More than 90% of indie sales will be online, but even a traditional author trying to go head to head on bookstore shelves needs that cover to make someone want to pick it up. And the visual displays on your online platform also need that hook-em-fast, hook-em-hard quality cover.

    Would I buy my own books if I saw the covers? I’d at least check out the description to see if I might want to. Then I might sample the first chapter (there’s that writing skill factor).

    But discoverability will always be an issue for a newer writer and, as Brennan said, without platform it won’t launch well. I have people waiting for the next one now, but for the first one I certainly didn’t. But how does an author develop an effective platform for selling books even before they have a book to sell? One that will impress traditional publishers enough to take a chance on you?

    Thanks to a comment here on platforms for author hopefuls, I started a Roman history site that I can let teachers and homeschoolers know about. Most of my sales are probably to those folks, who are naturally readers of Christian historical fiction. And with >30K visitors from all over the world last year and on the order of 1% clicking on my covers in the sidebar, I can explain most of my international sales. But very few have books that lend themselves to that kind of platform, so what do you recommend the typical writer of Christian fiction should focus on for platform development prepublication?


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