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Where do you find the books you want to read? There are theories galore about how authors and publishers should advertise, use categories, keywords etc. But I often find myself a bit bemused by them.
Because I don’t buy books that way. These theories seem to describe a behaviour that I simply don’t recognise. But I do buy books. All the time. So where am I discovering them?
I don’t expect this post will set the world of book marketing alight. But I hope to illuminate some less acknowledged processes. And I’m curious to know what you do, so I hope you’ll join in at the end.
I’ve never bought a book that I’ve seen on a Facebook advert. Yes, I know that advertising is there to remind you a book exists, not necessarily to grab your £££ immediately. I know that adverts have to be seen a certain number of times before they get noticed. And that they work in conjunction with other forms of exposure.
But Facebook has never managed to show me book adverts that I find appealing. This must mean I’m giving it some very wrong signals. (How many other readers are giving the wrong signals, I wonder?)
I’ve certainly bought books by people I know on Facebook, but not because of adverts. I’ve bought because of meaningful contact – chatting to them, or an interview. More on that later.
I don’t browse for books on Goodreads. I go there AFTER I’ve read a book, to keep the karma going with a review, when (ahem) time allows. (For the last few months it hasn’t. I’ll be rectifying that soon.)
Bargain book newsletter services
BookBub et al. I know these are smart sales tools, but they’ve always seemed rather superfluous to me as a reader. First, I don’t buy books because they’re bargains. I don’t find a book more appealing because it’s on special offer. I want the right book.
Second, these newsletters are selling ebooks, and I’m one of those throwbacks who likes a solid version. To have, to hold and to keep. To remind me, by its bulk on the shelf, to give it attention. But I do use Kindle samples to check books out, so it wouldn’t be totally useless to me.
Still, they are popular and effective for authors, so I thought I’d better evaluate them properly. What gems might I find by subscribing as a reader? An excellent article by the Alliance of Independent Authors compared them in terms of value for advertisers, and rated BookBub, Fussy Librarian and Bargain Booksy top. Fussy Librarian got a special mention because it wasn’t just promoting bargains.
I subscribed to Fussy Librarian as a reader, asking for news of literary fiction. After two months of emails, I can report they – or the authors who advertise with them – are not remotely fussy about what they categorise as literary fiction.
And this is a problem when you shop in this category. It’s easy for us all to agree what’s meant by categories such as crime, thriller, romance, paranormal or YA. But literary? The term gets put on everything that might not fit in the other boxes (and so, in Fussyland, it seems to mean cross-genre or two timelines). Here’s a post where I attempt my own definition of literary, in case you haven’t had enough. Meanwhile, several writers I know avoid the term altogether because they’ve learned their readers are put off by it.
But Fussy Librarian isn’t everything. I decided to try BookBub, the grandaddy of book email lists. And here’s where I was surprised. I have seen a few titles that I’m keen to know more about, so it will be interesting to see if my buying habits change as a result of BookBub.
So how do I discover books?
My sources are:
- Newspaper review pages and the London Review of Books
- Publishers’ lists (because of The Undercover Soundtrack, publishers send me their catalogues and I invite authors whose work appeals to me. What’s The Undercover Soundtrack? Sleeve notes here)
- Recommendations from friends and my bookseller friend Peter Snell (our radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, is here)
- Blogs – the Literary Hub and David Abrams’s blog The Quivering Pen, which has interviews and a regular feature of upcoming titles. If you have a blog that showcases upcoming titles that correspond to my idea of literary, do let me know.
- Amazon’s ‘people who bought this bought that’ algorithm. I could wander in there for hours.
- Oxfam bookshops – a great way to find books everyone else has forgotten about. Especially non-fiction. Yes, I know that’s dodgy because the author doesn’t get a royalty. But often these are books that aren’t available anywhere else or I’d never have known to search for them.
- For research, I use Library Thing – this is the only time I search for books by categories, tags and all that labelling, because I’m shopping for something specific. But my pleasure reading is all surprise finds.
My favourite way to discover books
This has to be blogposts or interviews. I’m most likely to go hunting for a book if I’ve enjoyed the writer’s company in another piece of prose. I’ll check their reviews too, obviously. If I read a really thoughtful review, I’ll often want to know more about the reviewer – especially if they have a book of their own.
This means, therefore, that I’m a lot more influenced by gut feeling about the writer’s curiosities, thought processes and delivery. I’ll follow a good voice into any genre. I don’t read fantasy but I love Jack Vance. I don’t read crime but I love Barbara Vine and Dorothy L Sayers. I’m wary of horror, but I’ve been joyously sucked into the latest by Josh Malerman (who is coming up next week on The Undercover Soundtrack … that’s another place where I find glorious reads).
In short, I seek the quality that categories can’t measure. And this possibly means that if you’re a writer whose distinctive strength is nuance, your best marketing tool is an interview, a personal essay or a well-turned review.
Anyway, this isn’t a post that provides theses or theories, it’s a post of open-ended enquiry. Not a ‘how-to’; more of a ‘how-we’.
What are the last 5 books you bought?
Let’s examine our book discovery habits. How did you find the last five books you bought? You don’t have to have read them yet. I want to see how you met them. And I hope you’ll teach me some new shopping tips.
Here are mine
A personal essay: I read this post and so I bought this. The piece is hardly about the book at all, but I feel I’ve been shown a piece of the author’s soul. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
Search by category + friend recommendation: This one’s for research. I was looking for accounts of bereavement and Library Thing did its thing. I haven’t read a Didion before, but she’s a favourite of a friend of mine. The irony in the title made it irresistible. Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking.
A friend: Another friend this time. He said: ‘You’ll like this. It’s weird and it really stays with you. I don’t know why. It just does.’ The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Lucky find in an Oxfam bookshop: I would never have thought to search for this. But there it was in a display. A sane biography of the teenage idol I’ve never grown out of. Under The Ivy. The Life and Music of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson.
Over to you. Where do you discover most of your books? On line, by browsing in a shop? How did you discover the last 5 books you bought and what were they? Any opinions on FB adverts and bargain book newsletters like Bookbub? Your favourite tip for book shopping?
Amazon categories, categories, Curtis Sittenfeld, David Abrams, defining literary fiction, Facebook advertising for authors, genre, Graeme Thomson, how readers use BookBub, how readers use Fussy Librarian, Josh Malerman, Kate Bush, Library Thing, London Review of Books, Stephanie Gangi, tags, The Literary Hub
Categories and keywords on online retailers: choose them wisely and the algorithms will target your ideal readers – especially on Kindle. You can make a whole science out of it, but this piece on KDP explains the basics in good, plain English.
Essentially, you pick two categories, and then get yourself in several more specialised lists by including set keywords.
But this system has its limitations. At first writers of genre fiction had many sub-categories to choose from, but writers of literary, contemporary and general fiction found themselves in one immense category where it was hard to be seen. There were few ways to tell the algorithms ‘I’m non-genre but I have a flavour of romance, or loss, or my novel is set in Borneo’. Recently Amazon has made big improvements and refined the choices – find them here.
Despite this very welcome addition, the results haven’t been as good for me as when I unknowingly broke the rules. When I put other authors in the keywords, my sales soared.
I did it in all innocence. Reviewers had been comparing my first novel with Paulo Coelho, Margaret Atwood, John Fowles, Doris Lessing, so I put those names in the keywords. My sales rose, readers seemed happy to have found me this way – so the comparisons must have been useful and valid. Then I discovered writers who did this were being sent warning emails so I removed them – and fizzled back down the charts.
It’s a real shame, because for me, this tactic was more effective than keywords about genres, subjects, settings, themes and issues. And surely the author and their style is a significant feature of any novel. With literary fiction, it’s the most important quality of all. It’s a valid way to talk about a book in the literary world – and yet it isn’t accommodated in the search mechanisms that writers can control. It’s a refinement that would be helpful to both authors and readers.
What’s more, now would be a great time to discuss and lobby for it. Here’s why.
We are connected…
Last week I was watching a videocast from the Grub St Writers Muse and the Marketplace conference. One of the panel members was Jon Fine, director of author and publisher relations at Amazon, so I tweeted @Grubwriters with my point about author comparisons. Jon Fine was rather interested in the idea and replied that it was something they’d never thought of. So…. watch this space!
(Let’s pause for a geek check: I tweeted a question in my home in London at 7.30pm, watched it read out to a room in Boston where it was 2.30pm, and real live people started to talk about it, with voices and hand-waving… and a man from Amazon stroked his chin and said ‘maybe we could…’)
— Roz Morris (@Roz_Morris) May 2, 2014
So I want to kick off a discussion here. Amazon are in the mood to get constructive feedback on this right now. There couldn’t be a better time to discuss it. I’ve shared my one tiny idea for improving the algorithms to help readers find our work; you guys no doubt have more to add. The questions begin!
1 Have you tried a category tweak that got you to more readers – Amazon-legal or not? Is there a category facility you’d like to see?
Jon Fine also said the categories problem was more widespread than Amazon. The industry standard for classifying books by subject, BISAC seems limited in its precision, although possibly it’s geared for booksellers rather than readers.
2 If you are – or have been – a bookseller, what’s your take? Would you find it helpful if the BISAC categories were made more flexible and detailed?
3 As a reader, how do you use search tools to find new books?
Let’s discuss! And change the world… 🙂
Amazon, Amazon algorithms, Amazon categories, authors, BISAC, choosing a genre, fiction, general fiction, genre, Grub Street arts centre, how to write a book, how to write a novel, Jon Fine, KDP, keywords, keywords for book sales, Kindle, literary fiction, Marketing your book, My Memories of a Future Life, non-genre fiction, publishing, Roz Morris, self-publishing, tags, writers, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
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