How People Really Judge a Book
by Tucker Max
I see authors spend years writing, finish the manuscript, and then spend virtually no time on the rest of the book. They essentially check out of the title, book cover, book description, etc.
This baffles me. It’s like they never ask themselves possibly the most important question about their book: how do people judge my book?
By doing this, they’re essentially saying that they think readers will not judge their book by anything except the content. That the title, cover, author bio, blurbs and other marketing materials mean nothing to potential readers.
Let me lay this out for you in the starkest terms possible:
Almost every potential reader will judge whether or not to buy and read your book before they have read one single word inside the book.
This is not a pleasant fact, but it IS a fact, and the more you understand it, the better you can create a title, cover and book description that signal exactly what you want to signal to the reader, and get people engaged so that they give your content the time it deserves.
This article will explain the mental process that a reader goes through when making a buying decision about a book, and how to adapt your book to give it the best chance to reach its potential reader.
The Information Real People Use To Judge A Book
Based on loads of empirical research and decades of experience in the book business, we have a clear picture of what happens in the mind of a potential reader when judging a book.
Even though we have a pretty good map of how people decide to buy a book (which we will outline soon), you must understand a key insight: this process is almost never conscious.
These buying decisions are a series of instantaneous and mostly unconscious judgments. They are made in less than 60 seconds, and they are made together, each influencing the other, not individually. The reader doesn’t often know (or believe) they’re evaluating the book this way–but they are. These judgments are real and substantive; in most cases, they are the main evaluation and purchase triggers.
A potential reader will consider these pieces of information about a book, (usually) in this order:
- The title of the book
- The recommending source
- The book cover
- The book description
- The blurbs
- The customer reviews
- The author bio and picture (depending on where the picture is placed)
- The length of the book
- The book text itself (the “see inside” function online)
- The price
Now let’s walk through each step and unpack it.
Most people think the cover is the first thing someone judges. That’s only true if they’re browsing a physical bookstore, which is rarely the case anymore. Most books are now discovered either by in-person word of mouth or online, and in both cases, what is the first piece of information they receive?
The first piece of information is what you titled your book, and from that, people make an instantaneous assessment of whether the book seems relevant, whether it’s for them, and if it sounds interesting. This is why I recommend spending so much time making sure you get the title right.
Let’s be clear: A good title won’t make your book do well. But a bad title will almost certainly prevent it from doing well. So many potential readers stop considering buying the book once they have heard the title, and nothing else.
If Marc Andreessen or Bill Gates recommends a book, then thousands of eager readers of theirs rush out to buy it. But if a discredited drunk with no followers on Twitter recommends it, no one buys it.
This is because the credibility of the source is a hugely important piece of the recommendation puzzle. In fact, in most cases, people will transfer the credibility of the recommender onto the book.
It’s not just about having an audience. It’s about who is doing the recommending. This applies to friends as well. If you have a friend who is very rich, successful and intelligent, you’re far more likely to listen to their book recommendation than someone who is unemployed and living with his parents.
What’s great about this is that if the credibility of the referrer is great enough, almost any title will work, and you don’t have to worry about the rest of this list. But that is rarely the case, so you still want to make sure and give yourself the best chance you can.
If the reader is still interested after hearing the title and taking the referring source into account, they will now go to Amazon, or to a bookstore, and look at the cover.
You make more judgments about its relevance and your interest based on this information. You can see our thoughts about the right way to do a book cover here.
The most important thing at this point is that the reader is not repelled. Most people are looking for reasons to NOT buy the book, and you have to not give them any so far.
This is why we highly recommend you spend a lot of time getting your cover right.
At this point, if the cover hasn’t repelled the reader, they will look next to the book description on the Amazon page (or flip over to the back of the book in a book store). This is the book description, and it should give a good idea of what the book is about, while making it interesting and not giving everything away.
If the reader is still interested, they will now look at endorsements (sometimes for a physical book, they will do this prior to reading the book description).
Note that most readers look more closely at who the blurbs are from rather than what they say. They assume that the blurbs will be positive, so they want to see what level of social status the blurber is, and whether it’s someone they know and respect. Another reason we tell you to spend some time getting good blurbs.
If the reader is on Amazon (or B&N.com or GoodReads, etc, but not in a bookstore), they now read the customer reviews.
They will usually first note the number of total reviews–as a gauge of popularity–and then look at the average rating, and then possibly browse the content of the reviews. If they do, they normally read (more likely scan) one or two of them. And if they are like most people, they skip the positive ones and read a negative one first, before going back to a positive one (if they even do that).
Author Bio and Picture
Sometimes, but not always, people will look at the author bio. This is usually in situations where they have not quite made up their mind, are hesitant to buy the book, and need more information. Looking at the author page is about understanding the credibility and relative status of the author.
There are cases where this is one of the first things the reader looks at (when they’ve never heard of the author). Some people immediately want to know about the author, and this is why we tell you to pay so much attention to the author bio and author photo.
At this point, the vast majority of people have made their decision. Note that this is before they interact with anything inside the book. They have yet to read one single page, and they’ve already decided whether or not to buy the book.
This is one of those things that seems to be generational, or divided by socioeconomic status. Some people, generally voracious readers (like me), never even think to check length. Whereas other people always check length. They don’t want to commit to a 300+ page book.
There’s not much you can do here–your book is the length it is–but we’ve found in our data that books that are between 100 and 200 pages sell the best and are read the most.
The Book Text
There are some people who actually use the “Look Inside” function on Amazon to check out the first few pages and engage the content of the book itself. If they’re in a bookstore, they flip the book open and read some of the inside. They might even do more research to find more articles online about the book.
These are the informed buyers, but they are a distinct minority. Probably less than 10% of your buyers do the thing that everyone says they want to do: judge a book by the content inside, and not the cover.
Some people will look at price. For some reason, it appears that people are far more price conscious for ebooks than they are for physical books, because of value perception. Generally speaking we’d recommend keeping your goals for you book in mind when you do pricing.
Why Does This Matter?
We are digging into this point because it is very important that you come to terms with this reality:
Most authors think all the things mentioned above are “only marketing” and ignore them, but not only are they very important, they are absolutely, utterly critical to get right if you want to have any chance of selling your book to a broad audience. The implication is obvious:
If you care about selling copies of your book, you need to look at marketing with the same amount of importance as the writing.
The authors that do this tend to succeed. The authors that don’t…tend to fail.