This is a question I often pose when I talk with writers.
The answers are predictable and usually wrong.
“A friend recommended it!” Good guess. But it’s not the #1 reason.
“I saw it in a bookstore or library.” About twenty years ago that might have been true.
“Book Reviews.” Nope. Book reviews are often a result of a book that already has buzz. And a review in the New York Times doesn’t exactly translate to sales anymore. (Bummer.)
“Social Media.” Unlikely! Social media is a great way to get exposure, but studies show that it doesn’t directly bring new readers to your work.
President and founder of book audience research firm Codex-Group Peter Hildick-Smith asked the question "Which one factor was the most important decision factor?" in a survey last spring. The overwhelming answer was "Written by a favorite author or author I've read before."
That fact is borne out by the contents of the NY Times Bestseller list. It makes sense. It’s the same reason people return to the same restaurant or buy the same brand of toothpaste.
People do buy non-fiction for subject matter alone, but for novels and short stories the author’s name and a positive experience with the author’s past work (some would call this experience the “author’s brand”), is the key deciding factor.
If you enjoy a book, the next thing you may do if you’re like most readers is to check if that author has something else. (A reason why back-of-the-book advertising is still a great idea!)
Books are relatively cheap compared to most other purchases consumers make. There are so many choices that book buyers think about the amount of time they will spend reading when they buy a book. If they’ve enjoyed their time with that author’s work, it’s an easy choice to purchase.
Herein lies the biggest challenge in the publishing industry today—large publishing companies invest in authors, but the publisher’s brand itself doesn’t matter, only the author’s does. Authors are like rock stars and hairstylists. If they leave their publishing company, their fans will be more likely to follow them than to stick around and see what the publishing company brings out next, but only if they have taken diligent care to gather those fans.
Of course, the author-name formula works best for that top-tier of authors who have millions of fans, but if you start your career thinking of yourself as a rock star—consider every book, every story, every article you write a chance to find and gather new fans who are eager to read your next work. If you make a conscious decision to associate your byline with a kind of reading experience, then you’ll find it easier to bring fans back to you book after book.