by Cathy Pickens
Covers are supposed to draw in readers, right? Writers focus compulsively on their covers, as if they had magical powers, akin to the Pied Piper’s flute, to lure readers in droves.
But what really lures readers? I’ve seriously pondered that question, both as a reader and as a writer. As readers, we all want a good story, though what fulfills that is different for each of us. Covers can telegraph the story … or scare us off.
But what gets a reader to even consider a book? During one week, I stood in two different bookstores and watched two different readers enter the doors. One store was a wonderful used bookstore with the helpful and knowledgeable owner at the desk and a great selection of books. The young man in a military t-shirt and bulging biceps said, “I want to read some classics.”
She told him where to look. I spied him as he stood, staring at the shelves of books. I didn’t see him pick up anything. I saw him wandering around the store, looking at other offerings. He left without buying anything. He hadn’t known where to start or what he might like, so he abandoned the search. It broke my heart.
A few days later, I was in a big-box bookstore, books piled on tables in front. A man entered the store, looking about as if he was in unfamiliar territory. He walked up to the tables, looking at the books, lightly touching the covers of a few with his fingertips but picking up nothing.
He scanned the bright, cavernous room, looking at the section signs: Fiction. History. Regional. He stood for some time, looking about, as if in a busy train station without a ticket. He turned and walked out, never moving past the tables at the front stacked with books, as if he’d been afraid of getting lost.
Twice in one week, I’d watched someone enter a bookstore—which I consider a magical land of possibility—and leave empty-handed because he didn’t have a map, didn’t know the secret language, didn’t know how to converse with the natives.
I’m still sad, when I think of it. In a library, we have guides, knowledgeable folk who will lead us, if we have sense enough to seek their wisdom. Long may their tribe prosper.
But how do we reach those who want to read, but have no idea where to start? I fear it is particularly true of males, who as boys lose interest (because their verbal skills develop more slowly than girls, so they become discouraged? Because they can’t find books that speak to them? Because it’s sissy? So many reasons.) Too many lose their way and can’t find it again.
But what of my female English professor friend who loves to read but can’t find enough intelligent, well-written cozies to keep her interest? She knows the language, she has a map, she has money to spend; she still can’t find the treasure she seeks.
So what can best guide readers to their books? How do you find your way? Is it reviews from bookstore staff? Online reviews on individuals’ websites? Reviews on Amazon or bn.com or others? Recommendations from friends? Dumb blind luck as you stand in the bookstore? The cover? The blurbs? The description?
It is a topic worth some conversation. I read Amazon reviews, believing I can usually tell who is a friend of the writer and who is an objective reader. I read newspaper reviews (the few that still exist) and talk to friends and pour through libraries and bookstores. I wait anxiously for favorite writers’ next books to come out. But I don’t spend any time looking for books on FaceBook or such; occasionally—though seldom—I find something mentioned on a listserv.
Where do you turn? What do you ignore? Writers, book publishers, booksellers, and libraries are dying to know! Any guidance for them?