Friday, June 1, 2012

How I, as a reader, decide which ebooks to buy

This post, rather than being a post on writing, is a post on reading, from my perspective as a reader. Maybe it will benefit other authors in marketing their own books. But mainly, I just wanted to write a bit about how my reading habits have been changed by the “ebook revolution,” and to explain how I decide whether to purchase an ebook.

And yes, my reading habits have been changed by the revolution. For one, I’m reading more, about as much as I did when I was younger. For a bit of background, I’m in my early forties. When I was younger, I used to read all the time, mainly science fiction and fantasy, and I would read three or four books a month. (Yes, I’m a slow reader; I like to take my time and “relish” the words). But when I hit my mid-thirties, for whatever reason, I found myself reading less and less SF/Fantasy with each passing year. By the time the Kindle hit in 2008, I was reading at most one book (sometimes more, sometimes less) of my favored genre every two months or so.

Nowadays, I’m back up to my old “speed” of three or four books a month.

The only reason I can think of for my renewed interest in reading is the convenience of ebooks. There’s a lot more choice, and I no longer have to visit several bookstores to track down a particular book I’m looking for. Reading itself is also more convenient, because I can carry around an enormous "stack" of books with me (on my phone, which is my primary reading device right now) wherever I go.

I now read almost exclusively digital. The only books I read in print anymore are non-fiction, and fiction books I want to read but, for whatever reason, can't read electronically. For example, Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, has a new book out now, The Beginner's Goodbye, that I really want to read. But the ebook version is currently $12.99. That's too high for me, not because I can't afford it, but because it makes me feel like the publisher is trying to gouge me, and I refuse to pay that much for an ebook. If I'm going to pay that much for a book, I want it in print. But since I no longer want all those print books cluttering up my living space, I'm waiting on a print copy to become available at my local library. Sorry, Ms. Tyler, but your publisher is making it impossible for me to financially support your writing career.

Here is how I choose the books I actually purchase.

I browse through the Amazon Kindle store (no, I don’t buy books anywhere else. What’s the point?) and load up my book with samples. I am a big sampler. I sample just about every book that even remotely interests me, and I use the sample to determine whether or not I’m interested in buying the book. I’m a big sampler.

This is another area where I think the ebook revolution has renewed my interest in reading: the ability to sample. Before, I would not stand around in the bookstore reading pages from the book. I would flip through the book, reading an occasional sentence or two to see if I liked the writer’s style, and if I liked the actual text (some books, I simply didn’t like the look of the font, or the darkness of the ink, or the size or spacing of the letters, whatever). But I wouldn’t spend much more than a couple of minutes deciding whether to buy a book. And a lot of times, I got burned. The book disappointed me, and I didn’t finish it; just put it away on my shelf, where it gathered dust.

Nowadays, I’m not often disappointed when I purchase a book, because I’ve read a decent chunk of the book in the sample, a lot more than I ever read back in the old days where there were only print books. So if I buy the book, it’s a pretty safe bet that I won’t be disappointed. I think the ability to sample before buying, at your own pace, in the comfort of your own home, is one of the most important and beneficial results of the ebook revolution. Imagine if, before Kindle came along, you had the ability to walk into a bookstore, rip out fifty pages from every book in a sci-fi section that covered several square miles, and take them home with you for free, to read at your leisure. Would that have affected the way you bought books back in the days of print-only? I know it would have for me.

So back to searching for books to sample. I usually type in an author’s name or the title of a book that I liked, and then surf through the “also boughts” of linked books, collecting samples that way.

Another way I sample is to type in keywords, such as “dystopian,” or “steampunk,” or whatever, and then choose one that intrigues me, and begin surfing that book’s “also boughts,” loading up with samples.

 I very rarely go to the top of a category or to one of the bestseller lists and start browsing randomly. That’s usually my last option, if my author or keyword searches and “also bought” surfing haven’t turned up much of interest.

And I don't read a book's sample as soon as I run across a book. I just read the blurb, look at the cover, look at the page count, maybe read the first few sentences in the "look inside" feature, and then decide whether to snag the sample. I'll send a sample to my phone, move on to another book, decide whether to sample, send the sample to my phone, and move on. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until I have dozens of new samples on my phone, waiting to be read whenever I get a spare moment. I spend maybe thirty seconds to a minute per book deciding whether to sample, and my sample-collecting sessions usually take me about five or ten minutes.

During my reading sessions, sometimes I’ll read a book I’ve already bought, or I’ll read one of my hundreds of samples. And I read everywhere I have an idle moment. Sometimes I only have a few minutes, as I’m waiting in a theater or wherever. Other times, I sit and read for a half hour or so. I find that usually, I read samples when I only have a few minutes of reading time, and I read my “real” books during the longer stretches. By “real” book, I mean one I’ve already purchased and have thereby committed to reading. If I’ve bought it, I’m interested, and intend to read the whole thing. With samples, I don’t usually plan to read the whole book; it’s just part of a decision-making read, a sampling; the sample read is not a “real” read.
Some readers complain about the flood of “crap” books on the market, since anyone can now publish books. But I actually don’t mind wading through the crap. It takes time, but so what? I’m glad for the increased choices. I like being able to make my own reading choices, rather than have my choices filtered by an editor at a big publishing house. Who knows what that editor might have turned away that I might want to read? Just because Joe the Editor doesn't like a book doesn't mean I won't like it.

I’ve found that I don’t care who published the book. I do look at the publisher to see if it’s self-published or not, but the publisher doesn’t sway my decision to buy or not. I only look as an author, because it makes me happy to see that others are self-publishing now. I’ve been self-publishing since the late ‘90’s, and it’s nice to finally have a bit more company.

As a reader, my decision to purchase is based solely on my sample read. If the writing is crap, I don’t finish the sample. There’s really no time wasted even if the writing is crap, because you can usually tell within a few sentences or paragraphs. So you won’t hear me complaining that there’s too much crap to wade through.

How do I determine which books to sample? The blurb, mainly. I don’t care how short or how long the blurb is. I just need enough information to pique my interest in the story. In other words, I just want to know the basic idea of the story. A fancy blurb isn’t needed; just the concept, please. If the basic idea even remotely interests me, I’ll download the sample. I may not get to it for a while, but I’ll download it.

Once I've decided to sample, the book has made it out of Amazon's slush pile and into my "possible purchase" pile.

I said I don’t care who published a book when I make a decision to purchase. But when I make a decision to sample, the cover actually plays a big role in whether I will sample. If the cover looks really amateurish, I will move on to the next book. If it screams, "I'm a self-publisher who has absolutely no clue how to use graphics software," then I'll probably pass on the sample. I may sample a book with an amateurish cover, I may not. Most likely not, unless the blurb really interests me. But sometimes a cover can even influence whether the blurb interests me. If the cover is crappy, I will read the blurb with a negative attitude, so the blurb will have to work a bit harder to overcome my dislike of the cover. If that makes any sense.

Don’t get me wrong. The cover doesn’t even have to be “professional” level. Amateurish is okay, but just not too amateurish. I can’t say exactly what “too amateurish” is, but I know it when I see it. In my surfing of samples, I’ve found that if the cover strikes me as being too amateurish, usually the sample does as well. And yes, I have actually sampled books where the cover was too crappy in my opinion, just to make sure I was being fair and wasn’t dismissing the book out of hand.

With me, it’s become a rule of thumb. If the cover is too amateurish (entirely subjective), then it’s a safe bet the book isn’t worth reading. But it’s not a law.

And if your cover is too crappy, it’s usually the artwork that’s the culprit. So if you’ve got a crappy cover, I think you’re better off just putting the title and the author’s name on a blank, book-shaped cover. No artwork. I think the simplest possible cover—title, author name, and solid white or colored background—is better than a cover with crappy artwork.

I also look to see whether the author has written more than one book. If the author is self-published and only has one book up, it makes me suspicious that they could just be a dilettante trying to cash in on the ebook gold rush, and aren’t really cut out to be a writer. If the self-published author has more than one book, then, even if they were drawn by the so-called ebook gold rush, I at least know they’re making an effort, and taking the writing thing seriously. I don’t like one-hit wonders.

So, a self-published, one-book author has to work a bit harder to make me want to buy his or her book. But if they’ve got more than one book available, then they’re on equal footing with other self-publishers and traditionally published authors. And as far as I’m concerned, self-published and traditionally published makes no difference. I’ll read either. The writing or the story just needs to impress me, and the cover can’t look amateurish.

Now, here’s a caveat that I don’t know the answer to: if I weren’t a self-published author myself, would I, as a reader, give such a break to self-published authors? I honestly don’t know. I certainly hope I would, because, speaking as an author, I don’t want to be read only by other self-published authors. If only self-published authors are willing to give self-published authors a break, then this whole self-publishing thing is nothing more than masturbation.

I hope my sales are to genuine readers. I like fraternizing with other self-publishers, but I don’t want them for an audience. No offense, but I want bona-fide readers reading my books. I don’t want other authors reading me to see what the competition is doing, or to support the self-publishing community, or some other author-driven motivation. If other authors do read me, I want them reading me because they actually want to read me from a reader’s standpoint. Because that’s the only reason I myself read other self-published authors: because I the reader, not I the writer, want to read what they’ve written. When I’m reading, I really don’t care about the author; I only care about the story.

As far as free books go, do I actually read them? Sometimes. But rarely. I don’t like the idea of free ebooks. If I really want to read a book, I actually prefer paying the author or the publisher for the privilege. And not because I’m an author and I have a stake in whether authors get paid for their work. If I go out to eat at a restaurant, I don’t want a free meal. I want the waitresses and the cooks to get paid for feeding me. And if I read a book, I want the author and the publisher to get paid for feeding my mind. Sure, I read library books for free. But I know that somebody has already been paid for the book I’ve checked out, so it doesn’t bother me.

 If I read the sample and I like the book enough to buy it, I’ll buy it. Free makes almost no difference in whether I want to read a book. I won’t read a book just because it’s free. The author or publisher might as well just rely on their sample to make me want to read their book, because I WANT to pay them if I intend to read the book past the sample amount. I just don’t want to pay them eight or nine dollars, or a price equal to the paperback version, and certainly not a price equal to the hardback version.

As far as ideal price goes, I as a reader feel uncomfortable paying more than $6 or $7 for an ebook. Not financially uncomfortable, just I’m-being-taken-advantage-of uncomfortable. But I don’t like paying less than $2.99, unless it’s a short story. If I saw a traditionally published book for .99, I would be suspicious of the quality. So whoever publishes the book, a novel at .99 makes me suspicious and a bit more wary when I’m reading the sample.

Also, if I weren’t an author and didn’t know how much an author made on each sale of a $2.99 ebook, I might be suspicious that $2.99 was too low as well. So I think a price in the range of $4 - $7 is probably the best for me as a reader. In that range, I’m not suspicious and I don’t feel like I’m being taken advantage of.

Back to the subject of free books: I won’t download a book just because it’s free, and I certainly won’t read the whole thing just because it’s free. When presented with a free book, it gets the same evaluation I give a book when determining whether to download a sample. So the author or publisher might just as well not make the book free, and just hope I’ll stumble across it when browsing. Because I don’t go out of my way to look for free books.

I’m not more likely to give an author that’s new to me a “chance” just because his/her book is free. I mean, if the author’s book is, say, $4.99 rather than free, I can still sample the book for free, and if I can’t make it through the free sample, then it doesn’t matter whether I have the entire book already at my disposal, or whether I have to pay if I want to read further. If I dislike the book within the standard sample length, I won’t keep reading if the book is free. So the author or publisher might as well leave the book for sale and make some money off me if I want to read the entire book. If I make it through the sample and am interested enough to keep reading, I’ll buy the book sooner or later.

The only benefit I can see to making a book free is that it gets you on a list alongside paid books. And sometimes it can get your book pretty high up on the list. So a free book can get your book noticed, but it doesn’t make me any more likely to download it. I think the best thing to do is not to give the book away for free.

Anyway, these are just my thoughts from a reader’s perspective on the ebook revolution, written, I guess, in the hopes that it might help other self-published authors figure out how to get their books into the hands of readers. I’ve laid out all the factors that go into my decision whether or not to purchase an ebook. Maybe there’s some useful information in here, maybe not. And if there is, hopefully I wasn’t too rambling and convoluted in the way I laid it out. I know I could probably present this more effectively, but the post is already long enough, and I'd rather concentrate on my "real" writing than editing this post.

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