Barbara Linn Probst: What Makes Readers Give an Unknown Author a Chance?

It’s natural to gravitate to the familiar. If you’ve enjoyed a book about a crisis that reunites estranged siblings, then you’ll look for other novels that have similar themes, with the expectation that they’ll appeal to you as well. That’s the basis of Amazon’s “Customers who bought this book also bought …”

It makes sense. With so many books to choose from, we need sieves and markers and ways to narrow our search. That way, we hope to optimize the chance of investing time (and money) in something we’ll end up liking.

For the same reason, people tend to buy books by authors whose earlier novels they’ve enjoyed. We expect to like a beloved author’s newest book—and we will, unless our expectation is disproved. It’s the other way around for an unknown author with no “up front credit.” For a familiar author, positive regard is already there, although it can be lost; for an unfamiliar author, positive regard has to be earned.

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Exposure also plays a role in our selections. Seeing something “everywhere” brings a sense of familiarity, trust, and inevitability. It can be hard to resist feeling that “everyone” is reading a certain book right now, so it must be good. That’s the rationale behind what publicists call “buzz”—the elusive jackpot that every author yearns for.

A few authors hit that jackpot, but the majority don’t. Instead, they have to build awareness little by little, hoping that readers will give them a chance anyway. Unknown authors are, in effect, competing for the attention of people who can’t read every book that comes out.

So how do readers choose? When faced with an array of boos by unknown authors, why do they give some a try and not others?

I posed this question on ten different Facebook groups for readers: “Would you give a new author a try? Which of these (if any) might make you buy a book by an author you’d never heard of?” I followed this with a list of possible reasons, asking people to select as many as they wished.  Although I didn’t ask people to rank their choices, some did.

One of the items on my list was “seeing the book on this and other Facebook groups”—and no surprise that it was one of the reasons cited most often, since I was asking the question on Facebook! The popularity of the response was circular and predictable, so I took it with a large grain of salt; had I asked the question at live book club meetings, people would probably have told me that they picked novels that fellow book club members had praised.

I’d already learned, from an earlier survey, that people were more open to trying a book that had been recommended by someone they trusted. What I wanted to find out, this time, was what about the book itself prompted them to give it a chance.

Other options that I offered were cover, title, awards, and reviews from Amazon, Goodreads, newspapers, and “trade reviewers” like Kirkus and Booklist. Within three days, over 750 people had responded to my survey.

Overwhelmingly, what made respondents willing to “give a new author a try”—other than a trusted recommendation—was the book’s cover and title: in other words, their first impression. That didn’t mean they would end up loving the book or even finishing it, only that it would motivate them to pick it up, look inside, and (possibly) purchase it. Together, cover and title were mentioned more than all the other reasons combined! That is, they accounted for fifty percent of the responses, with some people adding a note to apologize for “judging a book by its cover.”

Many people added another reason: the short summary description that told them what the book was about. Recommendations on Goodreads and Amazon reviews were of intermediate importance. Many people explicitly said that they “didn’t trust” reader reviews, which they considered to be too subjective, not necessarily corresponding to their own taste, and suspicious—authors asking their friends to post excessively glowing reviews.

Awards and praise from newspapers, Kirkus, Booklist, and other professional sources didn’t matter very much to these readers. Awards came in lowest of all, although some respondents felt that an award was a “signal” that a book had merit.

Most people chose more than one reason. People who cited “cover” usually cited “title” as well, suggesting that the two work together to form an overall visual impression. If that first impression drew them in, they would read the summary blurb and then decide. But if the first visual impression wasn’t strong, most were unlikely to proceed further.

Obviously, this wasn’t a comprehensive survey. As with all studies, results were shaped by how the question was worded, who was asked, and how. Even so, the results offer some food for thought.

For writers …

First, looks matter. If you’re a new author about to launch, keep an eye on book cover trends; a particular look may not be your “style,” but it may be what readers are gravitating toward. You don’t always have to be unique.

Experienced cover designers know what catches a reader’s attention, especially in the thumbnail versions that appear online, so listen to what they say about font, color, and composition. At the same time, it’s your book and you have the right to ask questions and to speak up if the cover doesn’t feel right. If you’re hiring your own cover designer, don’t skimp or settle. If your publisher is designing the cover for you, ask for options and for the rationale behind the concept. The cover should reflect the story, as well as being visually pleasing.

The same is true for the title. It’s common for a publisher to want to change the book’s title, and the new title may feel strange or even wrong if you’ve lived with another one for a long time. But the publisher may have a good reason. Go on Amazon and search for books with titles similar to yours. If you find a long list, you may want to shift to something fresh. Go through your manuscript and look for phrases that capture an important aspect of the story. If you find a title you like, ask people what they think it means. A misleading title can backfire.

Second, consider where you want to focus your energy as you prepare for your book’s launch. You can go high and try for endorsements from well-known authors or celebrities, awards, glowing reviews from newspapers and trade publications—with the idea that these will “influence the influencers” who can place your book where it will be seen. Or you can go wide and make friends with people who host book clubs, book fairs, or online groups for readers and writers—with the idea that these are real readers who will spread the word about your book to other readers (that powerful element called “recommendation from a trusted source”). 

Ultimately, your aim is to move from being an unfamiliar author to a familiar one—someone who makes people say: “Barbara Linn Probst has a new book? Oh, I just love her books!”

For readers …

It can be interesting to think about the last half-dozen books you’ve read—and why. What made you pick up that particular book, and not another one? 

Conversely, are there books you heard about, but decided not to bother with? Why?

Are you someone who knows what she likes, and prefers to stick with that? Or is your taste eclectic and unpredictable?

Do you enjoy venturing outside your comfort zone, in terms of reading material—or do you hesitate to do that?  Is it mood-related?

Why do we read what we read?

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel Queen of the Owls (April 2020) is the story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Queen of the Owls was selected as one of the 20 most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother, one of the best Spring fiction books by Parade Magazine, and a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle. It was also featured in Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, and Ms. Magazine. It won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association and was first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award.

The Sound Between the Notes (April 2021) is Barbara’s second book. Kirkus Reviews has called the book “a sensitive, astute exploration of artistic passion, family, and perseverance.” It explores timeless questions of identity and belonging through the unique perspective of a musician.

Barbara has a PhD in clinical social work and is a former therapist, researcher, teacher, advocate, and traveler to odd places, as well as a serious amateur pianist. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see Order her books here or follow her on Goodreads , Facebook, and Instagram.


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