Monday, May 9, 2016

Do You Survey Your Readers?

I’ve been commuting on Metro North railroad from Westchester to New York City for over a dozen years.  One thing the rail does well is take surveys of its commuters.  Just the other day I took the time to fill out one when I otherwise would ignore such requests from other service providers. The train is generally providing a good service but it has its quirks that need attention.

The questionnaire got me thinking:  Shouldn’t publishers survey their consumers?  Shouldn’t authors query their readers?  For the book industry to grow and improve upon its product and service it will need to engage its core fan base more.

Part of the reason publishers don’t survey their consumers is that they don’t know who they are.  Most publishers fail to sell directly to consumers and thus have no clue as to who buys their books.  How can they survey a mysterious group?

Well, first they should reconsider direct-to-consumer sales.  They can increase their profit margins by selling to people without a middleman.  The next thing they can do is survey those who visit their site or the sites of their authors.  Facebook or Twitter can also be locations ripe for surveying readers.

So what could publishers or authors learn about their potential reader that would help them?

Authors and publishers need to know why someone bought a book.  Publishing professionals guess as to what inspires consumers to make the purchases that they make.  Was it a book review or word of mouth?  Was it a poster or a timely email?  Did the title or book jacket copy or cover image make a difference?  What else do you read or buy?

There are some industry studies put out from time to time about the demographics of book consumers but I’m not aware of any publisher-specific or author-specific surveys that explore why people buy their stuff.

Maybe not much data is needed.  One could think that if a potential reader is told by a reliable source that a book is really good, explains what it is about, and is offered a low price he or she would be more likely to buy it, but even under that scenario, there are competing books and non-book purchasing options.  What really sways one to make the purchases that they make?  I want to know.

It could be the answer is based on some psychological factor that a survey responder neither can -- or desires to -- identify.  Maybe a lot of book purchases happen haphazardly or spontaneously.

I would also want to survey people after they make their purchase.  How many end up reading the book?  How many find it was as good as they expected or hoped it to be?

I would also like to know what readers want.  Can we survey them to tell us what they would have changed about the book?  How can we build a better product?

Publishers, editors and authors really work off of very little information. It’s a lot of gut-instinct guessing that guides the decisions of those who create, publish, and promote books.

The news media is the same way.  Book reviewers determine what to review, not only based on advertising factors or their personal preference, but upon their perceptions of what they think their readers need or want.  Take a survey and they may be surprised.

Today’s survey is done more informally, by piecing together statistics and anecdotal information.  When something sells well a variety of conclusions are drawn though little is available to support them.  When something fails, all kinds of reasons are speculated, but again little is there to disprove or support such theories.  In an era where information is abundant, the book industry still knows little about customer behavior when it comes to books.

Go ask a reader – once you secure one – what he or she thinks or wants.  You may just be surprised.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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