An incredibly helpful experiment for writers!
For three days, don't write. Set aside your manuscript and all the thinking that goes with it. Just. Stop. Next, set aside forty-five minutes to an hour each day to look for a new book to read. To make this exercise extra effective, do this at different times of day, in different moods. This is 45 to 60 minutes each day, during which, for our experiment, you are putting a different hat on. Not that of a writer, but that of a reader.
Reminder: When most people look for their next book, they might use their smartphone while waiting for someone at a bus stop. They might use their laptop, having just poured some coffee. They might click on a link they saw on social media. Try to emulate this real-life experience as much as you can. You don't have to actually read what you choose, but you're going to put the titles you find onto a "wish list."
Your local library bookshelves.
Your bookshelves at home.
Book reviews (list here)
Keep a Journal
Here's where it gets interesting. Write down the titles that caught your eye and why you put the book on your wish list. Was it the cover that caught your eye? Did you read the reviews? The back book blurb? Was it the title that grabbed you? Or the writer, of whom you are a fan? Did you jot down a book to read because you're interested in the topic, but then the cover art was off-putting, so the title came off your list? Did you just have a great Italian meal and so you were drawn to books set in Italy?
You'll notice, during this exercise, that how and why we are drawn to books is often quite fickle. We run our eyes over titles and cover art very quickly, and then we might take the next step and read the book description. Then we might look at the reviews. Or we might do none of those things and just click on a title completely capriciously. Such is the joy of books.
There are critical takeaways from this experiment:
Choosing the next title to read can be as random as what you saw a clip of on the news last night
I never read the Kite Runner; Afghanistan is in a terrible crisis; I'll choose this book. I feel I should.
Or - OH, that book has five stars and 6,000 reviews - I want to be in the know; this book is "hot."
Or - This book showed up in a search for something else, but when I read the first couple of lines of the description - I just had to read more.
Or - I have read this author before; wow, there's a new one out!
Or - I am simply in the mood for a romance. Or a scary story. Or historical fiction. Or - fill in the blank.
Another takeaway is that the way people choose your book will be no different. People will select (or not) your book for one of the many reasons above, which all boil down to whether the cover, title, and topic are APPEALING. Or they are not. That's it.
Let's Drill Down
In reality, as we browse through the internet or a bookshelf looking for our next read, we don't narrow it down right away. Instead, we pull two or three or four titles. Which one should we prioritize? How shall we spend our time and our money? We have all done this - we read the description. We read about the author. We look at the pull-quote reviews ("a searing look at a painful life!", Washington Post). We look at the cover again. We flip to the back of the book. We read the first couple of pages. And then we make a very complex decision - very quickly. YES. This one sounds good. I'll put the others back and get to them later on.
What does this all mean? First, it means that you need to be competitive with other writers out there. You want YOUR book to be selected when a reader is torn between your book and another. Here is where a great title, cover art, and, well, plainly put, a good story well told is your trump cards.
But at the same time - you should know that there will be very many times when another book will be selected, and there's nothing you can do about that. That's life.
Writer, Empower Thyself & Try This Experiment
Put your reader/consumer hat on and notice how random your choices are. Or perhaps you will notice that you are really drawn to particular genres or a particular author. You might see that certain kinds of cover art really draw you in - and other types make you click past the title immediately. What makes you click and notice? What makes you move right on? What helps you decide between one book and another similar to it?
Put all of your observations into your thinking cap. As a writer, you must be competitive with the other writers out there. As you did this experiment, you were undoubtedly amazed by the sheer volume of books available to read. But, unfortunately, nobody has all the time and money in the world to read them all. So we must choose.
Why will your book stand out? Do you know who the audience for your book is? Is your book even showing up on these lists or shelves to people to find out about?
There is quite a lot packed into this simple experiment.