What Makes Readers Give an Unknown Author a Chance?

Image: woman browsing a bookshelf

Today’s guest post is by author Barbara Linn Probst, whose debut novel, Queen of the Owls, will be published in April 2020.


It’s natural to gravitate to the familiar, and it’s proven that readers tend to buy books by authors whose prior novels they’ve enjoyed. We expect to like the author’s newest book. And we will, unless our expectation is disproven.

It’s the other way around for an unknown author with no “upfront credit.” For a familiar author, positive regard is already there, although it can be lost; for an unfamiliar author, positive regard has yet to be earned.

There’s a psychological term for this. It’s called priming. In the same way that priming a wall allows the paint to adhere, psychological priming sets us up to embrace and endorse whatever we’re predisposed to like. First articulated by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverksy in the 1970s, priming has been widely studied in areas of human behavior from shopping to voting.

In my own experience as a university professor, I remember that the highest predictor of how students rated an instructor was whether he or she was an instructor whose course they wanted to take in the first place. In other words, if they expected to like this instructor, they did. Human beings just love to be right.

Exposure also plays a role in shaping 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. Certainly, some debut novelists have hit that jackpot. Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing, is a recent example.

For most new authors, however, that doesn’t happen. They have to build awareness interview-by-interview, tweet-by-tweet, hoping that readers will give them a chance. Debut novelists—and I’m one—are competing for the attention of people who can’t read every book that comes out.

When faced with an array of novels by unknown authors, why do we 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 a brand-new author?” 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.

As a former researcher, I tend to dislike “forced choice” questions in which the possible responses are pre-determined; they don’t leave room for answers the researcher hasn’t anticipated. However, I’d learned from previous Facebook surveys that I would get far more responses by offering a list; it’s quicker and easier, and I wanted to cast a wide net. I’d also posed a similar question a month earlier—in a more open-ended way, without asking specifically about brand-new authors—so I already knew that a personal recommendation from a trusted source was the major reason that people choose one novel over another. This time, I wanted to understand what other elements mattered to readers—specifically, when the author was someone they didn’t already know.

One of the items on my list was “seeing the book on this and other Facebook groups.” This was, of course, a version of “recommendation from a trusted source”—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 set it aside; 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.

The other options I offered had to do with a book’s cover, title, awards, and reviews from Amazon, Goodreads, newspapers, and trade reviewers like Kirkus and Booklist. Within three days, over 750 people had responded.

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, open it, and purchase it. Together, cover and title were mentioned more than all the other reasons combined: it accounted for 50% of 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 the 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 impression wasn’t strong, most were unlikely to proceed further.

Obviously, this was not a comprehensive survey. As with all studies, results were shaped by how the question was worded, who was asked, and how. It also reflects the perception of consumers and not the perception of bookstore owners, bloggers, reviewers, or anyone in the book trade. For those groups, media reviews and awards may carry more weight.

Nonetheless, the results offer some indications that debut authors may want to consider.

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. Remember priming theory: if your cover resembles the covers of successful books, that might be a good thing. 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 various concepts. The cover should reflect the story in some way, as well as being visually pleasing.

The same is true for the title. It’s common for a publisher 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—as if your child started school and the teachers suddenly decided to change her name!

But the publisher may have a very 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.

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.

One strategy isn’t better than another, but you may not have the time or resources to do both. As you work to convince people to “give your book a try,” you’ll have to decide which approach suits your story and temperament.

Remember, you only get one debut. But ultimately, your aim is to move from being an unfamiliar author to a familiar one—someone who makes people say, “Oh, I just love her books!”

Posted in Guest Post, Marketing & Promotion.

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer, researcher, and clinician living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, Queen of the Owls, (April 2020) is the story of a woman’s search for self, framed around the art and life of Georgia O’Keeffe.

Author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Three Rivers Press), Barbara holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. She is also a serious amateur pianist. Visit her website to learn more about Barbara and her work.

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Kelly Simmons

Anyone who hangs out and watches people in a bookstore can see evidence of the cover drawing people in . . . it’s so true! BUT — it also must be said, that PART of the cover is not only the title, and the author’s name, but the blurb. Those multiple elements are ALL PART of the cover experience and hard to separate. So that blurb and that author’s name is also participating in the cover love or hate.

Sian Staley
Sian Staley

I am absolutely attracted to an interesting cover and edgy title. I’ve made some bad purchases that way! But the honest truth is that I’m a sucker for good custom covers. I couldn’t be more turned off by stock images. The cover and title will predispose the prospective buyer to expect to enjoy the blurb. Now, if the book is on Amazon, then the only thing I do is read the sample pages. If I’m not hooked by chapter two, or if I find an error, I’m out. I must admit, I read a hundred samples or more before I… Read more »

Davida Chazan

Yes, first impressions do count, but if the concept of the story isn’t compelling, then even the most fabulous cover and intriguing title isn’t going to make me read that book.

Linda A Ulleseit

Great article, Barbara! I’m still struggling with that “interview-by-interview, tweet-by-tweet” process for my last book, and the next one comes out in August 2020. I can vouch that covers do matter, though. I had a professional cover designer redo the cover for my last book. All the same elements are there, but different colors and fonts, and font size, have really added punch. Lots more people are picking up the book now!

Jeanne Felfe

I released my debut novel in June 2016. It took me over 2 years to admit it had the wrong cover AND the wrong title. If I could get people to read it, they usually loved it. In August 2019, I re-released with a new cover and a new title and it’s finally selling the way it should. Cover matters. Titles matter. Blurbs matter.

Mona AlvaradoFrazier

Interesting article. I’m one of those people at the bookstore who pick up a book (based on title/ professional images), check the back cover, and if I’m still interested I will read the first page. If I enjoy what I read I’ll go onto the second page. If I’m not intrigued or curious, I put the book down. I do check Goodreads/ Amazon’s ratings but that doesn’t have as much weight as the blurb and first page.

Patricia Tiffany Morris

Thanks for a timely, well-written article for emerging and established writers and authors. Best wishes for your debut novel. Thanks again for sharing.

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Gregory Betza
Gregory Betza

I have found that agents rarely go beyond the title of the book yet, they claim to be overwhelmed with Query letters. Agents respond usually with a form letter or they do not respond because they claim to be overwhelmed. The truth is that the agent often does not specify what they are looking for and they judge their selection based on a one page Query, What about asking for a synopsis; a proposal; your bio; a Table of Contents or anything that may give the agent a brief idea of the potential author? It is evident that the real… Read more »

Mary Zisk

Although I have a Facebook page for my middle grade novel, it didn’t occur to me to join FB groups that relate to my book as a way of self-promotion. Excellent article!

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

As a long time “huntress” in books stores (both new and used), book cover earns my first look. And sometimes my last. If I’m in the mystery or adventure/spy aisles, seeing half-naked people is going to put that book right back on the shelf. Sex is NOT what I’m looking for in mysteries or adventure stories (side issue, maybe. But not the focus). A foggy shore with a shadowy figure (male or female) – NOW I’m going to read the blurb. But again – if the blurb doesn’t sound like a real mystery or high adventure, it’s going back. So… Read more »

Tamara Dever

Wonderful article, Barbara! As a seasoned book designer, primarily for indie authors and small publishers, it’s great to read your findings. We’ve redesigned many books (inside and out) and invariably hear from those clients how amazing their sales were after the relaunch. It’s true, a great cover cannot guarantee sales, but its job is to make you notice the book and become intrigued enough to want to learn more. A poorly-designed cover will almost always turn away potential readers, however. The cover of “Queen of the Owls” is bold yet soft and quite fitting for the book’s subject matter. Nice!… Read more »

Julie McCarron
Julie McCarron

As a buyer of mysteries, a blurb from another mystery author I like does it for me. Also reviews.
Guess I am one of the few who overlooks cover art.

Jennifer Storey

Thank you for sharing this! Came at the right time. 🙂

W.R.McAfee
W.R.McAfee

Definitely the cover, title, and blurb . . .and also the copy of the first few pages. . . how tightly is it written? One of the basics I always try to express to young writers–never waste a readers time.

Enjoyed the article!

Vivienne Sang

This is a valuable post. It’s always useful to know why people buy books from an author they’ve not heard of before. Just one thing, though. Personal recommendation, yes, absolutely true. I’ve read many books just because a friend recommended them. But how does that very first person buy the book to recommend to their friend?

Luccia Gray

Interesting post. Thanks for sharing your research.
I agree that first impressions are vital unless it’s a trusted/oved/known author, and the blurb, that’s vital too and the three things take 5 minutes, then first pages and of course price and reviews. A lot can happen after the first impression:)

Dawn Groves

Thank-you for your insights. I’d like to know how book trailers play into this. I suspect that someone would already be drawn by the cover/title and then click the trailer link. But does the trailer influence purchase? What is your opinion? Thanks!

Jane Friedman

I’ll add my two cents here: I don’t think trailers are worth the time and expense. There a million other things I’d do first to market my book. That said, if you’re already very active in producing video, have an engaged YouTube following, etc – that would change my opinion. If this would be your very first venture into video marketing, forget it.

Katharine Everson

I enjoyed reading your fascinating post on priming and the uncertainties of getting your book read. I’m one of those who first looks at the cover, then reads the blurb, and finally skims a bit through the beginning.

Margaret C. Morse
Margaret C. Morse

Thanks for the article. There are so many aspects to book promotion—it helps to focus on concrete goals that we can control and will get our books into a reader’s hands. I’ve found from book fairs that once someone picks up a book attracted by the cover or title, they are very likely to buy it.