As a fantasy author, I’m always intrigued by what makes people buy a book. I observed my buying behaviour in the bookstore this week. Although I was keen to buy a new fantasy novel, I browsed the front-of-store promotion table and ended up buying a short non-fiction book.
That’s when I realised a simple truth: as an author, you’re selling an idea. It’s not the flow of the prose, the colour of the characters, the world-building and dialogue, the placing of the comma and the fine details of grammar (which can be agonised about for days and days). It’s simple. What is the book about? Is that an exciting idea? You can write it any way you wish.
The concept sells the book; the cover must support the style; the blurb must present the idea. Within ten seconds I’ve decided if I’ll buy the book or not. I might analyse or rationalise for a while longer, but the buying decision was made intuitively, right in the beginning, because book buying is a snap decision.
This is borne out by the book I bought: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.
The concept is simple and compelling: the book shows how making a snap judgement can be far more effective than a cautious decision. The cover design is a bit unfinished, but it didn’t turn me off. It is colourful without being garish, creative and swirly without being too twee, so it supports the style: snappy, clever, quick thinking. The last review quote is cleverly placed.
‘Should you buy this book? You already know the answer to that.’
Job done. I bought the book.
They say word-of-mouth drives book sales more than anything else, but I have yet to buy a book recommended to me – such a book is usually lent to me by my enthusiastic friend, so this doesn’t result in a sale. I have different tastes to my friends, so when I buy, I make my own choices. For the same reason, I am not affected much by author- or review endorsements. When I make my buying decision, I make it on the concept, as displayed in the cover and blurb. I might dip into the text to sneak a peek, but unless it’s awful prose I’ll buy the book regardless.
A fantasy novel about ancient worlds, magic, dragons, love, adventure, terror and treachery is clearly not enough. There must be an interesting idea around which the story is built, and that idea sells the book. In The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson, the idea is a hero who doesn’t believe in the fantasy world he lives in, because it is too good to be true. In Keeping it Real by Justina Robson, the idea is a collision of worlds enabled by the quantum bomb, which allows for an explosive blend of fantasy and scifi in a contemporary setting.
In my fantasy series The Tale of the Lifesong, a singer discovers a trancendental song but as soon as she uses it she is hunted for her power. The story explores an enlightening question: how much would you sacrifice to create life?
Should you buy this book? You’ll know within ten seconds …