Columns > Published on December 23rd, 2014

Seven Important Marketing Lessons We Can Learn From the Bestselling Books of 2014

Picking books is a fraught business; difficult enough when the audience you have in mind is you, harder still when, like me, your job as Review Editor means picking books for other people to read and write about for an even bigger audience Out There (that would be you) about whom I know next to nothing at all. But picking books is also something that I love because there’s an alchemy involved in scrolling down a list of titles, often with nothing more than a cover illustration and a couple of lines of text to guide me, and feeling that ‘ping’ in my brain as some ineffable neural process to which I have no conscious access at all senses a perfect fit between book and You Out There.

Picking books, in other words, is magic more than science, but if we were to apply a little rigor to the process, what might we learn? More to the point, how would we do that anyway? Using my personal and highly scientific method of looking at various bestseller lists and coming to snap judgments, I have derived an authoritative and wholly accurate assessment of what the psychological gap between seeing book and clicking buy contains. The marketing industry may thank me later.

Lesson 1: We Buy Books We Have Already Heard Of Somewhere Else

A lesson I could alt-title The Power of the Movie Adaptation, and an observation based on the fact that simply a headline about a book getting a movie deal will cause the sales needle to flick. But common sense says that we shouldn’t buy books when a movie version is available, because unless we are the kind of sad completists who compare movie and print versions with the intent of holding long internet arguments about which version trumps which, one bite of the narrative cherry should be enough. That this is patently not the case relates to our need for familiarity when making purchase decisions. The choice of books out there is staggering. Mostly we have never heard of the person who wrote the book or of the people who sing its praises on the back cover. Yet we want to read, and to do that we need to make a choice. This is where familiarity kicks in.

Divergent, we muse, that name is familiar. Gone Girldidn’t someone mention that at the water cooler? We flock to the known, because crowd-sourcing our choices is a natural human instinct. If everyone’s talking about Fifty Shades of Grey it can’t suck, right?

Using my personal and highly scientific method of looking at various bestseller lists and coming to snap judgments, I have derived an authoritative and wholly accurate assessment of what the psychological gap between seeing book and clicking buy contains.

The Power of the Movie Adaptation is a reflection of the Power of Word of Mouth, an effect that book publicists are prepared to make deals with Dark Gods for, but as at least one example above demonstrates (you can decide which), just because everybody’s talking about something doesn’t mean it’s any good.

Lesson 2: We Buy Books That We Hope Will Be As Good As That Awesome One We Just Read

If a book goes big, then suddenly the backlist of the author of that book creeps out of the cobwebbed corner in which it has been languishing and onto the bestseller list. John Green is a case in point. The Fault in Our Stars went mega because of the movie version, but the ripple spread further - look at what happened to his other titles.

You could call this a variation on Lesson 1 – a familiarity effect – but the motivation is more subtle than that. The reason sales of all Green’s other books went up has more to do with wanting to repeat an experience we enjoyed than because we now know who he is. Reading the same book twice won’t give us the same pleasure-hit in the same way the sensation of eating a second chocolate bar is rarely as enjoyable as that of eating the first. Our solution? We head to the bookstore and for other titles with that author’s name on them. 

This is a risky strategy, and reviews of Green’s books bear testament to the disappointment of readers who want to know why no one in An Abundance of Katherines has cancer or dies. Message to Mr Green – make sure at least two kids perish from something incurable in your next book.

Lesson 3: We Buy Books That Tell Us Stuff We Already Know

They promise the earth and deliver platitudes, yet year after year we buy them by the sack load. Self help books have their ups and downs – currently the pendulum appears to have swung away from the giddy heights of the 1980s, when you couldn’t move for books delivering instruction on every aspect of your waking existence – but even in the cynical 2010s they still find an audience. Want to know how to ask for stuff? Amanda Palmer will tell you. Wish Amanda had a little less to say about herself? There’s a book for that too. Rarely, if ever, will any of these books impart the deep wisdom they hint at on the cover, but we humans are prey to the power of magical thinking. We blind ourselves to the obvious fact that successful people get that way through an unrepeatable combination of dumb luck with dumb luck because that’s just a little too depressing. Instead we buy into the myth that there’s some kind of secret formula, which if we concoct just right, will allow us to become the best combination of Donald Trump and Sheryl Sandberg, only better looking.

But maybe, just maybe, we carry on buying these books because we’re reassured by their uselessness. Imagine if Tony Robbins really could make us all super-human money-making machines? What would the world be like then?

Lesson 4: We Buy Books That Make Us Feel Good

Two words here: Paulo Coelho. It baffles me why anyone anywhere would ever want to read a single word Mr. Coelho has ever committed to print, because for me reading him would be the literary equivalent of consuming a large vat of pre-chewed potato starch. But Coelho sells and so do books containing wisdom direct from the lips of Jesus (that came out wrong) and books about soul-healing miracles and neurosurgeons who think there might be a Heaven after all. Add to that the bestsellers about survival against the odds, finding yourself on the Pacific Crest trail and schoolgirls who took on the Taliban and it’s clear we can’t get enough of material which tells us the world is not the dark and dismal place we suspect it really is.

What accounts for our obsession with the uplifting? As Thomas Ligotti explains in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, uniquely amongst sentient creatures humans possess conscious awareness, a facility that not only gives us a raging sense of entitlement, but also allows us to 1) fear death 2) be unable to do anything to avoid it 3) work out that being alive isn’t that great anyway. Inspirational literature allows us to escape for a few precious hours the certain knowledge that all-powerful forces outwith our control might at any moment destroy all we hold dear, just for the lolz. Who can blame us for that?

Lesson 5: We Buy Books to Assuage Our Raging Curiosity

Or at least we used to. The shades are well and truly drawn on the slebrity bio, with only a couple of examples making Aunty Amazon’s top 100 (Amy Poehler’s and George Bush’s since you ask, and I’m betting this will be the one and only time this particular pair will share airspace). Maybe, just maybe our appetite for the lives of the rich and famous has finally been satiated. Similarly, My Drugs Hell memoirs have fallen out of favor, unless you count Unbroken which has plenty of Hell in it, but more of the sadistic-Japanese-camp-commandant than the honking-cocaine-until-my-nose-falls-off type.

But perhaps we are still achingly curious about the lives of others, just not those who have climbed the greasy pole called success. Humans of New York, the book based on the hugely popular blog, finds itself comfortably nestled in the top 30 bestsellers of 2014. This is a book stuffed with real life stories, but the people in it have nothing to offer us but their ordinariness. If our desire to find out about other people has shifted from distant icons to those we rub shoulders with every day, then I reckon this is a step in the right direction.

Lesson 6: We Buy Books That We Hope Will Give Us the Perfect Life or At Least Help Us Drop a Pound or Two

We can’t resist trying to improve ourselves and books rush to fill the gap between who we’d like to be: the kind of person who whips up Eggs Benedict for brunch then pops out to the park to run a four minute mile, and who we truly are: the kind of person who breakfasts on cold pizza then spends the rest of the afternoon exercising their thumbs with GTA: Kill a Whore Edition. Lifestyle books always sell and diet books sell better than anything else, especially fad diet books, because we love a bit of mystery in our lives and especially that bit of mystery that lets us believe that we can lose our love handles without giving up pizza or breaking a sweat.

Sadly, cutting out gluten or eating according to our blood types helps us lose weight the way St Christopher medals help to prevent plane crashes, but the sales figures prove beyond doubt that when it comes to tackling our own personal obesity crisis, we can’t resist the lure of the easy fix.

Lesson 7: We Buy Books for Our Kids

And finally, the most influential reason of all, as shown by the fact that of the Amazon top twenty bestsellers, no less than four are books aimed at children under the age of ten  (and don’t try telling me that Dr. Seuss appeals to children of any age because are you wearing a diaper? I didn’t think so). Using the power of mental arithmetic combined with some social science chops, I can deduce that it is unlikely that 20% of the people buying books on Amazon still needs to have their food cut up, which means that children’s books sell more compared to the size of their target audience than any other form of reading matter. In other words, adults buy more books for the children in their lives than they do for themselves.

Why is this? Long story short: books are improving. Our kids might want Mighty Green Gargleblasters for their birthdays and Christmas, or other toys with which they might subdue their playmates and reduce the cat to a nervous wreck, but we want them to grow up to be President, not #5 in America’s Most Wanted, so we let weird Uncle Ed buy them the Gargleblaster while we buy them books. Inventive kids will find ways to still use the books to subdue their playmates etc, but, we reason, some of them might actually crack and read the darn things and at least one of them will rise to be President.

Actually that will probably be the one who got the Gargleblaster, come to think of it.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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