The hittable reflex

So most of may not know this, but waaaaay back in the day, typography and photography and the sweet sexing thereof was a large part of my day. So beyond the notion that some of them are MINE, book covers hold a kind of arty-nerdy-cravat-wearing-Merlot-spitting fascination for me. I’m not saying I’d rather read a book on typography than go joyriding in a time travel hovercar with the ghost of John Belushi or anything, but if I could bring the book with me, that’d be awesome.
Looking at their own cover, every author wonders the same thing – whether people will like it, whether it says enough about their book, whether their author blurb is from someone famous enough for people to give a solitary fuck about, etc. I’ve done a couple of Supanovas now, and Manifest last year, and I’ve been watching the way people (sometimes dressed as Cybermen or Black Starrrrrr, but people nonetheless) interact with books  – my book in particular, but also books in general. While the sample size might be small (around about 60,000 people attended these events, and most wandered/shuffled/moonwalked past my booth at some point) I’ve drawn some conclusions about book covers and readers that I’m gonna dribble about here. I don’t claim this as the gospel of book covery to be carved into the skin of dead librarians and stitched into the pages of the necronomicon – these are just conclusions I’ve drawn from the expos my sorry ass has been lucky enough to get invited to.
Do covers matter?
The first and most important question. I mean, look at the original Harry Potter covers. They blew goat, man – huge, angry, horny goat – and they sold enough copies for their author to buy a castle in fucking Scotland. So authors, I guess what I’m saying is first and foremost, don’t break out the AR-10 if you’ve landed a cover that sits on the wrong side of suckitude. But do covers matter? Are they really all that important?
Oh mighty betentacled Cthulu, yes. Yes, they are.
A cover is basically an ad for the book it’s hugging. In a very short amount of time, it has to convey a sense of what the book is about – if the wordery inside will make you happy or mopey or all tingly in your naughty bits, whether you can own up to reading it at (s)wanky dinner parties, whether the protagonist is a three-schlonged sloth with mommy issues, etc.
A cover has to tell the potential reader “this is a book for you”. You read books about kung fu girls who kick ass in sailor outfits? This book is for you. You read books about angry circus midgets and rubbing the lotion on its skin OR ELSE IT GETS THE HOSE AGAIN? This book is for you! You read books about three-schlonged sloths? So you’re the one. . . BUDDY THIS BOOK IS FOR YOU. And the thing is? A cover has a remarkably short period of time to convey this all important consumer motivating information. How long you ask, young droogie?
About two seconds.
This is literally the time the average nerd punter, who more than likely reads books, indeed, has come to a geek expo with a fistful of greasy dollars LOOKING TO SPEND THEM will give your book. If it’s an office drone on their lunchbreak with a coffee in one hand and an electronic peepee iPhone in the other? Even less.
It’s kinda the library equivalent of speed dating (takes hair out of ponytail, whips off glasses, “why Miss Jones . . . you’re beautiful. . .”). Two seconds is about the time certain scientists say a person will judge whether somebody they’ve just met is desirable or not (aka, the “hittable” reflex). With people, as with books, in those two seconds, one of two switches will trigger in their little consumer head-things. Either the “I would totally hit that am intrigued” trigger or the “aw hellllll naw” trigger.
If your cover tripped the “hell naw” switch, sheeeeet partner, you’re SoL, because unlike the dating game, your book can’t fall back on a funny one-liner or a Porsche Boxster to drag it’s sorry ass over the line. But just like that first encounter in the dimly lit nightclub with the <insert gender appropriate descriptor of hittableness here>™, if you tripped the intrigue button, you can’t immediately carve a notch on your bedpost  – you just haven’t fucked things up yet. The POTENTIAL for sauciness is there, but victory is by no means assured. Thereafter commences what I came to refer to as “the courting dance”, and of the thousand odd people I saw picking up my book over the course of these expos, the steps are almost universal.
The Courting Dance (commences only after the “hittable reflex” has been triggered)
Step 1: Pick up book. Look harder at cover. Does this really look like a book about something I’d enjoy, or have I accidently picked up a book about three-schlonged sloths? If yes, go to Step 2. If no, go to Step 8. This decision takes around 2 seconds to reach.
Step 2: Flip book over. Skim jacket copy. And I mean SKIM. “I didn’t ask for your fucking life story, just gimme the gist of it, oh look, it’s a dude dressed as Tifa Lockheart and now I’m wandering away…”
After watching these thousand odd people read book covers, was I glad I wrote big bullet points like “A DYING LAND” and “AN IMPOSSIBLE QUEST” in my jacket copy so the story can be covered off in a handful of seconds? Droogs, if I was any happier I’d have puked rainbow-colored puppies.
Is the book still hittable? If so, got to step 3. If not, step 8. Duration: 2 seconds (no, I’m not kidding, people can, will and do flip over a book and put it down again after reading half a dozen words of jacket copy)
Step 3: (step three is often preceded by a quick flip over to the front of the book again, just to check it hasn’t magically become about sloth peen in the meantime) Read jacket copy carefully. Would I actually read this? Because I can get sexual favors in the right part of town for $20, so this book had wanna be better than a wino hummer™.
Is the book still hittable? If so, got to step 4. If not, step 8. Duration: 10-30 seconds.
Step 4: Notice author blurb. Is this a person I’ve read before? Did I like their book? Even if I liked their book, do I honestly believe these nepotistic writerly tossers don’t just sit around and swap blurbs with each other without even actually reading the book they’re blurbing?
(The Aus edition of STORMDANCER has a Patrick Rothfuss blurb on the back. Pat is one of the most well-known authors in modern fantasy. I have had exactly one person act like he gave a shit that Pat blurbed it. He said “ooh, Patrick Rothfuss!” and then didn’t buy the book. True story. So yeah, maybe don’t get too bent out of shape about blurbs, peoples. Some readers are swayed by them, no doubt. The vast majority of folks I watched, however, could count the fucks they gave on no hands)
Is the book still hittable? If so, got to step 5. If not, step 8. Duration: 2-3 seconds.
Step 5: Open book at random page. Start reading. I’m not sure what folks expect to see in there, but everybody does this. They never start reading from the opening page, either. It’s always some random page in the middle. So I guess make the middle of your book awesome? If you’re gonna throw in boobs or six-packs abs, I’d recommend the middle. Maybe some kind of centrefold would work . . . actually, that’s an awesome idea NOBODY FUCKING STEAL IT IT’S MINE
Is the book still hittable? If so, got to step 6. If not, step 8. Duration: 10-20 seconds.
Step 6: Check cover again. Still no sloth dick? Gooooood, got to step 7. If you somehow missed the sloth phallus, step 8. Duration: 2 seconds.
Step 7: Check price, or ask someone for the price. (at this point, it’s very hard to fuck things up, the fish is in the boat, just don’t charge $70 for a B paperback or tell him/her you can’t become aroused unless he/she dresses in a pink koala bear outfit)
Is the book still hittable? SALE. If not, step 8. Duration: 3-4 seconds.
Step 8. Aw hellllll naw. Put book down, shuffle away without making eye contact with ANYONE. Spend money on plastic sword/amusing geek t-shirt/someone else’s book instead.
That’s pretty much how it works. Almost every single time.
Other things I learned about these expos:
1. High Concept
Being able to drop a two second high-concept elevator pitch like “Romeo and Juliet with zombies” (NOBODY FUCKING STEAL IT IT’S MINE) is a major boon. Everything you heard about high concept is true, people. If someone asks you “what’s your book about?” and all you’ve got is “well, there’s this group of heroes and they go on this quest to find this magic thing and save this kingdom and zzzzzzzzzzzz” then you’re probably screwed. I watched one of the Dymocks guys trying to on-sell my book to people at the counter with limited success until he hit on describing it as “Samurai Champloo meets Eragon” (or something like that) and bam, people started buying it from him. (I haven’t read Eragon. I stopped watching Samurai Champloo mid season. So I have nfi is this is an accurate riff)
Keep it simple. Comparison to concepts they’re already familiar with is golden.
2. Boys do not buy books
This is not a myth. I’m sorry to say it. But most dudes couldn’t give a hairy tinker’s cuss about books if the audience of 60,000 geeks I just watched is any indicator. Of the sales I made at SN Melbourne and Gold Costs (sold out of STORMDANCER both weekends, huzzaaaah) I’d guess about 5% were to guys. And it wasn’t because I have a girl on the cover of my book, it’s because 95% of guys would not even PAUSE as they walked by the Dymocks booth. If they were forced to stop near the booth (for example, waiting on their gf who WAS buying a book, and seriously, hooray for all the ladies), they’d be texting or crowd watching. The only books I saw guys (young or old) stop off and look at with any consistency were books about comic books (like THE AVENGERS ENCYCLOPEDIAAAA) books about video games (THE COMPLETE HALOOOOOO GUIDE, I mean wtf gentlemen) or Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones.
Books are like kryptonite to dudes, apparently.
3. People don’t read horror.
No, really. They just don’t.
I’ll continue to monitor behaviors at these expos as time goes on, just to see if the patterns stick. So if you see some tall beardy dude watching you from behind the racks like a honey badger stalking prey, just ignore it, it’s all above board I assure you.

44 Responses to “The hittable reflex”

  1. Hey, I’ll have you know I always read the first page (if I make it to Step 5…) 😉

  2. Melissa says:

    I have two points!
    One! When I look at a cover: can I read this in public? If not…I will go to the kindle. No ganked John Grisham cover needed there!
    Two: boys buy books! I think. They are all over Patrick rothfuss and GRRM at comicon…I read that somewhere actually. Feel free to diss allusion me there.
    I love your blogs. Do you actually talk like this?

    • i suspect boys buy books everyone has already bought – that they know are safe. Like I say, they’re all over Game of Throne and Lord of the Rings stuff. But as far as looking for new stuff? There didn’t seem to be many in the crowds I watched. Maybe female readers are more experimental? Willing to try new things? Again, i say hurray for all the ladies.
      Do i actually talk like this? Hmm. I think so, when I actually talk at all. I tend to be kinda quiet IRL, though. Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool, something, something . . . 🙂

  3. RSAGARCIA says:

    I will have you know that I read the first few pages. Acknowledgements included. Foreword–not. And I take at least 5 seconds.
    I have terrible hand-eye coordination.

  4. Awesome post, Jay. I laughed, I cried, I tried to figure out if I would have bucked the trend and bought a book.

  5. DebE says:

    Um… Romeo and Juliet with Zombies… been done, dude (“Warm Bodies”)… but keep trying ((o:
    This is a fab read, I mean it, F.A.B. (full-stops for pacing, not to indicate an acronym). Thank you for you insight and entertaining write-up, sir!
    The only time an author blurb nearly affected me purchasing a book was when I picked up a book by the author who had put a blurb on another book I didn’t like (did I make sense there?)… nearly didn’t buy his book ’cause I felt he’d let me down… Luckily I did, ’cause I loved it.

    • Sons of bitches, i will sue their asses for stealing my idea before I thought of it.
      Yeah, blurbs can sometimes make a difference, no doubt. But the pressure felt by new authors to actually get someone famous blurbing their book is often intense – and tbh I’m not sure it’s worth all those sleepless nights. Like, if you get a Stephen King blurb? yeah awesome. But try not to lose too much hair over it.

  6. I was directed your way because of Patrick Rothfuss, not the jacket blurb, but his blog endorsement. But it really was your own blog that sold me. You make me laugh. If I didn’t go catatonic around celebrities I would totally take you out for a beer if you ever made it to Houston,Texas.
    Jacket art used to play a big roll in my choice of books, mostly because I was twelve and sneaking my mom’s bodice rippers to school in my lunch kit. At that time, the less the cover showed, the better. Hardbacks with removable covers were just to bulky to fit.
    Now it’s like reading the flavor names on ice cream. What am I feeling at the moment, love story, adventure, mystery, space aliens or fantasy?
    From there, it’s the reading of the synopsis and buying the book. I don’t read the middle, I may read the first page or two if I’m deciding between two or more books. but never the middle, and NEVER the end.
    All that said, looking forward to the new book.

    • Oh, i think author endorsement is totally different. it’s one thing to get a blurb – I mean that’s good an all, don’t get me wrong. but it’s an entirely new level if an author you respect actually says “This book is great, you should read it”. Author endorsement is GOLD.
      I try not to judge books by the jacket art, but it’s hard. Mostly I go by recs from friends lately – which again, is a kind of endorsement. All the great blurbs and good reviews int he world won’t help a book if a friend I trust tells me it’s jank (or stop me buying it if a friend says it’s awesome)

  7. susan says:

    that was so very true, well for me anyway, and yes (ill admit), I have put a book down cause the cover picture looked like shit that i didnt want to read. but i also have been surprised by reading a book when the cover looked horrible and the book was great so it back to the original dont judge a book by its cover

  8. Andrea says:

    That’s fascinating. I’d really like to hear more about that.

  9. Jason says:

    First, please write a book, or at least a short story about three schlonged sloths with mommy issues.
    Second, the jacket cover blurb is key for paperbacks. I don’t know how many I’ve picked up because the cover or the title interested me enough to check it out (step 1, check) only to find that it skipped the jacket copy entirely ( sorry step 3) and went straight to step 4: endorsement/review blurbs which tell me nothing about what the book is about but apparently its the best thing since free porn and bacon. Why do publishers do this? Does anyone actually say “I have no idea what it’s about but the booklist/famous author exerpt says ‘Amazing…’ then I HAVE to buy this now!”
    To confess, though, I heard about you through Pat’s blog and was sold after reading a few of your blog posts. When it came out I skipped straight to step 5a. Read as many chapters as you can before the bookstore is ready to kick you out and decide if you can wait to check it out from the library or do you need to buy it now and blow off work/sleep/social obligations until you know how it ends.
    P.S. thanks for not writing Sanderson sized novels. Work apparently don’t accept “I’m reading” as a valid reason for not showing up multiple days in a row.

    • That’s actually one of my WIPS 😛
      Endorsement from other writers is worth its weight in gold. I don’t mean a blurb here, I mean another writer actually saying – check this guy/girl out, he/she is good”. I was lucky enough to have a couple of authors do that for me (Pat and Kevin Hearne) and it helps way more than a jacket blurb will (I suspect).
      One of my WIPs will be a Sanderson-sized epic once I’m done writing it, I suspect. but I’ll keep doing the shorter pieces too – living too long in the one world is bad for my tiny brain.

  10. You always have the bests posts and dear god I adore you for it. <3
    I mean, yes, covers are important. I don't really think most people want to read a book with an ugly cover although some people are less judgmental than me I admit.
    Strangely, this is totally how the whole book-buying process works! I do exactly this. Although I always read from the first page. People who read from the middle bother me. Like, what if there's some major revelation that spoils everything?
    Also, I really like this centerfold idea.
    It's true that there are rarely boys who read and are willing to buy books, but they totally exist. My boyfriend reads a lot of the same books I do willingly and I don't even have to use threats of smashing his Xbox or something, which is nice. He really likes them too even if his ego or whatever doesn't let him admit it. Plus there is usually at least one guy hanging out at my local bookstore.
    And, jeez, I read horror. Apparently I am not people now. Of course, there are rumors that I am not entirely human or even at all, so, you know. I admit that I don't read as much now as I used to but I still have a major soft spot for it. That, and glitter. They go together spectacularly. Still waiting on a horror book with glitter and blood.

    • Awww <3 🙂
      The reading from the middle thing kinda odds me out, too. I mean, there's no real context for you if you pick up a book and read the middle. Maybe its a check if the writing style is to your taste? Once the intro settles down and the story is rolling, can the writer's words hold your attention?
      Question – does your bf buy his own books, or does he mooch yours?
      I've no doubt some humans still read horror 🙂 I just remember when horror was KING (literally) and everybody was into it. Now, fantasy sits upon the iron throne, and horror is locked down in the black cells 😛

  11. If I get past the cover and blurb I always read the first few paras. If I’m not hooked by the third para it’s over:) I never take any notice of author endorsements either – although I might if it was an unusual one. Someone like Stephen King endorsing a chick lit novel would make me curious for example:)) I am just about to start submitting my MS if I hit lucky it does kinda worry me that going the traditional route I’ll get lumbered with some cover I don’t want. Some of the women’s mass market covers are too hideous to even contemplate:))
    I’m going to think of a one line pitch though. So far “Srcewball comedy about Alzheimers and telephone sex” is what I’ve got.
    Good to see you back posting again. I always enjoy them!

    • I tend to be a first line reader. Unless you’ve got a good first line, it’s more than likely over for me. Harsh, I know. (and yes, as a result, I agonize over my own first lines)
      When I saw Stephen King endorse the Hunger Games, that’s when I finally got around to reading it. And I think a big part of that was the “WTF” factor.
      As a general rule, you don’t get much say about your cover. I think i got a little more latitude than most, because I’m actually from a design background, so I can talk to designers/illustrators without sounding like a complete TOOL (as opposed to right now). But yeah, talking to buddies, the generally accepted reality is, unless you’re Grisham, you get verrrrrry little say in your cover. It’s luck. But luck is a huge part of this game, and anyone who says different is selling something.

  12. Very interesting read. I’m always amazed when I have my own behaviors revealed to me. Of course I am often not aware that they are my behaviors because I must be so different from everyone else (I am a beautiful and unique snowflake….oh shit that is exactly what I do when I look at a new book….)
    Thanks for the insight sir!
    For the Record: I loved Stormdancer (and passed it on to a friend) and have preordered Kinslayer. Looking forward to more awesome.

    • Thanks dude, really glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for the pimpage!
      Like I say, this isn’t how everyone behaves. Just a great deal of people that I observed over a couple of weekends. Could be that con crowds interact totally differently than regular bookstore browsers. i’d actually be interested to sit in a bookstore one day and just watch how people treat books, but that’d be almost creepy…

  13. shellchild says:

    Great post! I had to go and look at your book to see it’s cover, so well done in sneaking a great marketing ploy into your post. Your covers are both so lovely, I feel that I would want both versions of Stormdancer!

  14. I usually skip Step 4, and Step 5 as well unless I actually have time. If I have time, I modify step 5 to reading 1st paragraph-5 pages. To be fair, from the few conventions I’ve been to, I’ve usually been in such a rush to get a good seat for the next panel/sneak-peak or trying to find someone I don’t have as much time as I’d like for Step 5.

    • Do you do the full routine in a book store though?

      • At a book store I’ll do the full routine, definitely… except I have the bad habit on Step 5 of if it actually seems interesting, sitting down in the middle of the aisle, reading through at least the first chapter, and getting yelled at by the store manager for apparently constituting a fire hazard. (Hey, it’s not my fault that there’s like only two chairs in the entire store!) For me personally though, Step 4 doesn’t usually factor much at all beyond “Oh hey, I actually recognize that name, usually I have no idea who they are.” Step 4 almost never has a large impact on whether or not I’ll buy the book.

        • I used to do that when I was a kid. Sit down int he aisle and just read til my mum came and got me.
          Kinda surprised I didn’t get yelled at more often. THIS IS NOT A LIBRARY

  15. I’m reading this blog because Patrick Rothfuss recommended you. So there.

    • Oh no doubt. Author endorsement is a huge boon. Having an author actually say on their blog/feed/fb page “you should check this other author out” is kind of a different league than a blurb though. Blurbs feel a little impersonal, and some folks just don’t trust them. But having an author take the time to actually say “check this out” in their own space feels more like a friend telling you to check something out, so I think you’re more inclined to believe it
      That’s my theory anyways 🙂

  16. PK Hrezo says:

    Interesting observations. I did something similar at MegaCon recently and felt terrible afterward since I’m a writer. But I had kids with me. Yanno.
    I always read first page too for the voice.

  17. Matteo Furlotti says:

    Maybe you should stop staying awake at night staring at your cover man…

  18. /anne... says:

    I’m a sucker for good cover art – but I do look past that. If it turns out to be an interesting book, I’ll buy it but feel sorry for the author. I don’t care about reading it in public – I never read fiction in public. If it’s ok to read on a train, it probably isn’t interesting enough for me to read at all. I want to immerse myself in a book, and that takes silence and privacy.
    While I do look at the first page, I always crack the book around quarter to a third of the way through. Because everyone works hard on their first page – that’s what they submit to the agent, after all – but once the journey (physical, metaphorical, or both) has got underway, I want to see how that is handled. Can they write good dialog? Can they use an apostrophe correctly? Can they SPELL??* Does this page (not the first one they laboured over) make me want to continue reading?
    For example, my ex once bought me a fantasy series which consisted almost entirely of the main character trudging through colourless snowy landscapes. When he wasn’t doing that, he was trudging down long stone corridors. He barely spoke. I never did finish that series…
    I think boys do buy books – that’s what Amazon is for. Buying books in public is too embarrassing. Maybe you could ask your publisher if they can get stats on who buys your book online? Goodreads might also keep stats on the gender balance of your fans.
    Lastly – I’m still miffed that I won’t get a copy of your freebie since I’m an EVIL AUSTRALIAN, WHO DOESN’T DESERVE A COPY! I still preordered Kinslayer, though.
    *the spell checker on this blog is driving me crazy. I’m Australian, and it’s labour and colour, despite how many wiggly red lines it puts under my words. So there 🙂

    • I heard an interesting story about an aussie author who, when promoting his first book, would take copies of them with him on train rides, be seen reading it, and then leave copies on the seat. i think seeing other people reading a particular book is a great form of advertising, particularly if the person you see reading reminds you of you.
      I think boys buy books they’re sure they’ll like – that have been rec’ced for them by folks they trust. From what i’ve seen, male readers aren’t (generally) very experimental. They go for the safe properties they’ve heard of. Whereas as female readers tend to always be looking for something cool and new. And this is gross generalization here, based on the few cons I’ve been to. But it’s a generalization that is so far, holding up.
      As a fellow aussie, yes, I agree it kinda blows. if you wanna get real miffed about it, write to PanMacmillan and ask them real nice if they’ll pick up the promotion. 🙂 Either that, or hope to win one of the copies I’ll be giving away (here on the blog) or you can grab it for cheaps as an e-book (I think it gets released ont he b platform right after KINSLAYER launches)
      But thanks very much for the pre-order nevertheless. It’s truly appreciated 😀

  19. Anya says:

    Haha, I don’t understand opening to the middle. If I read any of the book, it’s going to be the first page. I also heavily use the Goodreads book scanner to quickly check reviews since I don’t trust blurbs, sorry!

    • Yeah a lot of folks don’t trust blurbs. I hear that more and more. i tend not to trust strangers at all. If my friends rec a book, and I know they like the same kinda stuff I do, then I’ll check it out.

  20. hrose2931 says:

    Sorry I do open to the middle of the book. If it can grab my interest in the middle of a book, without knowing anything about the characters or the story, then I’m going to like it. And yep, I’m a cover whore. If it doesn’t catch my eye, I’ll walk on by. So you better have a damn good cover because you’ve got a lot of competition. No, boys don’t buy books with some exceptions. My 13 yr old son still does. And I might slip in a book for my 16 yr old every once in awhile. But the hubs, forget it. Sorry yes, He read “Hate Mail From Cheerleaders” about five times. Only book I have ever seen him read in 20 years.
    You must have been bored out of your mind to make all these observations and to ponder on them long enough to make such a blog post on them. Bring a book next time! Maybe one on sloth’s and their penis’. I’m getting concerned about your obsession with that sloth and his anatomy. Will he be in Kinslayer? But definitely not on the cover as your previous comments seem to point to that being a bad idea.
    Glad you sold out both weekends!

    • No, it’s not boring 😀 i actually find it kinda fun, and its weird, because I’m normally a very introverted kind of person. but yeah, meeting a whole bunch of new readers was great.

  21. […] was there to sign it and I had recently started reading his hilarious blog namely this great post, The hittable reflex, about people perusing his book at conventions) and was expecting to maybe buy a new addition (or […]

Leave a Reply