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Why You Bought That Book: The Psychology Behind Book Hunting

By Carly DaSilva

If you’re anything like me, going to Barnes and Noble is one of life’s largest adventures. The browsing stage of the buying experience is a tricky one to understand. It happens so fast. You see a book, you pick it up. Why? What was it that caught your eye?

There are a number of factors involved. Looking over a shelf full of books is like watching a series of commercials on television. Each cover clamors for your attention; every book has its own established “identity.” The Codex Group, a book-audience research company based in New York City, has been gathering data on cover design and its effect on sales for almost 10 years. Peter Hildick-Smith, the company’s founder and CEO, has consistently seen the importance of a book’s identity after years of data collection. “It takes two seconds to look at something, and even more so now than maybe thirty years ago. So, it becomes more important. The more information you have, the more important [this] brief communication becomes,” he says. The first impression you get of a book, unless you’ve heard of the title or author from a friend, is its cover, the face it shows to the world.

So what about this face is most important to you? Rachelle Andujar, a marketing director at Simon and Schuster book publishers in New York, is instantly drawn to a book with a recognizable name or quote on its cover. You may not know the book, she concedes, but if you recognize the quoted person, you’re more likely to give the book a chance. Hildick-Smith agrees; the number one aspect of a book that gets it noticed is a previous link established between the book and the buyer—a familiar author or title character, or a quote from another well-known writer or publication. The Codex Group measures “author equity” by studying how many people know an author’s name and how many of those people think that author is their favorite. “If you have an author who has a very strong author equity score – like John Grisham or James Patterson – just seeing that name alone, if you’re one of the millions of fans of those authors, it’s very powerful in itself,” Hildick-Smith says. Book covers garnished with quotes from reputable publications, such as The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, typically grab a lot of attention. When it comes to fiction, a recurring character’s name on the cover could snag a reader more readily than the author’s name.

After taking into account these pre-made connections, people are most likely to notice the book’s title. Charles Brock, the creative director of Face Out Studios, a design company based in Bend, Oregon, has been designing book covers for over 14 years and works with publishers to give their books stand-out, creative identities. “We work a lot with typography here,” he says on the subject of a title’s look. “I think good type choices are very important, and how you use that with an image is very important.” The type face selected for a book’s cover gives the reader an idea of what to expect – for example, the title of a book on business might resemble a Times New Roman font. Compare that to the look of the title on a young adult novel, a Harry Potter book, or a book by Jodi Picoult.

The way a title looks is supplementary to what it means to the reader. Titles that are paradoxical or make interesting allusions tend to leave powerful impressions. However, publishers must be cautious; if a title is too similar to others out there, or comes across as confusing, it can turn people away. “Then you have a bit of a problem,” Hildick-Smith affirms. “Then people will say, ‘I think the book was titled Born to Kill, but it might have been Born Killer.’ You have an awful lot of titles in certain categories, like thrillers, that sound awfully similar.”

All of these aspects have an impact on us, the consumers, in those fleeting moments before we consider a book closely, the moments Hildick-Smith likes to call “discovery” when we become aware that a particular book exists. It’s important to remember that a book isn’t entirely about its cover. After “discovery” occurs, it is typically followed by a period of “investigation.” “People talk about book covers selling a book; I don’t think any designer believes a book cover sells a book,” Brock says. “The most it can do is entice somebody to come over and pick it up, because they’re going to investigate it further.”