The Reader Survey

Being an indie author has a lot of benefits. One weakness though, is that we do not have extensive and reliable data on consumer behavior around which we can configure our marketing strategies. Most of our efforts to position our wares are based on anecdotal successes reported by other authors (i.e., here’s what I did that worked for me), or just groping about in the dark trying to find anything that works. It would be nice to have more information.

Bestselling author Marie Force headed up a reader survey effort that has yielded some interesting results. You should click over and read the whole thing, but I’ll tell you the bits I thought were most interesting:

Some things that don’t matter to readers:

Having a publisher’s seal of approval on a book only mattered to 3.66% of the respondents.

Bestseller status doesn’t matter very much to readers.

Endorsements by well-known authors don’t have much impact.

Nobody seems to care about book trailers. A slight majority have never watched one, and most say it does not influence their purchasing decisions.

Here are some things that do matter:

Freebies work. Not only do the vast majority of the respondents say they have discovered authors they otherwise never would have, but also indicate they would be likely to buy another book by that author if they liked the freebie.

Facebook works. It crushes all the other social media as a way for readers to find and follow authors.

Reviews are important, but readers pay far more attention to other reader reviews on retail sites than to reviews from publications and review sites

Before anybody rushes out and reconfigures their entire marketing strategy based on this study, I want to point out a few things.

Surveys are an iffy source of information for several reasons. There is always the possibility of self-selection bias. That means the responses given by the persons who choose to participate in the survey may differ in significant ways from the population at large.

People are notoriously bad at following instructions. That means some portion of the answers may be the result of error or misunderstanding. For example, question 4 on the survey asks respondents, “What is your favorite genre of fiction?”

Of the 2,951 people responding to this survey item, 2,391 answered that “Romance” was their favorite fiction genre. BUT question 5 of the survey reads: “If you chose romance in the previous question, please state your favorite sub-genre.” The number of people answering this item should have been equal to or smaller than the number who chose romance as their favorite genre. Instead, 2,661 people responded to this item. Obviously, something went wrong there. Either people again selected more than one “favorite” or people who did not select romance as their favorite genre answered this survey item. Or maybe both.

Writing survey items is difficult. For example, the very first item on the survey reads as follows:

I prefer to read (choose as many as apply)

Paperback books
Hardcover books
E-books
Audio books
All of the above

The problem with that item is that by allowing respondents to choose “as many as apply,” the whole concept of preference goes out the window. The data become muddled.

It is easy to get excited about a big pile of data, but without context, the data can be misleading. Facebook tops the list for book discovery among the other social media platforms and handily wins as the preferred platform for following an author. HOWEVER, since we don’t know whether the distribution of respondents to the survey corresponds with the distribution of social media users, there may be a Facebook bias in the data. In other words, there could have been a greater population of Facebook users in the study group than in the population at large. Likewise, if FB was used to recruit survey participants, a bias could result.

I did not see any demographical data in the report. I don’t know the male/female/age/income/occupation breakdowns of the participants. That sort of stuff is usually used to determine whether the sample population is representative. Neither did I see anywhere the number of books the respondents purchased annually. Honestly, if the survey is largely comprised of people who only buy a couple of books a year, I don’t know that their answers are all that important.

The upshot of all this is that while such surveys are interesting and may have some applicability, they are not the holy grail. It is easy for people to confuse correlation with causation. That’s how we end up with media strategies that rely on findings that the letter G appears in the titles of a high percentage of bestsellers. People then run out and change the titles of their books to incorporate the letter G. This usually ends in disappointment.

I salute Marie Force for undertaking this survey effort. It may be that her findings help establish a baseline, but validity requires the study results be replicated. So, I admonish against any precipitous changes in marketing strategies based upon this study alone.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

36 thoughts on “The Reader Survey”

  1. If surveys are not done with a proper, proven, and controlled method, the end results can always be summed up as: “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics” ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Even if done properly I was taught in statistic classes the data probably lies as there is always a bias by the person(s) doing the survey. He used lots of examples in the class to illustrate his point. The questions one chooses to ask or how you ask them will be based on your bias and very few of us are truly self-aware if our biases.

  2. While it is true that surveys are only as good as their methods this one did reveal some intriguing data. Do I buy all of it – no. But some of the outcomes are so startling that I think it wise to pay attention – with a grain of salt. The stat on freebies was especially interesting, as that is something we ask ourselves all the time.

  3. LOL Stephen…the voice of reason strikes again. It’s interesting to watch the interwebz go all atwitter from one study/survey/what have you. Hopefully the majority of folks know enough to step back and evaluate the findings before completely revamping their marketing strategy…

    Thanks for the great post!

  4. As I read the conclusions, I kept thinking, “Suspicions confirmed.” Which probably means the data are suspect. ๐Ÿ˜€

    I think it’s true that most readers connect with authors on Facebook, if only because it’s the largest social media platform. It’s easy to find and rate books on Goodreads, but harder to connect with authors (unless there’s a forum I’ve missed joining, which is certainly possible).

    I also think book trailers are more for fun than anything else. I make mine because I like to do them, not because I think they’ll sell a ton of books for me.

    As for bestseller status not mattering? I think some readers will say it doesn’t, simply so that they don’t look like they’re following the pack. But having your book on a bestseller list gets your name out in front of buyers. They can’t buy your book if they don’t know about it, and the higher up in the rankings you are, the easier you are to find. So it matters to authors, even if it doesn’t matter to readers.

    1. I agree, Lynne. I noticed a bump in sales daily average for the entire month my Vol.2 was #1, #3, and #5 in Hot New Releases in its three major categories and down to #10+ for the others.

      When the month was over (Amazon removes you from the Hot New Releases list to allow others get higher visibility) sales decreased to a lower, although stable rate.

    2. I’m not confident about the Goodreads data. I know a number of readers who buy books from authors they know. BUT it’s usually someone they got to know as a reader and stumbled upon their books/other members of the group recommended their book.

      GR is a really tough place to navigate. I’ve learned a lot as a reader/wannabe author since I’ve joined.

    3. The main value of trailers is as a tool for popping your name and title out, whether people see them or not. And like you say, fun.
      I find it easy to beleive that a lot of people don’t care about best-seller status. (And REALLY don’t care about “#7 in a ninth level category!!!” A lot of people will read books that “everybody’s reading”. It’s been awhile since I read anything by a writer anybody’s ever heard of, actually. And free Kindle titles are increasing that tendency.

  5. Just this week I noticed some new reporting on Facebook. It was on my “Pages” area and had a link called “Insights”
    When I clicked on it there were some very interesting statistics including demographics of my recent posts.
    Is this available on our Indies Unlimited Facebook page?

  6. Well done post, Stephen. One thing I learned in advertising school is that nearly anything can be spun to “prove” anything, but when you’re spending a client’s money, you’d better darned sure be on target. Still, these findings suggest that further research, in a more controlled situation, might be valuable. Kudos to Marie for starting the conversation. And any use of the letter G in any of my upcoming works will be strictly coincidental. (No letters will be harmed in the making of this comment.)

  7. Great summation, Stephen. I also was muttering, “confirmed” as I read.
    One in particular hit me:
    “readers pay far more attention to other reader reviews on retail sites than to reviews from publications and review sites”
    I’ve been saying that all along and get swarmed by all the “You need PROFESSIONAL reviews… I’m a PROFESSIONAL so I’ll TELL you what you like” people on forums and groups.
    I think the issue of “steenking badges” has been dealt with on IU before. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I do think book bloggers and reviewers hold significant sway with their followers, and I think readers may like being able to know the review they’re looking at came from somebody other than the Author’s Aunt Matilda, but outfits like Kirkus? I doubt a Kirkus review has as much cachet as they like to pretend.

      1. I was going to comment on your discussion, Lin and EM, but got started and realized I had the subject for my next post. ๐Ÿ™‚

      2. I would say none. Especially since people know they sell them.
        I never read them and don’t know anybody who does. But everybody sees the amazon ratings. Most of the ads show the number of reviews, maybe the start count, before you see anything else but a cover thumbnail. I think people are affected by them whether they think fo or not.

  8. Although, survey data tends to be rather iffy it does provide some interesting results. What works for one author is not guaranteed for the next author and reading habits change. I wonder what the demographic is here. Even so quite useful:)

  9. It’s very interesting, isn’t it. Fifty-three percent of readers are somewhat swayed by reviews. So, reviews are important but not mandatory. I see a number of books with average ratings (on Amazon) in the 3.6 to 4.0 range still selling quite well.
    The Facebook data makes sense to me. When I advertised with a couple of major sites recently I received a slight sales bump in the morning when they sent out their mass email but when they announced my book on their Facebook page I saw the main sales spike of the day. Facebook is an effective way to connect with readers and sell books.
    Thanks for this, Stephen!

    1. I have to admit I’m a little suspicious of the Facebook-heavy result. I’d think FB ads would be the way to go if that were true, but most people I know report disappointing results from that experience.

      1. I think most people have become good at ignoring FB ads. I know I have. A FB post from a friend or a page I follow is more likely to grab my attention.

        1. I agree with Al. I’ve mentally shut them off too. I’ve tried FB ads and I’m not happy with the results but a post pointed in the right direction, in the correct manner helps me sell books.

  10. Interesting article. Strangely, after watching two webinars this morning I was strongly led to believe book trailers are extremely important (you know, a picture tells a thousand words). Although Facebook is a leader in many ways, others are contendersโ€”twitter and google+ have strong merit, as do all the other SM sites. This kind of survey can be extremely suspect, so I would take it all with a big grain of salt and continue to research on my own.

  11. I found some of those survey results horribly demoralizing, but then the bias of the survey finally sank in and I felt better. But not by much. FB is not my favourite place to be.:(

    1. Something to keep in mind is that her main survey pool is romance readers.

      I personally think different media sites work for different genres & authors personality will also impact effectiveness. Keep in mind your blog can feed into FB and if done correctly can drive people to your blog.

      Pricing is another issue that may differ depending on genre.

      I’m not sure what else felt demoralizing. So this is the best I can do for a pep talk.

      Maybe UI should try a poll. You have a broader audience and if the staff worked on the questions together you might be able to weed out most of the biases.

    2. I don’t see much to be demoralized about, nor much to be excited about. I like that the publisher’s imprint doesn’t mean much to readers, but discoverability is as much an enigma for indies as ever..

  12. I had two “g”s in the title of my first book and I haven’t sold a million copies yet. So you must be right about everything else, too.

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