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Interpreting Surveys

Since the last time I posted, this, that, and the other thing went down in TK Marnell's world. Nothing unexpected, nothing earth-shattering, but Sweetie and I have definitely gained a few levels' worth of life experience points. I won't bore everyone with the details, but the end result is that from where I'm staying now, it's about a twenty minute drive to the Internet. I can only check it a couple of times a day, and there was a stretch when I was cut off entirely.

Yesterday morning, when I accessed my reading list of blogs for the first time in weeks, I found a bit of hubbub around a survey performed by Marie Force, a bestselling romance author. She surveyed 2,951 readers about what influences them to buy books. At first glance, the results seem to be encouraging to self-publishers.

  • 64% say they pay no attention to who publishes a book.
  • 60% say endorsements by bestselling authors don't affect their purchasing decisions.
  • 72% say the New York Times Bestseller label would not influence them to try a new author.
  • 32% say covers rarely influence them when they buy books.
  • 32% say typos don't bother them that much.

Results like these would make any small-time self-publisher do a mini jig in her chair. But then, if she happens to have spent an excessive amount of time in higher education like me, that niggling voice of her Introduction to Research Methods professor starts nibbling away at Force's survey design and analysis until there's nothing left.

The sampling, for one thing, was highly biased. Most of the respondents (81%) were romance readers, because Marie Force writes contemporary romances. They were also the type of readers who subscribe to author newsletters (35%), visit author websites (62%), and follow their favorite authors on Facebook (62%), because that's how she distributed links to the survey.

Sampling problems aside, the way the questions were asked and the responses given are highly suspect. Let's take another look at one of these results.

53% are most concerned with a professional presentation when it comes to book covers, and 32% are rarely influenced by covers.

Now, what does this mean? It means that 32% of readers aren't affected by glossy covers, right? Wrong. It means that 32% of respondents believe they aren't affected by glossy covers. More accurately, it means that 32% of respondents profess that they aren't affected by glossy covers.

First of all, we're told since preschool to "never judge a book by its cover." Nobody wants to admit that they actually care a lot about looks and first impressions. They want to believe that they're superior enough to see past the superficial to the substance beneath. I'm sure 32% of people also say that appearances don't matter when they're choosing men or women to date. Yeah, right.

Secondly, people don't know what makes them buy things. Purchasing decisions are often impulsive and driven by things we don't think about. I'm no expert on consumer behavior, but I've seen enough study abstracts to know that logic has little to do with it. People who are hungry select purchases differently than people who aren't. People who need to use the bathroom exercise monetary impulse control differently than people who don't. Mood swings, ambient music, brand recognition, colorful advertising, product arrangement—they all play crucial and largely invisible roles in shopping behavior.

But when people explain their decisions to others, they rationalize them. They say what they think they should say and avoid saying things that might make them look bad, even to strangers on the other side of a Survey Monkey form. They don't say they bought one book over another because the title font looked more professional. They don't say they were more interested in it because the book was on the front page of Amazon, or it seems to have sold a lot of copies and topped important-sounding lists. They certainly don't say they were feeling the 3 pm doldrums and the cover had a picture of some coffee and a scone.

They say they bought it because the story appealed to them more. And writers want, desperately, to believe these readers are telling the truth, because that would mean we have control over the commercial success of our books. If consumers were reliable and rational, all we'd have to do is write well and our books would fly off the shelves.


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