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'Why People Buy Books'

At the end of six months, nine-tenths of the books will be dead for the reason that something else will have displaced public interest. It may be a new war, the ghost of hard times or a presidential election--perhaps another book--but somewhere the public interest will be gone for something new, and the publisher and retailer who have not made their hay while the sun has been shining will have a painful job in balancing the credit and debit accounts of the house.

--H.A. Pavey, "Why Novel Is a Success," Chicago Daily Tribune (1905)

Pavey's intriguing blast from book trade's past begins with some pertinent, and still relevant, questions (pricing not adjusted for inflation): "How does the novel of today become popular? And once popular, how and why does the public invest $1.50, gross, in the volume which may have been two months attaining its popularity for only four months of life."

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth was a top-10 bestseller in 1905

The initial reason given by book dealers is that "not being able to answer these questions lies unemphasized in the fact that three-fourths of the popular books of the type are bought by women or for women. The reason must be a women's reason." (Hmm...) Noting that "women are the buyers," Pavey suggests that "in the end woman's judgment and tastes make a story popular for its brief existence."

Oddly, the rest of the article employs a male pronoun, and thus--on thin ice indeed--we arrive at the eternal conundrum, masked in the piece as a section heading: "Why people buy books"

Pavey writes that the customer seeking a novel "will have known something about it before he enters the bookshop." This information comes from traditional sources like newspaper reviews or advertisements, "but better than these may have been the commendation of the story from the lips of a friend with whom the prospective buyer has sympathies in common."

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green (1905)

Once in the shop, the customer requests a particular book: "Instinctively he opens it at the first touch. Type and paper will be expected to make the first appeal in the physical makeup. An attractive frontispiece and title page will be convincing, as will possibly well done illustrations. Then the scrutiny of the cover will follow."

Now the handselling portion of our program, 1905-style, begins: "In the meantime the salesmanship of the salesman will be called upon as it so seldom is at the average department store's general counters. For any book that is in demand, the salesman will have had his own brief lesson. He will have read the reviews of the book as far as possible; he will have run through it himself perhaps as closely as does the average reviewer; he has at his tongue's end a striking situation or two of the situations needed to have made the work talked about and favorably reviewed."

The bad news (filed under the heading "Job security? What job security?"): "Under these conditions, if he doesn't sell the book, he is in line for a prize contribution to the Worker's Magazine on 'How I Lost My Job.' "

When considering the "psychology of publishing," Pavey charts the treacherous path for a new title "from the publisher to the bookshop and to the reader," stressing the importance of the publisher's "ability to convince the book buyer for the shop. The publisher's salesman does this through the advance sheets of the story, through the psychological influences of the publisher, and by means of the publisher's declared intent to push the book through advertising."

They are, however, "confronting conditions of a market whose whims and moods neither has a chance to determine beyond the hazards of a guess.... Timeliness, could that timeliness always be determined, is of great significance. But to try to determine timeliness is one of the most difficult of a publisher's feats."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's novel was published in 1905

Pavey notes that "a book from the publisher to the retailer--which will have cost the publisher all told 35 cents--will have had 20 cents expended upon it for advertising," about the same amount as the author receives in royalties.

Adding to the fickleness of the market is the fact that the turn of the century brought a new type of popular book reader into play for the book trade.

"The retail customer is a buyer of a type that did not exist 40 years ago," Pavey writes. "Ten persons of the type which did not buy books then are book buyers now. These modern buyers of the popular novel have no idea of putting the volume on a shelf; it is a book to read and soon afterward to pass along among his friends or to gravitate toward the second hand booksellers. Forty years ago the book buyer had the shelf first in mind, then the book. Today there is no shelf. The phrase 'summer reading,' for instance, becomes one of the characteristic indexes to the reasons why the modern novel is not placed alongside the volumes of Thackeray, Eliot and Dickens."

So, what's the magic key to discovering why readers buy particular novels? Don't ask Pavey for help: "One time this public demands that it be flattered; at another time it says, 'Show us ourselves.' And to catch either mood may mean the success of the book." In other words, there is none.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3526

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