It’s amazing where you can find universal truths about your own relationship with books. A while ago, I read a sarcastic article about modern computer games, which briefly mentioned that no-one ever reads all of the books that they own. I didn’t even have to glance at the book-filled room around me to know that this is indeed true. Although I don’t seem to read anywhere near as many books as I used to, even back when I read extremely regularly, I still had far more books than I could ever read.
And, there’s nothing wrong with this. There’s something oddly reassuring about being surrounded by books. There’s something oddly reassuring about having more books than you could ever read. It’s almost like you’re the owner of a small private library.
However, this isn’t an article about book collecting. It’s an article about what makes the difference between a read book and an unread book. Whilst different readers obviously have different tastes, I’ll try to keep this list as general as possible – although the only information I have to draw on is what made me choose to read a particular book.
1) Cover design doesn’t matter (in the way that you think it does): Yes, a book should have a cool-looking cover. A cool-looking cover is one of the many factors that makes someone decide to actually buy a book in the first place. It’s one of the things that you need in order to make your book stand out from the crowd. A cool-looking cover is not a bad thing.
However, it doesn’t mean that someone will actually read your book after they’ve bought it. Cool-looking covers contain cool-looking artwork, and one the many functions of art is that it can be used for decoration and it can be collected. Having lots of cool-looking books lying around can be a surprisingly good way to spruce up a room and make it look more interesting.
Having a shelf full of cool-looking books can make you feel cool and sophisticated. It can be something to look at when you’re feeling bored. But, a cool cover is no guarantee that someone will actually read your book, because…..
2) The concept matters a lot more: Although I’ve read a lot less books in the past few years than I would have liked, there has always been one thing that has drawn me to a particular book – the concept behind it (as long as it’s backed up by good writing, of course).
For example, back in 2013, I ordered a brilliant book called “Viking Dead” by Toby Venables and read it within a couple of days of it arriving. The cover design was fairly ok, but as soon as I read the description of the book (a zombie novel set in the time of the vikings), I just had to read more.
Likewise, back in 2009, I sought out and read a copy of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” in the same day purely because someone told me something about the ending that made me curious about how a writer could end a book in this way. It was the concept behind the story that made me interested, not the slightly generic cover design on the copy I bought.
What I’m trying to say here is that the idea behind your book matters a lot more than anything else when it comes to whether someone who has bought a copy will actually read that copy. Not only will a good idea intrigue people enough to make them want to read more, but it’ll also mean that they’ll recommend it to other people.
3) Author appeal: One of the best ways to make sure that someone reads one of your books is to get them to read another one of your books (eg: by using an interesting concept, getting good word-of-mouth reviews etc…).
If they like that book, then they’ll want to check out some of your other stuff, so that they can repeat the experience. If one of your books impresses someone, then they’re significantly more likely to actually read your other books.
For example, one of the other factors that led to me buying and reading Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” in the same day was the fact that I’d read other Agatha Christie books before. Although I didn’t geek out about them in the way that I geeked out about Sherlock Holmes, I knew from experience that Christie was adept at writing clever detective stories that were filled with intriguing twists.
4) Use a fascinating opening sentence (or sentences): This is one of the oldest pieces of writing advice in the world, but it’s stood the test of time for a good reason.
Even with the books that I’ve bought and never fully read, I’ll usually take a brief look inside. After all, if you’ve spent money on something – even a cheap second-hand book from a charity shop- it’s your natural instinct to want to inspect your new belongings.
So, a fascinating opening sentence that grabs your reader’s attention and refuses to let go is a great way to ensure that they don’t put your book back down ten seconds later.
For example, one of the first Lee Child novels that I read after someone recommended him to me was “The Hard Way”. Chapter one begins with this intriguing sentence: “Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever“. I’ve been a Lee Child fan ever since.
In fact, Lee Child is something of an expert when it comes to creating fascinating opening sentences. Seriously, if you ever want to learn how to start your novel in an interesting way, then you can learn a lot from his thriller novels.
The very best (and most illustrative) example is probably in Lee Child’s “Gone Tomorrow”, which begins with four extremely gripping sentences: “Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of tell-tale signs. Mostly because they’re nervous. By definition they’re all first-timers. ”
Each of these sentences is extremely short, which forces the reader to read quickly. Not only that, they instantly introduce a dramatic threat and they hint that the narrator has life-saving knowledge that he’s willing to share. In addition to this, there’s also a small amount of dark humour, which both makes the narrator sound like a badass and also prevents the reader from being frightened away.
So, when it comes to making sure that people actually read your book after they buy it, the first sentence (or four) matters quite a lot.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂