On 5th April, early morning, I flew from Vienna to Seville with a layover in Zurich. I had three hours to spare on the biggest of Swiss airports.
Since I always carry food with me, and do not like duty free shops, I typically spend time in the transfer halls walking, looking for inspiration, or I just walk without thinking.
It’s better for the body, because the journeys from point A to point B utilizing some form of transport are all about sitting and eating – sitting in a bus, in a train, in a plane, in the airport, in the taxi, and so on :).
Bookstores in the airports
There are a few bookstores in Zurich airport, like probably in any other major traffic hub. I bumped into one on my walk around, and decided to make a short marketing experiment.
The bookstore presented three stands—one with newspaper and magazine, other one called “top 10 books” and the third one named “top 10 English”.
Apart from the stands, which had the prime location next to the corridor, there were several bookshelves in the back of the shop, offering plenty of titles from all genres, plus some maps and notebooks.
Which books did the customers buy?
I stood on the far side of the corridor next to the shop, having a perfect view. I stayed on the spot for exactly 25 minutes, counting the customers and monitoring the action they took in the store. A simple notepad application on my smart phone helped me to do the count precisely.
During my short experiment, 46 people stopped at the bookstore. 4 of them went directly to the newspaper stand, took one of the papers and paid at the counter. These customers had clear intentions, they knew what they wanted in the shop, and just used it for their purchase. Their action didn’t interest me much.
The other 42 people were different, however. They were just hanging around like me, waiting for their connecting flights, playing with an idea of buying the book to have something to read on the plane. The idea might come to them no earlier than they spotted the shop. Obviously they didn’t come to the shop with a clear intention to buy a particular title or newspaper, so it was interesting to observe what they would do.
Top 10 stands played the prime
Out of the 42 people, 39 stopped at either the ‘top 10 stand’ or ‘top 10 English’ one. Exactly 18 of them took a book in their hands (some took more books in succession), opening it and reading, spending anything from five seconds to ten minutes checking the title.
6 of these customers eventually bought the book—always just one title, either from the ‘Top 10’ stand, or the ‘Top 10 English’.
Out of those 42 people, only 4 checked also the bookshelves in the back of the store, and not a single one purchased a title from there.
Checking the store
When my experiment was over, I walked to the store. I checked the ‘English top 10’ stand. First of all, it definitely wasn’t top 10, since there were nearly 20 different titles on display. Then I walked the shelves in the back of the store, where I found a broad selection from all genres, in German, English and French.
After a few minutes of looking at that selection, I was pretty sure that each of those 6 people who bought a book for their journey would find a title they’d be happy about also in those bookshelves.
But they bought from the top 10, since that’s where they eyes wandered as they approached the shop. That was the pre-selection someone had made for them.
University of Solitude wasn’t there
It probably won’t surprise you that my book made it neither to the ‘top 10’ stand, nor to the shelves in the back of the store. But I imagined what would happen IF it was there, displayed on the ‘Top 10 English’ stand.
University of Solitude wouldn’t be lost among those titles. The cover would belong to the best, and the content would be just as good as most books offered on the stand, if not better (I had a look in at least ten of them).
Of course you will find books from different genres on each such stand—a love story, few biographies of the successful, a “simple Physics” book, an inspirational story of a girl who escaped working camp in North Korea, a guide on how to be happy in life….
Let’s imagine University of Solitude replaced the book about the girl from North Korea. One inspirational story would replace another one, simple as that.
I am sure that people who enjoy reading this type of books would be equally happy to find my book there; it won’t make difference for them.
And the same can be said about thousands of other inspirational stories that have been published over the last few years…. But it was that one book that made the top 10 stand, not any other from the genre.
Which books make the top 10?
Book publishing is a business. Art is a business. Everything seems to be nothing but business nowadays—sad but true. Of course it’s all about money whether your book is displayed on one of those prime locations.
All books displayed there came from big publishing houses. Those houses either directly paid for that very placement in that particular chain of airport book stores, or they paid for it indirectly.
They had enough money for extensive marketing campaigns, enough connections in the newspapers and reviews portal, and simply enough resources to MAKE their book a top 10 title, whatever it means.
Because that’s all it is about—to pay for the visibility, since people buy only books they can see, ideally in places where they arrive in a mood to read.
Is it even worth writing anymore?
According to Bowker, more than one million titles were published only in the US in 2015 (700,000 self published, 300,000 traditionally published). Just twenty of them made that ‘Top 10 English’ stand in the Zurich airport :).
I do not know many people who have read more than 500 books in their life, let alone 100. I have read no more than 150, and I read a lot.
There’s a cap on every activity we do in life.
I do not think that an average American reads more than 50 books, but let’s imagine they manage to read 500 titles during their life. It still makes for only one out of every two thousand books that were published in 2015 alone. In 2016, probably another million was published. And 2014, 2013, 2012, ….
There are probably already enough good titles within all genres, fiction or non-fiction. The same can be said about websites, videos, movies, songs. The time we have allotted on Earth is way too short to explore just a tenth of all beautiful and meaningful art that’s already existing.
Why to try and publish something new then?
Maybe it matters anyway
On the other hand, there’s still so much power in the art, and especially in books. A reader ‘spends’ comparably longer time with a book than the spectator does with a film, or a listener with a song.
Books, as the most personal medium, can make people think, show them new horizons, and broaden their minds. Good book can do all of that. And considering the situation in the world today, which is ruled by fear, ignorance, and inequality, every book that challenges the way the society functions, or helps people see things the authorities don’t want them to see, is worth publishing—even if just one person read it.
Marketing lessons to be learned
You will probably never have enough money to pay for the top 10 position—in any chain of bookstores, online or offline, directly or indirectly. Me neither.
But still, the principle remains the same—our books have to be seen so they can be bought. We have no other option but trying to create spaces where readers will come and see our works of art, online and offline.
In the course of the next few months, I plan to create a lot of content on the web—a free content, published anonymously. It will have something to do with journeys I made, especially the pilgrimages in Spain, which are so popular in the US and in other parts of the world. The content will be published anonymously, but there will be links to my book(s) in an appropriate place, for people who’d be interested who’d written the content, and what motivated him to do all those journeys.
It’s an idea I got recently in Spain, to use a topic hundred times more popular than prisons in Iran, or espionage for that matter, as a way of attracting people to the principal works of mine, the University of Solitude, or the other book I simultaneously work on right now.
It’s a lot of work again, but I don’t mind since I won’t do any proofreading for these texts. It will be just pure writing from heart, based on the diary I have always kept on all my journeys abroad. Such writing is something I enjoy a lot, there’s a lot of freedom in it.
And I have some plans on creating an offline space for my books to be seen as well, but that’s for another year, and another blog post. 🙂
Just one life
We have just one life on Earth. The time we spend on writing, publishing, and marketing our works of art, will never come back. Think twice if your work makes sense, if there’s some value in it for the others, if you really enjoy doing it, and if you aren’t repeating something that’s been done thousand of times before, in other works of literature.
If you still decide to pursue writing and self publishing after answering those questions, I wish you good luck with creating online and offline spaces for your books to be seen.
It’s not an easy task, and it can’t be done in a course of few weeks or months. But it must be done, because it’s neither the cover, nor the content that decides whether people read your book or not. It’s the placement, the visibility…. That’s what matters.
Enjoy your work, and see you soon with another blog post.
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