Why Are There So Few Books About Reader Behavior?

I’m want to put together a list of books about readers. Specifically, books about how readers feel and behave. I’m especially interested in books which explore the topics presented in this article in greater depth.

You’d think that would be easy. Or at least, I thought so.

Ha ha ha.

There are a ton of books on the following subjects:

1. Writing Advice. So much writing advice. Few of these books give readers more than passing thought.

2. How to Get Children to Read. Most of these books are about phonics (important), overcoming learning difficulties (important), and/or how to inspire the joy of reading in children (important). None of them shed much light on how people behave once the reading habit has hooked them. Or at least, none of the books I’ve looked at. If there’s a brilliant book about teaching children to read which also sheds great insight on how avid readers behave, I’d love to see it.

3. Reading Advice. Mostly about speed reading or remembering what you read or something. Doesn’t answer question such as, ‘why do people DNF novels?’

4. Publishing/Book Marketing Advice. Somewhat closer to the mark than Writing Advice. Not as close as I want. Shockingly few people who sell advice about ‘book marketing’ examine reader behavior.

There are less—but still a fair amount—of books on the following topics:

1. Book Recommendation References. I haven’t given this enough consideration. Maybe, just maybe, this is what I’m looking for. However, I fear the authors projected their own opinions rather than observed readers.

2. Librarian Memoirs. These give be a better appreciation of what librarians do. My respect for their work has increased. However, little of it is about understanding readers. Some librarians, I’m sure, have developed a keen understanding of readers through sharp observation. But that’s not the trait librarians are hired for. It’s more important for librarians to spot child predators and kick them out without violence than to understand what makes readers DNF books. To the extent librarians understand readers, that isn’t what they discuss in their memoirs. They write instead about confronting child predators and other threats.

3. Bookseller Memoirs. Like librarian memoirs, they discuss dealing with bad customers/patrons rather than reader behavior. In fact, these are even less useful, since booksellers have even less opportunity to observe reading habits than librarians. Also… how can I say this? People don’t go into bookselling because they are sensitive to how readers other than themselves behave. People go into bookselling because of their own emotional attachment to books, or the thrill of finding hidden treasure (if they are second-hand book dealers), or because they can’t get a higher-paying job, or some combination of the above.

I have found a few—VERY FEW—books which explain reader behavior based on real world observation. There are a few more titles which I hope are what I’m looking for, but I haven’t read them yet.

What I wonder is: why? Why are books about reader behavior so scarce?

One problem is that the people with the best data don’t share it. Amazon is the obvious example, but they aren’t the only ones who have collected reading data from eBook devices and reading apps. Part of this may be concerns about privacy and consent, but I suspect it’s mainly because eBook retailers want to preserve their market advantage.

That’s not the only way to study reader behavior. I binge read the Amazon reviews for at least one book per week. The best book I’ve found on reader behavior (so far) uses a different method to research readers, but it’s still based on real world observation, not the author projecting their reactions on all readers.

Though the difficulty of doing research is a problem, it’s not an unsurmountable obstacle. The bigger problem is… lack of curiosity.

I get it. Millions of people dream of becoming authors, so they buy writing advice and publishing/marketing advice in droves. A more modest but still considerable subset of people fantasize about working as booksellers and/or librarians, so they buy librarian and/or bookseller memoirs. Nobody dreams of understanding the reading habits of people other than themselves. Even I don’t dream about that, despite my enthusiasm.

But the problem is even more fundamental than that. The problem is a lack of sonder. That the vast majority of educated English speakers don’t know what the word ‘sonder’ means is a symptom. ‘Empathy’ is arguably a synonym for sonder, but to me, ‘empathy’ and ‘sonder’ are related-yet-distinct concepts. ‘Empathy’ is based on feelings, whereas ‘sonder’ is based on worldview. Empathy can exist without sonder, and sonder can exist without empathy. I myself didn’t get it until I spent months binge-reading Amazon book reviews. When I explain my work analyzing Amazon reviews, my greatest difficulty is conveying sonder.

Because people don’t realize their lack of sonder, they don’t seek books which increase their sonder. In this case, since people—including the vast majority of bibliophiles—don’t understand, beyond the shallowest level, that not everyone reacts to books the same way, they aren’t interested in deep dives on other people’s reading behavior.

However, the very select number of books which explore the reading habits of people other than the authors have decent sales—but that might be solely because of the fans the authors won before they published the books. So I wonder. Does a lack of interest doom any book in this niche (without an established author fandom) to failure? Or is the interest there, and we just don’t see it because no book has satisfied it?

2 thoughts on “Why Are There So Few Books About Reader Behavior?

  1. As a long-time bookseller, including owning the largest used bookstore in New Mexico, I can only partially agree with this statement: People don’t go into bookselling because they have are sensitive to how readers other than themselves behave. Those are the unsuccessful business owners. Those of us who both love books AND understand business and marketing, know our readers from bifocals to hiking boots. We made a ton of money, too. I specialize in teaching authors how to find their Ideal Reader using reliable research and it works! I understand your premise, it requires a mindset shift from ‘what do I as the author like’ to realizing the power of W.I.I.F.M.—marketing-speak for the question all customers ask- What’s In It For Me. Thanks!

    • That is a very fair comment. Perhaps the booksellers who spend time getting to know readers well don’t have time to write bookseller memoirs about how customers are inexplicable and they barely hang on financially. Also, the booksellers in my area (generally, the employees who I can talk to are lower-paid/less experienced) are bad at helping me find books I want, I basically have to know which titles I’m looking for before I step in the shop.

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