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4 Ways Publishers Trick Us Into Buying Books

March 8, 2020

When it comes to book buying, I might be more easily tricked than the average reader.  I’ve bought books based on misleadingly positive book reviews from famous authors and regretted it.  I’ve bought books because they had won awards or were book club recommendations and then realized later that I’d been suckered.

The worst was when I spent $1.00 for a kindle copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Six-Word Story.  I should have known it was a scam when the free sample had only one word in it.  Losing one dollar for five more words isn’t so bad, but when I realized the Six-Word Story was public domain, I felt stupid.  No more manipulation, I thought.

Book publishers have every right to manipulate potential readers into buying their books.  It’s up to us potential readers to recognize the manipulation and not fall for it.   Book manipulation is bad behavior, and I dislike rewarding bad behavior.  With that in mind, here are four common tricks that publishers use to manipulate people to spend money on their books:

1.  Stir up (fake?) controversy/publicity

I can’t always prove that the controversy or publicity is fake.  When critics badgered American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins for writing a book about Mexican immigrants even though she isn’t herself Mexican, book sales went up again, and weeks later the novel is still a bestseller.  The controversy made me curious enough to read a sample of the the novel, and it’s not very good.  Still, the controversy worked on me.

Now I wonder… was this controversy faked to sell more books?  Maybe not, but publishers made sure the comments made by social media trolls that nobody had heard of got a ton of publicity.  Enough people despise social media troublemakers to support the book, even if they don’t read it.

If you’re buying a book because it’s controversial, you’re probably falling for a trick.

2.  Make it support a person/cause

I’m not saying Michelle Obama manipulated readers; it was probably her publisher who tricked us.

Sometimes a book has a greater purpose than itself, but it usually doesn’t.  That greater purpose, when you look at it, is often fake.  When Michelle Obama wrote Becoming, my wife bought it just to support her, and then she never read the book.

Michelle Obama lives on Martha’s Vineyard and is wealthier than my family will ever be, so I didn’t see the need to support her.  On the other hand, I don’t want Michelle Obama’s support either, so we’re even (except my wife has never bought any of my books).

At any rate, somewhere along the way, buying the book become a mission for millions(?) of readers.  My wife even received a copy of Becoming from a friend simply because the friend knew she liked Michelle Obama.  My wife didn’t read that copy either.

If you’re buying a book to support a cause/rich person/celebrity, then you’re probably falling for a trick.

3.  Let’s bash Donald Trump (or the politician of your choice)

If you want to write a bestseller, he’s your topic.

A lot of people despise President Trump.  He brings a lot of it on himself, but book publishers use this animosity against him to sell a bunch of garbage books.

Over the last few years book publishers have pawned off books like Fear by Bob Woodward and that one tell-all book written by a porn star and that bald lawyer who just got sent to prison.  These books immediately hit the best sellers list, and then they’re outdated two weeks later when the new outrage has made all the previous outrages irrelevant.  If I need an anti-Trump fix, I can get it for free in a bunch of places, and the outrage is usually current.

It’s not just Trump either.  When Barack Obama was president, a bunch of writers/publishers profited off of garbage anti-Obama books as well.  It was the same trick, just with a different audience.  Those books also promised to give readers new insights that would bring down a presidency, but they were obsolete within a month.

If you’re buying a book because you despise a current president/politician, you’re probably falling for a trick.

 4.  It’s the next…!

I’ve never written a best selling novel, but I’ve read a few of them, so I’m an expert.

A few years ago a bunch of women-in-distress novels (usually written by women) were called “The next Gone Girl.”  Gone Girl had been a huge bestseller, so a bunch of books like The Girl on the Train and The Woman in the Window, rode its coattails.  Some books even had blurbs from Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, on the covers of books just above the title.

If they’re going to compare a new novel to Gone Girl, it was cool to have the author praise the book (and then remind readers that the praise comes from the author of Gone Girl).  Even though I liked Gone Girl, I’ve never actively looked for a book that was the next Gone Girl.  I’ve already read Gone Girl.  Why would I want to read the next Gone Girl when I’ve already read it?

Right now a bunch of fantasy readers are looking for books similar to A Game of Thrones, and I can understand that because the book version of the series isn’t finished (and the television show fizzled).  Fans are dissatisfied and want something that has a sense of completion.  Since A Game of Thrones might not get finished, book publishers can publicize something that’s already written as “The previous Game of Thrones… but it’s already completed!”

If you’re buying a book because it’s the next… something, you’re probably falling for a trick.


When you’re looking for a good book, these are some tricks that publishers might use on you.  I used to fall for the tricks.  I might still fall for other tricks, but I don’t fall for these anymore.

What do you think?  What other tricks do publishers use to manipulate readers into buying their books?

  1. I do fall for hype, in that I have bought books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train just to see what the fuss was about. Both were good books but neither shattered my world and they weren’t genres I’d usually buy.
    If you see a book cover enough online, in book shops, even in a super market, your hind brain tells you there must be something great about it and often that’s not quite the case. So mass exposure definitely works.
    I don’t fall for the famous person trick because I immediately resent famous people getting advances for books when the money should go to writers who really need it – like me ☺️

  2. This is an excellent post – I like how you say it straight. I hate being manipulated by publishers, yet I’m also weirdly interested in their strategies. I don’t buy a lot of books because I work in a library and regularly grab things to read, for free. Of course, librarians buy the books from publishers, so there’s still that element. I just read a book that fell into your “if you loved this, you will also love this” category. Very contrived and not accurate!

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