Tactility tactics

Customers’ sensual reactions to the physical properties of books should not be neglected by booksellers

An author’s confession: when I have a book that is newly published and featured on the front table of my local bookshop, I like to skulk around and observe my potential readers. Here are some things I’ve learned from years of this creepy behaviour.

First, people like to touch books but their desire to touch is balanced by a (usually subconscious) fear of contagion. If the piles of books on the tables become sloppy, this reinforces the idea that they have been previously touched by others, and this is offputting.

Second, once a book is selected, there is usually a brief moment of assessing its weight. Again, this is not always a conscious process. There is no optimal weight for a book—it depends on the individual reader, the author and the genre. I write books about brain function for a general audience and for this type of book, for most readers, the sweet spot is 220–280 pages. With fewer pages, concerns mount that the treatment of the topic is insufficiently complete. Longer than that, and many potential readers begin to doubt their level of commitment to that much reading about science, however much it might illuminate human behaviour.

Third, there is a division between those that read the jacket flap and those that dive right in to the main text. In my experience, the latter are much more likely to buy. My books are laden with illustrations and these tend to grab a reader’s attention straight away. If the illustration and caption that a reader lands on are compelling, I’ve often tipped the balance towards a sale at that moment.

Fourth, and crucially, books are not merely collections of text. While electronic representations of books can attempt to emulate handsome typefaces and compelling page design, they cannot, as certain marketing experts of the 1930s said, “snuggle in the palm”. I see the subtle, exploring movements of customers’ fingers over the pages, spine and jacket, and I know that they are evaluating the book as a tactile entity, a real-world object.

You’ve got nerve

They skin of the palm and fingerpads is endowed with a vast array of nerve endings with subtly different mechanical and electrical properties. There are separate sensors for heat, cold, pain and itch. There are also specialised sensors for different aspects of mechanical sensation. Of these, the most relevant to the present discussion are the Merkel endings and the Meissner endings (each named after the 19th-century anatomists who first described them).

The Meissner endings are tuned to detect the form of light touch resulting from the microscopic slip of objects along the skin, as occurs when a customer first grips the book with their fingers. The Meissner nerve endings then send electrical signals to neurons in the spinal cord that further contract the relevant finger and hand muscles to increase gripping force until the microslips stop. This enables the holder to manipulate objects with delicacy, using the minimal force for the job at hand. Because Meissner-mediated grip control is a spinal cord circuit, it works as a reflex and does not directly enter their conscious awareness—they will not have to think about gripping the book slightly harder when raising it to read, as it just happens naturally.

Perception point

Even though Meissner endings are found at great density in the fingertips, electrical recordings show that they cannot distinguish the finest features of objects. When a potential reader is tracing the edge of the pages or assessing the linen-like texture of the fine dust jacket, the Merkels come into play. Merkels are also found at high density in the lips and tongue, but propriety inhibits most customers from engaging in that form of tactile exploration of books. Information from Merkels and Meissners (along with other tactile nerve endings) flows to the brain where, through several stages of processing, object perception emerges and decisions about the pleasantness/worth/utililty of objects are made.

Many words have been written about what high street bookshops need to do to continue to be hubs of commerce and culture in this electronic era. Making social spaces with food and drink, readings and events, and producing carefully curated recommendations are clearly all good strategies. In addition to this, if bricks-and-mortar stores are to survive, there must be books to sell that delight the nerve endings of the hands as well as the mind.

On 5th March, Viking will publish Linden’s Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, a popular science book about the senses with a heat-reactive cover.

The title looks at the sense of touch and its importance to human development and culture. Joel Rickett, publisher at Viking, said: “It’s a reimagining of the hierarchy of our senses, making the case that touch is the sense that shapes us as humans and societies. There is a real burgeoning interest in neuroscience. It’s great to see that there is an intelligent, engaged audience lapping up high-quality popular science.”

Viking worked with printers Clays to create the heat-reactive cover, and Rickett believes it to be a trade first for a mainstream book. He said: “It was about how we could bring it to life but also as something for booksellers, by giving them something tangible as a reason for customers to touch and engage with the book.”

David J Linden is professor of neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore