How to hook time-poor readers: 16 tips for publishers, booksellers and authors

How to hook time-poor readers: 16 tips for publishers, booksellers and authors

I’m a mom of four kids, and a book lover. These two facts don’t typically mesh too well. For years, the only time I could find to read was when I finally crawled, exhausted, under my covers at night. It would sometimes take months for me to get through even a short, mindless read. Many nights I’d have to backtrack a few pages because I couldn’t even remember what I’d read in my half-dazed, zonked state the night before. Short chapters were my savior.

It got to the point where I felt guilty buying books because I would never get through any of them. My book-buying slowed down, despite my interest in new releases. I felt like a book failure! In my most stressed out, time-short kid-raising moments, I needed to escape into someone else’s story more than ever, yet couldn’t figure out when and how to do it, or even what to read. And in today's frantic, information-overloaded world, I don't think this issue is restricted to moms.

So here are a few suggestions for how the book industry could help out frustrated wannabe readers.

1. Acknowledge the issue

It’s undeniable: reading a book takes time. It just does. Instead of routinely ignoring the issue, publishers could use that knowledge to craft better messaging and make the reader feel more understood. Ads for new books could include comments like: “This one is worth your limited time!” Or: “A great read for when you’re at the gym!” Publishers could launch a public service, industry-wide campaign with ads like: “Books: For When You Don’t Want to Rush.” Or, “We know you don’t have much free time. When you do, we have the stories to fill it.” Even: “Vacation coming up? Kids back at school? Pick up a book!” Or: “Don’t just read to your kids. Read to yourself!” Include some stats on how reading is beneficial to the brain, the body and the soul.

2. Provide time guidelines

I really like how certain websites like Medium, for which I’m actually a “Top Parenting Writer,” provide a time estimate for each article: 12 minute read. 6 minute read. Publishers could use that formula to estimate books. Jill Santopolo’s latest novel, The Light We Lost, for example, could have a little bubble that says: “4 hour read!” There could even be a time guideline system with different colors suggesting different lengths. This system would again show the reader that their time is respected and allow them to budget more efficiently.

3. Start a 'Time to Read' app 

There should be an app that allows readers to log how much time each book took them to read. That way, before buying a new book, people would know how long it took their friends to read it. The app could then rank the users by how long they’ve collectively spent reading that week or month or year and give rewards for 5 hours, 10 hours, even 40 hours a month! Publishers would be able to identify and target those “mega-readers” and influencers. Readers would feel a sense of accomplishment among their community - and a new community of fellow book-lovers - and be encouraged to read even more. Small, specific rewards always help motivate good behavior. At least that’s what I’ve picked up from bribing small kids with M&Ms. (Kidding! Kind of.) This could be linked to Facebook and eventually sold for billions of dollars. Anyone with me on this one? I already started working on it!

4. Embrace podcasts

Podcasts are a fantastic way for readers to get a literary infusion without picking up a book and can inspire them to purchase. I actually started and host my own podcast, currently #13 in the Arts section of iTunes, called Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. Every week, I chat with writers of all types about their work. I ask them all the questions I wish I could pose at those packed author readings that I rarely have time to attend (I’m missing Alice McDermott speaking right now at the Bridgehampton Library to revise this article!). Listeners have told me it allows them to feel like they’re reading even when they’re not. It’s intellectually stimulating, makes them feel less alone in their daily lives and fills that story void. Many friends have told me they’ve gone out and bought the book after listening to the author speak on my show. Publishers and booksellers should partner up with podcasts to get the word out.

5. Distribute books for free in select places, like the gym

I do a lot of reading at the gym. I know fitness trainers would gasp in horror at this admission, but those 30 minutes I steal a few times a week are the perfect time to read. I used to listen to music or watch TV — I mean, I used to go to step aerobics and “slide” classes, but let’s not even go there. Now, I grab a book and a bottle of water and hop on the elliptical machine. I hold the book with both hands which forces me to use my core to stabilize myself while pumping my legs, so what I used to call my “bulls—t workout” is now a sweat-buster. Gyms are a perfect place to send new books. Readers can sample them while working out and then order them on their phones. There could even be a discount code so publishers could track which gym was generating the most sales. Other great places to distribute books: airport lounges, doctor’s offices, jury duty waiting rooms, the DMV, the post office, schools, spas, nail salons, hotels, private beach clubs, on airplane seat pockets. Think: anywhere people would flip through a free magazine. Grab them while they wait.

6. Make the audiobook and e-book version included in the book purchase.

Okay, I know this won’t be a popular suggestion but it would make investing in a book feel like less of a commitment. Readers would be more likely to finish a story if they could read a bit of the actual book before bed in their home, continue reading the e-book on their phone on the subway commuting to work, listen to the audiobook while picking their kid up from school, and then picking up the hard copy again at night. The more ways to read the same story, the better. The goal is just to get the content out there.

7. Market book subscription services more aggressively.

A school friend of mine started a company called The Picture Book Club, which sends themed children’s books as gifts monthly for 6 or 12 months. The books arrive in beautiful, hand-crafted packaging. PJ Library does the same with Jewish-themed books for kids - for free! Book of the Month lets users subscribe and each month pick their favorite from five books, as do sites like Just the Right Book!. There are also a slew of new book box subscriptions, some of which include other perks. Bubbles and Books offers romance novels paired with things like bath salts. Oxford Mommaincludes a book plus some self-care items for busy moms. I had no idea any of these services existed. Why is that?! Publishers should be pushing these like mad or doing their own book subscription boxes and services. Who wouldn’t want a Penguin Random House monthly book arriving at their door? I sure would.

8. Partner with “summarizing sites” like Blinkist

This innovative app distills top non-fiction books into 15-minute text or audio “blinks.” With 6 million users, this 2012 founded company has 2,500 books in blink form for readers to ingest. For example, recent “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” guest author, Lauren Smith Brody, wrote the The Fifth Trimester, which is now a 12-minute read on Blinkist. (You should still buy her book though; she’s amazing!) Other apps like Instaread, Joosr and 12-Minute have started doing this too, adding their own insights. Publishers and bookstore owners should view these as free ads for the books. If a reader likes the “blink” enough, she’ll buy the book! Send Blinkist the latest and hope for them to feature your books.

9. Monitor Goodreads 

This website recommends books readers will like based on what they’ve read and allows them to connect with friends to see what they’re reading too. Joining a community like this one gives readers an added incentive to keep reading. The book industry needs to be all over this one for assessing trends.

10. Speed up book production 

Readers want everything yesterday. I understand that the book industry is one of the oldest there is with a lot of moving parts, but the time from when an author sells her book to when it hits the bookstores (or Amazon) is unacceptably slow. Interest in the topic could’ve waned by then. Another author could self-publish more quickly, beating traditional publishers to the punch. Aspiring authors are also put off by how slowly books are released. Talent can move to writing more online. Publishers should think long and hard about how to speed up the traditional book printing method and make it so that an accepted book will come out within days or weeks, not months or years. (And maybe get this done before I finish my memoir? Thanks!)

11. SimplyE

 The New York Public Library has launched SimplyE, a library e-reader app which gives users access to 300,000 free e-books from the library. Other libraries are joining this open-source initiative as well. Sites like kobo.com feature extensive e-book solutions. Publishers should use services like these to get their books out to the right people. Giving away some e-books could bolster a user’s interest in an author and then have them go out and buy the next book.

12. Keep promoting book clubs

I’ve been in three fabulous book clubs over the years and even though I miss a bunch of meetings these days, I always like knowing what my friends recommend - and that we’re reading the same book together. Bookstores and publishers could launch their own book clubs and have authors attend. (I know many already do this.) Place readers in book clubs with other fans of certain books! Reimagine how this could look.

13. Make authors more visible 

Why is the author’s photo still on the back flap? In this age of instant access to everyone, publishers should consider putting the author photo on the front cover. I don’t even know what some of my favorite authors even really look like. Get authors out there! Make sure they get on TV, in ads for books, and in magazines with their faces attached. Keep promoting authors on social media with their own accounts.

14. Launch a better TV show about authors

 Book TV is just unacceptable. Sell a show to Netflix featuring authors chatting in a casual way with each other about their work, like a TV version of my conversational podcast. (Hmmm, wait a minute. Gotta run and go do this myself!) Or like Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians Cars Getting Coffee. Readers want to know authors before investing hours of their lives in their imaginations. If readers like the authors, they’ll read the books. Aim this show at a younger audience, not retirees. Make it funny and entertaining… and short! Maybe even a Facebook show. Author-to-Author. Something like that.

15. Find more influencers to recommend books 

In addition to Reese Witherspoon, Oprah and, most recently, Jimmy Fallon, more notables should be launching book recommendations. I’d like to nominate myself here! I’d love to smack a Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books logo on my book pick of the month and then pair it with a podcast interview. Other influencers should be encouraged to post what they’re reading on social media. Publishers should be reaching out to talent agencies like CAA, WME and UTA and making deals to have their clients post about the books they love. (But they should really read them first!) Publishers should also send books to anyone with a large Instagram following.

16. Keep the content great 

Encourage aspiring writers to write more books. Find corporate donors or individual patrons to launch more book contests or writing challenges to find the latest talent. Make sure the authors are compensated enough to work on a book full-time for a designated period of time. Make finding the next great author into a reality show, scouring the country for the latest and greatest. American Idol for writers. (American Scribe?!) Have writers find sponsors so they can afford to write more. Make writing books cool, like poet/author/educator Kwame Alexander does in all his messaging to kids. Encourage published authors to take on “writer buddies” and help them navigate their careers. Make the path of turning a book into a movie more clear so aspiring film-makers are motivated to write novels. Make the industry sexy again. There’s nothing better than a story.

(By the way, if any of these business ideas interest you, email me at zibby@zibbyowens.com. We can work on them together. I call dibs!)