Most writers write to get read, so how do readers discover ebooks?

To discover clues to the answer, I posted a survey over at Mobileread, the online forum popular with many ebook readers.

I challenged readers to select the single most common criteria they follow to discover their next read.

The results provide some interesting data points Smashwords authors and publishers might consider in their marketing efforts.

To capture a broad range of usable data, I suggested 12 answers, one of which was “Other.” Respondents were allowed to select one answer only since I wanted to identify the single most important discovery criteria.

As of this writing, 206 people answered the survey. Click the image to enlarge it.

Key findings, plus my observations:

1. The most-selected answer was “Recommendations from fellow readers on online message forums, blogs and message boards,” with 29% of respondents choosing this. By contrast, only 4% selected, “Personal friend/family member recommends it to me.” I think this is fascinating, because it implies readers might trust the collective wisdom of strangers and online acquaintances more than they trust the recommendations of immediate friends and family. At the risk of placing too many eggs in this basket, remember 71% selected something else.

2. The second most common answer was, “I look first for my favorite authors,” coming in at 18%. This makes sense. As I mention when I present my Seven Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success talk, the author is the brand and if the author can earn the trust and loyalty of readers, readers will return to that brand for their next read. Readers in this group may also be more risk-averse. One respondent commented, “I’m at a point in life where I mostly stick with authors I already know and like. Why waste time and money on something I may not like?”

3. I found it interesting that the top two answers accounted for 47% of responses, with the other 53% of answers fragmented across ten other answers. This implies, I think, that in order for authors to reach the maximum number of readers, it requires them to orchestrate multiple touch points.

4. Several answers indicate buyers prefer a random discovery approach. Readers like to browse. Taken in the aggregate, random browsing rivals the single largest discovery method, with over 25% of respondents. The following are all random browsing methods: I browse book covers, and if it grabs me I investigate further (7%); I browse randomly then look at reviews (7%); I read free ebooks, and if I like the authors I buy their other titles (5%); I browse paper books at brick and mortar bookstores, then search for the ebook online (4%); I’ll sample anything, and if it grabs me I’ll download/buy it (4%). Most other answers involve some element of random browsing.

5. The Mobileread community has apparently abandoned traditional print media as their first choice for reviews and recommendations, with only 3% citing this as their preferred book discovery method. This isn’t surprising, considering Mobileread is a hyper-focused community dedicated to e-reading. It’s not representative of the entire population of book buyers. However, I think Mobileread does serve as a leading indicator of how consumer sentiment will change once readers make the transition to e-reading. Looking at the answers in aggregate, it’s clear that over 90% of ebook discovery is occurring in the online realm.

6. I was surprised only 3% of respondents looked first to the bestseller lists, which scored just as poorly as print media reviews. Possibly it’s a flaw in how I structured the survey. I was also surprised that retailer recommendations, such as the “people who bought this bought that,” scored only 5%. Maybe if I asked, “Name the top three methods you use for discovery,” these would have scored higher.

7. The “Other” answers, where I invited Mobilereaders to leave comments and elaborate, elicited 11% of responses. Judging from their comments, several of them found it difficult to choose a single favorite discovery method (in other words, they didn’t follow the survey instructions which asked them to choose their #1). Of those who provided true “other” answers, several mentioned they discover books at libraries, or select primarily by title or book description (I should have included these as a survey options).

What to make of the results? How might authors and publishers focus their e-publishing efforts based on the data above? I think it boils down to the following:

  • Write a great book that resonates with readers and gives them something to talk about
  • Target readers who are active in online communities because they influence their fellow readers (The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide provides 30 online marketing ideas)
  • Maximize the availability of your book so readers can randomly stumble across it and sample it
  • Boring titles, unprofessional cover images and poorly written book descriptions are instant turn-offs
Do the findings above match your experience as a reader or author?
Via Smashwords Blog


  1. The results are questionable.
    We were asked to pick ONE answer – what is the most often used method of discovery. It would be more informative if readers could choose something like: I discover 30% of books by reading reviews, 25% by looking at covers …

    I am sure that the vast majority of readers out there use combination of at least 5 of the above methods , and that they do not use one single methods significantly more often than others. I am also pretty sure that if you took 50 most recently read books for each person and actually statistically evaluated results, the numbers would be different from what people claim.

  2. I’m not surprised that MobileRead members tend to avoid bestseller lists. The common perception is that those lists are essentially controlled by the major publishers–a group that has also earned the ire of MR members by their historic denigration of ebooks and independent authors–and are therefore considered skewed and untrustworthy. Also, those lists tend to be print-based and displayed in traditional sources, and MR members are web-based and increasingly social-media-based.

    In short, the old bestseller lists are considered “so last century.”

  3. Having to pick just one, mine would be “I read free ebooks, and if I like the author I buy their other titles”. I am in a couple Kindle lending clubs where I get the vast majority of my ebooks, but if I like a particular one I then buy it (have to reward the author!) and often others by that writer. Now that there is Kindle lending for libraries I expect to be able to get even more free reads to try before I buy.

  4. … it implies readers might trust the collective wisdom of strangers and online acquaintances more than they trust the recommendations of immediate friends and family.

    No, it implies that it’s easier to find other avid ebook readers online than among friends & family. I trust friend & family recs more than strangers or acquaintances online… but I don’t get a lot of ebook suggestions from them, compared to how many I find at Mobileread.

  5. All surveys have fault lines and flaws. This one is no different. But all in all I find it broadly confirms how I and many others hereabouts have always perceived things.

    I know I am a bit tiresome in repeating this but we should keep in mind that we are still very very early in the development of the market. Social reading sites are in their infancy and imho the 36% who consult forms and reviews will continue to expand and include those kinds of sites as the main source for titles.

    The favourite authors segment is a transitional segment imho, as it is probably carrying over authors known to the reader from before the eBook. The low numbers who take and interest in the best seller list are probably indicative of the kind of reader who frequents MobileRead.

  6. While somewhat superficially interesting, much of the observations made above are over-extrapolations of the data presented. Furthermore, the manner of conducting this survey renders it unreliable as a temperature point for the market and consumer behavior since surely Mobileread community members who choose to comment are somewhat differentiated in their behavior from those that simply READ from the site. As ones who are actively playing a role in social media, one would expect that they are also more likely to rely on it as a source of knowledge. Its also worth mentioning that anyone in the Mobileread community is more likely to rely on social media than the average ereader. As Mr. Coker does acknowledge, the Mobileread–like most early adaptors–may possibly be an indicator of things to come, however since they as social media consumers do demonstrate specific behavior, I don’t think this excuse can be extended to account for the whole of their behavior. In short, I do not think this community can be said to represent the market on the whole.

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