If you're like me, wandering around a bookstore is pure delight (no matter how inefficient Farhad Manjoo over at Slate thinks they are). But if I asked you to describe the elements that make this experience so pleasurable, could you? For centuries, bookstore ambience has led us to buy a lot of books. As we move toward a world where readers are doing more discovery online and authors are doing more promotion there, it's worth studying bookstores for their mastery of what I like to call strategic serendipity.
Bookstores are designed for wandering, browsing, lingering, exploring. The experience seems unstructured, undirected. Yet make no mistake about it, a successful bookstore is beautifully orchestrated to increase the odds that you will discover a special book there and buy it. I once read about a bookseller who stacked books on the floor because he'd discovered that customers enjoyed the sense of stumbling upon them. Brilliant strategic serendipity. The underpinnings of strategic serendipity are the three Cs — Connection, Comfort and Contingency.
Connection. This is the reason book signings, readings and author events have always been part of successful book promotion. Readers love to connect not only with books but with the authors who wrote them. Though the online version requires a few extra technical skills, the world of blogs, websites and social media is really about creating similar opportunities for connection.
Comfort. Once readers have connected with you, make them comfortable. Remember the bookstore model here: The reader is in charge of the discovery process. You've created an inviting space, now let them browse. Whether it's your website, blog, Twitter account, Facebook page or Google+ Hangout, your guests should feel welcome and be able to explore your work on their terms. In a bookstore, if you have a question or want a recommendation, someone is there to help. No one, however, sells you a book. As an author, your approach should be the same. Never sell, only facilitate the discovery of your work.
Contingency. This is defined as 1) a future event that is possible, but cannot be predicted with certainty. 2) a provision for such an event. Though no one "sells" in a bookstore, there are certainly numerous, convenient ways to make a purchase should you decide to do so. If something about your work resonates with a reader, it should be very easy for them to act upon that connection. Make it simple for them to subscribe to your blog, share a link to your site, comment upon or review your book, recommend it, like it or buy it.
The reality is, not everyone who encounters your book will purchase it. You can't force chemistry. Your job is simply to make it possible for readers to connect with your work, make them feel comfortable and welcome as they explore, and prepare for a positive outcome by giving them a convenient way to act upon their interest. Master the art of strategic serendipity and you might even start to enjoy book promotion.