This question isn't meant in a philosophical or literary-critical sense. Rather, why do readers choose to spend time and often money on a particular book, especially if its author is new to them? Online discussions among writers frequently explore what factors most influence prospective readers to try a novel: Cover, blurb, plot synopsis, reviews, endorsements by favorite and/or famous authors, recommendations by personal or virtual friends? One factor not often mentioned, which I think can also have an influence, is reading author interviews.
My most common motive for picking up a book is admiration for the author's previous work. What about unfamiliar writers, though?
I've been surprised by the number of people who say they're heavily influenced by cover illustrations. The only effect a cover has on me, except sometimes to make me pause and think, "cool cover," is to draw my attention to a book I might not otherwise have noticed. After that, the synopsis and, if available, reviews and customer comments guide my decision. I would never buy a book just because of an attractive cover or decide against it because I didn't like the artwork. (If I did the latter, I would have had to pass up several of Stephen King's later novels, some of which have drab, unappealing covers that convey no information about the content.) So a cover might deter me from even picking up a book by an author I've never read before, but otherwise its effect on a purchase decision, positive or negative, would be minimal. The title has more impact on me in this respect than the artwork; an intriguing title will often inspire me to look more closely. I also like to sample the author's style, by either flipping through physical pages or taking advantage of Amazon's "Look Inside" feature.
Many people doubt the effect of reviews on sales. For me, reviews play a major role in deciding whether to take a chance on an unfamiliar writer. A review doesn't have to be favorable to inspire me to seek out a book. The important thing is that the review be substantive and informative. If the reviewer explains clear, detailed reasons for disliking a book, I may realize that the same elements she dislikes are things I would enjoy. In marketing my own fiction, I've often been disappointed by the apparent total lack of impact from favorable reviews. So maybe it's true that most readers are less influenced by reviews than I am.
In addition to reviews and other materials, LOCUS, which I buy mainly to learn about new and forthcoming books, publishes lengthy interviews. Interviews with authors new to me have sometimes inspired me to read their novels. For example, a recent mention of an author's retelling of BEOWULF sounded intriguing, but when I looked it up on Amazon, the description of a contemporary suburban setting didn't attract me. Yet after reading the author's discussion of that novel and its background in her LOCUS interview, I changed my mind and ordered the book. Online interviews from various sources have also occasionally incited me to search for and possibly buy books I wouldn't otherwise have known about.
Of course, recommendations from other fans who share my tastes play a major role in my reading decisions. That's a marketing factor authors can't control, aside from writing memorable stories.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt