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How to encourage reading diversity?

By Gerard Loosschilder and Lára Hilmarsdóttir

We love book stores

We love bookstores because they drive reading diversity. Inviting shelves near the entrance with the top-10 bestselling items. Tables with new titles and authors mixed with old genres; stickers calling out “staff’s pick” helping us to decide what to pick up next; fellow patrons silently browsing or offering their unsolicited advice. They all help readers expand their horizons. That’s why Lára worked in a bookstore for years where she was a beacon to visitors handing out reading suggestions. That’s why Gerard can’t stop himself from coming out of bookstores with yet another pile.

Who would have thought that ways to drive reading diversity can also be a way to limit it? Gaffeo, Scorcu, and Vici studied the Italian book market in 2008 and they found that a few books become best­sellers at the expense of many other books selling poorly. There is a trend towards herd behavior making people read what others are reading. As a result, the winner takes all and success breeds success.

Lára witnessed this trend first-hand, of the book market converging to ever fewer genres and titles. We believe that it makes readers poorer, robbed of all kinds of artistic and cultural treasures. They are unlikely to experience the same variety of characters and story-telling. Fewer authors will be able to make a living from writing and will have to look for another way to earn. Not only would it be a loss to the book market and to culture; it would be downright boring. We believe that booksellers should use their influence to encourage reading diversity.

That’s why in her master thesis, Lára tested three different nudges to drive reading diversity focusing on other-than-bestsellers and turned them into campaigns using point-of-sale materials, testing them in the bookstores of the American Book Center in Amsterdam and The Hague, The Netherlands. She tested her campaigns in two consecutive two-week periods; a control period with no point-of-sale material and a test period with the material.

You may also like this less-famous crime author

It is a variation to a well-known nudge: based on her preference for one author or genre, the patron of a bookstore receives a suggestion for another author or genre. It is based on the theory of ‘temptation bundling’: an individual is encouraged to engage in ‘should’ behavior by linking it to ‘want’ behavior. ‘Want’ behavior is behavior that one already displays and enjoys. ‘Should’ behavior would be good for the individual’s welfare. Similarly, ‘should’ products offer great benefits but are harder to opt for, which is why they are bundled with ‘want’ products. Readers are encouraged to buy books from authors or genres that they are not likely to pick up, by bundling them with books that they already read.

This nudge is turned into point-of-sale material placed in the crime fiction section of the American Book Center in Amsterdam. Crime fiction has gained a lot of traction over the past years and several authors have emerged as consistent bestsellers. John Grisham, Jo Nesbø and Lee Child were selected to be our ‘want’ authors, using them to point customers to the works of less-known yet high-quality crime authors. Together with management of the bookstore we selected three titles and authors to be our ‘should’ products: The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming (2006), The Ex by Alafair Burke (2016) and I Saw a Man by Sheer Owens (2015).

Although of high quality, they are not promi­nently featured in book reviews and marketing materials, and they do not sell well.

To determine if the point-of-sale material drove sales numbers, we compared the sales of the titles across two periods; a control period of two weeks without the point of sale materials versus a test period of two weeks with the materials. In total, a total of 12 copies of the three books were sold in the test period (~.86 copies a day) versus nine copies in the control period (~.64 copies a day). The numbers are low but the difference is significant: the point-of-sale material did indeed help to sell a few more copies of less famous crime writers than we would have expected in its absence.

You may also like this genre with similar traits

This variation of temptation bundling encourages patrons to try books from a genre that may interest them but that they currently are not likely to read. The interest may come from a similarity of traits. We offered patrons a bundle deal if they bought a historical fiction book together with any book from the fantasy/sci-fi section. Books from the fantasy/sci-fi genre (‘want’) have a loyal buyer base and already sell well. The genre of historical fiction (‘should’) does not sell well and management wants to boost it. Management thought that fantasy/sci-fi readers of could be interested in historical fiction because of the historical elements that characterizes both genres.

Three titles were selected: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009), The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell (2004) and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991).  To further prompt sales, a €2 discount was offered on the titles if purchased with a fantasy/sci-fi book.

The point-of-sale materials were put in both American Book Center stores, The Hague and Amsterdam. The layout and the placement of titles across the stores is different. In Amsterdam, fantasy / sci-fi fiction and historical fiction are placed close to one another on the same floor so patrons can easily locate the suggested historical fiction titles. In The Hague, the titles are spread across sections. The Last Kingdom is in Military/History, Outlander is in Romance and Wolf Hall is in regular fiction. That’s why we believe that the effects of the campaign may be stronger in Amsterdam than in The Hague.

 Number of copies sold
in the control period in the test period
Amsterdam 2 10
The Hague 11 15

Statistical test indicated that the lift in sales is low yet significant and it is stronger in Amsterdam than in The Hague. So, pointing out a similarity between two genres can nudge lovers of a popular genre to buy books from a less popular genre.

Look at the effort the author has put in it

A third program that was run follows the effort heuristic. This heuristic says that the more effort consumers think that the creator has invested in producing an object, the more they will value the object. Effort is here a proxy for the quality.  Non-fiction books are particularly well suited to marketing based on the effort heuristic as they are often the result of extensive research, craft, and effort. The challenge is to express the author’s efforts in a meaningful way.

This nudge was only placed in the Amsterdam store of the American Book Center. Six titles were selected from existing inventory: Time Travel: A History by James Gleick (2016), History’s People: Personalities and the Past by Margaret MacMillan (2015), The Unwinding: 30 Years of American Decline by George Packer (2013), Solo Faces by James Salter (1979), Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto (2004) and Nimona, a graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson (2015).

The titles were selected by the staff of the American Book Center who were asked to pick-out books based on the amount of effort they perceived the author had put into writing a book. They are no best-sellers, received little attention, and are not highly rated in book reviews. The effort heuristic was implemented by placing marketing material next to the selected titles on shelf. The material informs the patron of the effort invested by the author in creating the book: research, artistic endeavor or other efforts.

The impact of the nudge was modest: 12 copies of the suggested books were sold in the test period versus eight copies in the control period. Part of it may have been an inventory problem “The Unwinding: 30 Years of American Decline” by George Packer sold out completely in the test period. The reason why this particular title sold so well during the test period may not have been because of the nudge but rather because it was a highly topical book at the time as the test period coincided with the 2017 US presidential elections. Therefore, we cannot be sure if the sales figures for this title are the result of the nudge we created or because of other factors. The main lesson learned is to make sure to have sufficient inventory of a suggested book when putting it on any kind of promotion.

Nudging helps to drive reading diversity

In her thesis, Lára has done some real-time experimentation with nudges that may drive true reading diversity: not just of bestselling items, but of book titles, genres and authors that are less obvious. There are several limitations to the experiments (limited number of titles; short test cycles; no detail about daily sales). Nonetheless, the lifts in sales volume do show that nudging has potential to drive reading diversity. Temptation building seems to be particularly promising, even when the temptation bundle involves no discount. We suggest book sellers use nudges to drive reading diversity in the interest of the book market, authors, genres, and of culture in general.


The authors wish to thank the management of the American Book Center, with stores in Amsterdam and The Hague, The Netherlands, for the opportunity to run the experiments in their stores.

About the authors

This blog is based on the Master Thesis of Lára Hilmarsdóttir MscBA (Master of Science in Business Administration): “Applying choice architecture in book retailing to nudge reading behavior”, Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, student number: 344634, date of submission: December 1, 2016. Dr Gerard Loosschilder was Lára’s thesis supervisor and Dr. Dan Schley was her co-reader. The copyright of the thesis rests solely with the author, Lára Hilmarsdóttir.

Consulted work and references

On the Italian book market

Gaffeo, E., Scorcu, A. E., & Vici, L. (2008). Demand distribution dynamics in creative industries: the market for books in Italy. Information Economics and Policy, 20 (3), 257-268.

On herd behavior

Chen, Y. (2008). Herd behaviour in purchasing books online. Computers in Human Behavior, 24 (5), 1977-1992.

Walls, W. D. (2014). Bestsellers and blockbusters: movies, music, and books (pp. 185-208). In V. A. Ginsburgh, & D. Throsby (Eds.), Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture, Volume 2. Oxford: North-Holland.

On temptation building

Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., Volpp, K. G. M. (2014). Holding The Hunger Games hostage at the gym: an evaluation of temptation bundling. Management Science, 60 (2), 283- 299.

Milkman, K. L., Rogers, T., & Bazerman, M. H. (2008). Harnessing our inner angels and demons: what we have learned about want/should conflicts and how that knowledge can help us reduce short-sighted decision making. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (4), 324-338.

On effort heuristic

Kruger, J., Wirtz, D., Van Boven, L., & Altermatt, T. W. (2004). The effort heuristic. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40 (1), 91-98.

Reading list from the nudges


Charles Cumming (2006) “The Spanish Game”

Alafair Burke (2016) “The Ex: a Novel”

Sheer Owens (2015) “I Saw a Man”

Historical fiction

Hilary Mantel (2009) “Wolf Hall”

Bernard Cornwell (2004) “The Last Kingdom”

Diana Gabaldon (1991) “Outlander”

Effort heuristic

James Gleick (2016), “Time Travel: A History”

Margaret MacMillan (2015), “History’s People: Personalities and the Past”

George Packer (2013), “The Unwinding: 30 Years of American Decline”

James Salter (1979) “Solo Faces”

Russell Shorto (2004), “Island at the Center of the World”

Noelle Stevenson (2015), “Nimona”

Why I told a story

Last November I presented a study at a meeting of the Advanced Analytics network of the British Market Research Society (MRS) in London. I had turned the study into a story with two intertwining story lines. One was about the adventures of Astrid the Princess and her use of a booking site.  The other was about a clash between Charlotte, interaction designer and Oscar, business manager at the booking site that Astrid used.

— Insert image 1 Curtain call for the three actors —

Why did I do that?

Because stories are more engaging

First, I considered a story to be more engaging than an academic-style presentation. The study was based on conjoint analysis, a complex quantitative market research approach that is usually hard to grasp for an audience. The work had been published in two peer-reviewed papers in academic journals, but a direct translation into an academic presentation format would have been boring. It would be more engaging if we were to package it as a story and present it in about 15 minutes: the audience would have understood me better, they would remember the contents better and they would be more likely to act upon it.

— Insert image 2 Understand, Remember, Act —

I call stories like these “business stories”. They have been born from a notion that research studies often don’t have the impact on businesses that the results justify, being ignored after the initial presentation of plain results and ending up in a drawer. It may have to do with the way they are presented to the business. A story takes the audience for a ride. I used the Pixar format in this story (once upon a time …, every day …, one day …, and then …, until …) but there are other formats that we can try to see how they work.

Because stories can help to see the effect of change

Stories help the audience to see the effects of a change which may make it easier to buy into it. The Pixar format is idea for that. Research-based business stories help you learn something from the data that may bring the business move forward from the current state into a desired state, showing what the future looks like. From our early youth we have learned that stories are a great vehicle to present an aspiration, an alternate reality that we create to get closer to an ideal state. That’s why I believe that stories can activate business stakeholders to accept change, seek it or buy into it.

— Insert visual 3 buying into change —-

Because stories help to see it from various perspectives

I used various characters representing different business stakeholders to see the effect of a change from various perspectives. The protagonists are Astrid the Princess and Charlotte the Interaction Designer, where Charlotte represents Astrid to the business. Designers and market researchers are often seen as representatives of the market and as the conscience of the business. Oscar the Business Manager is the antagonist and representative of business interests turned into Astrid and Charlotte’s common enemy.

— Insert visual 4 conflict between stakeholders —-

The distinction between a protagonist and an antagonist helps to show the conflict of interest between a change agent and others, which again may make it easier to envision a course of action. Change often meets resistance because stakeholders have different interests. Charlotte is a change agent who wants to change the interface design of the booking site in the interest of the consumer (Astrid) and the real estate value of the site as a whole. However, her changes to the interface design may disrupt Oscar’s revenue model so he resists the change. In this version of the story, the study results did not help to identify a solution to the conflict of interest so we leave it at that. In a future story, we may be able to describe the longer-term effects of changing the interface design, making the audience buy into the design changes.

What’s next?

Stories are engaging and a great way to see the impact of change from various perspectives, and thereby they more likely to inspire action than other presentation formats. I used a Pixar format to describing the path to change and I made a distinction between stakeholders divided into protagonists and antagonists to show the responses to change.  Before doing this, it is smart to create a stakeholder map to identify conflicting interests and create personas to describe the stakeholders and their attitudes and behaviors anticipating change in more detail. Try it: look in your repository of studies to see if there is one you can turn it into a story for a conference or another business or client engagement and see what happens.