Frequency Illusion and the Cognitive Bias Effect in Book Buyers

This post was previously published on the Romance Magicians blog:

Have you ever learned a new word or heard about a historical event for the first time and then next week people are mentioning it everywhere? I just learned the name for that phenomenon–it’s called the Frequency Illusion and it’s classified as a cognitive bias.

That means that the word or the fact isn’t magically appearing everywhere but that you’re now starting to notice it. You see, our brains are wired to see patterns. So when we learn something it brings it out of the background noise of our daily lives and into sharp focus like a spotlight. Once that spotlight has focused on that word or fact, it makes it easier for our brains to recognize it again—hence seeing it literally everywhere.

The brain is an amazing thing and scientists are still learning about cognitive bias or shortcuts that our brain takes everyday to help us make decisions, deal with other people, and most importantly, how we spend our money.

One cognitive bias I’ve butted heads with lately is the Ambiguity Effect. New writers call it the “discoverability conundrum.” Readers are more likely to buy books by an author they know than take a chance on a new author they’ve never read. Buying a book by a new author is risky. It might be a bad book. But actually, there’s also the chance that it might be a good book. As a new writer, I’m continually trying to push through the Ambiguity Effect and convince readers to take a chance on my writing. And a good way to do that is by putting my writing out there. I write blog posts, have freebies on my website at and participate in anthologies with known authors. Happily, just as this cognitive bias works against the new writer, it’s an absolute boon to the established author. Your readers will come back to your books again and again rather than try out someone new and different. They like your voice and your style. You’ve caught them and their brain will keep them with you.

Another cognitive bias writers see a lot is the Bandwagon Effect or to put it another way, the “Fifty Shades of Gray” effect. If everyone you know is reading and talking about a book, you’re going to be curious to see what’s going on inside those covers. On the internet, this is called going viral. Suddenly everyone has to see what the fuss is about. This is great if your book is attached to the phenomenon, just ask E.L. James, Ann Rice, J.K. Rowling, or any other superstar of publishing. When it becomes trendy to read an author’s book, more people will want to join the trend. As a novice writer, there is no way to really jump on this cognitive bias but making sure I’m well branded and have an interesting niche in the writing world helps.

The last cognitive bias I’m going to talk about is the Anchoring Effect. Basically, it works like this: if you give someone a price, it becomes anchored in their mind–then if you discount it, the purchaser instantly sees it as a bargain. Amazon does this really well in that they leave the original price next to the item and then slash through it with the new price above it. It’s a bargain! You have to buy it!

Publishers, hybrid authors, and indie authors take advantage of this cognitive bias. And it’s actually one that benefits both the seller and the buyer. The seller ends up selling more stock and the buyer gets a deal on a book they really want to buy. Win-win! This is why it’s so important for authors to advertise discounts–because selling lots of books at a slightly lower price trumps a couple of sales at full price every time. I’ve seen this in play when my small publisher recently had a sale which included my novella, The Break-In. For a short time, the price went down and as it was announced it all over social media it lead to a bump in sales…which I thought was awesome.

Thanks for bearing with me during my sojourn into science and book selling. May your books sell like hotcakes! (That may be utilizing a comparison bias, but you’ll have to look that one up yourself!)

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Aidee Ladnier

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