The Battle For Readers
The battle is to get someone to read the book.
I was once on a panel seated next to a very amiable New Yorker who stacked his books in front of him as if building a sturdy store display. In every answer he gave, he inserted a lengthy sales pitch for his new book.
I couldn’t blame him – I know this was good business sense but the technique doesn’t work because readers are smarter than authors and have decided what they want.
The biggest battle I have is to get someone to actually read a book.
When I was in the film industry, we joked that there were certain films you couldn’t get anyone to watch even if you handed out free tickets on a rainy street. But every book has a unique market. We pick up the weirdest volumes on a whim, because of the cover, because of the subject, because someone has mentioned it. We don’t have time to read. I’m zipping through Muriel Spark’s works partly because I love her writing and partly because they’re short, but at least I’m finishing them. Reading time must be made by banging a wedge into the timeline of your day. We can’t waste time, so we check reviews.
Non-fiction gets the majority of national press reviews; I’ve had more coverage for my three non-fiction books than for all the others put together. I personally use sites like Goodreads, Dead Good, Fully Booked and others. I buy books as if there’s about to be a serious shortage.
Yet getting someone new to read your book is a serious uphill struggle.
When I look back over just the Bryant & May novels I realise what a huge undertaking they turned out to be. If you think it takes commitment reading them, you should try writing them. I want people – especially younger people – to try them just to understand what it is they enjoy or dislike.
Five years ago on this site I noted the following conversation, initiated by a reviewer friend of mine at a Harrogate literary festival.
REVIEWER: (Noting that woman next to her is reading ’50 Shades Of Grey’) Are you enjoying that?
WOMAN: It’s the first book I’ve ever read.
REVIEWER: What do you think of it?
WOMAN: It’s absolutely brilliant.
REVIEWER: So, what will you read next?
WOMAN: I’ll read this again.
Recently I had criticism from a couple of readers about the sixties-set Bryant & May novel ‘Hall of Mirrors’. They didn’t get it. I realised they had never read anything in the style I was parodying. When I made jokes about Christie and Sayers and murders in libraries they were mystified. But I’m not going to write at entry-level. When I say I write for mature readers it has nothing all to do with age, but with experience of reading and of life.
The longer you write a series, the more your reviews decline. Press reviews are now almost non-existent (when I started reviewing, Time Out had four pages of them every week. Now they have articles on shaving foam). So the battle for new readers goes on. But it’s time we found new ways of reaching them. Publicity stunts don’t work. Giving books away seems a better idea.
But best of all, grass roots readers can propel books to the top.