The Battle For Readers

Reading & Writing


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.


30 comments on “The Battle For Readers”

  1. Jo W says:

    Hi,Chris. Errmm,a few typos in tonight’s offering? It could be my eyes,of course. I have supped well tonight (but perhaps,not too wisely.) Anyway, Go one,try one! That’s what I say……….. Signed – an Old Reader. 😉

  2. admin says:

    Yeah sorry about that, I was on a late plane full of screaming anklebiters. I’ve done you a new draft.

  3. Jo W says:

    I can recommend ear plugs for travelling on aeroplanes. There are often fully grown noisy passengers too,whose conversations I would rather not have to hear. 😉
    Thank you for adjusting the blog,I thought the pathways from my eyes to my brain were failing.

  4. Patrick Kilgallon says:

    Your comment about the commitment in writing a novel reminds me of an interview I saw with Bernard Cornwall a few years ago where he expressed frustration at spending anything from 6 months to a couple of years researching and writing a novel, then hearing from readers that they read it in a single day. I can sympathise with his view. I have to confess that there are books I’ve bought on publication and whipped through them in a couple of days, but, taking after my late mother (who I have mentioned here before) I regularly re-read books I’ve enjoyed – sometimes several times. After all, we’re all perfectly happy listening to our favourite music or watching our favourite films again.

  5. Brooke says:

    I confess…didn’t/couldn’t finish reading HoM; didn’t get past first 30 pages. I’ve read Christie and Sayers; they aren’t worth parodying. Following Strange Tide, Hidden Glories and Wild Chamber, HoM was a Copernican jolt. Fortunately, Lonely Hour came along and put the world right again. Waiting eagerly for London’s Finest.

  6. Roger says:

    “REVIEWER: So, what will you read next?

    WOMAN: I’ll read this again.”

    I read an account of Sir Alec Guinness besieged by Star Wars fans. He only gave him his autograph when they agreed – with tearful reluctance in some cases – to watch one of his other films,

  7. admin says:

    It’s not the first time I’ve pulled a Copernican shift, Brooke. It was probably the most ‘deep English’ of all the books because I had in mind postwar actors for every minor role, from Thorley Walters to Aubrey Morris, and many scenes play out like moments from those films.

  8. SteveB says:

    I remember a joke from the 70s sitcom Father Dear Father where Patrick Cargill played a writer
    (Sexist by todays standard)
    Cargill: I‘m an author
    Blonde: Oh that‘s a coincidence
    Cargill: Why, do you write books too?
    Blonde: No, but I read one once
    All together now – groan…
    Written by Johnny Mortimer who was also behind most of Tommy Cooper‘s best gags

  9. SteveB says:

    Thorley Walters makes me think of Alistair Sim, Misleading Cases

  10. Brooke says:

    Ah, Hammer Films strikes again. I missed it. Will try again with those actors in mind.

    @SteveB…thanks for the reference.

  11. snowy says:

    Brooke, once it gets going it is a lot of fun.

    A short critique follows, beware! [May contain a really tiny spoiler.]

    It could have done with a bit of scene setting at the start to ease the reader’s viewpoint back into the past, because starting as it does, the well known characters are all acting completely ‘out of character’. It is all very disconcerting until your brain adjusts to this strange new world.

    It doesn’t or can’t have this easy transition because the Author has a slightly convoluted narrative trick hidden up his sleeve that remains unrevealled until (almost) the very last page. This trick doesn’t quite work, the narrator can’t have or is at least unlikely to have witnessed the opening events and doesn’t appear until later in the story. Hopefully the reader becomes so immersed in the story that this doesn’t occur to them until several days after they have finished the book and get that “Hang on a minute!” feeling in the back of their brain.

    I’d let the book rest on the shelf until Autumn comes, and wait for the itch to come back. It will. It is a story to be savoured for all its unusual ingredients, rather than devoured like popcorn.

  12. snowy says:

    ‘Scene setting’ might be the wrong word? Even prologue doesn’t quite fit. What is missing is the narrative form of characters talking in the ‘now’ transitioning into the same characters in the ‘then’.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Steve B – It’s odd that Patrick Cargill, who always seemed to play constantly bewildered and bumbling characters, played probably the most sadistic and disturbing characters in genre TV – Number 2 in the episode of ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Hammer Into Anvil’. He’s very unpleasant indeed. And it’s brilliant. A superb example of ‘casting against type’.

  14. admin says:

    Snowy, the ‘Hang On A Minute’ moment is not as it appears. I had in mind several films from ‘Green For Danger’ and ‘Miss Robin Hood’ to ‘Blue Murder at St Trinian’s’. Don’t worry, it shot past my editor too! The scene-set was quite deliberate.
    One day I’ll list all of the more obscure references in the B&M books. I admit not all the devices are successful, but as far as I know nobody else is doing this…

  15. snowy says:

    I’m not quite sure we are talking about the same thing? [My explaining skills are a bit weak even when not avoiding spoilers.]

    I don’t remember tripping over any ‘Hang On… moments’ in the plot. Or none that bothered me.

    But there is a ‘reveal’ in the coda, specifically a ‘who’; that when you have read it makes you go “If they wrote it, how could they know about the flare gun and the boat?

    …. If we carry on in this vein, there is much, too much risk of spoiling other peoples enjoyment of the story! I think I’d better shut up and keep my ill thought out opinions to myself, [for a change.]

  16. Richard Nordquist says:

    You’re at the top of your game, Mr Fowler. I just finished The Lonely Hour (though–absurdly–the hardback isn’t available in the US until December), and I was bowled over by the fresh characterizations, sly asides, and always relevant historical lore. I didn’t need to read the afterword to figure out that you had a bundle of fun writing this novel, which is now my favorite book in the series. For what it’s worth, I’ll review it and pass it along to literate acquaintances.

  17. diane says:

    I have read about four of your books as that is all that the local library carries. I have started reading them again. My friend can’t get your books from her local small town library. I ordered one from Chapters(our local mega bookstore)to send to my brother in California. The bookstore doesn’t carry any of your books and so they have to be ordered, I don’t believe in Amazon and so will have to look for an alternative seller.
    I love your books and thank-you for writing them.

  18. Mike Brough says:

    Diane, if your shunning of Amazon is an attempt to protect local bookshops, I’m afraid it’s a bit of a lost cause – as you’re finding out when trying to buy Mr F’s books.

    We probably can’t save the independent bookshop but we CAN save the local author. 🙂

  19. Eliz Amber says:

    “REVIEWER: So, what will you read next? -WOMAN: I’ll read this again.”

    This is quite apt – when I love a book, I want to read more like it. A nice, long series like Bryant and May is a great treat. After I found the first book, I read the others in a few weeks – now, I’m having to wait on the next release. Why can’t you write faster, Mr Fowler? 🙂

    The thing is, many of us are afraid to try anything outside our preferred genre, and sometimes, we’re just not in the mood for it, or we really hate the genre. We don’t want to slog through a book, we want to enjoy it. One advantage to the e-book is that I can get a fairly decent to sample to try before buying.

    With real books, I feel like I have to read the whole thing, not only to justify the money spent, but because it’s something I’ve bought and never used, like a packet of tea towels with the tags still on. There’s a sense of wastefulness. And if a friend loans me a book, I feel obligated to read it, so usually, I refuse the loan, rather than take it for a trial.

    I’ve found many books from end-of-the-book samples of another book the author’s written. Obviously, if I like one book in a series, I’m likely to read the next, but I might not try another series or genre by the author.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    I always read books more than once. Sometimes, many, many times. It’s always hazardous if I venture into the loft for something, as there are many books up there, and a ten minute rummage to see if there’s any LEGO up there, turns into a two hour sojourn, as I have found my copy of ‘Food For Free’, by Richard Mabey, again. I will usually emerge with the primary objective – and a bag full of books. I sometimes find books up there that I have no memory of buying. That’s a bit disconcerting.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Just reading the above, I’m disgusted to notice the use of the phrase ‘Up there’ three times. Sorry.

  22. Malcolm McKay says:

    I must confess that I gave Hall of Mirrors a miss. Simply because I’ve never been much impressed by that style of mystery. It must be my academic training (archaeologist) and solid base in reading scientific and historical non-fiction that leads me to expect a logical unfolding of conclusions based on data that causes this aversion. And for the record I really have never liked Agatha Christie at all. Her cast of highly unlikely protagonists simply bore me – like a sleuth (what an awfully dated word) named Ercool Pouwroe being able to find solutions where normal investigative work hasn’t simply fails so many reality checks that I am left wondering about the author’s sanity.

    In this day there is no need to parody that style of crime fiction. It was already a parody when it first published. The only Dorothy Sayers novel that I read and liked was The Gaudy and that was not for the activities of Lord Peter Wimsey (another historical impossibility) but for its accurate depiction of college life and mores in the traditional style universities in the 30s.

    Sherlock Holmes is another anachronism. Certainly in the 19th century detective procedure was still unformed and experimental. It was the age of the private detectives agencies like the the Pinkerton but these and the various individual operators were fundamentally corrupt in that they were hired to engineer outcomes rather than to find the causes. So if novels regarding these now obsolete activities were to be written I respectfully suggest that they be depicted in the light of their demonstrated faults.

    But back to locked room mysteries and the denouement in the library style I’m afraid these are not for me. They are are now as much a cliche as Scandinavian noir has become.

  23. Bruce Rockwood says:

    I read all your Bryant and May books, having first heard of them in a New York Times book review of, I think, The Victoria Vanishes. Though I systematically read them in order of publication. We have a good interlibrary system in Maine called Minerva. Or I order it from Amazon or Waterstones. I get some recommendations of books from old friends who are authors or history buffs. We have good local independent bookstores here. Or Politics and Prose in D.C. Come give a book tour in Maine ! Bruce

  24. Andrew Holme says:

    As a librarian in an Oxfordshire Secondary school, I’ve started a locked room mystery club with a group of Year 7s and 8s to introduce these students to the wonders of Golden Age crime fiction, and impossible crime stories. This is building up to me introducing them to the B&M books. So, hopefully, you’ll soon have a small cohort of young readers in Oxfordshire who are hooked.

  25. admin says:

    Malcolm – I think the reason I decided on a country house mystery was to subvert the cliche by setting it long past their heyday (and frankly kicking it to death).

    Bruce, you need to find me a festival in Maine!

  26. Malcolm McKay says:

    Thanks Christopher – as I said it’s simply a personal thing with me. I hasten to add that the adventures of Bryant and May fall into the edged whimsical style that I like along with the more procedural style of crime writing by other authors I like. One balances the other.

  27. Helen Martin says:

    Talk about a book you like to a friend, offer a loan to said friend, and insist on a final return. I have done this a couple of times and have converted them both to Fowler books. I have recommended the books casually to others and had not nearly as good a result. It seems that there must be fire in the proposal. You wondered, Chris, about Mr. Kasasian’s authorial location that you had not seen his work until he had produced five and someone else recommended them. He must not have readers with fire in the belly as they say.

  28. Helen Martin says:

    By the way, I do like that photo of you above, even if that might not have been your first glass of the evening.

  29. diane says:

    Thanks Mike. Point taken. Now, I feel that I can order some books and catch up on the Bryant and May series.

  30. LAM says:

    Perhaps I’m just Facebook friends with a universe of readerly folks, but one of the main things I use Facebook for is to recommend books I like to other folks and get book recommendations. And occasionally to try to get the hive mind to help tease out what is going on with trends in fiction that annoy me.

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