Posts Tagged ‘reading’

The average American reads 17 books per year

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever, On Writing  by John Brown on April 5th, 2012
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Americans and Reading

The Pew Research Center has just published their findings on reading in America. It’s called “The Rise of E-reading“. There’s a LOT of fascinating information in the report. Here’s a taste:

  1. Americans 18 and older read on average 17 books each year. 19% say they don’t read any books at all. Only 5% say they read more than 50.
  2. Fewer Americans are reading books now than in 1978.
  3. 64% of respondents said they find the books they read from recommendations from family members, friends, or co-workers.
  4. The average reader of e-books read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months; the average non-e-book consumer read an average of 15.

Building an Audience

I also want to recommend this week’s post by Kris Rusch on Audience. She has a number of interesting things to say about the dream of being a best seller and building an audience. The money quote comes as she refers to a post by Tracy Hickman:

“The point here is that you do not have to feel as though you are in competition with the entire world. You don’t NEED the entire world to be a successful writer. What you need is an audience—just enough of an audience, mind you—who reads your words, is changed by them and wants to come back for more.”

An audience. More importantly, an audience that reads and “is changed by” your words. Not an audience who loves them, not even an audience who likes them. An audience who is changed by them, and because of that experience, “wants to come back for more.”

Simple. Important. Usually forgotten.

She talks about lots more. Read the whole thing.

My thoughts?

First, there’s no need for authors or readers to worry about wading through “crap.”

According to Pew, readers only read 15 or 24 books a year on average.  That’s not a lot of books.

More importantly, it takes about 3 seconds to get a lead for a good book.  You hear something from a friend or family member, you look at the USA Today best sellers list, you browse a few books at a store or online, you read a blog and suddenly you’ve found a book. 

Readers fill up their book reading slots much more quickly than they can ever empty them.  That’s why we all have years of reading in our queues.

It doesn’t matter that there are millions of other books out there, a good majority of which might have been written by monkeys. There’s no need for authors to worry that readers will have to wade through a mountain of crap to find a good book. They don’t need to because they have leads for good books coming out their ears.

Second, people purchase books that friends, family, and co-workers love.

Which means that when you deliver a great experience to one person, it’s going to ripple out. It’s probably not going to be linear. It’s probably going to ripple out like viruses do into different population pockets. Or seeds do into different environments. It will run through one pocket, make a jump to one or more others, or it may not jump at all. Some pockets are big, some are small.

The way to keep a virus going is to release it in a lot of places where it’s likely to thrive or in places that a lot of people travel through. And as Kris points out, writing is all about repeat business–making sure you have a stream of good product (something I hope to rectify with my own writing this year).

Bottom line: the best way to build your writing business is to simply write the best book you can, and keep them coming.

Third, the market is BIG. 

If you read Rusch’s and Hickman’s articles, you’ll see that even the mega sellers only reach a fraction of those who read. This is reinforced by the statement made by Thomas McCormack, former CEO of St. Martin’s that you can read here. So just because 100,000 people read one book doesn’t mean 100,000 others won’t read mine.  

Moreover, e-books and online shopping are broadening distribution. Brick and mortar stores only have so many slots for books. Every 8-12 weeks they rotate the old books out (like 12 weeks is old) and replace them with the new ones, unless, of course, your book is selling very well and gets “modeled” at the store.  The point is: when you only display a few books at a time, those books will get bigger sales numbers. This happens because there isn’t anything else to purchase.

But you don’t have that limitation with e-books and online shopping. Nothing rotates out of the store. Sure, things rotate on and off the best seller lists. But the books are always there. With an ever growing selection, there won’t be as many mega sellers.  Publishers Weekly discusses this trend in their 2011 Facts & Figures articles, which list best-seller numbers (make sure you click through to the Trade Paperback article as well). The same thing has happened with TV station viewership with the explosion of channels, DVDs, and online streaming. Same thing happened with music.

What this means is each author has a better chance of getting his or her books to those who will love them. We’ll still have best-sellers. But we’ll also have a lot more medium sellers as well. And that’s great for authors everywhere.



Read and report for effect, not rule compliance

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on April 28th, 2009

At a recent writer’s conference I was on a panel and someone asked what the pros and cons of writing groups were.  Writing groups can save AND kill your writing. So beware.

Workshop Benefits

Writing groups are great for:

  • Encouragement
  • Deadline motivation
  • Having fun with other authors
  • Getting a chance to think about and discuss craft
  • Testing your work

The benefits listed above can all be huge helps to a writer. However, there are two traps that many individuals fall into. You want to avoid both of these because they are plagues that can not only infect, but kill your writing.

Workshop Plague 1: submitting for fixes instead of effect

The first problem occurs when a writer forgets that the purpose of sharing your work with the group is NOT to have them tell you what to do. It’s to test your product on readers who are likely to be in the audience for that particular type of story (please note the last part of that sentence as well).

But in many groups this isn’t what happens. The writer submits his work and then hopes it does well. If it does, he purrs and goes his way rejoicing. If it doesn’t, he figures the group will tell him what to do to fix it. In such groups the readers often arrive with a list of “you shoulds” or “I woulds.”

  • The dialogue here is clunky, you should…
  • These characters are stereotypes, I would…
  • You have infodumps here, here, and here: you should…

This all sounds great, right?


This tells a writer very little that’s worthwhile. What was the problem all these shoulds and woulds are trying to fix? You can’t tell. And not knowing the problem, you don’t know if the fix is really going to work. In fact, the suggested fix might be completely wrong for the story. You are the story designer. YOU have to figure out what’s really wrong and then select the right fix.

Case in point: at this conference another author told of a time her editors came back and said the novel needed to be shorter. It was too slow. In reality, the novel was too short. The real fix was to make it longer. She was skimming the surface of the story in summary and needed to go deeper. She made it longer, and the story worked. But if she had been looking for fixes instead of symptoms she would have done the exact wrong thing for her story.

The most productive thing a writer can hear is what effect the text was having on the reader. Was the reader bored, lost, or feeling it was made up? Or was the reader surprised, intrigued, fascinated, freaked out? In short, did it do what the story was supposed to do to the reader?  An accurate report of the reader experience is invaluable. But a list of shoulds and woulds by the Fixits is not. You want symptoms, not diagnoses and presecriptions.

Of course, when you understand the symptoms, you can very easily open it up to the group for suggestions on ways to fix it. Sometimes brilliant solutions arise from such discussions. Sometimes they don’t. Othertimes, they simply provide a way for the writer to work it out in his own mind. But in the end, YOU as writer have to do what’s right for the story you feel in your gut.

One time to be especially careful of this is when you submit revisions of a story to the same group. Here’s why: when someone says a revision lacks blood and vitamins, it may be this is actually the case. But it also might simply be a case of diminishing returns, e.g. the first ice cream cone you eat is great, the second okay, the fourth begins to make you sick. Would the movie you just saw on Friday night be just as powerful if you saw it again on Saturday? And then again on Monday? I know it’s not exactly what’s happening, but it’s similar. After reading a manuscript multiple times, a reader sometimes can see nothing but the stitching.

Furthermore, a reader will often get revision ideas that jazz them about the story only to find the author was jazzed about some other revision idea. And that can often disappoint. And if this multiple revision reading goes through multiple cycles, I’ve found it becomes harder and harder for the reader to avoid becoming a director of sorts, the author trying to perform to their taste. I done this far too often to people feeding me multiple revisions. 

There’s an easy way around this one: simply avoid submitting any individual story to the same set of readers more than once.  However, I don’t want to suggest you should NEVER submit revisions to the same set of readers. Orson Card submits all his work, originals and revisions, to his wife Kristine. I submit mine to my wife and editors. Many writers have trusted readers. Just be aware that submitting multiple revisions can very easily lead to our chasing someone else’s opinion instead of writing the story we feel in our guts.  Tread with caution.

Workshop Plague 2: reading for rule compliance instead of effect

 The second problem occurs when you have readers who have forgotten that the ONLY thing that matters is effect. Many times writers will build a list of writing rules as they learn the craft. And they will forget that the rules are, by themselves, meaningless. Please see my post on Rules vs. Objectives. These well-meaning folks come, not with an accurate report of their reading experience, but with a list of your rule violations.

So instead of hearing that the story immediately pulled the reader in but that by page four the reader’s mind was wandering, the reader points out that you started the story with dialogue and you shouldn’t do that. Or that you used said-bookisms, which was a very flabby and naughty thing to do. Or that you had more than one point-of-view in the chapter. Or that you chapters were too short or too long. Or whatever it is that that particular reader has in their rule book.

This kind of feedback is worthless. I don’t care if my story started with dialogue. What I want to know is if it pulled the reader in. And when I say “reader” I mean  one who is looking for a story, not for rule infractions. What you want is an accurate report of the reading experience. That’s it. Both the good and the bad.

Here’s an example of what I try to do when I read and report. It’s not the only way, but it illustrates what I’m talking about.

  1. I read the story as a normal reader. No pencil or pen in hand. I’m just thinking: okay, I hope this is good.
  2. I read until I’m bored, lost, or (hopefully) turn the last page in delight. Some folks may wonder why I wouldn’t read to the end of everything I’d agreed to report on. Simple. If I’m bored or lost I’m OUT of the story and cannot judge the effect of what follows as a reader. Maybe I’m bored because of the craft. Maybe I’m bored because I’m not in the audience for that kind of story. If this is the case, my experience doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t give a romance to a thriller reader and then expect them to love it, would you? Well, authors are no different. Just because we write doesn’t mean we automatically love everything (please see my blog Is 90% of Everything Crap). 
  3. I write up my experience, making sure I accurately report who and what I was interested in, what delighted me, what bored me, where I was lost, or didn’t believe etc. I’m also very particular to clearly separate  the things that had a big effect on my experience versus those that had a small one. For example, some confusion in an exchange of dialogue might be a small thing. Confusion in a whole chapter is a big thing. As a writer I don’t want a laundry list. I want to get a sense of proportion. And I want to know if the reader generally enjoyed the story or not. It’s one thing to know the story is busted. It’s another to know that it works, but has a few paint spots.  
  4. If I did not read through to the end, I do so now. Or maybe I skim. Just to get an idea of the whole story.
  5. Then I ask myself what I think this story was trying to do. What kind of an experience, what kind of delights was it offering up to the reader? Suspense, delightful characters, romance, wonder, cool textual pyrotechnics, etc.
  6. Having an idea of what the story was trying to do, I see if I can’t diagnose the problems and think of some ways to fix them.
  7. Finally, I give my report to the writer. I include #3. Then I add #5 and #6, stating that here’s “what I think the root of my issues were and some ideas that might help.”

You might do it differently. Just make sure you focus on accurately reporting your experience reading for effect, not rule compliance. Once you have a number of reports you can see what’s working and what isn’t. If one out of ten people has an issue with a certain part, I may or may not ignore it, depending on my own judgment. However, if four to seven of them have an issue, I’m probably going to fix it.

So writing groups can be wonderful. Just be careful to avoid these two plauges as if they were, well, plagues.

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