July 1st, 2010 by Will Entrekin

Asking Readers

The life of a writer, despite what you may have heard, is not exactly glamorous (though some writers look way better living one than others), and it’s often full of hustling and scrambling to reach certain goals, not the least of which is getting paid. Several months ago, while seeking freelance opportunities to supplement the meager income of being an adjunct professor at a small college, I found an opportunity to write online for a growing website I will leave nameless, both for purposes of professionalism and discussion but also because it’s not actually relevant to my purposes.

The ad I saw looked interesting and sought a writer interested in a monthly column. So I dropped a note to the supplied e-mail and, when I got a positive response, checked out the site, which was actually pretty awesome. I looked over some of the articles and pitched to the editor an idea I’d been kicking around for a few months (and still am).

The editor was encouraging and liked my style but thought the topic to specific and narrow, too relevant to writers and not relevant enough to their readers.

Ah, the dichotomy.

Look around online, visit Facebook or Twitter, and you’ll see lots of “articles.” Basically blog posts, except back in the old days blogs used to be web logs, and they used to be personal and on Live Journal and . . . was it Zingo? No, Xanga!

And then, of course, there was MySpace. I missed Live Journal and Xanga, but boy did I find MySpace. I started posting blogs there in August 2005, just when I was starting to consider graduate school, and the people I met through MySpace became very much a part of my experience of Los Angeles and USC.

Back then, the blogs and the posts . . . well, no one word applied to them. Lots of writers were posting poetry or microsays or short fiction. Some serialized novels and such. Some just wrote about life and pop culture.

I bring all this up because while I know that still exists, it seems there’s been an interesting transition over the past few years. We used to be a culture of consumption but are quickly becoming, instead, a culture of creation. Many of the people who read blogs decided to start blogs of their own (myself included) to write about whatever was important to them.

Readers became writers.

Do readers even exist any more?

***

Maybe my uncertainty is because I’m arguably closer to the publishing side of writing than many people are. I don’t know if readers, in general, can name the big 6 corporate publishers off the top of their heads, but I know many of the people I follow and who follow me on Twitter probably can. So I fear some of my view is too insular.

As in chemistry, where like dissolves like, when you get to a social networking medium, like tends to attract like. Writers attract other writers; it’s a support system, in a lot of ways. Collectors attract other collectors. Fans attract other fans.

Readers, one would think, would attract other readers, but perhaps by nature of the medium, something strange starts to happen; readers start becoming writers themselves. Readers sit down at their keyboards and review books online and become book bloggers, who become so great in number they actually have a convention to complement Book Expo America, basically the largest literary gathering on the East coast.

Communities gather. It’s what we do. We gather around the things we know and care about, the things that drive us and motivate us.

So, when readers who have begun blogging about books they love come together, they start talking about things like ethics and journalism and professionalism.

Often, when writers begin to build a so-called platform, they begin to talk about the sorts of things they care about and are interested in. The sorts of things that new writers are so concerned about. They produce the sorts of articles I put in quotes just up above: they talk about the best ways to build a platform. They talk about great ways to market cheaply.

Now don’t take me wrong: I’m not claiming there’s anything wrong with this.

It makes a lot of sense. In fact, a lot of what I’ve posted to this site has concerned the publishing industry, and problems with it.

Maybe what I’m driving at is that Jesus Christ, sometimes I bore even myself. And given that I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you want to make readers cry you have to make yourself cry first, if I’m starting to bore myself, you’re either well on your way to bored or relatively far beyond it already.

***

When I pitched to that editor, I received similar feedback; it was a neat idea, but the site wanted something more reader-centric, rather than writer-centric. Reading over more of the site to see the sorts of articles they were posting on a regular basis, I realized I had no idea either what that meant or how to pursue the relationship further. It may not have been professional that I simply gave up; I probably should have engaged the editor in a dialogue about what would have worked and what wouldn’t.

The thing is, though, that I sometimes think engaging editors is precisely–and especially lately–the wrong way to go about it.

Over the past year, I’ve begun to use Twitter more. It’s fun and fast, and can be as informative as it can be a complete waste of time otherwise better used elsewhere. It’s another like-attracts-like venue, but it’s also one where friends of friends of friends can jump easily into ongoing conversations. One useful catalyst for that bit is the hashtag, of which there are many. Among the hashtags I keep in a saved search list are #1b1t, #supernatural, and #pubtip. I’ve seen lots of others; one agent founded an #askagent hash by which aspiring authors can ask agents pretty much anything about the querying process.

One regular one is #followreader, wherein it seems like publishing professionals discuss amongst themselves . . . er. To be honest, I don’t quite understand what the #followreader discussion aims at. I know a lot of people I respect take part, and they talk about interesting things.

The thing about #followreader, though, is that it doesn’t, actually. You’d think that one would follow the reader like one would follow the leader, and it seems it even has its own site here. At the time of this writing, the most recent post is “What’s the RIGHT way to e-Read?” (Which I think prompts the question: er. Is there a wrong way to e-Read? Surely, if I’m reading, however I’m doing so has to be right. I’m the reader, after all, which makes me the customer, who is always right.) Others include “What’s Good About Traditional Publishing?” and “Networked Bloggers Sell More Books.”

And don’t get me wrong: I see the value in that sort of discussion. Although asking people who’ve been involved with the traditional publishing industry since manuscripts were sent hard-copy by Fed Ex what’s good about said industry strikes me as somewhat analogous to asking Paul McCartney what was great about the Beatles. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because Hell, he’s Paul McCartney, after all. I don’t even much like the Beatles but I’d still ask Paul McCartney what was great about them, and maybe ask him to play “Let It Be” for me, because Fuck, how awesome would that be?

But there’s a giant disconnect:

There’s a lot of talk the publishing industry needs saving. Everyone wonders what will save it. Publishers and editors and agents continually go to book fairs and conferences and every available media opportunity they get to note how things are uncertain but books remain strong and all this stuff, but there’s one major person nobody seems to ever think to talk to:

You.

Follow the reader? Are you burning to know what’s good about traditional publishing?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe readers aren’t the point of #followreader. Maybe it’s publishing professionals talking amongst themselves to better figure out how to sell more books and survive and thrive in a new economy and acknowledging they have to do so by serving readers.

Maybe. But in that case I think of those damned writing manuals you see in any bookshop you go to. Not the Writer’s Market but the other ones like those mentioned in this Atlantic essay. I’m obviously not against workshops, studying craft, and reading about how to write better. I think writing better has perhaps become my main driving goal. I can’t exactly disparage How to Write a Better Plot when Robert McKee’s Story is half the reason I took a class with Syd Field, who literally wrote the text book on screenwriting and plot, both of which helped me become a better writer and storyteller. Ditto Sid Stebel’s Double Your Creative Power!. Sid was my adviser at USC, the guy who read, gave feedback on, and then signed my thesis.

Obviously, I think instruction is valuable. I think discussion is terrific.

But I think, ultimately, both neglect the most important aspect of writing and publishing in general, and that’s you.

I can’t speak for every writer, but I wouldn’t do it if not for you. To communicate with you. To say something to you. Writing is, first, communication from one person to another (or, hopefully many others). But always communication.

I see a lot of those hashtags. #askagent. #pubtip. #scribechat. All these writers and editors and agents and publishing pros talking amongst themselves.

Where’s the #askreader?

I see a lot of aspiring authors using the #askagent tag to ask questions like “What’s the hot trend now?” or “Do vampires still sell?” or other such questions.

Why aren’t more people asking readers what readers want to read?

More importantly, why aren’t I?

Why aren’t more people asking you how you want to read a book? Why aren’t publishers asking you what books you’ve been enjoying? Why aren’t agents asking you what sorts of books you’re dying to read so they know what to pluck from the 1000s of slush manuscripts they’re always complaining they receive but don’t have time to actually reject or even respond to.

Is it just me, or does it seem like #followreader is really all about trying to lead readers somewhere, rather than following where readers might like to go?

***

Which is not to say I’m not guilty of narrow focus. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve posted so sporadically. Maybe I got so wrapped up in trying to be an author I forgot why I was writing in the first place.

I’m starting a new hashtag: #askreader. So far as I can see, it’s not been used before, and I think that’s a shame.

Because I want to know: what do you want to read? What makes you visit a site? What made you visit mine? If you bought my book, what made you do so?

Once upon a time, I was writing about pop culture but doing so inconsequentially. I burned out on MySpace because I didn’t feel what I was writing was really any good. I think I burned out on posting elsewhere, at least for a while, because I got so caught up in things like “platform” and “readership” and “online presence” and “marketing” I forgot to be a writer.

So, a promise: if you read this, if you comment, if you tell me what you want to read, I’ll write something and post it. Depending on the response, it might take a while, though I doubt it; since I stopped posting regularly, readership here has dropped rather significantly.

But I think I’m done worrying about readerships in favor of wondering about readers.

Again, simple: what do you want to read today?

Comments

4 Responses to “Asking Readers”
  1. Hi Will,

    I’ve been reading you fairly consistently since the MySpace days – in fact I think I found your blog via Neil Gaiman – so that says something about the power of networking. I think you make some interesting points here; as a freelance writer myself, I’ve certainly had similar pitching experiences with editors.

    Certainly, I’d agree that (in large part) discussions about Publishing and, heaven help us, The Advent of E-Readers, tend to focus on what publishers/agents/writers think – or more specifically, how each group thinks it will affect their own business. Obviously, none of these parties are going to be as diligent about what a notional reader wants. But, I wonder if chasing reader’s opinions is really that useful.

    Bear with me here, I’m making this up as I go along.

    First of all, we can’t really know ‘what readers want’. All of us are readers to some degree or another. Some, like yourself (I assume), have developed a network of similar people who are also readers. Sure, we can talk about what we like and tell you, but extrapolating that to the wider reader population is, I think, problematic.

    Secondly, ‘what readers want’ isn’t necessarily what you or I (or whomever) is interested in or able to do. Obviously, this depends on how you view the whole process. I can see how, if I were James Patterson (for example), knowing ‘what readers want’ would be important planning & marketing data for my next fiscal quarter. But (and I don’t know, but in terms of commercial fiction, I suspect you’re closer to King than Patterson) not everyone can, or wants, to work like this.

    Third, the notional reader doesn’t necessarily know what he wants. To grab a common influence here, Neil Gaiman has often been quoted saying (in essence): readers always want what you did last time. But (this is me again) when they get it, it’s not always that valued. There’s a very good interview with David Mitchell (whether or not he’s your sort of writer, it’s worth the read) on the Powell’s site. He talks specifically about the ever-diminishing returns writers who chase their image of the market ultimately receive. I’m not suggesting that readers are stupid – far from it. But I am saying that nobody in 1996 was saying: “what I really want to read is a book about The Boy Who Lived”*.

    Finally (because this is already a stupidly long comment), here’s my theory: your best work is always the stuff you are in love with. You can – I definitely have – write for a market, or for an editor, or however, but the best work you do, the stuff you are proudest of, is that which you do because you must. It may not be a bestseller; those garlands are chance as much as anything else, but I also think that if your work is good enough, readers will find it. Maybe not as many as you like, or exponentially more than you have dreamed, but no matter how many contacts you’ve made on Twitter, all that stuff is window dressing. It may help a great book, but like Stephen King says about writing classes, (again paraphrasing) if it’s not good to begin with, you’re shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic.

    Basically, I think you give readers what they want by surprising them. As a reader myself, I can assure you that’s what I want.

    Quick postscript: not trolling here – I enjoyed your piece and thought I’d share the ideas it stimulated. Keep posting – your pieces are always interesting.

    Postscript postscript: * = those little-known books about the four-eyed kid with the lightning scar on his forehead. Totally underrated hidden gems.

    E

  2. Thanks for the response, Eoin. Really good points. I agree to some point, certainly–readers don’t really know exactly what they want, what readers love is to be surprised, all that. Definitely. And you may be right to wonder if wondering what readers want–chasing their opinions, as you put it–is useful. I think the feeling that inspired this rant, on my end, was more that I’ve grown tired of chasing publishers’ and agents’ opinions, and grown exhausted by their chasing other agents’ and publishers’ opinions themselves.

    It was also at least partly borne out of frustration from seeing someone on Twitter ask how to best ‘interact’ with people. And I got what she meant, but really, interacting seems like such a wrong way to put it. It’s conversation and, maybe mostly if we’re lucky, listening.

    Quick postscript: long, perhaps, but thoughtful and certainly not stupidly so. So thanks again.

  3. Hey Will. I still come here because I like your writing. I like intelligent writing (or conversation, or discussion, etc.) It’s sorely lacking these days and, as such, it’s not very marketable (or vice versa; not sure which is the chicken and which the egg). I miss the fiction you wrote, but I’d also be interested in slice-of-life stuff; the pieces that tell readers about you, as a person.

    In my myspace forum, I tended to write cornicopically (not quite sure that’s a word, and nearly certain if it is I butchered the spelling). That’s because I read cornacopically (if I spell it differently each time maybe once I’ll get it right!). I miss the readers, and I miss the writing; I’ve been very remiss in that area, however I have transferred my creativity vibe into photography, an artistic area in which I’m improving each week (this is due to a contest I enter which I will probably never win, but from which I learn new techniques each week.)

    But I still read. The nightshift breaks are long and lonely; one must fill the time somehow and they do, at least, provide ‘puters to surf upon. So I’ll be around, regardless of when and what you post.

    And at some point, when the overtime ends and I have 3 and 4 day weekends again, I’ll get going on changing up ravnostic.com to a more photographic venue.

    Peace be with you, friend.

    rav

  4. It’s really nice to know you still pop in, Ravvy, and that I get to keep you company during those long and lonely shifts; that’s one thing I think writing is best for. I’ve been enjoying your farktography, too. And may start posting more in the way of fiction. Definitely slice-of-life. Peace with you, as well, friend.

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