Writers and Readers

I often see indie authors bring up the fact that the audience for their books seems to be composed of other indie authors. I’ve written a bit about this before, but now I feel compelled to do so again.

Also, I will be making some assertions that I don’t have hard numbers to back-up. If anyone does have numbers that either support or contradict, please say so in the comments.

Fewer People Are Reading

There’s little doubt fewer people read for pleasure than in the past. In 1900, for example, your options for in-home entertainment were much more limited. After a century that has seen the rise of radio, television, and of course, the internet, it’s impossible to imagine books not losing some market share.

Media like television and online videos are also inherently easier than reading. Watching is a passive activity. You don’t have to engage the imagination to the same degree as you do when reading a book. 

This also means that now, more than ever, the people who are reading must really like reading. Because if you just kind of like reading as a way to pass the time, there are lots of other things tempting you. The people who are reading books now are people who are serious about it. Which leads to a second point…

More Readers Are Writing

As Mark Paxson pointed out in the foreword to The Marfa Lights, readers, like pretty much every consumer of media, believe at some level they could make something better than at least some of the material they’re getting. But whereas with, say, movies, it takes a lot of money and buy-in from other people before you even get the chance, publishing a book just requires that you have the ability to save a Word file and upload it to the internet. Of course, publishing a good book takes a lot more than that, but the fact is, publishing has never been easier than it is now.

As a result, readers who in past eras might have had no viable path to publishing their work now have the ability to do so, and consequently, more readers are also writers. Or more accurately, published writers.

Is Any of This a Problem?

The simple answer is, “Duh, of course it’s a problem.” Fewer people read, and if you’re trying to sell books, that’s obviously bad news. And I’ll agree that, for a number of reasons, it would be better if more people read. But that isn’t something we can do much about, at least not in the short run.

I think many people still have in mind, at least subconsciously, the model of The Famous Author and Their Readers. I know I did, and this is probably because the most well-known current authors—Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, to name a few—fit into this mold, and by definition, they and others like them are the authors we hear the most about. 

However, these are exceptional cases. Many authors, including some who became quite famous, often did a great deal of their work as part of small groups of writers who shared their writing with each other. H.P. Lovecraft, whose name is now synonymous with a whole sub-genre of horror, was part of one such group, which also included Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and Robert Bloch. (Psycho)

More generally, good things seem to happen when you get a small group of talented people working together. One person alone usually can’t create something great; if nothing else, they need the support of their friends and peers. Likewise, large groups of people struggle to do anything at all, which is why big governments and corporations alike are famously inept.

In this regard, indie writers are actually quite well-positioned. The set of people who read is being whittled down to those who really care about it, and we have more ability than ever before to share our work.

Mais il faut cultiver notre jardin

What I’m saying here probably runs contrary to the general feeling among most indie authors. No matter how much we (and I include myself in this) may say, “We write for the sake of writing,” the truth is, we want to be read by people. Hopefully, a lot of them. I don’t think any of us expects to reach Rowling or King-level fame, but it would be nice to have a following of people who, of their own free will, read our work regularly.

At the same time, I think it’s a mistake to wish for that at the expense of appreciating what we have. A community of writers, even a small one, is a recipe for producing great work. And, in my opinion at least, it can be satisfying in ways that having a lot of readers wouldn’t be. I may not be a famous writer, but unlike King or Rowling or Martin, I can count on the fact that all my feedback, whether positive or negative, will be thoughtful and well-considered.  

I realize that by writing all this, I may be coming across as a “Professor Pangloss,” the absurdly optimistic character from Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide. But if by doing that I encourage my readers to continue their writing—as Voltaire was supposedly encouraging his readers by writing Candide—it will be worth it.

13 Comments

  1. The biggest problem we face is how to attract an audience of readers, outside the mainstream, traditional publishing world. We (at least the vast majority of us) don’t have the resources to put into marketing like the publishing houses do. And we don’t have any sway with Amazon or any other book retailers. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg thing. What comes first — readers or a vibrant social media platform. I’m not claiming anything I do on social media is vibrant, but after more than eight years of blogging and several years on Twitter, I’m convinced that social media is not the way to attract readers.

    I like your optimism of how we indie authors are a support group for each other and, out of that, good things could grow. I hope that can work at least for some of us, but I feel like most of us remain in a closed loop of supporting each other and not finding an outside audience yet.

    1. I know just what you mean, but at the same time, I’ve discovered so many wonderful authors through social media–such as yourself. 🙂

      Also, I’d definitely say your GIF wars with Katie Dawn are pretty vibrant! 😀

      1. Oh, I know. If it weren’t for WordPress, I wouldn’t have learned of Kevin Brennan, Carrie Rubin, you, Audrey Driscoll, Fallacious Rose, Tammy Robinson, and may others. (To those others, my apologies for not listing you here. The memory of an old man, you know.) And over on Twitter, there are others that I have no “met.” And I enjoy seeing what each and every one of these writers comes up with next.

        Maybe I need to do what Kevin suggested in his recent post — just accept that my audience is never going to be that huge and will mostly be limited to friends, family, and social media acquaintances. Which basically means that I need to decide that I’m writing for myself. Which is how I started, but at some point I decided I wanted an audience. I need to get back to “writing for myself.”

        Sigh.

        1. I think everyone is at their best when they write for themselves. Like Kevin said, as long as we can be proud of what we write, we’re not wasting our time.

          1. Agreed. I just need to get back to the place where I write just to write. For the enjoyment of it. And the recognition that if I publish the result, I may end up with fewer than 100 readers. Unless you’re want to write in a popular genre again.

  2. Well said, Berthold. Especially the part about indie publishing being a different phenomenon than old-fashioned traditional publishing. Success in this world is measured differently. We just have to stop beating ourselves up for not looking like those other writers. And thanks for the mention!

  3. When I first started e-publishing in 2011 I could sell 10 or 15 stories a month. At royalty of .35 that was about 3 to 4 dollars a month. Not fantastic, but it was something. The more I published the more I started making. At that time people were buying e-readers and wanted e-books. In about six months no matter how new the book the sales slumped. The sellers caught up with the buyers. It didn’t take long. I’ve gone years with little or no sales on amazon. I’m getting back to having sales because of a few blogger friends like you who review my books and others on TTT and WC, but not alot. Today there is a glut of well heeled writers that are heavily promoted by Amazon and the little guys are sucking hind tit as usual. It’s now possible to publish and buy paperbacks of books for less that five dollars and sell them for ten or fifteen. Problem now is there’s no place to hold book sales.

  4. Hi Berthold – I think you make some great points about writers and readers these days. I think there’s an incredible amount of support among fledgling and indie authors – I find that very encouraging. But writing for oneself is also important – it helps develop ideas and a style. Who knows if I’ll ever get a book published, but I’m glad to be communicating with people like you!

    1. Thank you. And likewise! 🙂 Everything you do to promote indie authors is wonderful, and we appreciate it!

  5. I’m really behind on my blog post reading, but this was an excellent post. The more we support each other, the better off we’ll all be. 🙂

    1. Thanks! Glad you liked it 🙂 And you are one of the best when it comes to supporting indie authors, so thank you for that, too!

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