Hey, Author: Top Five Reasons Why I’m Not Buying Or Reading Your Novel

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Currently #1 on Amazon, and it won’t even be released till 5/14: yet another retread of the Robert Langdon symbology-lite adventure tale. Deep, meaningful and artful? Probably not. But most likely a very entertaining and quick read, and that’s what matters.

If you’ve read the About page, you know that among other things, I am an author. However, I did not stop being a reader at the moment my first book was published. However arty, deep, erudite and whatnot I might like to seem in writer and author circles, for the purposes of this post I’m talking purely from the reader’s perspective and I’m going to be brutally honest.

Some of what I’m about to admit may shock some of my novelist friends, but I hope they will understand: what I’m saying here reflects the opinions and preferences of many of today’s readers, even though most of us would never admit it to any of your faces. Thinking the stuff I’m about to say is unfair to authors, getting angry about it, or dismissing it will not make it any less true for me and those who feel as I do. I am also fully acknowledging that everything I’m about to say in this post is equally applicable to my own novels.

Ironically, it turns out that by the time most of us get to a point where we can afford lots of books in the monetary sense, we can’t afford them in any other sense.

So here they are, in no particular order: the top five reasons why I’m not buying or reading your novel:

5. There are too many other things I have to do, or would rather do.

Like most adults my age, I have a fulltime job and kids. I also happen to be a single parent, so household maintenance is all on me; look at the divorce statistics in this country and you’ll know I am not an exceptional case. On top of all that I’ve got some hobbies I’d like to pursue, friends I’d like to socialize with from time to time, and I’m trying my damnest to exercise regularly. In order to read your book, I have to take time away from one or more of those other things.

Add to this the fact that I’m surrounded by the internet, hundreds of local and cable TV channels, instant video movies, YouTube, thousands of casual game apps, social media, magazines that arrive in my mailbox every month and countless other forms of instant-gratification entertainment delivery systems, and it’s not hard to see why I’m more likely to turn to one of those things than a book when I’ve got twenty minutes to spare.

This book is basically the made-up history of the fantasy world from the Zelda series of videogames. Currently #2 on Amazon, and it’s been in the top 100 for 191 days. Yep: a whole lot of people are buying this book instead of your novels (or mine).

4. It’s too long.

If your novel is a doorstop-sized tome, I’m out. My available reading time is extremely limited, and I’ve been disappointed by too many books to make that kind of commitment to anything new. While I might’ve been able to burn through a weighty read like yours in a couple of weeks or less when I was in college and had far fewer demands on my time, today I look at it and know I’d still be working my way through that bad boy months from now. And if I’m going to commit months of my life to anything, it better be taking inches off my thighs, involve travel abroad, or earn me college credit toward an advanced degree.

3. It feels like homework.

And speaking of college credit…

If your novel is filled to bursting with historical, philosophical, cultural and literary references, I’m out. I don’t have the luxury of extended hours of reading time at this point in my life, and if I have to spend even just five minutes of my 20 minute reading blocks looking up an obscure reference or scouring my memory banks for something I learned in my History of Folklore class over three decades ago, your novel is turning my brief reading periods into something that feels more like homework than a pleasurable escape from the workaday world.

If you want to boil this one down to, “It requires me to think too much,” okay. Fair enough, you can have that. But do realize: this doesn’t mean that I and those like me are intellectually lazy, that we don’t want to exercise our brains. It’s just that for many of us, our everyday lives are already giving our brains all the workout we can handle. Working at our day jobs, keeping up with current events and world affairs, doing the necessary research on our own and our kids’ health, education and social matters, and just coping with the bombardment of information coming at us on a daily basis is already asking quite a lot of our mental faculties.

So by the time we reach for a movie, novel, game, magazine or something similar, a whole lot of us aren’t looking to ponder, learn or grow; we’re really just looking for an entertainment break or an enjoyable, light, escapist distraction. And on those rare occasions when we are in the mood for something a little deeper, a book that will require weeks or months of our time to finish doesn’t look too appealing compared to a movie we can be finished watching, and animatedly discussing with friends, a couple hours from now.

Your basic, thinly-veiled porn. Currently #10 on Amazon, and has been in the top 100 for 345 days—nearly a year. Pure escapism, and apparently what hundreds of thousands of readers want.

2. It is not optimized for reading in bite-sized chunks.

Many a quality novel requires the reader’s full attention and even a kind of mental submersion in the material in order to be fully appreciated. If the author’s trying to create and sustain a certain tone or mood, the novel is better suited to a few long, leisurely reading sessions than a lot of short ones where time pressure is a factor.

Also, books with short chapters are more appealing to people with limited reading time because it allows them to feel like they’re making progress with every reading break. Long chapters can be daunting in the same way lengthy books are.

1. It’s asking too much of me.

Remember, your book is competing against movies, TV shows, music, comedy, video games, the internet, magazines, social media and a bunch of other stuff for our dollars, brains and eyeballs. In today’s busy, info-overload world, that’s a tough sell.

Some sociologists and psychologists have theorized that the internet, TV show news-crawls and casual gaming are training our brains to be optimized for rapid decision-making and multi-tasking: to very quickly glean whatever’s most important or necessary from a given source, then quickly shift focus to the next thing. I don’t know if it’s true, but it sure feels that way. Novels take many, MANY hours to consume, and all but the most fluffy of them demand the reader’s complete and exclusive attention to be fully appreciated.

Think about it: what else in your everyday life gets your complete and exclusive attention for hours at a time, regularly, over a period of weeks or months? This means that for hours at a time, you are completely consumed by a single activity, and during that activity you’re not doing, or thinking about, anything else. You’re not: checking your phone or email, going over mental checklists, listening to your iPod, mentally preparing for the next activity, texting, waiting for an alarm, keeping one eye on the clock, driving, talking, cleaning, etc. etc.

Nowadays, nonfiction that makes life seem a little less meaningless and random, and validates stuff people most want to believe, is an easy sell. Currently #3 on Amazon, 139 days in the top 100 so far.

Apart from sleeping, I can’t recall the last time I did anything that passed that test. Even when I’m working on drafting a novel of my own, there are frequent interruptions, email checks and the like going on.

Look At The Current Bestseller Lists, Then Come Back And Tell Me I’m Wrong

If you look at the current top 100 bestsellers on Amazon, it’s easy to see that most of those books are either nonfiction titles readers believe will improve their lives in some way, or pure escapist entertainment. We’re busy, we’re stressed, we need help, we want life hacks, and we want a break.

It’s easy for authors to lose touch with the ‘average reader’ mentality, because authors are usually surrounded by other authors and bookish types: people for whom literature is a passion, a thing worth sacrificing for. They can often forget that the average reader does not feel the same way, especially at certain junctures in life.

For many of us, literature is a luxury that’s hard to afford.

So, What’s My Point?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any solution to this problem. I’m just putting the ugly, unvarnished truth out there for authors’ consideration in the hopes that it may help authors of demanding, lengthy, pithy novels to know that if their books aren’t screaming up the bestseller charts, it’s not necessarily because those books are bad. Look back at those top five reasons why I’m not buying or reading your novel: not one of them says anything about the quality of the story or writing. Before I can get around to deciding whether or not your book is good, it’s got some significant hurdles to overcome.

Those of you who are writing fast-paced, tightly-plotted genre fiction with short chapters have the upper hand these days.

Those who’ve always written literary fiction but have often considered trying their luck with genre fiction might want to dip a toe in that water now.

And those who’ve only ever written literary fiction and have only ever wanted to write literary fiction: keep at it, because art matters. Just don’t be disappointed if I don’t buy it or read it until my kids are grown and out of the house.

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. Comment by Matt Borgard:

    Short, fast-paced books definitely have the advantage of mass appeal. But there are exceptions, even on that list. Life of Pi is a pretty introspective novel. The Song of Ice and Fire series is oppressively long, convoluted and very slow in places, and yet, it’s got a massive fanbase, and was wildly popular even before they created the HBO Show.

    I don’t think anyone should be surprised that quick thrillers that you can grab before jumping on a plane and finish before jumping off will always be popular. Authors of stories outside the mainstream should obviously be realistic about their expectations — your highly literary collection of short stories about the dreary life of an unmarried balding man will never be Harry Potter — but I think there is a market for off-the-beaten-path stories.

    The good news is that independent and self-publishing is making that market easier to capture. While a few thousand readers would not be big enough to justify a large publisher taking a book to market, that sort of readership would be a dream come true from many indie authors.

    • Comment by Mom:

      Agreed. I’m also loving the renaissance in short fiction. Short fiction is ideal for busy people like me, and the best stuff does make you ponder—yet still doesn’t require the time and energy commitment of a full-length novel.

  2. Comment by rjnagle:

    Join the club, take a number!

    Here are some answers:

    I think people are reading more, but more topical and bloggy kinds of things.

    Writing is actually a very efficient method of communicating information and producing this communication. It even is fastest for receiving. I think the problem is solved by shorter chapters, more self-contained episodes. Kundera had it right all along!

    I think proper branding can make the reader more likely to invest in a longer work. But a longer work is impractical not only from the reader’s viewpoint, but also from the writer’s. Who has time to spent writing a 1000 page tome? I think that length suited hardback books sold on bestseller list at list prices.

    I had a panel at south by southwest on the topic, “Novel in 2050”. One thing that came out is that there are certain time periods where one is more amenable to longer forms. When in college and retirement and beyond. It’s that damn period of your 30s and 40s that reading is such a bitch 🙂

  3. Comment by Barbara Burns:

    I am a Kindle fanatic, I love long books, classic litature, litery fiction and historical fiction. There are many of us readers around even with jobs, kids and all the things you listed. We choose books over TV and make the time for reading even if it means staying up later than we should. If only books were rated like movies. I have quit reading books because the author’s favorite word started with “f” and it read like a cheap romance novel. I have read book reviews that were favorable and I couldn’t figure out why anyone would say anything good or choose to read such garbage when there are so many choices but we are all different rearders. Do you know of any good book review sites?

    • Comment by Mom:

      Barbara – try goodreads.com. It’s a site where readers congregate to share their views on books they’ve read, and there are discussion groups and boards there, too.

  4. Comment by Anna Rose:

    Excellent article, Mom! 🙂