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