The Readers Want To Read

6 Feb

The Readers Want To Read

A bit of a ramble, but I think it’s a valid point.

One of the things I have given some thought to, as my career has developed, is ways of increasing reader participation.  I’d like to have a self-sustaining community of readers following me – I can dream, can’t I?  What do you mean, no?  <grin>.

It isn’t easy.  Most of the things I could do to improve reader interaction would require me to take time away from actually writing.  I could name a couple of authors who spent more time writing articles than developing their work, finishing their ongoing novels and suchlike.  It works in the short term – sometimes – but readers slip away when they decide the writer isn’t going to finish the much-promised book.  And the days when I could afford to spend all of my time on the internet are long gone.  I have family responsibilities now.  Someone being wrong on the internet is no longer a world-class emergency <grin>.

The more practical problem, however, is that the vast majority of readers don’t want to do anything more than read.  They don’t want to do anything more.  My most successful book – Ark Royal – has sold over 120K copies.  However, it only has around 2000-3000 reviews on Amazon US/UK.  (I say around because the system doesn’t seem to draw any line between ratings and actual reviews.)  The reviews range between ‘great book’ to ‘what was Nuttall drinking when he wrote this piece of crud?’  But only a small percentage of readers bothered to leave any sort of review at all.

By my estimate, only 1-10% of readers leave a review (positive or negative).  Smaller percentages follow me on Amazon, or Facebook, or my blog. The percentage of people who engage with my posts is a tiny fraction of my readers.  And I think this is true for the really big authors too.  The Harry Potter community fandom is huge, but it’s only a tiny percentage of people who actually bought and read the books.  There’s a vast number of people who don’t want to write fan fiction, argue over Rowling’s politics … or do anything, really, beyond reading the books.

This has led me to a conclusion that flies in the face of common wisdom amongst the chattering (and shouting) classes.  The woke throw fits at the merest hint of cultural appropriation, characters who don’t match the author’s race/religion/nationality/whatever.  Judging by the amount of shouting on the internet, every time one of these teapot-tempests arises to poison the well still further, this is deadly important.  The merest hint of cultural appropriation – or whatever – is a crisis.  The author has committed an unpardonable sin.

Really?  I think – based on my experiences as both a reader and a writer – that the vast majority of the readers simply don’t care.

Think about it for a moment.  You go to a bookshop – or a library or Amazon or wherever – and you find a neat-looking book.  The cover could be anything from exploding starships to magic girls in fancy outfits.  The blurb promises action and adventure (or whatever floats your boat.)  And the author … you’ve never heard of him.  You don’t know anything about him.  Are you going to spend an hour researching him on the net, tracking down his bio and tweets and whatever?  Or are you just going to take the book home and read it?

The vast majority of readers will take the book home and try it.  I don’t think there are many readers, relatively speaking, who will waste time trying to decide if the author is worthy of their time.  Believe me, anyone who does that isn’t a true reader.  The readers will read the book and decide if they like it.  If they do, they’ll keep an eye out for more books by that author.  If they don’t … no harm, no foul.

This has implications that go a lot further than one might suppose.  Fiction is, by definition, fiction.  The average reader does not care if the writer of a book set in Imperial China – with or without the serial numbers filed off – is Chinese.  They don’t care if the writer visited China and researched extensively, or used the internet, or simply made his facts out of whole cloth.  They just ask to be entertained.  They don’t particularly care about accuracy.  Indeed, in some ways, excessive accuracy can detract from the story.  A massive infodump can break up the flow of the story.

Right now, there are people making a fuss about a novel called American Dirt.  Much of the fuss about it, as far as I can tell, rests on the fact the author isn’t Mexican herself.  I don’t believe the vast majority of readers care about the author.  They don’t care about her personally; they don’t care where she was born, or where she was raised, or practically anything about her.  The only thing they care about is the story itself.  Is it any good?

I keep hearing about writers being declared ‘problematic’ for one reason or another and it always makes me roll my eyes.  I am a reader.  I’ve read – and enjoyed – books by authors who disagree with me about politics, religion and just about everything else.  I don’t care about an author’s politics (or whatever).  If I like their books, I read them.  If not … there are plenty more books on the shelf.

And when someone comes to me and says ‘this author is bad, you shouldn’t read them and no one else should either’ my hackles rise.

Everyone is entitled to their opinions.  They’re not entitled to have their opinions treated as gospel truth.  (If you want to convince me of something, you actually have to convince me).  I know a gay man who complains about women writing slash fiction.  He claims the women – who aren’t gay men – keep getting it wrong.  Is he right?  I don’t know.  Maybe someone from a minority community can do a better job of writing a character from such a community than an outsider.  There’s a strong case to be made that that is actually true.  But trying to ban outsiders from writing such characters merely poisons the well.

Remember what I said about the readers not caring?  They don’t, by and large, know if there’s any author-related controversy unless someone points it out.  They might not take the controversy very seriously, even if someone does point it out.  What looks serious to the woke might be pointless to everyone else.  Or they might reason that they learned to love the author before the truth came out and they can hardly be blamed for not knowing something that was common sense at the time.  Or they might see the controversy as an unwelcome intrusion into their reading time and ignore it.  Why should they not?

The readers just want to read.  And they’ll pay no attention to someone who presumes to scold them.  And that, if you ask me, is a good thing.

32 Responses to “The Readers Want To Read”

  1. Alan Sharkey February 6, 2020 at 1:25 pm #

    Chris, I agree. And I am one of those who mostly just reads books (and a lot of them). I do get mails to ask if I would mind reviewing books – but (I’m sorry to say) I mostly ignore them. Yes, I do review some booksm, but in the main it’s just to say “Yes, it’s great” or (less) “No, don’t bother.

    I do read reviews sometimes if it’s a new author – but if I know them, I just buy the next new one they’ve written (and yes, that includes you).

    What I hate is reviewers to provide a full synopsis of the book and spout on for many paragraphs. I don’t need that!

    Alan

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard February 6, 2020 at 2:05 pm #

    I think a lot of people when talking about books should remember the “YMMV rule”.

    IE “Your Mileage May Vary”. I see it as “I may like/dislike a given book, but other people will disagree with my opinion and there is nothing wrong with their disagreement”.

    Like Chris, I dislike the “You must like/dislike that book because I like/dislike that book”.

    It doesn’t matter if the speaker is “Woke” or not.

  3. James Jeffery February 6, 2020 at 2:17 pm #

    Amen to that brother.

  4. Terry February 6, 2020 at 2:23 pm #

    Good commentary though as a prolific reader I read most everything that my favorite authors publish, you being at the top of the list! 🤗

  5. stephen February 6, 2020 at 2:37 pm #

    For me it’s not just the arthur but also the subject matter. I may like one series by an author, but other series by the same author might not be my cup of tea.

  6. G February 6, 2020 at 2:58 pm #

    In an article in The Atlantic (a fairly liberal magazine), even the author estimated that only 8% of the U.S. population was truly a “progressive liberal”. I don’t know the corresponding % for the far right–but I think your right–most people just want a pleasant read…

  7. johnblackf February 6, 2020 at 4:30 pm #

    Ok, ok, very interesting… I basically agree, but where’s The King’s Man?!!

    p.s. Hope you’re feeling better these days. Spring is coming!

  8. Rick February 6, 2020 at 4:56 pm #

    As a fairly prolific reader, I have a series of authors that I just buy everything they write. I don’t need reviews or ratings to help me. You, sir, fit into that category. When i get notification of a new book by you, I buy it.

    I have done book reviews, but they were of the kind where the author sent me a manuscript, prepublication and I both reviewed it (and even pointed out editing issues) I don’t do the ‘me too’ jumping on which we see in Amazon or other reviews.

    I do think that I am part of the silent majority who enjoys your work and would rather see you working on the next book than spending too much time dealing with the rest of the distractions.

    Keep up the great work and I hope you are doing better.

  9. David Bayly February 6, 2020 at 5:19 pm #

    I agree that most readers are just that, readers. I do feel that if i get a free book, I am inclined to provide a review, but in practice I only review very good books and very bad ones. As far as the whole cultural appropriation discussion goes, I heard some of an interview on Australian radio station who suggested that accepting the idea meant that non Europeans (whites?) should not be bale to comment on .. Beethoven, iPhones, or dance to the Talking Heads (whoever they are). Of course it was satirical…..

  10. Peter Sleet February 6, 2020 at 5:53 pm #

    I am only one out of millions of potential readers and all I can say is that you’re doing a great job entertaining me. There will always be a speculative purchase that doesn’t live up to the jacket but that shouldn’t stop any writer plying their trade. I don’t wish to write as I’m not that creatively aligned. As I’m not a writer I would not dream of criticising someone who has been creative, I may not like their output but that’s personal preference of the subject matter but I’m not and never will be qualified to presume to leave a peer review good or bad. Chris the world is a better place with you in it and entertaining your readers.

  11. Hanno Frerichs February 6, 2020 at 7:51 pm #

    That is very true indeed, at least for fiction books, and when it comes to writing about whatever real tragedy it’s often also a point of perspective, the felt realty of one people are what is best written by an insider.

    While an outsider’s option or work if well researched can often be more enlightening as it’s hard to sea the whole pond from the inside.

    I don’t leave reviews that often and do that mostly for books that have hardly a review out, or were I find that the overall reviews are not representing a book well good or badly.

  12. Gary F York February 6, 2020 at 8:18 pm #

    “The vast majority of readers will take the book home and try it. I don’t think there are many readers, relatively speaking, who will waste time trying to decide if the author is worthy of their time. Believe me, anyone who does that isn’t a true reader. The readers will read the book and decide if they like it. If they do, they’ll keep an eye out for more books by that author. If they don’t … no harm, no foul.”

    Very much agree!

    “The readers just want to read. And they’ll pay no attention to someone who presumes to scold them. And that, if you ask me, is a good thing.”

    And with this, as well!

    G.

  13. Vassilis Drakopoulos February 6, 2020 at 9:42 pm #

    Just a good story to read …..yes a good story!

    “The readers just want to read. And they’ll pay no attention to someone who presumes to scold them. And that, if you ask me, is a good thing.”

  14. lif strand February 7, 2020 at 2:46 am #

    Are you kidding? I have such a crappy memory that I can’t remember author names or titles of books I’ve read. Combine that with the fact that I read for the same reason I eat and breathe — if I don’t do it I’ll die — and that means I read *a lot*. When an author rises to the top of my memory cesspool, that’ll be because I’ve read so many books with the same name on the cover, that the name finally makes it through to my conscious mind. At that point I might look up an author and find out more, seek out other books on purpose, etc. Mostly though I find that even the most favorite author’s blogs, tweets, and other utterings are less than monumental and not worth my time. I want novels, thank you very much. And I want them now.

  15. lif strand February 7, 2020 at 2:49 am #

    And while I’m ranting here, let me add that this reader wants to read. Not look at videos. Not listen to podcasts. Why waste my precious minutes watching and listening when I could be reading a book?

  16. Frank Hemingway February 7, 2020 at 3:25 am #

    It takes time to leave a thoughtful review. I like supporting authors whose work I enjoy, but I started thinking about the economics of reviews. The author benefits directly, but in aggregate, the main beneficiary is Jeff Bezos. I cut back on the number of my reviews because I don’t like working for Amazon for free.

  17. PhilippeO February 7, 2020 at 3:49 am #

    – Agree, you should ignore Internet. rule of thumb is 10.000 comment/tweet/online review = 100 handwritten letter = 1 fan who attend and meet you in person. The energy expenditure is unimportant.

    – the “Award Game” is different. there are probably 1000 others qualified novel who could easily compete with “American Dirt”, so even slightest mistake is pounced upon and attacked. Think of it as Olympics, there are hundreds who qualify, only one who can “win” it. So its not about overall quality, its about tiny little thing that make it “win”.

    – and thats why I think right-wing is often overblown. Most of thing they complain about is something whose replacement is easy and numerous. There are thousands who can qualify for giving graduation speech, There are hundreds of novels who can win awards, There are hundreds of judge who can sit in Supreme Court. So all people complain and scrutinize when something they didn’t like is “winning”. But losers is not losing anything, there are still sit among hundreds other losers.

  18. SJV February 7, 2020 at 10:22 am #

    Hi Chris, and another agreement. The Internet Thought Police are just another band of Troll. You write Fiction and in the SF and Fantasy realms you are supposed to be free to examine any society interactions you see fit to drive the story. The way a character in a mythical world interacts with that world has nothing to say about how our world works. Only about how people think and act. Ignore the Trolls and get on with SIM please.Even better Tuckerise some of them and give them their just deserts.
    This Blog is probably relevant to your Politics andI happen to agree with a lot I find here. Is that why I like your books ?? Since I like some and not others I don’t think so.
    SJV

  19. Robert Kaliski February 8, 2020 at 9:48 pm #

    Someone who belongs to an ethnic group does have a leg up over some who is an outsider IF IF IF they are a good writer. Otherwise the inside knowledge will be wasted on creating a big unreadable mess.

    I wonder if people who claim only those who are part of their group should write about it think their culture couldn’t be studied and understood.? Is it that complex or are they afraid an outsider may see flaws that the group overlooks?

  20. Joseph Costa February 8, 2020 at 10:38 pm #

    Christopher, I have read all of SIM, several of Arkroyal, all of the Kat Falcone books and your Zero books. However, I will give you advice regarding what I want. I believe I have given you favorable reviews on all of them. I cannot give you advice on what to write, but I can about what to avoid. I keep in mind that an author is in control.
    Take care of your characters. DO not kill them. I know characters in a book are not real, but I think about them like a distant cousin. I may hardly see them much anymore but, I still like to know they are out there. Artistic license be famed. Take care of Emily of SIM, and her clan. Believe me there are much more than just a few books left in her. Same goes with her supporting cast. I just reviewed an author who I read 17 books of a series plus a couple of other a informed him that I would not buy an more of his books because he killed 5 main characters and thousands of others.
    I am still looking forward to updates of all the books I mentioned earlier except for Arkroyal because the characters are no longer present, apparently the future no longer has the same feel.
    I have a question for you. You seem to have an interest in United States politics. Are you interested in learning more about how the party platforms are developed and how the deligates are chosen to elect a president before the final vote next November 2020. Let me know directly by email if you do and I will write something up for you. J. Costa

  21. pkohonenPekka February 9, 2020 at 9:49 pm #

    I am more interested in reading the SIM and Zero series (and the other fantasy series). Not so much into military sci-fi. I am not sure if this is a common split among your other readers. I would also prefer continuation of existing series (particularly SIM) over new series, although some of them do look pretty interesting. Have not been an avid reviewer… maybe could improve there but also think that if I paid for a book (or 17 of them), it counts as endorsement.

  22. Jacqueline harris February 10, 2020 at 6:58 am #

    I think it’s a catch 22. People complain when your not diverse. You try to put diversity and they complain that you can’t.because your not that race gender sexuality etc. Shrugs shoulders. While you should care about your audience at the end off the day you have to write the story and characters you want.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard February 10, 2020 at 1:18 pm #

      But how many of the Screamers actually read the books?

      IMO the Screamers (as a group) aren’t that large compared to the potential readers of an author’s books and may be “just be looking for an excuse to scream”.

      • Robert Kaliski February 11, 2020 at 12:52 am #

        There are people who would complain if they had to wait in a line to receive a billion tax free dollars.

  23. georgephillies February 10, 2020 at 7:02 pm #

    There is one respect in which readers do care about the author of ‘American Dirt’. They cared enough to give her money.

    As you know, I edit “The N3F Review of Books” and am forever trying — not very successfully — to get more reviewers. Woke reviewers who can review the book, not the author, would be of interest–my current stable of excellent reviewers tilt to the conservative side. Folks willing to write book reviews or let me use their published reviews should contact me at phillies@4liberty.net.

    The Alphans sound amusing.

  24. Reader February 12, 2020 at 3:34 pm #

    Thumbs up.

    Personally, I try to always leave a review for every book that I’ve read, explaining what the book is about (because the summary is often written by monkeys on crack), whether the cover is reflecting the contents of the book (often it doesn’t), what I liked, what I disliked, and whether this book is good (both in general and in its niche/genre). Not on Amazon, mind you, but I do leave reviews, trying to steer readers away from bad (IMO) books and toward good (IMO) books.

    I’m perfectly willing to put up with controversial ideas and opinions, as long as the author makes an effort to write them in a way that makes some sense in-universe (I’ve managed to read the Sword of Truth, and that’s saying something). What really turns me off is the lack of likeable characters (Crossroads of Canopy comes to mind – almost all of the characters are unlikable bastards, and I simply didn’t care enough about their ultimate fate to force myself to finish reading the book) and the lack of interesting story.

    Your rant reminded me of the time when I was reading Dragonriders of Pern. I’ve read the original trilogy, liked it, then went on to read every Pern book set in the 9th Pass and had no regrets. Only much later, while reading TVTropes, did I learn that Anne McCaffrey had some controversial views on homosexuality (they didn’t even make into the books proper, it’s just something she blurted in an interview or whatever). Like most other readers, I just shrugged.

  25. Wesley February 12, 2020 at 6:47 pm #

    Strong reader participation requires several things, IMO.
    1) ease of use. I drop a lot of reviews on RRL because I basically just stay logged in and the feature is fast and easy. I do reviews on Amazon less because I find the process a little more intimidating (though it isn’t really that bad). I post here in these comments and on Jonathan Moeller’s web page because they don’t require me to actually sign in and it is faster and easier.
    2) strong/active community. I joined the writer’s club forums years ago but I haven’t checked it (until just now) very often because it wasn’t super active. It appears more active now, I will keep an eye out on it more. The two forums/communities I follow the most are Jim Butcher’s forum and the Aleron Kong forum. They are both very active (the Butcher one especially, even when he is in a long book drought). The old Wheel of Time forums were very much like this and had great theorists and active communities. Game of Thrones as well.
    3) depth of content for people to discuss. This usually requires long or multiple series. Harry Potter, Dresden Files, WoT, etc. Schooled in Magic qualifies as this probably as do several of the military sci-fi series though they tend to have less to discuss for fans.
    I am not sure that you can do anything to force or even strongly encourage active communities but you can definitely do things to DISCOURAGE them. Time and continued popularity take care of the lot of the rest of it.

  26. Ginger Glaser February 14, 2020 at 5:47 pm #

    Chris, I think you are on target here. I love to read, fiction in particular. It lets me lose myself in people and world that get away from my busy, high stress life. I probably read 20-30 books for every one I leave a review – and I tend to save those reviews for favorites from favorite authors. One fact you may not have considered – good writers that actually write are one thing that ties me to particular writers. I admit to being a serial reading addict but the fact that there are a LOT of books from a favorite author lures me in. So, any time taken away from actual writing in some ways loses me – because I have to wait too long for my next fix. I do not at present have time for fandom, fanfic etc and just want to spend my limited free time — reading.

  27. There and Then February 20, 2020 at 10:40 pm #

    I’ll admit I rarely leave a review on Amazon. I review what I view as exceptionally good books and exceptionally bad books. The problem with Amazon is if you review anything you are hounded to leave reviews and answer questions about everything, such as the kitchen sponges I bought. I read on average 3 novels a week and have numerous authors I enjoy. Every once in a while I run out of new material to read and go hunting for a new author in a genre I enjoy. I use Kindle unlimited when I can, but if it’s a series I think I may read again in the future I buy the books outright on Amazon. This is mostly for my space operas. I have read all of Chris’s military science fiction books and have re-read some of his series. I pass on the fantasy and magic stuff, not my cup of tea. I do look at reviews. I tend to be drawn to books with over 4 stars and over 100 reviews. Through experience I have found I will enjoy them, by and large. I use a two chapter rule. If I am not grabbed by the first two chapters I put it down. My time is valuable to me. I don’t know if this makes me a true reader or not, nor do I care.

  28. Zeke March 23, 2020 at 6:18 pm #

    So, I love your Ark Royal series, I’ve purchased the audio version of every one available, left a review on sites here and there, even sent books as a gift to friends I think would enjoy them but these are all single time actions. I also have a full time job, 3 kids, and socializing/hobbies of my own so being a ‘highly active superfan’ of anything isn’t in the cards. But I am truly interested to know, in your personal ideal scenario, how would average reader who enjoys your content continually participate, follow, interact in a way that’s both sustainable for me and meaningful to you?

    • chrishanger April 1, 2020 at 3:37 pm #

      Read and review, basically.

      Chris

      • Zeke April 1, 2020 at 3:58 pm #

        Roger that. Will do. Thank you!

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