“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”
—William S. Burroughs
By Dawn Field
Write for those who will appreciate what you have to say.
As a writer, you will certainly have your favorite books and beloved authors. As some works are top of your list, others might be bottom of your list. As there are so many books in the world, the truth will always be that you’ve only read a tiny fraction of all books, including even the books that you might like best.
This is just a fact about the world of books. It’s one authors have to acknowledge and accept.
The best books for each of us give us a sense that ‘someone gets it’. As Anne Lamott says in her book on writing, Bird by Bird, it’s that overwhelmingly emotional moment when a reader feels, “Someone finally spoke for me”.
Authors are encouraged to write about specific stories that are unique in their details but universal in their messages. This is admirable, but hard to achieve.
What about writing more narrow topics? This is equally valuable, and fills the ‘niche market’, but will naturally have a more focused readership.
Here are eight reasons most people will never read your book and why that’s expected and perfectly fine:
It’s not their topic
Many people read by topic. They know what they like and stick to it. You might have written the best romance in the world, but those who don’t pick up romance won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. That is just how the world works. This goes for all subjects.
Bestsellers make up the majority of sales
Most publishers make their profits from the sale of a very short list of books. The best sellers make up more sales, for the reason cited above. Most people just don’t read most books. There is a very long tail.
The name on the cover
Many people buy for the author. They like the style and topic and to get the next great read, they just go down an author’s book list. If you don’t already have a following, you can’t pick up this kind of reader.
Few books reach launch velocity
Many people pick their books because they are ‘the best’. This could be word-of-mouth, because they top the best-seller list, or they’ve just won a big prize. It’s like tuning it to watching a royal wedding just to be part of an event that involves a billion people. This is a good bet for filtering on quality, but since so few books reach this height, it’s extremely hard to win readers this way.
Big world and millions of books
This is just a fact of today. On top of there being a finite number of readers, spending a finite amount of money on books, there are millions of choices out there. You have to get beyond all the buzz to get a place on the bedside table.
They might love it but just won’t come across it
Even if you are on topic for someone, in the sea of books out there, they might just not find it. This is where networking, publicity, and marketing are the defining factors.
Even if your book is on-topic, and found, a reader might not be receptive because of mood. Many of us are mood readers. What appeals one day, doesn’t the next. What we can deeply relate to in a period of our life, we’d brush off in the next.
Stuck on the bedside table
If the mood for your book doesn’t manifest, or time doesn’t allow, or bestsellers and buzz books invade, your book might get stuck on the bedside table. People buy books with all best intentions. Be happy it got to the bedside.
What this means
These are truths that all authors face. All you need to worry about is whether you did the best you could and if so, then the book is what it was meant to be. Certainly, you can use these facts to tailor your strategy somewhat, like writing to a genre, but it’s often far more important to write what you have in you, no matter what that is.
At the end of the day, your goal is to connect with the readers who will appreciate your book.
And the fact also stands, that almost all great writers have stories of long lists of rejections – including for many of the best-loved books ever written.
You can’t write a book for everyone. This just means you should go with your instincts and write what you have in you. This gives you a high degree of freedom. You shouldn’t aim to please all just the ones who will appreciate what you have to say.
The fact that most people don’t read most books is just a fact of life. It doesn’t mean your book couldn’t be the best thing possible for someone because of its specific message.
- What kinds of books do you like to read – and which do you never pick up?
- Are you writing the same kind of book you like to read best?
- Who are you writing your book for and why?
- Do you actively think about readers when you are writing?
Dawn Field is a scientist now writing her second book for Oxford University Press. She has published over 50 articles on writing because she is fascinated by what makes great writing, the writing process, learning how writers create, and how fiction impacts society. She loves reading book drafts at any stage of completion, brainstorming writing projects, and hearing about the diversity of writing experiences. Connect with her to collaborate, or converse, at UnityinWriting.com.