Saturday, 15 April 2017

R is for READERS

   It goes without saying that our readers are the most important people in the world (apart, of course, from our nearest and dearest). They are our creative partners in the business of making books. All we can do is turn our ideas into loops and lines and squiggles on the printed page. They remain meaningless until someone decodes them and, from the resulting words, produces images that will bear some resemblance to the pictures we had in our minds when we started the transaction.
   But who are our readers? Where are they? How do we find them?
   For the most part, they are anonymous. For all an author knows his biggest fan might be the young mum over there, struggling to get onto the bus with her pushchair or the scholarly-looking gent in the corner of the first class carriage. And that's frustrating because we would dearly love to ask their opinions of our work. Something even more disconcerting is our inability to identify members of that other, far larger, crowd of unknowns - our potential readers, that army no man can number who would enjoy our books, if only they'd heard of them. So how do we make the connection? How do we find those people who would love to enter into creative partnership with us? If I knew a simple answer to that I'd be a very wealthy man. In a marketplace absolutely saturated with books (mostly of indifferent quality) it takes most authors several years and thousands of miles of printed words to acquire a following. There are two obvious ways to buck this trend. One is to become famous for something else before embarking on a writing career. Politics is a useful platform, particularly if you achieve a certain amount of notoriety while being paid from the public purse. The other is to acquire the enthusiastic backing of an established publisher prepared to put considerable resources into promoting your work. Sadly, the cruel fact is that big promotional budgets are, with few exceptions, only allotted to authors who are already well established.
   Most writers enter the market maze alone and try to find their tortuous way to the reader who wants what they have to offer - but doesn't yet know it. That's why the book market differs from most other kinds of shopping place. In the latter the customer knows what he/she wants. If the sofa needs replacing or a joint must be bought for Sunday lunch, he/she knows where to go to find it. Book buyers, by contrast, are not going to come looking for your book if they haven't heard of you. Most of them don't read publishers' catalogues, even online, and don't belong to internet chat forums. In their case the producer has to track down the consumer and not vice-versa. Your book has to shout from the overstuffed shelves of Waterstones, or the ranks of colourful jackets jostling each other on Amazon.
   The internet, by definition, is a tool for making connections but it really isn't very good at it. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that the task is vastly bigger than www can cope with. There exists an array of sites dedicated to promoting books from the leviathan of Amazon, to Goodreads and online readers clubs down to individual twittering. The one weakness with all these is that they rely on the energetic activity of compulsive readers and those are comparatively few in number. That doesn't mean we shouldn't make contact with them. On the contrary, every opportunity we have to introduce our work to people likely to be interested must be grasped. But it would be a mistake to put all our eggs in the internet basket. Its potential is limited. If online self-promotion has not already made the fortunes of thousands of authors, it ain't going to do so now.
   Depressing? Yes, but there's no point in point in anything other than telling it as it is. We are all operating in a vastly overstocked market. Suppose you lived in a town with 10,000 theatres, each offering a different production. A handful would probably survive. The rest would struggle. Which shows would you be most likely to see? Probably the popular ones. What might persuade you to try out one of the less well known? Almost certainly, the recommendation of a friend. Ultimately finding new readers comes down to people. Some of them we can reach with our computer keypad. The majority we will meet in the real world. That means getting out of our anchoritic cells as often as possible and going to places where readers gather - libraries, festivals, clubs, pubs, churches, societies. The best guide to the maze is what it always was - word of mouth.
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