Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reader Investment and Books that are too Popular

Reading thuRsday

The Harrry Potter Theme Park opened this summer. My fans greeted the news with enthusiasm. As I see it, now there's yet another way for writers to feel inadequate:

"Wow, I got a movie deal for my novel!"

"Yeah, but did you get a theme park deal?"

I find, as a reader, that I'm reluctant to read novels that are too popular. For a long time, I could explain my diffidence only in unflattering terms like elitism. I've been thinking about reader investment and I believe I've found a more structural (and more flattering) explanation.

Rubeus Hagrid in Wikipedia
One of the downsides of publication is that the book is no longer entirely your own. Of course, you can no longer exercise the rights you've transferred to the publisher. But in a broader, practical sense, the more readers invest themselves in your book, the less freedom you have as an author (assuming you don't want to alienate your fans). For example, I once heard that J.K. Rowling planned to kill Hagrid until a relative said they'd never speak to her again if anything happened to the Hogwarts Keeper of Keys.

It's not that you owe your readers anything in an absolute sense. Rather, as more readers invest in your story, they create a kind of inertia, a social center of gravity.

With that in mind, if I'm late to the game with something very popular I'm generally reluctant to invest in it because I can no longer experience the work on its own terms and apart from its social context.

To use an economic analogy, the return on investment is generally biggest for the early investors. Later investors see less of a return because there are more of them.

So what do you think? Is this a sensible structural observation, or have I simply found an elaborate way to justify my elitism?

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /