Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Matters Most: Readers

The notion that the national book culture we once enjoyed—a consensus about the books everyone who considers themselves literate should have read—is withering under the assault of disruptive businesses and technologies isn’t simply an exercise in good–old–days revisionism: it’s actually one of the last gasps of the cultural monopolies created by trade publishers during the last half–century.

Through a complex web of bestseller lists, influential reviewers, English professors, and book clubs, trade publishers have attempted to create the commercial equivalent of a required reading list. The publishing ecosystem expends a great deal of energy trying to create a sense of urgency by making readers feel they are behind or missing out on the literary cutting edge.

While it is true that shared references are a cornerstone of culture, the idea that a book’s importance is best measured by the number of concurrent readers is one that benefits principally trade publishers and booksellers.

Tracy Hickman has been telling conference audiences for several years, “It doesn't matter if you're published. Being published is nothing. It is everything to be read.”

In the past, writers had to play the commercial lottery of getting published because it was the only game in town. Unfortunately, that system fostered an all–or–nothing mentality: your book was a failure if it wasn’t the talk of the nation.

Rejecting a manuscript because it wasn’t, “sufficiently commercial,” meant the trade publisher believed the book wouldn’t sell in the volume they needed to turn a profit. But that judgment took none of the needs of readers or writers into account.

An author needs readers, but he or she doesn’t need every reader. In fact, it is not possible to write one book that will appeal to every single reader. What is possible, thanks to the recent explosion in publishing opportunities, is to write things that will be read because the distance between writer and reader is now much smaller.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at
Image: Simon Howden /

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