Here’s a story about the importance of being read.
And it starts with the most exciting letter I’ve ever received.
Dear Mr Sowden, Congratulations! You are now a Proper Writer. With this letter, the literary establishment flings its doors open to you. Your years of struggling in the artistic wilderness are at an end. Enter! Be merry. Warm yourself by the fire with your fellow literarians. Here’s a velvet robe, a mug of really expensive tea and some biscuits with chocolate on them. You have officially Made It, and now everything will be easy. Editors will fawn over you and affectionately pelt you with cash. Audiences will worship you, particularly attractive, nubile young women. Work will be plentiful, taxes will be low, the skies will always be blue and you will always be loved. We love you SO MUCH. xxx ps. The story will go up in issue 2 and we’ll pay £20 for it, is that ok?
In the early ’90s, ORION Magazine published my science fiction story “Out On The Wall.” They sent me a letter, which in those days were printed on paper. I don’t have the actual letter and I can’t remember the exact wording, so I’ve reconstructed the gist of it, above. That’s basically what they meant, even if their wording was a little different.
Back then, there was no internet as we know it, and “getting published online” was a meaningless sentence. There was only one way to become a professional writer, and that was print. If you got into print, you’d made it. And I’d made it.
ORION (nothing to do with Orion Magazine) was a small-press science fiction publication that ran for around 2 issues. It paid me £20, at least in theory because I never got the cheque. I’m not sure what kind of readership it had, but my story didn’t bag me any literary awards. In fact, nothing else happened. I’ll never know if anyone except the editors read it.
But – I got into print. And somehow, that counted for something amazingly, awesomely important. I was published.
Did it really matter that nobody read it?
Yes. Yes it did.
How often do writers talk about how they’re being read?
Measuring online reading habits is difficult (but a lot easier than gauging offline ones). Most of the time, we don’t bother. We fall back on social media shares, pageview and Likes, and assume they’re adequate surrogates – despite knowing how easy it is to share something we’ve either partially read or barely glanced through. Social media rewards shares, and if your reading habits are a bit slow, well, nobody will ever know, right? I’ll just retweet this thing that everyone else is sharing around with a bit of added editorial (“YES!” or “TOTALLY missed the point, LOL”) to show I’ve read it. I feel bad about this, but it’ll never happen again. I’ll be caught up next time. Right?
In fact, a whopping amount of things get shared on Twitter without being clicked on first. NPR’s April Fools joke showed that a lot of people on Facebook do the same thing, except in this case they leave long, angry comments based on the headline, not on the article (which they haven’t even read yet).
Social media stats are shaky indicators of reading habits.
But what else do we have?
Here’s an article at Slate that dares to dig deeper. It’s hilarious and insightful and you should read to the end. (Bravo, Farhad Manjoo.) A few of the most important points:
- At Slate, most people only read articles to the halfway point – but a huge number don’t scroll the page down. They read the headline and the first few paragraphs, and they’re done.
- Uh, some other important stuff. I’ve got it bookmarked, so quit hassling me.
Clearly it’s hard to get people to read to the end. Thankfully we have storytelling to fall back on. That’s all storytelling is – a mechanism for making you pay attention in a way that sticks. If you weave a story into your factual article, people will probably scroll further and stay on the page longer – which are two strong indicators that they’re actually reading.
But hold on – why do we want them to read everything? Can’t we just bung all the best stuff in the first couple of paragraphs and largely ignore the rest, if that’s how people are reading?
If this was truly how people were reading, then anything over 300 words would just die. However, research suggests that blog posts of 1000+ words (way too long for conventional short-attention-span thinking) are doing really well right now. Traditional thinking is looking outdated. It looks like we love reading online – more than ever.
So what’s going on here? And if we’re getting our work shared around and we’re getting paid for our word-count, why should be care if anyone’s actually reading?
Art that isn’t shared or experienced by someone else doesn’t fulfill its purpose.
I’m not going to say much more about the need to get read. Jeff’s quote up there covers it nicely. In an interview with Jonathan Fields, Seth Godin noted the importance of making your work fit the world, becoming part of a larger body of creative effort that moves into new territory, and anyone who isn’t paying attention to their target market is just singing in the shower. You are always part of something greater. If you’re smart, you’ll connect with it as often as you can. It makes your work better. Being read is that connection. It’s how you become part of that wider conversation.
It also forces you to be timely. Being a successful writer is balancing originality with conformity, and either extreme is going to banish you into a wilderness of irrelevance. If your work has no place in the modern world, it’ll shrivel and die from lack of attention. Being read keeps your work alive. It’s part of its lifecycle. The more people are reading, the healthier it is (and admitting that isn’t admitting you’re a narcissistic attention-whore. You’re allowed to believe your work will make a difference. So, go ahead. Believe like mad. It’s part of the job.)
Take writers of teenage fiction. It is simply awesome that young adult fiction is being read by so many adults, despite what some people will say. No matter what you think of their work, Stephanie Meyer, Veronica Roth, Suzanne Collins and John Green are being read by huge numbers of people, many of whom don’t read a lot of fiction. That’s great for literature as a whole, because if those new readers find they want something trickier, slipperier and less accessible, they might pick up what some people like to label “serious adult fiction” and give it a go. If teen fiction acts as a gateway drug, yay, I’m all for it.
So if a writer’s main aim in life is to get read – how are you going to do that in an increasingly crowded online world?
Here’s the standard way of tackling this problem:
I need to make a ruckus so everyone comes to where I am.
That’s valid. That works. It’s also an incredible amount of hard work.
Here’s another way to tackle it – far trickier, but much more powerful:
Where are online readers already hanging out right now?
Here are some questions we modern writers need to keep asking ourselves.
- How Much Are The Lucrative Print Publications, The Ones We’re Pitching With Stories, Being Read? This isn’t quite as simple as looking at sales of physical books and magazines, although obviously that’s a solid indicator. But measuring analog readership remains really hard – much harder than online. And we know the media landscape is changing (just see how the New York Times is evolving right now) but “print is dead?” It’s not that simple.
- Are Blogs Being Read Like They Used To Be? Jason Kottke says no – and he’s been around since the beginning. The standard blogging model is to build your platform and then drag people towards it using social media. Unfortunately, social media is increasingly fickle and it’s harder than ever to build an engaged audience (read: actual readers) using Facebook and Twitter alone. E-mail is a way around that problem, which is why lots of successful online writers spend so much time serving their e-mail lists. Used wisely, e-mail can do wonders for your readership and send hordes of people to your blog. It’s also smart because you’re not encouraging people to discover you every single time you post something – your e-mail lands in their Inbox, where they are already, every single day, and if they’ve opted into your list, they’re already halfway to wanting to click on anything you send them.
- Where – And How – Will The Next Generation Read? According to Latitude’s The Future Of Storytelling and, well, just about every other publication in existence, the future is mobile. The online writers of the future are going to be read on phones and tablets – and about time too, because reading on a monitor or laptop screen is never going to replace the tactile joy of a good smelly book. Maybe this is how the oft-quoted short attention span of online readers became common knowledge – because until now, reading online was such a clunky, physically awkward experience that none of us wanted to stick around for a nice long read. With phones, tablets and e-readers (“lean back devices, optimized for deeper reading experiences“) you can sprawl on the couch like you would with a good paperback, and really fall into what you’re reading. Maybe this is why blog posts of 1000+ words (way too long for conventional short-attention-span thinking) are doing so well online right now.
- How Are Serials Changing Things? Bite-sized storytelling appears to have a bright future. Take the meteoric rise of Wattpad, where “chapters” are delivered to your phone every morning – or the work of these guys on Kindle. Is there a contradiction here, compared with the apparent preference for longer reading? I don’t reckon so. Serials across all forms of media are a popular aspect of storytelling and in themselves have little to do with actual length (compare the 3-minute doses of Husbands with the 116 pages of part 1 of Yesterday’s Gone). Serials revolve around arcs and cliffhangers, and we love that stuff. Any type of writing that uses that format on a thriving platform is probably going to do really well.
All good questions. We should all be chewing these over. But let’s forget about the future for a second.
Let’s focus on you.
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re a writer who wants an audience. Probably an audience like you. A bunch of readers attuned to your unique brand of geekery.
So where are they, and how can you get their attention?
Well, if they truly are like you, they read much the same things you do, in much the same way. So how do you read? To find this out, try auditing your own reading habits. Grab a notebook and make a note every time you read something with interest. Note where and when, and how you spotted it. Capture everything.
Interrogate your own habits mercilessly – and see where the writers you admire are hanging out.
Because maybe that’s where you should be too?