Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The responsibilities and duties of being a reader in the 21st century


[U]sers are selfish, lazy, and ruthless – Jakob Neilsen, definition of the online reader in ‘Information Foraging: Why Google Makes People Leave Your Site Faster’

This is one of those areas where it’s going to take time to re-educate people. It’s like plastic bags. They’ve been telling us for years to stop using these and although I have a reusable and reasonably manly shopping bag, the number of times I walk into a shop without it is ridiculous. Okay, fair’s fair, we recycle our carrier bags, but the point I’m making is that habits are both hard to break and hard to cultivate in the first place. Some people make sweeping statements about habits:

[…] changing the habit will take 30 days, re-affirming it further for another 30 days will definitely fix it and you'll have no problem to continue from there on. [source: Secret]

but nothing is ever that simple. If you’ve been in the habit of starting the day with real coffee, with two sugars and milk then switching to decaffeinated coffee with one sweetener and no milk takes more than thirty days of forcing the stuff down your throat until you acquire a taste for it. I speak from experience but that’s how I take my coffee these days. It’s drinkable; I’ve got used to it, but I can’t say that I prefer it; I just acknowledge that it’s better for me, especially considering the number of mugs of coffees I can go through in a day.

People are lazy and thoughtless and nowhere do we see this more than online. The more things you expect a person to do the less chance they’ll do it. They expect a button or a hyperlink to be sitting on the screen exactly when they need it pointing to precisely where they want to go and if it’s not there then something shiny will catch their eye and you’ve lost your opportunity for a sale or whatever. Only it’s not really laziness and thoughtlessness is it? I wouldn’t like to be viewed as idle or inconsiderate and I don’t expect you would either but we all behave in ways that make us look that way. It’s a time thing. You have a half-hour lunch break and you decide to pop into a shop to buy a T-shirt. Do you look at the shoes and the jeans or all the other stuff? No, of course not. You stride into the shop with purpose; march straight over to the T-shirts; select one that’s to your tastes, in your size and within your price range; take it to the checkout; queue; check your watch several times; pay and leave. And how long might that take? Five minutes? Ten? Because you’ve still got to find the time to eat lunch and get back to your desk on time.

Time, that’s the problem. None of us has nearly enough. Actually that’s not true. All of us have exactly the same amount of time. The day doesn’t slip by any quicker closer to the poles than it does around the equator or anything like that. Time is not the problem. The problem is what we try to do with the time we have available to use. The average person is capable of reading and understanding between 200 and 250 words per minute. That means someone should be able to read any of my first three novels in under four hours and I suppose there will be people out there who can whoosh through a book like that but I can’t. I can’t concentrate at that level for any more than an hour, besides, I’m not a fast reader. I’ve just taken an online test and it said that my reading speed was between 150 and 200 words per minute. I sat that test about ten minutes ago and I can barely remember what it was about. I know it involved reading the inaugural address by John F Kennedy but I couldn’t have even told you the year he gave it, let alone the date. I’ve just reread it and I can tell you here and now, nothing stuck. Clearly there is reading and there is reading. I read three short essays by Gerald Murnane two night ago and I can still remember the gist of what he was talking about and that’s because I wasn’t under any pressure to read, or in any rush; I read until I felt I’d read enough and stopped; about twenty-five pages I think.

ipad_ibooks_bookshelf1Online reading is a whole different ball game. We skim, our eyes flick over the screen, we get the idea and move on tout de suite. We don’t spend any time looking in the columns to the left or the right of what we’re reading. Occasionally something with catch our eye, something nice and shiny, and it has maybe three or four seconds to hold our attention before we’re off. But what about ebook reading? Do we read ebooks as if they were web pages or pages in a real book? Skim, skim, whoosh, whoosh.

Note to the authors of ebooks: If you want your readers to do something after they’ve read your book then tell them as soon as they’ve finished the book. That’s the beauty of an ebook, you can have a link to Amazon or Smashwords or whatever sitting there and all they have to do is click on it:


Is that too much to ask?

Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner is said to have sold some ten million books and yet there are only 3475 customer reviews in Amazon (UK and US). Of course 3475 people taking the trouble to pass a comment on your book is not to be sniffed at but it’s still only 0.035% of readers. In June 1997, Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with an initial print-run of 500 copies in hardback, 300 of which were distributed to libraries. The short initial print run was standard for first novels, and they hoped booksellers would read the book and recommend it to customers. It is nothing short of a miracle that Rowling has had the degree of success she has had. How many reviews was she ever going to get on Amazon? About a sixth of one.

If you read a good book do you owe the author anything?

When people talk about reader responsibility online they are usually acknowledging the reader’s role in the completion of a text, for example:

Have you ever reread a book and had a completely different reaction to it than you did the first time? Love turning to hate, confusion to understanding, or disappointment to heart-stopping glee? Not one word of that book changed. You did. In high school I read The Stranger and felt as if my world had been turned upside-down. In college I reread it and found the story flat and uninteresting, and walked away untouched and baffled by my younger reaction. My understanding of the world, my fears, my needs had changed, and so the story changed. The words Camus wrote remained the same; nevertheless, the story completely changed in my mind. Camus didn't do that—I did that.—Shannon Hale, ‘How to be a reader: Reader responsibility’, squeetusblog, 31 August 2008

I’m all in agreement here and I’ve experienced the same but I’m thinking more after the fact, after you’ve read the book. Is that you done your bit? Until recently I would have said it was; I’d paid my money and, to be totally honest, if I’d chosen to use the book as a doorstop no one could argue with me; in fact I have half a dozen poetry books underneath my second laptop as I write this keeping it level, some of which I have not read and likely never will. I wonder if any of the authors were I to list them (which I have no intention of doing) would be willing to send me their royalty payment so I could package the book up and post it back to them? Not me. If you want to buy my books to use as doorstops feel free.

tn_TruthMy first novel, Living with the Truth, has seven reviews on Amazon, two in and the rest on I only knew of one of the reviewers prior to this and he’s more a friend of my wife’s than mine. Most of the others were people on review sites who, in addition to writing a review on their website, also posted something on Amazon. And I am grateful. Considering the number of sales, seven reviews is much better than 0.035% so I guess I shouldn’t whinge. I was going to whinge, if only on general principles, but I’m going to bite my tongue for the moment because I’ve only posted one review on Amazon and only because I was asked. So, it seems a bit hypocritical of me to whinge at people who’ve been kind enough to take a risk on a new name simply because they didn’t do anything to plug my book for me, not that they’ve not been rewarded with a good read, because they have.

The real question is: Do Amazon reviews make any difference? Let’s face it, the vast majority of them are just written by regular readers and they’re just offering an opinion and it would have to be a pretty bad book not to appeal to at least a handful (okay, a couple) of people out there. So, just because a book has one or two glowing reviews does that mean that it might have something going for it?

On the whole I only use the reviews in Amazon as a guide, and a very rough one at that. I’m more inclined to cut and paste the name of the author and their book into Google and see if there are any … and I use this next word with a degree of caution … real reviews out there; by that I mean reviews longer than a paragraph. I am happy with the reviews in Amazon for Living with the Truth. Some are short, others not so much. But what about someone who just stumbles upon my book as you do? Can they trust the reviews?

Let’s see. Let’s take the reviewer known as ‘kehs’ from Hertfordshire, England. They gave Living with the Truth a 5-star review. On checking I find that they have, at the time of my writing this, posted 517 reviews and here are some of their ratings:

None of these books are known to me. Digging through I see a Dawn French novel with 5 stars, a Dick Francis with 4, a James Herbert with 2 which seems a little harsh but maybe it’s a bad book, M J Hyland rightly gets a 5 and yet 2666 by Roberto Bolaño received only 1 star with this comment:

2666I'm almost scared to post this review as so many people have enjoyed 2666 but as I received my copy free from Vine I feel duty bound to post my thoughts. To be completely honest I couldn't get to grips with the story. I found it too long-winded and difficult to get to into. The author's writing style didn't flow for me, either. I was so looking forward to getting stuck into this hefty book but sadly it wasn't to be. However, I seem to be in the minority as most reviews I've read for 2666 have been enthusiastic and full of praise. I think this is one book that I will come back to at a later date for another try.

Have we read enough? Can we trust when he or she (I have no idea of their gender) gave my book 5 stars? Well, I’m not going to argue but who has the time to investigate every reviewer like this? Amazon has created a badge system to help us identify the reviewers credentials and review-worthiness but let’s go back to our opening quote: [U]sers are selfish, lazy, and ruthless. I’m honing in on the ‘lazy’ here, of course. Or if not lazy per se, at least time-strapped. I don’t have the time to investigate the reviewers. Mostly I accept them based on how intelligent they sound, how much they write and how many typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors pepper that review. And I make that assessment in seconds.

I might not post reviews on Amazon but I do, eventually, on Goodreads; I usually do a mass-post every few months. Not sure how effective that is but I do it. And that really is the question here: How effective is anything we do online? I get sent books from publishers to review. One of those is Alma Books. A while ago I asked Elisabetta Minervini, the nice lady who sends me these books, how much effect online reviews had on their sales and also how critical it was that I post my reviews as close to the publication date it was and the answer to both questions was she didn’t know. I think a lot of publishers are the same; they think that they need online reviews but don’t know how to measure their success. They don’t hurt, but I’d like to know whether they make back the money even on the review copies they send out. I got two in the post this morning, both hardbacks in a big padded envelope that cost £5.66 to mail. And how many of these books don’t even get reviewed?

Should I be posting short reviews on Amazon in addition to the full reviews I’m writing on my blog? Would it make any difference? Very few people are going to stumble over Pietro Grossi’s novel The Break by clicking aimlessly around Amazon; they’re going to read a review like mine and then go to Amazon to buy, so what does it matter if I post there or not? I clicked on one of the links in the ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ section, the one that led to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I then looked at what books were listed in that page’s ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ section. Needless to say the Pietro Grossi novel was not there, in fact what was there were books that I had been looking at myself only a day or two earlier: Room by Emma Donoghue, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman and Why Why-Be-Happy-When-You-Could-Be-Normal-by-Jeanette-WintersonBe Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson which I had already bought for my wife. Now all the rest I might be willing to accept, but not the Sarah Winman; that seems so out of place in this list and the only reason I can see why it would be there is that Amazon bunged it in knowing I’d expressed an interest and it was just chancing its arm.

So here’s the thing, if you’ve read one of my books and maybe haven’t reviewed it online or, even if you have, unless you’re one of the seven mentioned above who are exempt, maybe you might think about rattling down a few lines and adding an appropriate star rating which does not have to be a 5—honestly. (Much as I can’t stand them I know they’re a necessary evil.) Or perhaps you might want to do a Listmania® list and include one or two of my books. Or do a review on Goodreads if you happen to be a member, or anywhere else you can think to spread the word. I hate to ask—no, seriously, I really hate to ask—but this seems to be the way: don’t ask, don’t get.

Bottom line though: is there any point to any of this? I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does know. But it can’t hurt. As for whether you owe me, no—no you don’t. But this is bigger than me. The fact is these days if you want to spread the joy you need to talk to the right people online. You might not know them personally but you might be friends with people who just happen to be friends of some other people who happen to be friends of friends of those people. That’s how it goes. When I’ve enjoyed a good book or a film or heard a song that’s made my hairs stand on end I want to tell people about it but here’s where the “selfish, lazy, and ruthless” quote comes in; unless it’s convenient for us, we don’t do it; we don’t go out of our way to do it; if we happen to think of it we might mention it but usually we forget. My daughter will ask, “Have you guys been watching anything good on TV?” and we’ll think and then say, “Oh, yes, have you seen (Wilfred was the last thing)?” And we’ll tell her about it, enthuse a bit and then the conversation will drift off onto some other subject; the bird will start chattering or something. The odds are she still won’t watch it. Not because she’s selfish, lazy, or ruthless but quite simply because there’s so much going on in her life that by the time she gets her coat on, gives me my hugs and kisses, gets in her car and drives homes she will have completely forgotten about it and be more concerned with what’s she’s going to fix her husband for his supper or making sure the cat receives all the attention he demands or checking to see if she has clean clothes for the morning and remembered to hand in her latest essay or, or, or…


who said...

I can't think of how many times I thought how convenient it would be to have a person, website or gadgety thing that had an opinion I trusted. I can't fathom it because the numbers would be so high, as I think these thoughts many times a day, mostly because a reader can waste so much time "looking" for the right reading material.

As a reader, most of us want something that really moves us or touches deep into the guarded parts of our heart.

But the search can be exhausting and there will never be enough time to experience all our dreams

Unless another has taken the time to point out the literal paths. Because of the concentric circles the paths follow it can be very confusing, like you began to mention in terms of time and life at the polls.

Time is the orchestral movement, and it is traveled by us on the earth's surface much like children on a merry-go-round. It's more about the distance to complete a full circle of spinning than it is the passing of darkness and light. It's rotation(spin) and revolution(orbit around the sun) much more than it is about the alternation (daylight and darkness)

Things move much faster closer to the outer limits of places perpendicular to the access (axis or poles). So the movement is fast at the edge of the Merry-Go-Round and much slower at the epicenter, although minutes, seconds and hours can thread everything into one synchronized piece of fabric. Which enables every individual spirit to be able to meet up, in the flesh, all together, in one place, on the surface of the same sphere, all together for one very brief, but once in an eternity for a lifetime event of an opportunity

Just Once

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I help do research for an acquisitions librarian. I find reader reviews helpful for books about topics I'm sketchy in - most things, I suppose. I read amazon reviews for books on how to be a stand-up comic, for instance. The most-praised book was very expensive so I suggested for acquisition two cheap ones that reviewers seemed generally favorable toward.

With poetry I find reviews useless, unless the reviewer includes quotes from the poetry so I can check the reviewer's opinions against a bit of the actual text.

It's been a learning experience, all right. If I continue to be tasked with this research I imagine I will delve more into published reviews. But I think this is going to be a short term gig.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, who, trust is the thing and online we tend to measure trustworthiness quantitatively: if a book has fifty five-star reviews on Amazon then it must be a good book; conversely—and far more importantly—is that we assume that a book with no stars is a bad book. I’ve just been on Amazon and my new book Milligan and Murphy has no reviews. That’s not to be surprised because it’s hardly sold any copies but if you read the four reviews on my website you’ll see that all of them are good reviews (let’s not worry about star ratings for the moment) ergo it must be a good book but because these kind people said so on four separate websites who would ever know unless they took the time to do the research and who has that amount of time as you rightly imply?

And, Glenn, I agree totally when it comes to reviews, and not just of poetry, where the reviewer never quotes from the actual text of the document. I always do which is one reason why my reviews tend to be on the long side but I would be wary of buying any book where I hadn’t read any of it, poetry especially. The thing with reviews, as is the case with the entire Internet, is that they’re relatively easy to locate IF you know what you’re looking for. Type ‘"Milligan and Murphy" review’ into Google and they’ll pop up in the first page or two but what if you’ve never heard of me or my book and just happen to be the kind of person who, like me, jumps at anything Beckett related then how are you going to find out about me? Is it fair to place all the burden on the author to promote his book? On one hand the obvious answer is: It’s his book so why not? And that’s really the question I’m asking here. As we get farther and farther away from paper books and have to rely more and more on the Internet how much (if any) of that responsibility for promotion should devolve onto the shoulders of readers? It’s like recycling. Once only a few passionate environmentalists even considered doing it but now we all do. Accepted and expected behaviours change.

Amazon is the giant when it comes to book buying but if I post a review on Amazon it won’t appear on the Barnes and Noble site or the WH Smith site or the Smashwords site or the Goodreads site and I cannot imagine even my most dedicated fan sitting and pasting his or her review into all these different sites but that is what is needed if you’re going to get noticed, reviews and lots of ‘em. Since all books have unique ISBNs in theory there is no reason why there couldn't exist a central database that all booksellers’ sites could link to. I’m dreaming now. But it would be sensible.

Art Durkee said...

My feeling is that every writer should do the occasional review, just to keep their hand in and their critical wits sharpened. You write a lot more reviewed than I do, I only post a review a couple of times a year, more or less. But I value reviewing as a writerly practice.

What a reviewer tells me about a book almost never influences whether or not I will seek out that book to buy and read. Frankly, there's too many books out there already. I am still catching up with my own pile of books to read. Even though I set aside stacks to read after the surgery last year, my mind was so foggy for awhile that it was ironically wasted. LOL. Oh well.

I buy what I encounter that interests me. I'm at a point in my life where I tend to focus on subjects rather than authors. Although there are a few authors I trust to be a good read based on past experience. I read a lot of books by writers on writing.

I mostly write reviews these days out of enthusiasm, almost never out of obligation. I want to share what I've enjoyed, and I practice the essay review as a form of writing a good essay. I usually bring in other topics surrounding the book in question. I don't claim to be either a reviewer or a critic. I would rather make art than talk about it, although I do like to hear others talk about it, hence the books on writing. I read and write a lot on creativity.

Sorry to ramble on. It's just that I think reviews should be essays, a form of essay, and I practice reviewing that way. I suppose I'm not in the majority, as usual.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s the point I’m getting at here, Art, that, perhaps, readers of the future will start to realise that they play a bigger role in the scheme of things than they ever used to. When the last physical bookshop closes—and something tells me that that’s nearer than any of us imagine—and everything is done online how will we find out about books? We will still browse but differently. I like the lists in Amazon and will occasionally just see where those lists take me. The problem with promotion is that there are limits as to what I can do on Amazon with a clean conscience. I’m completely at the mercy of my readers. They’ve bought the books, read (hopefully) the books, liked (hopefully again) the books and then done nothing but stick the book on a shelf and move onto the next book. Because, in the past, that was the most they were required to do. I’m just wondering whether part of the payment for a book ought to be doing your bit to promote the author. How would you feel, for example, if there were two piles of books; the first pile is priced $8.99 and all you have to do is buy the book; the second is priced $5.99 and you get the book for that price if you promise that you’ll take fifteen minutes to write a short review of it on Amazon? Is that a fair deal? I’m not talking about dedicated reviewers here; we get offered so many books for free that we never need buy a book again if we don’t want to. I’m talking about Joe Public and his missus and, of course, the whole thing would rely on the honour system—how the hell would one enforce it?—but I think it’s an interesting idea.

Art Durkee said...

If I felt like I might want to write a review, I'd agree to it. But I like my freedom of choice, so I'd probably buy the book with no obligations, at the higher price. Then if I felt like I wanted to review it, I would.

You see, this gets into archetypes and choices for me. Specifically, the prostitute archetype. It's not that I'm not willing to ever prostitute my art, but I expect it to be paid for dearly.

Back in the days when I was a music journalist, I got a zillion free CDs, and I reviewed many of them, but not all of them. A lot were unsolicited, making exactly the offer (in other terms) that you late out: I do this for you, you do this for me. But when there was a presumption of obligation, I tended to not take the offer—because my integrity is something I value highly, and I don't tell people I will do something for them unless I'm sure that I can and will. Some labels tried to pressure hard, to get reviews; that usually backfired on them, because I never gave them more attention than anything else.

But that's just me.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

At the Berkeley Public Library, where I work, a new push this year was made to get us to write reviews. People want recommendations and who better than library workers to offer some?

The reviews are slowly being posted on a blog they're calling "Baiting the Hook." The first review of mine is for Mornings Like This by Annie Dillard.

Tim Love said...

By chance I'm reading O'Reilly's "Building Web Reputation Systems" at the moment. In the preface it says that the main problems are of Scale, Quality, Engagement and Moderation. How does one engage readers enough for them to contribute? I've not yet reached that chapter. The "write-ups" I post don't always take me long because I scribble on the bookmark as I read anyway - I read actively, and I don't want to forget my observations. I feel a certain duty to comment on what I read, especially if it's not from a big publisher. I do so partly because I think it helps the community in a crowd-intelligence way. I don't think my attitude to freebies differs much from my attitude to books I buy. And I take "Please be honest" with a pinch of salt.

Jim Murdoch said...

But that’s the difference, Art, as a music journalist reviews is what you did but obviously, like all of us, you had a maximum that you could cope with which meant you had to be selective. I’m talking here about ordinary punters who don’t have blogs and who read just what takes their fancy. They pay their money and that’s that. If they enjoyed it they might pass the book onto a friend or something but what would it take for them to mention it on Facebook? For most it would have to be an exceptional book and even then I bet most wouldn’t do it. And if they did who would see it? Their fifty or a hundred or two hundred friends? Of course a few of those would pass it on and that’s what happens but that’s why all we’re hearing about at the moment is The Hunger Games.

I get what you’re saying about prostitution but when you pay a prostitute you expect a certain level of satisfaction; you’re paying for it and so you expect her to at least make some effort. With book reviews one might feel obliged to give a good review and I know that happens all the time online because most of the reviewers are also authors and they don’t want their books to get bad write ups when they start touting for reviews but if you’re just a reader then you can say what you like, good or bad, and if more people did that we might start to get a more realistic portrait of a book as is the case with The Road where there are loads of reviews on Amazon and they’re all over the place because that’s one of those love-‘em-or-loathe-‘em books and the only way you’re going to know if it’s for you if you suck it and see.

I think that’s a good idea, Glenn, especially if you all make a point of steering away from the big names. They will get read no matter what and so what’s the point in wasting time on them? People want different and new, something they’ve not thought to check out. And, of course, libraries are like bookshops: you don’t always find what you’re looking for because it’s not in stock or (in the case of a library) out on loan.

And, Tim, I’ll be interested to hear what that chapter says once you’ve read it. It is a problem though. Art talks about prostitution—and I get where he’s coming from—so how do we change people’s attitudes? You, like me, clearly feel a certain duty to promote a good book but how many people read what we write? I’ve been slogging away at my blog conscientiously promoting its contentment and working hard to ensure that I keep up my end of the bargain and write interesting and informative posts and I still have only just reached 200 followers. I can do the sums. I get over 8000 hits a month; I post six blogs so 8000/6=1300 hits each which is good but it’s nothing to write home about. Part of the problem here I think is the fall of interest in blogging. People aren’t writing them as much as they used to nor are they reading them unless you’re of a certain age:

Among 34-to-45-year-olds who use the Internet, the percentage who blog increased six points, to 16 percent, in 2010 from two years earlier, the Pew survey found. Blogging by 46-to-55-year-olds increased five percentage points, to 11 percent, while blogging among 65-to-73-year-olds rose two percentage points, to 8 percent. - Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter

That is my demographic. So although I potter around with Facebook and Twitter I don’t really see the return being worth the effort. I found a list of book bloggers on Twitter and scanned a load of them and I just don’t get it. What can you say in 140 characters other than how much you liked it and how many stars you’d award it?

Bloggers don’t just blog; we also read other blogs but there’s clearly an upper limit with which we can cope. I follow about 250 but I scan most of them and select a few every day to read properly and try and comment on. And we’re all in the same boat not really looking for new sites to follow.

Tim Love said...

I think one needs to be realistic about expectations. Blogosphere or not, how many people are really interested in poetry literary prose? Not many. You might already be reaching many of those who can appreciate what you're writing (and have the time to do so). I'll cheer you up by churning out the usual stats -

"The poetry pf hit count trebles in February, on the run up to Valentine's Day", Anne Stewart, "Acumen", May 2010, p.37

In the US there are 900 regular buyers of hardback poetry books and 2500 regular buyers of paperback poetry books. "everybody wants to be a poet", The NYT, Aug 29th, 1979, p.C17, M. Kakutoni

In the UK in 2002 "fewer than 25 books of short stories were produced by mainstream publishers. And two thirds were by writers from abroad." - Debbie Taylor, Mslexia, Spring 2003.

A recent Arts Council study notes that only four per cent of the total sales of the best-selling 1000 poetry books in 1998-1999 were of contemporary poetry. The Arts Council study identifies Faber as responsible for 90 per cent of the sales ... and notes that collections by Seamus Heaney account for 67 per cent of these sales", staple 54

According to Nielsen Bookscan, not one of the shortlisted collections in the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry had sold more than 1000 copies by 2008. The winner ("The Drowned Book" by Sean O'Brien) sold 785. "Hawks to Doves" by Alan Gill had sold 39 copies.

Joyce's "Chamber Music" sold 250 copies in the first year. He bought the majority of them.

Art Durkee said...

Tim, nobody in poetry expects to make a lot from sales. Poets may whine and wail about it, but they also all know that you can't make a living at it. You have to do something else, too. Day jobs, or much more commonly these days, academic jobs. One reason the MFA programs are so plentiful these days is because they're self-seeding: newly minted poets get university jobs, and start creative writing programs. It's self-spawning. The down side is that such programs mint a lot more graduate writers than anybody has time to read, or publish, or care about.

Frankly, creative writing (including fiction) is an insular world. Few outside that world really care about it, much less even know it exists.

Which leads back to promotion, and Jim's questions about it. There are limits to the effectiveness of promotion, when you do it yourself, or when an agency (including publishers) do it for you. Frankly, it's a small pond with a lot of fish in it, and more new fish are born every year.

The overpopulation analogy is actually an accurate one, because many of the complaints we here from literary directions about not having enough readers, and there being too much competition, are exactly like the problem of scarce resources in an overpopulated bioregion and terrain. You have to be really exceptional to stand out, and get noticed. Or exceptionally lucky.

All this is one major reason I don't spend much time worrying about who reads my writings. Chances are, it will never be a huge number anyway. I'm much more focused on niche publishing than general publishing. Niches are smaller biosystems, and people within a particular niche tend to be already interested in what you might have to offer them, so your main problem is to make sure that you offer them your best work.

bruce dorlova said...

and then there's this: i saw a bright shiny thing at , which was your post, here, which i've read, engaged with emotionally & intellectually, & enjoyed. less than an hour ago, i had no idea that you, or your blog, existed. having found your post, & then skimmed (yes, skimmed, i'm afraid) your blog, i've thought "hhmmm... i can dig this (yes, 'dig', i'm afraid)... i bet this guy's blogroll links to some stuff i'd like..." which it does - to some blogs i know, & many which i had no idea existed.

so i click, & read, & click, & read, & end up metaphorical miles & literal continents away from where i began, my head a-whirl as usual with the wonderful seven-billion-ness of us all, while the quite important & fairly pressing thing which i'd sat down intending to do with the hour that's just passed remains not-done, & the hardback university library copy of Orwell's "Coming Up for Air" which i'm currently reading (& enjoying immensely) remains just 75% read because i just can't seem to gather the time-discipline that i need to finish, , let alone review it, because i spend so much time swimming through the metaphorical reefs & depths of the blogosphere into which i will shortly cast my own first, small, hardcopypublished (NOT privately -published, i hasten to add, but properly commissioned, contracted, edited & so on) collection of poems, which i of course hope will gather a wee drop of appreciation & notice beyond my nearest & dearest...

...oh! look! a bright, shiny thing, just over there! if i reach.. just... a.. little...

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t think my expectations have ever been very high, Tim, but the fact is there is an audience out there for literary fiction and I don’t think it’s that tiny either. You would think that the ratio of literary books being written to potential audience is probably higher than the number of science fiction novels to science fiction readers. So for the individual science fiction reader he has far more to wade through than the individual reader of literary fiction. I was aware of some of the stats you sent me in fact I’ve just written an article on a poet who won some award for which there were only thirty entrants and I’m not saying that her book didn’t deserve to win but overcoming twenty-nine others doesn’t carry as much weight as, say, winning a Pulitzer. As regards my own current bugbear (getting people to review Milligan and Murphy) Beckett is hugely popular—all you have to do is look at the number of articles written about him online to see that—and people are still happy to list him under their influences or heroes. I don’t think I’m a minority of one in fact I’ve just reviewed a wonderful little ebook that’s written in a style similar to How It Is which is Beckett’s densest novel by far and yet this author has managed to produce an accessible and funny and contemporary take on a very Beckettian situation. Hats off to him.

You make good points as always, Art, and as the population increases so established attitudes have to change. The obvious one is recycling. I now have four receptacles for different kinds of waste in my kitchen and it’s become my norm to think about rubbish before I toss it out. Music has, of course, changed too. Now many new recording artistes’ work is only available in digital form so you can’t go into a shop and stumble on it; everything happens online and I’m sure the kids, being well aware of this, take the notion of user-promotion far more seriously than people of my generation do. The idea of ‘doing our bit’ is something that the young are embracing. And I suspect that kids are are far more proactive in letting their mates know what’s hot than we are and we’re the ones who are suffering because of it because we don’t get to hear about all the stuff that definitely is going on that, if only we knew about it, we’d be desperate to read or see or hear.

And, Bruce, always glad to see a new name and nice to see an Australian who actually is called Bruce although I’ve yet to meet one called ‘Shelia’. I used to make a lot more effort to find new blogs. I believed in my heart of hearts that there had to be more people out there like me and if I just was that bit more persistent I’d stumble across them but they are so hard to find. Glad you’ve found me though and a few new ‘shiny things’ from my blogroll. I’m not sure that Orwell need worry whether or not you review his book or even finish it; I think he’ll be around for a while. But there’s no doubt about it, one needs to exercise self-control online and, on the whole, I think I’m getting pretty good at it compared to how I was when I first started. I’m the same when it comes to shopping. If I’m looking to buy a pair of trousers I march into the store, go straight to the trouser section, make my selection, pay for it and leave. And I think that’s how a lot of people are getting online which is why cluttering up the sidebars of our sites with adverts and links is pretty much a waste of time; people read the main article and move on.

Dave King said...

I must confess that this has made me sit up and think. The fact is that I have never felt a duty to leave a review, say on Amazon. I do (usually) feel I owe one on a blog, but it has just never struck me that I owe one in the same way on a commercial website. Neither do I very often read the reviews that are there - again, in contrast to a visit to a blog. I am inclined to take regard only of reviews from someone whose opinions and insight I have come to trust.

However, you have set trains of thought in motion, and who knows what I shall be thinking when they finally subside?

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve been thinking a lot about the effect what we do has, Dave. A review on a blog like mine might get 1000 hits but the posts where the numbers soar are reviews of books that really need no promotion like The Master and Margarita because that’s what people are looking for. It’s how to find out about those books we never knew to look for that’s interesting me. The most effective promotion works when it places itself in the field of vision of those it’s interested in attracting not by standing to the side and trying to catch their eye. You read my blogs faithfully and so I know for a fact that there is a very high chance that if I post a review of some weird and wonderful book that you will see it but what about all the other weird and wonderful books that you’d love to read (or at the very least read about); how are you going to discover them? Like it or lump it Amazon is a big player, possibly the only player that really matters, but how do people find books there, not the books they know about but the books they don’t know about? One way are the lists on Amazon. If your book is on a list in the company of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett then there is at least some chance that anyone interested in Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett will go, “Jim Murdoch? Never heard of him,” and click on the link to see what you’re all about BUT if they see that the bloke who created the list was also called ‘Jim Murdoch’ what are the odds that it’s a different Jim Murdoch and not some wannabe trying to plug his book? Now I could make up a fake user account and create a pile of lists and reviews and without a doubt there will be people out there doing exactly that but that doesn’t sit well with me which also means that I’m not maximising my promotional opportunities in the place where people are looking; I’m trying to get them to look elsewhere and most of the time I feel like the proverbial voice crying in the wilderness. So, do I try and lay a guilt trip on those handful of nice people who have already done something for me, either by buying the book in the first place or by buying it and reviewing it or do I just plug away the way I have been? Guilt is an effective tool but its scope is limited and in the end it’s likely to damage my reputation and lose me what few readers I have. It’s a problem and I don’t have a solution.

As for trusting reviews written by certain people, yes, that’s always been the best way—a recommendation from you would go a long way with me—but you only have the time to read so many books and although our interests overlap somewhat your tastes are not identical to mine so eventually you have to start putting a modicum of trust in strangers and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. What else do we have?

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