Who are you writing for?

book openThere are about half a million books (titles) published each year in the English speaking world. That may be a conservative figure. It’s hard to find numbers on how many books people actually buy. Why that should be a secret, I do not know. I think we can assume that it’s a big number.

Dax wonders, “How many of those books sold are actually read?”

It’s hard to get numbers on specific categories of books, but it appears that non-fiction titles sell better than fiction. The reason non-fiction books sell well is because they don’t make people feel guilty. If you buy a novel, it sits around waiting for a reading mood to strike you. Then you have to read it in order, from beginning to end. Why buy something that’s going to needle your conscious every time you see it?

If you buy a non-fiction book, it can sit around gathering dust without causing you any guilt because someday you might need it. And when that happens, it will be right there for you to read because you had the foresight to buy it. It’s for reference, you tell yourself when you pay $28 dollars for a book written for idiots. It doesn’t have a plot, so you can open it to a random chapter and read without slogging through all the chapters that went before. It may have pictures and interesting graphs and charts. It also has an index, so you can look for the most interesting parts and skip the rest.

What if fiction books had indices? Would everyone look up ‘sex’ and flip to the best parts? Would they look up “descriptions of landscape and flora” and skip those parts? Fiction authors don’t want us doing that.

Bottom line: non-fiction authors have a better chance of being published than novelists, and will probably sell more copies of their books.

That doesn’t mean that any of these books are being read. There is simply too much stuff to read every day, and most of it isn’t on paper pressed between two covers. It is in the ever-expanding universe of the Internet. For each word written here, millions of new websites are popping up. Google reader, email, blogs – all of these hound us with opportunities we must take. What if we miss something? What if we don’t check out an interesting link, keep up with the listserv, skim through six online newspapers, check out the Word of the Day, read all the book reviews from Amazon?

For Dax, it comes down to a question. “Who are you writing for?”

And there are still books being published every day. Dax has an iPhone that currently holds thirty- nine books. Most days it isn’t necessary to read any of those books, but it’s certainly a lot easier carrying them in his pocket than dragging a suitcase of books around. If a person can carry thirty-nine books around – or maybe his entire library – is he any more likely to read them than if he carried around one ‘real’ book? Sadly, no.

Some people don’t enjoy reading from a device like Kindle. They miss the feel of the pages, writing notes in the margin, seeing their progress with a bookmark. Younger readers are used to reading off a computer screen. They want to download books on their iPods the way they download songs. Why wouldn’t they have access to entire libraries? They can find any video on You Tube, any song on iTunes, any movie at NetFlix. They can find people they went to elementary school with on FaceBook, Google their teachers and bosses. They don’t use phone books or dictionaries or encyclopedias. They don’t buy stamps or envelopes. Why would they go to a library to find a book? Why would they even want to carry one around?

And they’re not going to pay twenty-five dollars for a novel, even if it is a best-seller. Remember when VHS movies cost $90? People used to pay $20 for a music CD; now they find the songs they want on Playlist for free. What happened to the music and film industries is already happening to books.

So what does an author do? Self-publishing is like writing a blog – nobody knows you’re there, and even if they find out about you, how are you going to compete with all the other stuff clamoring to be read?

That’s why it matters who you write for, and why. Are you writing to make money? To see your name in print? To find a small group of readers who will read your book if they don’t have to pay?

Of course, we write for ourselves — because we have to, because our characters demand to be written about, because we need to tell the stories that go through our heads.

But writing for ourselves is really just journalling, even if it’s a story we’re telling ourselves. It’s not a waste of time, but an audience, even one we can’t see or measure, changes the way we write. Writing as self-indulgence is a sloppy exercise. We’re better when we know someone is watching.

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