Books take a long time to be born, we know that. I have had stories published after 30 years. Two of my novels took seven years between their writing and their publication. My other books have averaged three to four years in that pipeline. That is usually par for the course if one is not writing pulp fiction. But I have faced another situation which I thought of writing about: where a book can take also as long as the aforementioned publishing cycle between being purchased and being read by a reader.
I’ve often heard, years after I signed a book at a reading for an avid reader who was ga-ga at the time, that “Oh yes, your book, hmm...it’s still in my reading pile.” Another reader wrote to me the minute she received her copy, saying she was diving straight into it that evening; when I discreetly inquired a few months later, she was still reading my book, along with a dozen others – apparently she reads books in batches, and mine was in the latest batch of 12. Yet another reader has read up to page 51 of one of my books she started in 2009; this notification is sitting for the whole world to see up on Goodreads – I’d like to think it’s because she’s forgotten she has a Goodreads account and not because my book sucks! And others buy books as gifts, collectibles, and trophies, with no intention of ever reading them.
I can understand why books are given out for free in copious quantities. It is because the traditional pipeline, where you actually purchase a copy, does not fetch enough readers, we are told. But the free channel is worse when it comes to actual readers per freebie. I went up on Wattpad two years ago and posted 12 of my already published stories on that burgeoning forum. I was pleased with the result: I have received tons of good comments, one negative comment, many followers, and 220,000 “reads” as of today. But on closer inspection, I see the “fall off” rate: 122K reads for the opening Foreword, and the balance 98K is split on a declining scale between 20K reads for the first story and 5K reads for the last story. Am I to infer from this statistic that of the 220,000 only 5,000 finished what they started? It also makes me wonder whether I am indeed writing crap...
I can also understand why people blog: under the forlorn hope that they are “instantly read and permanently remembered,” and that the dreaded long tail, i.e. from writing to publishing to being read, has been finally eliminated. I hope that is indeed the case and not the starker one of “instantly read and instantly forgotten,” or worse yet, “flittingly seen and permanently drowned” in the deluge of content constantly washing up on our computers.
There is no solution to being read faster in a universe deluged in print matter. It is unfortunate that the last two generations have produced a disproportionately higher number of writers while they have taken out a vast number of readers due to the increasing time/life crunch. If serious writers continue to write, they must look to the future and believe that they are writing for posthumous recognition, for a time when people will be curious to learn more about our present Age of Expression (or is it the Age of Narcissism?)
And I wonder how the hierarchy of books would be re-ordered if we stopped counting “best-sellers” and counted “most-read” instead?