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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Reality Check: The Average Consumer and Books

Reality: The average consumer spends roughly 8 seconds looking at the cover of a book before deciding to pick it up and 15 seconds reading the back cover (or inside cover) before making the decision to buy it.

Some of you might wonder who this average consumer is. Most of you reading this blog are likely not part of that category. Average consumers are predominately those who engage in impulse buying, who generally browse quite literally by gut and "random" instinct. They are not likely to spend hours deciding if they want a book, because they either don't have the time or the patience to do so. As such, the average consumer does not read loads of reviews, nor do they read excerpts--they may look at reviews briefly to see the star rating, but beyond that, anything considered "extra work" by said consumers is firmly in the realm of the less-than-average.

Knowing this, it's not hard to understand why it is that so many books that become "bestsellers" tend to be of the mainstream vein, and thus, more simplistic in their prose stylings. The fact is that average consumers are not interested in reading as a product of effort; they want to be entertained. These people are the same folks who have, for so long, found television and films to be exceptional objects to spend time on, and also who the majority of the less "serious" film productions are geared towards.

But you shouldn't be put off by this. Average consumers are what keeps the book, radio, TV, film, and music industries alive. Without them there would be no Elvis, no Stephen King, no Howard Stern, and no Star Wars or Star Trek. These individuals, while perhaps now considered in a more critical light, have always been firmly in the realm of the average consumer precisely because they are entertaining. And entertainment isn't a bad thing. Those who think that literature should be only about art are also those who are upset that what has made literature so much more acceptable and popular today and in the past are those genres and prose stylings that are more easily received by average consumers.

The fact is that most book consumers are not those who are likely to read Salman Rushdie or Ernest Hemingway; while some certainly do, perhaps by a stroke of luck in seeing more "literary" works on the bargain shelves or in a pretty new cover, these instances are, more or less, flukes. Salman Rushdie may actually be a poor example here, too, since much of his popularity occurred after writing The Satanic Verses, which earned him the rank of most-hated-man-by-extremist-Muslims for a while, giving him plenty of free press.

But why is any of this important? Because if you expect to do anything within the book industry, such as selling short stories or your first novel, you need to understand how the market works. You can be the best thing since sliced bread, but that means nothing to the average consumer, because ultimately what catches their interest is what will entertain them. This does not mean that you should write to the market; anybody who says to write to the market is essentially mentally defective. What this does mean is that you should be well aware of how the market functions before you become published. Write what you love, but don't pretend that you know who the consumer is, and that you have the right to make demands upon them, or get mad at them when they don't buy your novel in droves. The average consumer doesn't care about you. They control the market. They will not do extra work for your incredibly complex, amazing novel; that work belongs to a different demographic of more astute, cautious readers.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: the consumer is not your bitch, no matter what kind of novel you write. They are not obligated to read excerpts or to go out of their way to do what you want them to do, and most of them won't, ever. The average consumer is far more likely to pick up the next Stephen King novel, knowing that it will suit their needs, than spend twenty minutes or an hour reading up on your fantastic new novel. But, who knows, you might get lucky and become the next Stephen King or Tom Clancy or Dan Brown (or *insert your favorite bestselling author here*). It happens, but only to a handful of authors in a bloated industry of debuts.

(A lot of this is directed to self-publishers, who need to understand the market and why they must always fight tooth and nail to get even a little leeway--and also why it's pretty much impossible for self-publishing to effectively change the course of the industry without essentially altering bookstores; that probably won't happen until there is a way to determine quality and if self-publishers can offer the same guarantees to bookstores as traditional publishers. A lot of folks I talked with before seemed to have a perception of average consumers that is inconsistent with reality. While it's nice to delude oneself with imaginative constructs of consumer culture, such delusions are not reality. This doesn't mean you can't do well self-published or published by a small press, or published with a particularly niche book; it just means that most of the market won't know who you are or care. Trying to change that is probably a losing battle.)

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  1. Your post is fundamentally correct, however, you say at the end:

    "This doesn't mean you can't do well self-published or published by a small press, or published with a particularly niche book; it just means that most of the market won't know who you are or care. Trying to change that is probably a losing battle."

    This is where you're missing the change that is happening. It's slow, but it's happening. You're a blogger yourself - you want people to know who you are and you're building a presence online. That's how it works. Check out this post, particularly the comments, to see why you're blurring the lines between the old culture and the new:

    Sure, what you say is currently true, but it is changing.

  2. It's not actually changing. You're grabbing readers that already are not average. There's simply a way to reach them now that has otherwise never been available. But this is not something that will magically adjust all of consumer culture. People who say that we can actually adjust consumer culture in a drastic, significant way are completely oblivious to how entrenched habit is in such cultural constructs.

    And yes, I have a blog and I want an audience and a presence, but I am not arrogant enough to assume that even if I'm the best possible at writing about the topics I write here (usually science fiction), that has a terminal velocity, a termination point that cannot be breached. There are always people who will not be remotely interested in what I'm blogging about, who have no interest in blogs themselves, and who subscribe to a different, less niche perspective and information network. This is true for all niche markets in blogging or elsewhere. There is and always will be a wall that cannot be crossed, and what is beyond that wall tend to be a certain kind of people who make up either the niche (i.e. minorities, not in the sense of race or ethnicity) or the mainstream (average consumers, etc.).

    What we are seeing now is nothing more than an explosion of like-minded individuals who now have a place to talk and share.

    There's nothing wrong with a ceiling, unless you don't think it exists.

    Case in point (in regards to blog): SF Signal is by far one of the best places for SF/F anything, but it will likely never reach the same numbers that John Scalzi's Whatever receives precisely because Scalzi typically fits into the more mainstream of blogging platforms, while SF Signal is exceptionally niche in content. That's not to say that SF Signal cannot grow (it has, actually, by at least 1500 new subscribers in the last few months), but it will hit the ceiling and stall. If it ever reaches the numbers that Scalzi gets, it will be due to one of two things: more people magically start reading SF and about SF (specifically literature, since SF Signal tends to focus on that over other things) or SF Signal starts dealing more with the mainstream (i.e. discussing SF as it pertains to film over literature).

    WISB has a ceiling, SF Signal has a ceiling, publishing itself has a ceiling, and self-publishing as a ceiling, and all are not as high as we would like (I'd like it more if everyone read books at least semi-regularly, but, clearly that will never happen).


  3. "People who say that we can actually adjust consumer culture in a drastic, significant way are completely oblivious to how entrenched habit is in such cultural constructs."


    Most people over 40 will rarely, if ever, buy from the internet. Most people under 40 will regularly buy from the internet. That's a drastic, significant change in consumer culture.

  4. Actually, statistics show that people over 40 are some of the biggest buyers of books online, while people 25 and under are bigger supporters of brick and mortar. It's some sort of strange "hip" culture thing.

    And that's not actually a drastic change in consumer culture, since what is usually being bought is stuff that wouldn't be bought via standard, average consumptive methods anyway. You can buy a vacuum on Amazon in about the same way as in Walmart. All the Internet has done is make access to things easier, but it hasn't changed consumer culture itself. We still consume things in the same way as before.

    This would be like saying that green technology has changed consumer culture. It hasn't, we're just buying something else now.

  5. You should be a politician.

  6. Too much lying and manipulation in politics for my liking. I'd never be elected. I'd be too realistic for America.