Friday, August 26, 2011

Don't Speak for This Reader!

I avoid writing soapbox blog posts as a rule for several reasons. Despite my online presence, I’m essentially a private person who is uncomfortable with personal revelations. I also think the things that drive me crazy don’t bother most other people, and thus to rant about them is to bore my readers. Also, my prose suffers when I rant. I don’t write clearly and gracefully when I’m driven by emotion.  But despite all these reasons for keeping the soapbox packed away, I’m making an exception today because the most recent claim I read that X knows what readers want was the straw that rent this particular reader’s frame, metaphorically speaking.

According to a 2009 report from the National Endowment of the Arts, 119 million Americans read books, and most of them are reading fiction. RWA says that 29 million of these regularly read romance.  Both readers generally and romance readers specifically are large enough groups that easy generalizations about what readers want or what they like seem specious to me.  The most read book of 2010, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson, according to Publishers Weekly sales figures, sold 1,900,000 copies. Even if people who read library copies and second-hand copies tripled the number of readers, the best-selling book in America last year was read by less than 5 percent of those 119,000,000 readers. I wasn’t among the 5 percent.

Please understand that I’m not slamming Larsson’s book or any of the other 112 books on PW’s list of bestselling hardcover fiction that I didn’t read last year. My point is that anyone basing his/her conclusions about what readers want on that bestseller list clearly cannot speak for me. With one exception, the books I read that made the list were romance and women’s fiction, two of them by Nora Roberts. But even when I restrict the argument to romance fiction, large generalizations are problematic. RWA lists nine subgenres in romance fiction, and in 2009, the most recent year for which numbers were available, 9,089 new romance titles were released. I read a lot of romance fiction, several hundred books a year, but the books I read in 2009 were just a small fraction of those published.
Most of my romance reading falls into three categories—contemporaries, historicals, and Regencies. I would be most hesitant to describe my reading habits as typical or to draw conclusions about romance readers based on my reading habits or the reading habits of my circle of friends. Even within that relatively small circles, there are as many points of reading differences as there are commonalities. By the same token, anyone who bases her/his conclusions about what readers want only on the popularity of paranormal romance or romantic suspense is leaving me out of the equation.
I understand that publishers and marketers, and perhaps authors, need to make generalizations about readers. I’d just like to see those generalizations qualified. Maybe 85 percent of romance readers do want more novels about vampires, shape shifters, and fallen angels (not a real statistic), but the 15 percent that doesn’t adds up to more than 4 million readers. If just a tenth of that minority read a single book without paranormal elements, those readers would propel the book to bestsellerdom.
Just within the past few weeks I’ve been told by various voices that
1.     Readers want hotter romance. (I don’t especially. I’m more concerned with the power of the story and my engagement with the characters than the heat level. I read and enjoy romance novels that range from sweet to hot.)
2.     Readers are bored with details of setting. (I’m not. A sense of place is important to me, and I prefer enough details to make the world of the book feel real.)
3.     Readers look for action in the first paragraph. (I look for something that makes me want to keep reading in the first paragraph. It may be action, but it may also be a quirky character, a place I want to know more of, or prose that falls upon my inner ear like music.)
4.     Readers resent the use of unfamiliar words. (That depends. The best writers make the definition of unfamiliar words clear from the context, and I like expanding my vocabulary.)
I’m not suggesting the people who made these comments were deliberately misleading their audiences. I am saying that overgeneralizations are logical fallacies. A sweeping generalization is one in which there seems to be sufficient evidence offered to draw a conclusion, but the conclusion drawn far exceeds what the evidence supports. Simply adding “some,” “many,” or “most” to these claims would make them more accurate. Doing so would also make me feel less like a reader who is being misrepresented or ignored. I may belong to a minority of readers, but I like to think my voice and my dollars count. And I don’t think I’m alone.

Are you bothered by sweeping generalizations about readers? What are your “soapbox issues”?


quantum said...

Lies,damn lies and statistics!

Averages can conceal a multitude of sins and can easily be used to distort the truth or bolster weak or suspect arguments.

The 'average' reader does not exist and would be a rather boring person if he did I suspect. No, as always the devil is in the detail. The complete probability distribution will contain the info that interests you Janga, but is never readily available.

With current computers it should be possible to type in the info you are looking for eg genre (romance), heat level (all), period (regency), sales popularity (1-10) and receive the available data.

By changing the popularity input you would find where you sit in the probability distribution by observing your favourites in a particular popularity range eg(100-1000).

Alas, I think that the statistics are compiled by people interested in sales rather than particular readers, so this sort of detail is not readily available ... I think.

I don't have any soapbox issues about books. I am still finding wonderful books to read with no problem. Kleypas is superb! I probably haven't read enough to want a soapbox.

Blissful ignorance! LOL

Anonymous said...

Great post, Janga, and I get twitchy when people try to categorize things for me, taking away my choices and options.

I understand that people who sell things, including books, want to find that "sweet spot" so they can sell more things and make more money. That's a laudable goal.

Unfortunately, they are attempting to quantify what is essentially an emotional experience. People buy things for reasons they themselves don't even understand. LOL So it's difficult, if not impossible, to determine what will make people buy something. Plus, if that need is satisfied, they may change their mind the next time they get out their wallet.

I hate the thought of good stories being cast aside because they don't fit within these current parameters. Let's hope that doesn't happen!

Janga said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Q, and I know you are right about selective statistics. I just find unbearably irritating statements that come across like Moses descending from the mountain with God's truth.

Janga said...

Donna, I think one of the good things that may come from the epublishing revolution is that there will be room for all kinds of books, not just those that please the tastes of the majority.