Question: How do we get non-writers to read?

As I was scrolling through my Twitter feed this morning–taking a quick break from a manuscript I’m critiquing–I thought about something that I’ve known for a while: We writers spend a lot of time hawking our books to other writers, or would-be writers.

This sort of thing happens in the realm of literary short fiction, a lot. Most of us who write short stories submit them to literary magazines, many of which have several hundred to several thousand readers. And who are those readers? Other writers, mostly. A few agents, looking for new talent. A scarce handful of faithful readers who don’t have daydreams of selling a novel or having a short story optioned by Paramount for a film starring Morgan Freeman.

On Twitter, writers follow other writers, and agents, and teachers of writing. We HOPE to connect with a community of readers, but in my experience, there are way more OTHER writers populating my Tweet Feed.

How do we expand our “social media platform” to include readers who aren’t also writers or would-be writers?

There’s nothing wrong with that, as far as the community and support and encouragement aspects of social media are concerned. But, it’s not a healthy business model for writers to only peddle their work to other writers. If I’m talking to twenty writers and they buy my book, then I also have twenty writers whose books I have to buy. Even if I self-publish, I’d only make, let’s say, $3 per book sold. 20 x $3 is $60. Let’s pretend, for a moment (mostly for the sake of math) that the average cost of the twenty books the other writers will publish is $10. I will spend $200 reciprocating the purchases that earned me $60. The only people making money when we are writers selling books to other writers are the printers and paper makers and eBook web hosts.

Don’t get me wrong. Buying the books of other writers is important to me. And, I would love it if my writer friends wanted to purchase my work when it is available.

But, how do we get a broader audience to read our writing? What do we do to build a platform not just of other writers, but of readers?

I don’t have an answer, really. I’m eager to hear some. Maybe that portion of platform building only comes after the product is ready for consumption.

If you have any thoughts about this, I’d love to hear them in the comments section below, or shoot me an email.


16 thoughts on “Question: How do we get non-writers to read?

  1. I have been thinking about this too.

    Claude Bouchard wrote a post about how he got a quarter million twitter followers. As I read it, his approach was that it wasn’t about who the followers (so, not just people who deal with reading/writing), but that if he has a lot, some portion of them will be interested in a given book. I don’t think that’s what we necessarily want to do with blog following or with FB, but I think that would work pretty well with Twitter.

    I had similar thoughts about groups doing fundraising. Think about it. Your school, church, whatever has a fundraiser where they sell stuffr. Who does most of the buying? Members, in most cases. That’s why I prefer “event” fundraisers like a quiz night, car wash, BBQ, or something. At least I feel like I’m getting something from going, and they appeal to a broader group.

    This platform question is part of why I’ve decided to do book reviews on my site. Hopefully, people looking for a good book will swing by, not just writers. Of course, I don’t even KNOW what literary magazines exist, so I’m not exactly clamoring to use them as a platform.

    As for writers supporting writers, I think the BEST thing we could all do is, in these communities we build for ourselves online (and off), find a few trusted (e)friends. GIVE our works to them (before publishing), get comments/suggestions/feedback. Make any changes you personally feel are warranted based on the feedback, then just prior to publishing, give them a new copy and ask them to review it HONESTLY (perhaps not even using a “star” system) on Amazon, their blog, Goodreads, etc.

    There still might be stuff they don’t love, but they are likely to spot any major issues – which will help them in their own writing. Anything that’s really problematic would likely be fixed by the final copy, so that sorta bumps up the review. Of course, returning the favor doesn’t cost us needless money, and can help everyone – although it does cost time (but what writer doesn’t read a lot anyway?). Of course, if your reader-friend enjoys it (or could recommend it to a class of readers, say romance readers), they could pass the information on to friends and family – local writing groups etc.

    This would require a GREAT deal of trust between the writers. I would only pick one or two folks to do this with. That limits the potential word-of-mouth, but you can’t give EVERYONE a free preview!

    I think something else we can do is joint projects. Word of mouth is our greatest asset, but starting it is challenging. Friends and family will often start the ball rolling. Say you and I do a book of short stories together. Then BOTH our friends and family will be likely to buy it. That’s twice the exposure (assuming we have equally supportive friends/family).

    My LAST thought (I’ve thought a lot on this, haven’t I?) is to actually put WRITING on my blog. That’s why I do the 100 Word Challenges. I tag them under (as appropriate) poetry, fiction, etc. People who are looking to read poetry are more likely to find me that way.

    Am I nuts? (& sorry for the blog-length comment!)

  2. Non-writers read. A lot.

    They typically read the pulp-fiction genre work. Twilight, Grisham, etc, etc.

    Writers and higher intellectuals tend to gravitate toward “literary fiction.”

    It’s not an issue, IMO. Writers write for readers, but there are different markets, and different kinds of writers.

    • I don’t disagree with this, except that I do, in fact, think it is an issue, from this perspective: market-wise, it feels like the market for literary fiction continues to shrink. Maybe that’s not accurate, but if feels like there used to be a sub-section of readers who enjoyed literary works (including literary short fiction) and that sub-section of the public made up a greater percentage of the total readers than they do today. Short fiction was more popular. People like Hemmingway and Salinger and Fitzgerald were celebrities. It feels to me that more and more, the literary fiction side of things is isolated and set-apart. Maybe I’m over analyzing, but what I’m really asking is: can we find more ways to cross over, blur the lines, etc. How do we connect with readers who aren’t academics or other writers…

      • You can’t.

        I mean, everything changes. Look at movies. Look at television. Look at music. Look at plays, even. Different things sell today.

        And that’s just part of the problem. I really think the other part of it has to do with quality education. Schools today, in general, aren’t what they used to be. (This includes higher education, too.)

        You need to be somewhat intelligent to appreciate Hemingway and Salinger and Fitzgerald and too the budding literary writers of this generation.

        I mean, I have to watch what I say, because I don’t want to come across as snobbish or forcing stereotypes–but from what I’ve seen, the sort of people who are attracted to genre fiction slush but won’t touch Austen or Vonnegut with a ten foot stick typically aren’t as intelligent or inquisitive about deeper literary themes (or issues concerning the human condition) as the people who pick up, say, Ulysses.

        The only way to tap into the “genre fiction market,” would be to essentially dumb down your prose and content to something readers can easily relate to without having to think a lot about it.

        Or you could choose not to. Active readers still exist.

      • I hadn’t thought of it in these terms. I’ll read the more literary stuff, but I enjoy the genre stuff more. I call it “brain candy.” It doesn’t have tons of nutritional value, but it “tastes” good. 🙂

        It’s not that I don’t enjoy the more literary works, they just aren’t quite as captivating for me. I’ll read them when I have more down time (with 2 young kids, it’s gonna be awhile!).

        As for personal platform building and marketing, in either case, the question is: How do I reach the readers who exist for what I am writing? How do I get their attention?

      • I do think, in part, my question means to get at the last part of that (how to reach the readers who exist) but also, how to enlarge that base. i.e.. the readers who don’t yet KNOW they NEED what I am writing. 🙂

  3. Hi! I’m the Julia mentioned by Josh in his follow-up piece. I run a 100 word challenge for adults and also a very successful one for children. The idea for the children is to encourage them to visit the writing of their peers in the hope that we can get them into the habit of commenting on blogs. /

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