My friend Brad at Starboard Society sent me an early-morning email, asking my opinion about an article published today in the New York Times. The piece, “As New Services Track Habits, The E-Books Are Reading You,” discusses the latest use of reader data from e-book sales. Publishers and authors are using the data to determine reading habits and how to write the “perfect” book that delivers, keeping the reader hooked to the very last page.
Nothing wrong with that on the surface, right? Writers have formulas that they have been using for centuries to connect with their readers. There is the generic plot sequence that just about all of us remember from our school days: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (or that ever-cool word, denouement, that we just loved to say over and over when we were writing the end of our stories). Then there are more sophisticated story structures, including Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, a 12-stage cycle that taps in to the very core of every human being’s journey through life.
So what’s the big deal, using reader data to track exactly what today’s readers are, well, reading? The data are telling us that readers prefer shorter chapters, and that we not stray too far into the surreal (probably a mistake I made with my novel Cold Rock). I think the results are going to tell us other common-sense findings, such as more action, less telling; more what-happens-next, less here’s-what-happened. No surprises there.
I welcome the feedback, to be honest with you, as long as writers keep one thing in mind.
There’s a shift in online writing that scares the hell out of me, and it could very easily creep in to this trend with writing to the specifications of an insatiable audience.
First, let me address the latter point. Authors used to crank out a novel a year, and that was a great pace. Our readers would wait with anticipation for the next big book to be released, and then they would devour it, discuss it for months, and then look forward to a sequel, or a new original work. Authors would tour for months after its initial release and then go into hibernation to create that next big book.
That’s just not the reality anymore. Authors have insatiable audiences, and publishers are demanding that writers feed them often with online content and other smaller stories in print and online periodicals. Authors must have an online presence via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, where they are staying connected to their readers.
The incessant “More! More! More” chant continues to rage on, dictating an author’s life to stay one small step ahead of the masses who are publishing anything, and everywhere. Believe me, there are plenty of writers out there who are more than happy to do whatever it will take to make it. That’s always been the case, even before the word “Internet” was muttered for the first time in some coffee house pow wow.
Authors will need to take a firm stand, in my opinion, with what they do with the e-book statistics about reading habits and patterns. Just like any other artist, a writer must hold her ground in her creative work. If we sacrifice the originality of our work and submit fully to the ever-shifting trends of readers, we will be nothing more than prostitutes of the trade, delivering to our readers whatever they demand, and as often as they demand it, with little to no regard for preserving the sanctity of our unique and creative efforts.
How in the world will we ever be able to advance in a society that merely provides what is demanded? It seems to me that, just as happiness can never be found in pursuing such empty and materialistic treasures, we will never be able to stop this insatiable need for “More! More! More!” if we stop asking our readers to consider something new, something unique, and something completely unimagined.
Bring on the stats, and I will do with them as I wish.
Now, if you will excuse me. I have a story to finish writing.