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.)