The Care and Feeding of the Reader

If we are to find our readers, we need to think about their pleasure, not just our information

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle for Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, September 14, 2007

The cullers at Harper’s Magazine uncover facts and statistics for its “Index” that are as unsettling as they are surprising. Take these, for example:

  • Minimum number of different books sold in the U.S. last year, as tracked by Nielsen BookScan: 1,446,000.
  • Number of these that sold fewer than 99 copies: 1,123,000.
  • Number that sold more than 100,000: 483.

In thinking about those first two figures I am reminded of Disney/Pixar’s delightful new movie, Ratatouille, which features a rodent named Remy who is inspired to be a chef by a renowned French chef, Auguste Gusteau, the author of a cookbook called Anyone Can Cook. The point of the movie is that anyone, even a blue rat with a bulbous nose, can follow his or her passions, though only those talented few can do it really well.

That message, at once democratic and meritocratic, is, in many ways, a reflection of what is happening in the world of books. With self-publishing companies like Lulu, iUniverse, and Xlibris, we have come to an era where anyone can publish. But like those cooks whose enthusiasm outpaces their skill, writers won’t all create products that everyone will enjoy, or even want to sample.

The preponderance of those books don’t make it into bookstores. But then, neither do most scholarly monographs. Some self-published books have sales figures in triple digits. Some rare few, with authors who are savvy and energetic about promotion, sell thousands. Most, however, are bought by the author’s family and friends — the captive audience that reads out of obligation or plain old love.

What about that other figure? The 483 books that sold more than 100,000 copies last year? Many of those are written by authors whose books always sell more than 100,000 copies. You know their names, even if you don’t read them. (Confession: I often do. There’s a reason why they are so successful. The same reason Tootsie Rolls have lasted more than 100 years. In their own, shiny, nonnutritious way, they can be a junky treat.)

Now how many books can you think of by academics that have sold more than 100,000 copies — or even, let’s face it, 10,000 copies? Scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Jared M. Diamond, and Stephen Hawking have all hit the best-seller lists (though some of their books are displayed more often than read).

Psychologist Carol Gilligan and linguist Deborah Tannen have both hit the jackpot and have even been shelved in (gasp!) the self-help section. Occasionally a philosopher like Harry G. Frankfurt (whose title, On Bullshit, surely helped move books off the shelves) or professors of literature taking on, say, Shakespeare (think Stephen Greenblatt or Harold Bloom), can sell some books.

Historians, who seem most poised to find a readership outside of academe, often don’t. There are, of course, historians whose books do well. But the blockbusters are frequently written by people trained in history but whom academics do not think of as being part of their pack. Often they are folks who left academe — Doris Kearns Goodwin taught at Harvard, the late Stephen E. Ambrose at the University of New Orleans and several other universities — to focus on writing. Sometimes best-selling history comes from people without Ph.D.’s, like Nathaniel Philbrick and Erik Larson.

Here’s what those authors understand: No one wants to read lines of quoted material. It interrupts the narrative flow. It creates a hitch in the authorial voice. Ugly little superscript numbers distract the reader.

Books that sell well don’t look or sound academic; books that read well tell a story in a strong and seductive narrative voice. I am not suggesting that scholarly books are not important, but rather that academics who seek a larger audience would do well to bear in mind the advice of Samuel Johnson: “Those authors who would find many readers must endeavor to please while they instruct.”

Too many books by academics are, frankly, nothing more than data dumps. The authors assume that information is enough. It isn’t. We talk about the “contract with the reader,” the notion that we have to deliver on our promises. If we make a claim or state a thesis, we pledge to show our readers how we got there and to back it up.

But I want to talk about something else: the care and feeding of the reader. The hand on the arm, the soft touch that says, “If you come with me, I will take you somewhere special.” Writers need to keep in mind that the reader has many suitors, all vying for her attention. If you are too rough, not rough enough, too subtle, not subtle enough, she will look away. Sometimes he will beg off with a headache.

If you believe that your book will be read by a person, a Gentle Reader, whom you want to impress, to attract, you will have to enchant him to make sure he stays with you. If you are writing only for your dissertation adviser, or your mother, you’re likely not to be thinking about seduction.

We have all had the experience of reading a book and wanting to know the author — to meet him, to have dinner with her, to go for a long, talky walk with him. That’s because he has kept us, his readers, firmly in mind as he writes. Stephen King writes, he says, for his wife, Tabitha. You may say, if you are given to snarkiness, that if he found a different wife, he might be a better writer. But there are many zillions of people who have the same taste as Tabitha King.

It’s not unlike teaching. The best teachers, and the most popular, know that while the classroom is not a place for expressions of sexuality, the erotic is at play. They know that we are in the business of beguiling with our wisdom and, sometimes, our wit. Indeed, we use anything we have in our bag of tricks to keep the students engaged, to keep them with us. They will work hard to follow if we make them want to come for the journey.

Most of us of who write books will have sales of more than 99 copies but less than 100,000. In a way, we are really writing for our family and friends. In academe our family is the people within our discipline who can be expected to read whatever is new and important in the field. They do it because they have to. But the friends are a different story. They are people who could be expected to be interested in our work, scholars in other fields, even people outside of the campus quads, if only we approached them the right way, if we made the work attractive.

“Gentle Reader” was both a direct address, and an expression of keen insight on the part of 18th- and 19th-century authors who knew that you can’t hector someone into reading your work.

If we are to find our readers, we must be gentle with them, keep them in mind as we write, help them along. We need to think about their pleasure, not just our information.

Anyone can publish. But not everyone will produce work that more than a small number of people will read.

The art and craft of publishing a good article or book is being able to write what you want, while at the same time keeping in mind what the reader needs.

It’s a dance. We’ve all seen people dancing by themselves, hearing a tune that plays only in their own heads. It can be amusing to watch for a while, but, ultimately, most of us turn away to look for a partner.