Obviously, people read for different reasons; to switch off, to turn on, to be informed about the world they live in or to escape from it; for research or for relaxation. Various studies into reading fiction have investigated this, though none of them comprehensively.
In 2005 the British Marketing Council conducted a survey into reading habits in this country. The aim was to promote the reading and book-buying potential of ‘light to medium readers.’ Nearly ten years ago, Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins investigated gendered differences in reading. Statistics from the University of Illinois research conducted in 2007 into American reading habits are available online. This survey uses a similar classification; ‘light to medium,’ ‘serious’ without clearly specifying what these terms mean.
My own experiences of teaching literature and running reading and writing groups, suggests a particular definition of ‘light,’ ‘medium’ and ‘serious’.
There are those people, for instance, who, in 2012, only read Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels. Similarly, in 2003 certain people only read The Da Vinci Code. I think of these as ‘light’ readers. They may be induced to read the latest, much publicised reading sensation, but otherwise would not class reading as one of their pursuits.
Then there are readers like my friend Bernadette, who have a high-powered professional career and who read for relaxation; ‘to switch off’. Bernadette will regularly read novels by one or two well-known authors; Victoria Hislop, Jodi Picoult. Many people fall into this category. In the survey’s terms they are probably ‘medium readers’. They read more than the light readers, but still predictably. If there was more time to read e.g. in retirement, they might read more widely.
There are also people for whom reading constitutes a major part of life. I am going to include myself in this category. Reading is part of my profession, whether as research for my own writing, or for teaching literature, or supervising students’ work. In addition I read for pleasure, usually in bed. I would say that I don’t read books in order to ‘switch off’; rather the opposite. I have television for that. Books for me are like windows into worlds I would never otherwise see or experience. I read out of a kind of existential greed, in order to experience more than one kind of life.
Several of my friends read books in this way, and I would imagine that most writers are in this category. I am going to call us Readers, with a capital R, because I think we deserve it.
Now immediately it will seem as if I am imposing a hierarchy onto reading, and I suppose this is true. This is the problem with terminology, but I need some terminology for this article. In my defence I would say that I fully endorse anyone’s reasons for reading; and am fully aware that these reasons might change at different points in life.
It seems to me that increasingly the publishing world directs its efforts and resources towards the light and medium readers, who fall into predictable marketing categories. The books they want to read are well publicised, on the internet, in train stations or on TV.
By contrast, it is difficult to target the Reader in any marketing campaign. I will illustrate this by using my own reading habits as an example.
I would estimate that I read 40 – 50 books in the course of a year for pleasure rather than professional reasons.
Here is a list of the books I have recently read for pleasure.
What I Loved Siri Hustvedt
All One Breath John Burnside
The Farm Tom Rob Smith
Alone in Berlin Hans Fallada
The Beautiful Indifference Sarah Hall
Edith’s Diary Patricia Highsmith
Bad Traffic Simon Lewis
Half A World Away Cath Staincliffe
The Givenness of Things Marilynne Robinson
Cousin Bette Balzac
As the list indicates the books may include poetry, fiction from or about other cultures, non-fiction, popular fiction, short stories and classics. Only one of the books on this list was read (by me) in the year of publication. In most cases it took a while before I heard about them at all.
However, publishing houses will regularly base their decisions (acquisitions, marketing campaigns) on sales figures collected in the first few months.
If the Reader is overlooked by marketing, it is probably because their reading habits are hard to categorise. It is just not possible to predict what they will want to read or to identify the reasons why they might buy one book over another. Resistant to sales pitches, suspicious of marketing and reviews, the Reader has his or her own private agenda of preferences (relatively) unaffected by recent trends. They probably won’t rush to buy the latest novel on any publishing list. Marketing agencies might assume (correctly) that the Reader will continue to read, in his or her own eclectic, individual way, whatever marketing strategies are thrown at them.
It is infinitely easier to sell ‘the latest publishing sensation’ to the light-to-medium reader.
Also, it seems, the publishing world itself is becoming dominated by people who are not Readers. Certain influential people from this world have claimed that they have never read a book. Some of these people are in the position of determining what books are bought, what budgets allocated to selling them, and how retail shelves are stocked.
I might assume that a certain amount of outrage would be provoked if it was announced that I would be managing the England football team in future, since I have never even watched the game. Whereas the CEO of one major publishing firm, and the head of marketing of another, can say they have never read a book and there is hardly a murmur.
Of course, in the sporting world there is no contradiction between excellence and success. When literature was the dominant cultural medium it was perhaps possible to some extent to say that the finest writers were also the most successful. We know, for instance, that Dickens was massively popular in his own time. Crowds of people waited for him to disembark in America, desperate to know what was happening to Little Nell.
Today, however, there may be a direct contradiction between excellence and success, and marketing strategies are focussed on success.
It has to be said, however, that some marketing tactics are working. The number of titles published each year in the UK is increasing, and despite alarms about the demise of the printed book, the number of book sales has apparently increased by approximately 42% in the past ten years. So it could be said that in this difficult era, when the literary world is up against such stiff competition from electronic media, the publishing world has fought back heroically.
Statistics, however, do not reveal the full picture. It isn’t obvious, from the figures I’ve seen, how many of these titles are fiction, how many of them are written by established authors and how many by first time writers, how many once established authors are no longer published because they no longer sell; what the relationship is between publicity and sales and who gets what part of a publicity budget.
In other words, these figures represent a quantitative rather than a qualitative analysis. There is another figure, that I have not seen substantiated, which suggests that each year only twelve fiction titles take all the sales. And while this may seem staggeringly low, can you name twelve fiction titles published this year?
In 2012, the year dominated by Fifty Shades, I conducted my own informal survey. I asked my friends, some members of a book group, and some of my students, how many books they could name that had been published that year. The answer, on average was three. In some cases, depressingly, it was the three titles that came out in the Fifty Shades series. Other people could name A Casual Vacancy and the Booker Prize-winning Bring Up the Bodies. Some of my friends, whom I would class as Readers, could not name any, even though Bring Up the Bodies could legitimately be said to be for the Reader. One of these friends was busy re-reading the whole of Proust.
My conclusion, from my admittedly limited survey, is that there is a communication breakdown between the publishing world and Readers. Current tactics only serve the light-to-medium readers; Readers are not impressed. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Readers are increasingly likely to dismiss those books which receive a generous amount of publicity as not being for them. (In 2012 Fifty Shades was everywhere. It was not for me).
With rare exceptions there is a widening gap between books for the Reader and books successfully marketed for the light & non-reader. Perhaps more surveys, or more complex surveys into reading preferences are required: a compilation of favourite books that does not end with The Lord of the Rings but that does result in a greater awareness of Reader preferences.
The problem may not be how to publish more books for Readers, however, but how to bring them to their attention. It is not enough to rely on the major prizes to attract the Reader. The total number of shortlisted books does not represent the variety and richness of what is being written and published today. Many of these books never come to the attention of the Reader.
Guidance, the 2005 survey concluded, is the key to promoting book sales. Guidance in the form of reviews, or from knowledgeable assistants in book shops. Again, I suspect that this applies mainly to the light reader, who wishes to widen the scope of what they read, or who is looking for something to take on holiday. Readers tend to have their own agenda and/or a network of people whose opinions they trust, with whom they swap books. But I suspect that this increases the length of time it takes for literary fiction to find a Readership. It takes time for books to circulate.
And they can be difficult to track down. Serious fiction may not make it to the bookshelves of the nearest store. It can be ordered online, of course, but not all Readers are computer-literate. Two of my friends don’t use computers at all. They are unlikely to receive any news about what is currently available apart from the limited number of books reviewed in the newspapers.
So why should the publishing world bother about them, you may ask? Why try to cultivate this disaffected sub-group that is hard to communicate with and even harder to please? And isn’t the Reader a member of a small and dying species in any case?
One reason is that in the current climate, some of our finest writers may not be selling at all. Some fiction is being published that is of a high quality; distinctive, innovative, exciting even, but the publicity budget allocated to it is barely big enough to get it into the warehouse, let alone the hands of the Reader. The results are disheartening for everyone; writers, editors, and agents.
That’s what the small presses are there for, you might think. And indeed some small presses have performed near miracles, substituting blood, sweat, tears and nervous breakdowns for profit. Pereine Press comes to mind. Or Salt, Tyndall St and Sandstone.
As everyone who has had any dealings with smaller presses will know, however, the experience is variable. Many small presses crash before they are properly launched; others run swiftly into funding or workload problems and cannot fulfil their contracts, which is devastating for all concerned. Certainly they can’t rely on generating much publicity, unless one of their titles wins a major prize. And even that doesn’t always translate into sales.
Besides, shouldn’t the major presses, with all the years of publishing experience, all that reputation behind them, still be the ones to publish ground-breaking fiction and champion excellence?
But primarily they should bother because, to return to my sporting metaphor, historically literature published in the UK has been of an Olympic standard. I suspect that if people across the world were asked which countries were famous for their literature, the UK would feature high on the list. We need to continue the tradition of producing literary classics that are read 200 years after publication, while allowing for the fact that these may not be the major prize-winners of their time. They may come from what used to be termed the ‘mid-list’, or from books that wouldn’t even make the mid-list in terms of sales.
And then a way forward needs to be found that improves communication between the publishing world and the Reader, because the intricate relationship between literature and the Reader produces the best that fiction has to offer.