Understanding What Readers Want — The Writing Platform
Understanding What Readers Want
I don’t remember learning to read, but I clearly remember the day I learned I could read. I was entrusted with a note for my lovely kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hicks. The note asked that I be excused from school for a doctor’s appointment. As I – quite possibly for the first time in my life – read something I shouldn’t have, I discovered something that made me the person I am today: a reader.
The words on the note were not individual items. I mean they were, but the words, placed in a particular order and accented by punctuation, conveyed a message. They told a story. Granted, the story being told was one of torture and pain (one must read between the lines) because an evil doctor was going to insert a thin, sharp needle filled with who-knows-what into a little girl’s body. Happy ending: lollipop for being brave!
You couldn’t – you can’t – stop me from reading.
I’ve been reading digital books since 1998. The last print book I bought was This Charming Man by Marian Keyes. I bought it at Waterstones in Piccadilly. I was staying at a hotel right across the street, and I could not resist the lure of paying a higher price to obtain a book I couldn’t yet get in the United States. Also, I am addicted to buying books. Since I switched to ebooks, doing so has become even simpler. Link from Twitter, buy the book, read the book, be happy.
I am an author’s and publisher’s dream. If you are a certain type of author and a certain type of publisher. I read, mainly, fiction.
Okay, that is not true. It’s not true at all. For pleasure, I read mainly fiction. In reality, I read news, email, contracts, news, Twitter, Facebook (sigh), news. All day long. I read constantly. I read so much during the day that I, yes, take a break by watching “Breaking Bad.” Or sometimes “Walking Dead.” Or just really bad television. Even I need a break from reading sometimes. A short break.
I am also, I am sorry to say, an exception to the reading rule. I read a lot, I read constantly, I read multiple books simultaneously. Readers like me define torture as “being without a book.” We can be hanging from a cliff by our fingernails, but as long as we have a book, we’re cool.
Unfortunately, most people don’t break out in hives if they don’t have reading material tucked away in their pockets, purses, cars, desks, bathroom drawers…. Most people buy less than five books per year (U.S. readers, I should note). I buy at least that many in a month.
What Do You Mean By ‘Reading’?
If you are a member of the digital publishing circuit, you develop a jaded attitude toward the latest studies and breathless headlines (or, at least, I hope you do). Others, not so much. Just a few weeks ago, we endured much hand-wringing over the notion that girls — those stalwarts of the reading world! — were reading less. Civilization, as we know it, was surely coming to an end.
This same study, to the surprise of nobody, found that most U.S. children have never read an ebook. The horror!
Whenever I encounter studies like this, my first (and only) reaction is “define your terms”. What do we mean when we say “read”?
Right now, I am reading Twitter. I am writing this piece. I am reading email. I am multi-tasking, with reading — always reading – at the center of my day. When I’m out in the world, I observe kids reading and writing obsessively. Now, it may not be your idea of proper reading (or proper writing), but it is reading and writing. I believe today’s kids read and write more than any generation before.
I think we tend to define terms like reading to suit our own beliefs. I certainly am guilty of this. Way too guilty.
At a long-ago dinner party, a new acquaintance was razzing an old friend rather cruelly, “But you don’t even read books.” My friend, who prefers audiobooks for various reasons, had, earlier in the conversation, described how he and his oldest daughter had listened to the Harry Potter books. In my mind, this counts as reading a book. Some of my favorite memories of my mother come from the months she read King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table to the four of us while we ate dinner.
I’ve read those KING ARTHUR stories, but maybe not all of them with my own eyes, and not in the way that some pundits define ‘reading’. Think about it: when a blind reader chooses audio or Braille are they ‘not reading’? Why do we insist that one type of reading is superior to another?
Likewise, who are we to say important news conveyed to a reader in 140 characters is less important than news conveyed in 500 words? Or text messages between two friends are inferior to chatty letters of days gone by? Is a story written by a teenage girl and posted online necessarily worse than something published by Penguin?
It is very important that we do not define ‘reading’ by our own standards. It is very important that we broaden our definition of reading, as reading itself shifts and changes, because real readers are rapidly creating their own definitions of ‘reading’.
So Who Are You Targeting?
Readers are not all the same. This is surely as obvious to you as it is to me. Yet there is a sense of an idealized reader, someone I call the Platonic Reader. He (though in the real world, it is more likely “she”) reads the best of the best of current (literary) releases with perhaps a smattering of high-brow non-fiction. He attends book signings on a weekly basis. He participates in literary discussions and, if we are lucky, poetry slams. He personifies the New York Times bestseller list — a list that is notoriously, rigorously skewed. Think about it: some NYT “bestsellers” have only moved 5,000 units. Some have sold even fewer.
This Platonic Reader only exists in marketing meetings. Remember this.
Real readers are messy people with messy lives. I noted the friend who only reads audiobooks. What I’ve discovered is there are many readers like this in my world. So often they are mothers with full-time jobs. Mothers blessed with annoyingly long Los Angeles commutes. Our lack of widespread public transportation means we so often spent two, three hours a day alone. Locked in the loving cocoon that is our car.
We have some choices to help entertain us while we sit still on the freeway: godawful radio, public radio, our own music, silence, long phone conversations with friends and family, audiobooks. I am proud that so many I call friends choose the audiobook option.
Then there are vacation readers. They fall into three categories. The first surely warms any publisher or author’s heart: they choose from the current bestsellers, somewhat randomly. The second category? This reader grudgingly, somewhat angrily chooses a book from the shelves, something they feel they have to read. Vacation is as good a time as any to suffer through this book. Then there is the final group. This reader borrows something from a friend or sister, a ‘vacation read’.
The emerging reader, be it a child or someone learning to read for the first time, is a wide-open reading class. I mentioned above there is a perception that most children have never read an ebook. Is this really true? Do we have a real definition of ebook? I can assure you my two-year old niece is devouring ebooks, only they are more along the lines of animated picture books with sounds. Her mother doesn’t consider them ebooks, but her grandmother and I certainly recognize the species for what it is.
I believe the biggest opportunity for creativity in reading will come in the children’s book sector. There isn’t much the industry can do for a reader like me, a reader who lives and breathes linear narrative text (call it traditional fiction). Make a better e-Ink device. Make books cross-platform so I can transition between devices without missing so much as a semi-colon. Make prices better. Make proofreading a priority. For me, it’s all about improving on what already exists.
For my niece’s generation, a generation growing up with amazing technology (and the ability to use it seemingly encoded in their DNA), what we find ground-breaking, they will find normal. Just like color TV. Or iPods. They won’t see books in the same way we do; this is not to say they won’t devour narrative fiction or non-fiction with great zeal.
The readers closest to my heart, for so many reasons, are those who have some sort of a disability. So much of what is discussed when it comes to reading and accessibility focuses on blind or vision-impaired readers, and, as I grow older, I quite understand this focus. However, consider the mobility-impaired reader. This reader, who may suffer from arthritis or the loss of limbs, may be physically unable to manage the seemingly simple act of turning pages.
Years ago, when the controversy over the Amazon Kindle’s Text-to-Speech functionality emerged, I was flabbergasted. Truly. While the Author’s Guild – an organization I often find at odds with its rank-and-file membership – blustered about audiobooks and rights and whatnot, I kept saying, “This is an accessibility issue.” Granted, the TTS functionality was rudimentary — anyone who has ever worked with blind readers know they “read” at a speed that leaves the fastest sighted reader in awe — it was a great boon for those with vision problems. Not to mention those readers with learning disabilities. Sometimes, the idiocy of entrenched thinking makes me want to punch holes in walls. Usually common sense wins out.
(I should mention at this point another use of TTS that is widely overlooked: some parents use it as a tool for reading to their children or helping their children learn to read.)
The deaf reader must also be considered — especially for those authors and publishers who, smartly, see multi-media as the right way to tell a story.
What Readers Want
Each person who reads something does so with one purpose: to get something out of it. For me, it is a good story, important information, and/or the answer to one of life’s pressing questions (example: what time is it in Singapore right now?). I think this is true for just about every other reader I’ve ever encountered.
Once upon a time, we relied mainly on booky-books to achieve our goals. Now we rely on a variety of sources, some more sound than others. Yes, books, but also random articles on the Internet. Complete strangers on the Internet. Good friends on the Internet. Carefully targeted Google searches. Rumors.
What readers want – really, really want – is content that makes sense to them. We don’t want to buy an entire book on the history of electrical lighting to learn how to change a lightbulb. We want a chapter, a section, an illustrated how-to guide. We’re happy to pay for this information…as long as the price makes sense in the context of what we’re getting!
Readers want quality. Yes, we may abuse the English language (or any other language!) horribly in our private and semi-private communications (I am at war with spellings like “nite” and “realz”), but we know quality from junk. We notice bad conversions in ebooks. I have a habit of highlighting conversion errors in my Kindle books. And I am not alone. It’s a sad commentary on the state of digital publishing that I can open a book and discover 101 other readers have highlighted the same error I noted.
We also want good metadata. I joke that no reader is out there saying “give me some of that good metadata”, but this is what readers want. Metadata is data about data. It’s the least sexy part of the publishing culture, and it is the most critical part of publishing culture. Metadata includes a work’s title, the author, the publisher, the ISBN, the genre, when published, description, awards, format, and every other thing you can think up to describe the book. All of this metadata combines to connect readers with your work. It tells those readers why this particular story or article or book is important to them.
It’s the little things, like linked table of contents and indices. It’s the big things like accurate descriptions of what a book is about…not some weird, clever cover copy that doesn’t give me a true picture of the story. There is a big difference between a “romance novel” and a “Regency romance”. There is a further difference between a serious war story and a light-hearted comedy.
Publishing possesses the capability to offer so much more information about a book, from specific descriptions to comparisons to like-minded authors to awards bestowed. I recently read a Twitter exchange between a publisher and a (ebook) retailer where it was made clear that metadata updates can be made daily. Think about the power you have to get more information — better, more useful, smart information — to readers!
Readers also want a world without friction (seriously, we’d much rather keep wars between the pages of books!). For us, this means the ability to shift seamlessly between devices and books. This is largely happening, but we’d be even happier if the world settled on a single standard (stink eye toward Amazon right now – whose Kindle-only format restricts ebooks purchased from Amazon to Kindle devices only; this anti-reader approach makes me crazy because I want my books available to me in a universal, open format). Maybe we want print and digital bundles, but probably we don’t. For most books.
Finally, we would like a world where publishers, authors, app developers, reading system developers, and parties I haven’t mentioned consider the end user, the reader, rather than the perspective of the publisher/author. We want to know what’s in it for us. Think of my text-to-speech example above. Think about the disastrous introduction of so-called enhanced ebooks into the marketplace. Some were augmented with what can only be described as marketing materials (seriously, you want me to pay more for an interview with the author?). Others simply made no sense (I like Vook as a company, but some of the early experiments done by publishers were ill-conceived).
The truth was nobody knew what readers wanted, but it was clear they didn’t want what publishers were offering. Yet, as is obvious to all, the web and app worlds are filled with examples of people giving readers “enhanced” content they want and need. Now the book world needs to figure out how to do this with content that formerly only occupied booky-books.
So often I encounter a lauded new publishing start-up, something that will change how we read or discover books. So often I note an excess of publishing-speak, while at the same time, a lack of a clear purpose for readers. The selling point for new publishing ventures should not outline why it’s great for publishers (hey, we’ll save your YOU from piracy!), it should be all about how readers will benefit! Sure you want publishers involved, but if it turns off readers….
Unless you are only marketing to publishers. They read books, too. Readers outside of publishing will be fine, you know. They’ll find what they want, at the price they want, in the format they want, on the device they want. No worries there.
Readers are like water, they will find their own way.
What Is the American Dream? The History That Made It Possible
Five Ways Our Founding Fathers Protect It
Illustration by Josh Seong. © The Balance, 2018
The American Dream is the ideal that the government should protect each person’s opportunity to pursue their own idea of happiness.
This protection extends to private enterprise, allowing a free market economy. That economy depends on the free flow of information to function. It also supports free trade agreements and foreign direct investment. According to sociologist Emily Rosenberg, these four components have led to a fifth: many other nations want to replicate America’s development.
The government protects the rights of you and every other American citizen to find your own path to economic prosperity. Unlike many other countries, you are not required to follow your father’s profession. Your destiny is not legally determined at birth by caste, religion, or gender. There is still discrimination, but the law protects your right to pursue a better life.
How the American Dream Is Protected by Law
The Declaration of Independence states the principles that underly this American Dream. It uses the familiar quote: «We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.»
The Declaration continued, «That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.»
The Founding Fathers based the U.S. Constitution, the highest law in the land, on these rights. That document put into law the revolutionary idea that each person’s desire to pursue happiness was not just self-indulgence. It was a part of what drives ambition and creativity. By legally protecting these values, the Founding Fathers set up a society that was very attractive for those aspiring to a better life.
To the drafters of the Declaration, the American Dream could only thrive if it were not hindered by taxation without representation. Kings, military rulers, or tyrants shouldn’t decide taxes and other laws. The people should have the right to elect officials to represent them. These leaders must abide by the laws themselves and not create new legislation, willy-nilly. Legal disputes must be settled by a jury rather than by the whim of the leader. The Declaration also specifically states that a country must be allowed free trade.
The American Dream protects every American’s right to achieve their highest economic potential.
That allows them to contribute their utmost to society. It is the belief that the best way to ensure national economic growth is to protect citizens’ right to improve their lives.
In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams first publicly defined the American Dream. He used the phrase in his book «Epic of America.» Adams’ often-repeated quote is, «The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.»
Adams went on to say that it is not, «. a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
The American Dream is «the charm of anticipated success.»
So said French historian Alexis de Tocqueville in his book «Democracy in America.» He studied American society in the 19th century.
This charm has drawn millions of immigrants to U.S. shores. It’s also been a compelling vision for other nations.
Three Factors That Made the American Dream Possible
The American Dream was made possible by a setting that was conducive to prosperity, peace, and opportunity. Here are the three main geographic, economic, and political factors.
First, the United States has a large landmass under one government, thanks to the outcome of the Civil War.
Second, America has benign neighbors. That’s partially due to geography. Canada’s climate is too cold and Mexico’s is too hot for them to create powerful economic threats. At least 50% of Canada’s land is unusable since it is locked up in permafrost. High temperatures in Mexico reduce its agricultural output. These temperatures limit the economic growth Mexico could have had with a more temperate climate.
Third, abundant natural resources feed U.S. commerce. These include oil, rainfall, and plenty of rivers. Long shorelines and a flat terrain ease transportation. The United States is a prime example of how natural resources boosted the economy and gave the nation a head start toward garnering its present global stature.
These conditions fostered a populace united by language, political system, and values. That allowed a diverse population to become a competitive advantage. U.S. companies use it to become more innovative. They have a large, easily accessible test market for new products.
At the same time, the nation’s diverse demographics allow innovators to test niche products. This American “melting pot” generates more innovative ideas than a small, homogenous population would. America’s success may also be attributed in part to having the benefits of cultural diversity.
The History of the American Dream
At first, the Founding Fathers only extended the Dream to white property owners. But the idea of inalienable rights was so powerful that laws were added to extend these rights to slaves, women, and non-property owners. In this way, the American Dream changed the course of America itself.
In the 1920s, the American Dream started morphing from the right to create a better life for the desire to acquire material things. This change was described in the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, «The Great Gatsby». In it, the character Daisy Buchanan cries when she sees Jay Gatsby’s shirts, because she’s “never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”
This greed-driven version of the Dream was never truly attainable. Someone else always had more. The Dream of «The Great Gatsby» was “an orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. » This greed led to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.
Throughout the years, the nation’s leaders have verbalized the evolution of the American Dream.
President Abraham Lincoln granted the Dream’s equal opportunity to slaves. President Woodrow Wilson supported the voting rights of women. It led to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1918. President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That ended segregation in the schools. It protects workers from discrimination based on race; color; religion; sex, which includes pregnancy; or national origin. In 1967, he extended those rights to those over 40. President Barack Obama supported the legal benefits of the marriage contract regardless of sexual orientation.
After the 1920s, many presidents supported the Gatsby Dream. They said it was the government’s responsibility to guarantee material benefits.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt extended equal opportunity to homeownership by creating Fannie Mae to insure mortgages. His Economic Bill of Rights advocated the right to decent housing, to a good education, to adequate health care, and the right to earn enough to provide a decent living.
Roosevelt added, «We have come to a clear realization of the fact. that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. . People who are hungry, people who are out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.» In other words, he strengthened the Dream to protect America from socialism, communism, and Nazism. FDR’s Unfinished Second Bill of Rights sought to address domestic security.
President Harry Truman built upon this idea after World War II. His «post-war social contract» included the GI Bill. It provided government-funded college degrees for returning veterans. Urban policy expert Matt Lassiter summed up Truman’s “contract” this way: «. if you worked hard and played by the rules, you deserved certain things. You deserved security and decent shelter and not have to worry all the time that you might lose your house to bankruptcy.»
U.S. prosperity after World War II allowed people to expect those things in their lifetime. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton supported the Dream of homeownership. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton presented the American Dream Plan. This included the opportunity to go to college, save for retirement, own a home, provide health insurance for all children, encourage business growth, and afford prosperity.
President Obama furthered FDR’s idea that everyone should have access to affordable health care. He softened the blow of the recession for many by extending unemployment benefits and increasing government assistance for student loans.