Hi guys and gals,
People are always telling me I should blog. They say it’s a brilliant marketing tool and a way of keeping in regular contact with readers by giving them something extra.
I fall into the Stephen King school when it comes to revealing my ‘writer’s life’. Basically, I sit on my ass. Who wants to read about that? Or to steal from Otto von Bismarck, ‘Writing is like sausages. You sleep far better the less you know how they are made.’
Having stated this, I am going to ‘bore’ you this month with some thoughts on reading rather than writing. Let's begin with a story...
Seventeen years ago while working as a journalist in London, I devised a ‘survey’ designed to test if really good books – the award winners - are actually read.
I had long suspected that awards like the Miles Franklin in Australia, or the UK’s Booker Prize or the Pulitzer in America were a boon for sales of literary fiction but weren’t a guarantee of readership.
These were books that people wanted to read or felt they should have read but often they gathered dust in guest bedrooms and on coffee tables. People dabbled and dipped, read the blurbs and the reviews, but didn’t necessarily finish the books.
How could I prove this?
When the Booker prize jury unveiled the shortlist of six novels in 1991, I spent the next few days visiting major book shops in six cities in the UK, secretly inserting small embossed cards into 40 copies of each short-listed title, jammed hard against the spine two-thirds of the way through, so the card couldn’t accidentally spill out. Under the heading, ‘Readership Survey’, the card offered a free book token to any finder who telephoned a special hotline in the month that followed.
Not many surveys offer a guaranteed free prize. Every book in the ‘survey’ was sold within a week. A month later when the deadline passed, only 19 people had responded, less than eight percent of the total.
Ben Okri was the winner that year with ‘The Famished Road’. Not one of the callers had been reading his book when they found the ‘survey’ card.
Now that I’m a novelist, I feel rather guilty about conducting such an exercise, which poked fun at the pseuds and literary cognoscenti who buy up each award winner but would rarely admit to giving up or finding it hard work. However, one thing the survey did prove was how little publishers and authors know about our readers.
We are told that more women buy books than men; that men prefer non-fiction and, despite numerous obituaries for the book over the past forty years, (killed off by TV, DVDs, computer games, audio-books and e-books), publishers have survived and often prospered, albeit with amalgamations.
When my fourth novel was due out earlier this year, I began to wonder who my readers were. Were they women or men? What was the age demographic, or the socio-economic breakdown? What about crime fiction in general?
I talked to my publishers, booksellers and librarians, but none could provide me with any readership figures. Instead they talked anecdotally or gave me their gut feelings.
Publishers don’t do market research. They print books, market them, distribute them, and see what works. This might sound rather hit and miss but it’s been done that way for 150 years; a cottage industry in a digital age.
Let’s assume for a moment that the doomsayers are wrong and the death of print, the death of literature, the death of books and the death of our reading culture has been exaggerated.
Without market research it can’t be proven and we’re left with the anecdotal evidence that reading is declining. At dinner parties, I’m careful not to embarrass people by asking what they’ve read lately. Instead I say, ‘I guess you don’t have much time to read books.’
It gives them an excuse to talk about their busy lives, the kid’s activities and how much work the house needs. Very rarely does someone announce they don’t read. Far more often I hear the question: ‘What should I read?’ They want to know about the ‘hot’ new book – the next ‘Curious Incident’ or ‘Kite Runner’ or ‘Da Vinci Code’. These are people who want to be readers, but don’t scour the review pages every weekend or check out the bestseller lists.
Some of them admitted to being intimidated by book shops because of the sheer number of titles by authors they had never heard of. They were worried about making the wrong choice and nervous about seeking advice if they could find someone to ask.
Sometimes this kept them away from book shops or saw them buying their books from supermarkets where choice was limited, making choosing easier.
Recently I attended the Sydney Writers Festival and shared a stage with a brilliant debut novelist, Steve Tolz, (‘A Fraction of the Whole’) who was nervous about appearing at his first festival. I told him to relax because he was among friends and book-lovers, the converted. Writers’ festivals, like book prizes, don’t increase the pool of overall readers because the people who come back year after year, bless them, are the true believers.
The only way to increase the pool – to the benefit of authors, publishers, librarians and society – is to encourage those who don’t read or do so infrequently back into the fold.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’m about to embark on a month-long tour to every state and territory in Australia as part of a Government initiative to promote reading. I’m the 2008 Books Alive ambassador and this year the key audience they want to reach are part-time or lapsed readers.
Unfortunately, most of the places I’ll be touring – libraries, bookshops etc… - will be full of true believers. All I can really do is inspire them to go home and encourage their husband/wife/son/daughter to pick up a book (hopefully one of mine).
I’ve written a novel exclusively for Books Alive ‘BOMBPROOF’ which will be given away free to anyone who buys one of 50 chosen titles during August. These ‘50 Books You Can’t Put Down’ range across all categories, fiction, non-fiction, crime, chick-lit and children’s books.
In the meantime SHATTER continues to get great press and reviews. It was recently short-listed for the 2008 CWA Steel Dagger award in the UK. It’s the second year running that I’ve had a book in the final five, which is a huge thrill. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go one step further this year. I was a bridesmaid again.
Tom Rob Smith and ‘CHILD 44’ took the Steel Dagger and Frances Fyfield the Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger. You can read all about the winners at the UK Crime Writers Association website.
My long-suffering US readers (I love you guys) will finally get to see SHATTER in March. Doubleday has come up with a great jacket – much more commercial than anything I’ve had in the past in the States.
The good news is that THE NIGHT FERRY comes is out in paperback in the US on July 28. Check out the jacket among my new photos.
Well that’s all my news. I’m in training at the moment for the Australian tour, which entails something like sixty appearances in thirty days in far flung corners of the country, culminating at the Melbourne Writers Festival where I'll get to catch up with Mark Billingham and loads of other friends.
If you're in Australia and you see me coming, please don't run the other way.
WHAT I’M READING:
BREATH by Tim Winton
A brilliant, but all too short, novel by the finest Australian writer we have.
THE SPARE ROOM by Helen Garner
This is going to appear on every shortlist, including the next Booker (how's that for a fearless prediction).
WHAT I’M WATCHING:
A new big flat screen TV. It’s a truly beautiful thing. I just have to get my kids out of the room so I can watch something I want to watch.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
Jason Mraz’s new album: WE SING, WE DANCE, WE STEAL THINGS
I’m off to see him in concert in Sydney on August 9. Can’t wait.