Sunday, March 23, 2008


Leighton Gage is the author of The Silva Series, crime novels based in Brazil. His first book, Blood of the Wicked, has recently been published in the US. Gage has some interesting thoughts on reading...

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

How many fiction titles did you go through last year? If you’re reading this, it’s going to be more than one. For people who read the Bookbitch’s Blog, reading a book a year is nothing.

But for most people reading a book a year seems to be too much:

• 80% of American families didn’t buy or read a single book last year. The remaining 20% are classified as “regular readers”.
• Of all readers, only a little more than half read fiction.

So, if you haven’t already done so, give yourself a pat on the back. As a “regular reader of fiction”, you’re a member of an elite group that doesn’t exceed 10% of the U.S. population. And to be “a regular reader of fiction”, you only have to read a single book a year.

It gets worse. If you’re reading a book a month, you’re reading at what one scholar called a “hugely disproportionate” level. Sounds like an exaggeration, doesn’t it? Statistically, though, he’s right.

Here’s another statistic: the publishers approved by the Mystery Writers of America bring out, collectively, well over than 2,000 mystery/thrillers a year. If you add the smaller presses, and the authors who self-publish, the total goes up to at least 5,000, some say as many as 8,000 titles. It’s just one category, but it’s the biggest one, representing almost 20% of new fiction.

Many of those (at least) 5,000 books have been vetted by agents and/or editors. Many of their authors have survived a tortuous path to publication, sometimes after years of effort. At least a couple of hundred of those books are bound to be good books, books from writers I’d enjoy reading, or from whom I could learn something that will help me to polish my craft. But I wind up missing them, wind-up not reading them. It’s the old reader’s lament: too many books, too little time.

The book-a-year folks stick with the tried and true. They read new books from authors they’ve read before. But we, the “hugely disproportionate” minority, quickly run-out of “name” authors whose work we enjoy. And because we do, we’re the people who give new writers a chance at success.

Define success, you say? My definition doesn’t matter. What matters is how publishers define it. And they define it in terms of numbers. No writer can live on royalties from the sale of 5,000 books, but a publisher can survive, and sometimes survive very well, by bringing out many books that sell 5,000 copies each. That number brings most publishers safely beyond the breakeven point on the money they’ve invested on the majority of books from first-time authors.

What happens if a book sells 500 or a 1,000 copies? There are writers who’d be satisfied with that, at least for a first book. So they hold on to their day jobs. And that’s a wise thing to do, because the odds are they’re going to get dropped by their publisher.

As a newbie writer, I have an enormous amount of empathy for the folks who’ve traveled the same path as I have, but with less luck, and are falling by the wayside. They’re stuck in limbo with little chance of publishing a second book because they’ve been ambushed by the arithmetic.

If you, too, feel some empathy, here’s something you can do: Take a little extra time when next you visit your favorite bookstore. Have a closer look at the men and women whose names appear in a typeface smaller than the title of their work. Go out of your way to pick up one from someone you’ve never, ever heard of. Read a page or two. If you like it, buy it, read it, and donate it to your local library.

If your budget is limited, and you can’t afford to buy the book, make a note of the title and have a chat with your local librarian. Ask her if it was reviewed in Library Journal, in Publisher’s Weekly, in Kirkus, in Bookweek. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe they missed it. Maybe they’ll buy it.

One of the best ways to support a new author is to make sure she gets read. And that’s what libraries do. They circulate books among lots of readers, securing fans for the author. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that library editions are the best advertisements for an author’s work.

And I firmly believe it to be true.


Mari said...

I had a wonderful comment this morning but by the time I realized that I couldn't remember my goggle account name and reinstated another one the comment was gone and I was late for work. So this will have to do.

Leighton, you are a delightful man and I enjoyed meeting you at Mysteries to Die For here in Thousand Oaks. I'm another newbie author, but somehow the idea of having you read a few pages of my book and donate it to the library seemed a bit lame. I love ya like a brother, a Sibling in Crime, no less, but if you like Beaufort Falls enough to buy it, read the thing and let the library buy their own copy. Goodness knows I've given away a ton of books for free, not that I resent it or anything... If the library BUYS it, they'll keep it to lend out to readers and not just chuck it into their fundraising pile.

Speaking of reading, I'm loving your "Blood of the Wicked" and I'm about half way through it right now. I knew I would like it after hearing you describe life in Brazil. KEEP WRITING MORE!

Mari Sloan

Vickie said...

I am conflicted. Proud that I am in that disproportionate 10% and sad that I am part of such an elite club. WE NEED MORE MEMBERS!

Kelli Stanley said...

Great post, Leighton, and sobering.

Thanks for fighting the good fight for all of us!!


Search This Blog