Readers vs Gatekeepers

When I worked in editing, one of my jobs was reviewing editorial memos before they went to clients, to make sure they were sufficiently constructive, clear, and relatively free of errors. I loved being a conduit between author and editor, and I gained a lot of insight into the thought processes of both, but my attitude was essentially the same as it had been since I was an undergrad creative writing major: these are the conventions for novels, and you have to follow them to be successful.

But since last November when I started RAR, I’ve been involved in the book world from a different direction, and now I spend more time learning how readers respond to books than editors, teachers, literary agents, or other industry professionals.

And you know what?

It’s like a parallel universe where all the rules are different.

That good writing has rules, to be deviated from only by people who’ve studied for decades, is the basis for the whole concept of literature.

In literature’s black-sheep cousins, mainstream commercial and genre fiction, if you deviated from the rules of your genre you were taken to task by teachers and editors and shunned by agents. Book after book was written by publishing professionals about what the various conventions were and how authors could learn to follow them. Writers-in-training devoured them.

And this was Right and Proper.

But now, thanks to indie publishing and the volubility of the Internet, I’ve had an epiphany, and it’s this:

READERS DO NOT GIVE A RAT’S BUM ABOUT LITERARY CONVENTIONS.

The people who care about following the “rules” are the gatekeepers – not because they’re intellectual snobs or enjoy making authors cry, and not even as a way of ensuring job security, though all those things are true from time to time.

My theory, as someone who’s read more unpolished manuscripts than the average bear, is that the conventions evolved over time to reflect of the needs of editors and publishers rather than readers, because of the sheer volume of books they had to read. They were trying to save their own sanity. (See Sturgeon’s Law)

What made me start thinking about this was the way I keep being bored silly by books readers and reviewers are raving over. Lie to Me. Mean Little People. The Night Sister. Pines. I couldn't even finish a couple of them because I simply did not care about the story or characters, even a little, or because the plot had holes you could drive a Mack truck through, or because the writing was just kind of … there.

Now, I’d love to think I’m super smart or super discerning, but plenty of smart, discerning people love all the books I hate, so it’s not that. We could say “there’s no accounting for taste” and that’s certainly true, but it’s not the whole truth. I think fundamentally it’s because all readers go into books with certain expectations, and those expectations vary greatly with how the reader was taught to think about books.

My mother was a proofreader and an intellectual snob, so from the get-go I approached reading with a kind of “go ahead, impress me” attitude I think many of my friends and colleagues in publishing can relate to. The attitude is also often a by-product of having spent a lot of time reading classics, which almost universally follow the conventions AND feature complex, interesting, and often elegant writing. Because of my upbringing, the specific kind of education I received, and my own personal preferences, I have a lot of expectations when I open a book.

But the readers who make up the modern writer’s audience don’t have that attitude. They open a book expecting to be entertained, and they don’t have a lot of preconceptions as to how that entertainment should unfold. They may prefer a certain type of plot or a certain kind of character development, but they aren’t constantly comparing everything they read to some mental yardstick that says D must follow C while displaying behavior X described in manner Z.

In short, readers are a lot less picky than the publishing industry which relies on those readers.

I think that's the real reason for the success of the indie revolution.

This is a big topic, so I want to stop here before you fall asleep (if it’s not too late). But in future posts I’ll be exploring this topic further.

What do YOU think?

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