People are sometimes surprised when I tell them that the biggest challenge for writers these days is awareness. With fewer bookshops, fewer literary events, and limited budget for promotion, simply letting people know that your book exists is a critical challenge.
But it’s more than that – these days, people just don’t read books at the rate they used to.
For example, a recent study by Pew Research in the US found that 27% of American adults have not read a book at all in the last year, a stat that’s almost doubled since 2005 (the researchers note that the rate of non-book readers first hit 27% in 2015).
The most likely culprit, based on comparative trend data, would be the rise of mobile devices, and with social media being the most used app type, it’s likely due to the fact that people are now more likely to scroll through their social feeds in bed before going to sleep, as opposed to getting through a few more book chapters instead.
The arrival of colour TV in the 60s was the first major impact for books, and as you can see in this chart, those distractions have only increased in the 2000’s, so it makes sense that we’ve seen relative declines.
The extended impacts of this shift are likely far more significant than we realize. Given that books help expand our thinking, and improve cognitive process, it’s not a stretch to say that society is now less intelligent and analytical as a result – but again, the key point from a writing perspective is that getting people to even consider taking the time to sit down and read your book at all is hard, and it’s not even because of the market itself, and the other storytellers you’re up against. You’re actually going up against complex social platform algorithms that are designed to hold people’s attention using psychological tricks and incentives.
Given this, you can assume that people are less actively seeking books to read, which again points to the challenges of awareness. If people aren’t even looking for books, your potential for exposure is already significantly hampered.
Raising awareness is hard – and while the common counter-argument to this is that authors should simply “write better books”, often implying a need for more commercial sensibilities, I would argue that, given these noted limitations, this isn’t even a significant element. There are plenty of good books out there that are just not reaching an audience – quite simply, they’re not even being given a chance, which makes an objective analysis of quality, based on sales data alone, impossible.
And there’s more – Hollywood film studios are now taking fewer risks with smaller budget movies, and focusing on blockbusters, in order to provide a cinematic experience that can’t be replicated via newer big-screen TVs and home entertainment systems. That means fewer book-to-film adaptations – or at least, fewer art house films based on novels – which is a pathway that’s long been a key pipeline to connecting more general audiences to literary works.
The flow-on effect then is that publishers also shift focus. Logically, publishers need to primarily sell books, so you end up seeing more and more of what’s making money (i.e. what sells in Big W), and less risks on new voices and styles, limiting publishing opportunities. That, consequently, changes the focus of festivals, who also need to sell tickets, further shrinking your window for exposure, and again making it harder to gain awareness.
Add it all up and it doesn’t look promising. Who’d be a writer, honestly?
And yet, we persist.
We write because for most of us it’s part of who we are, because something compels us to keep at it, to keep working towards creating something, hopefully, great. But on balance, getting people’s attention is not going to get any easier, and getting them to actually read your work even less so. Building a sustainable career as a fiction author is getting more difficult, and while technological advances have also facilitated new avenues in terms of self-publishing and building your own audience, establishing enough of a presence to fuel a reliable sales pipeline remains a significant challenge, especially without mainstream media reach.
Which brings us back to awareness.
Again, the key challenge for authors is raising awareness, getting your book in front of the right people, in order to even pitch them on what it is in the first place. This has always been a challenge, but the odds are now stacked against you even more.
So how can we get more people looking our way, and spark more interest in our own, and others’ literary works?
Like it or not, social media is key, building a presence and maximizing your reach opportunities. Taking part in events is essential, doing talks, getting in touch with libraries about potential functions. Authors now need to be marketers – which, for many, is the opposite of their personality. But you have to do it. If you build it, they will not come, necessarily, but if you build hype, they will indeed start looking in your direction.
From a broader scope, the decline in book readership points to an increased need for literary arts funding from government, and a greater focus from government-funded arts bodies on promoting local authors and their work.
If literary festivals (or as they’re increasingly titled, ‘words and ideas’ events) are increasingly funded by the private sector, it’s only logical that their programming decisions will also be increasingly driven by bottom-line results. That means more exposure for the few, less share of voice for the many. And again, less awareness as a result, completing the circle of decline.
And the trends do indeed show that literary culture is declining.
It may not seem so drastic, it may not seem like this decline is having a major impact. But you can arguably see the results of this in all levels of public discourse.
And while again, some would say that we should simply let it go, especially in terms of literary fiction, the more niche and high brow of the book genres, the impacts will be far broader than you would suspect.
That’s why we need greater representation for authors, and opportunities for local writers to showcase their work, wherever possible. We need to show new writers that there are opportunities for them, and that they should feel free to write what they’re passionate about, as opposed to trying to fit into a certain genre box.
Literary culture has underpinned centuries of civilization, helping us to better understand the world, and opening discussions which would otherwise not have happened.
We should be fighting for it, and looking for ways to build platforms of opportunity.