In 2014, we are still reading paperback and hard cover books, newspapers, junk mail, magazines, greetings cards, bank statements, and so on. Nowadays, almost everyone who reads printed matter also reads digital text. From toddlers to tech-savvy centenarians, people read on tablets, smartphones, TVs and computers. A book can now be read in paper form, downloaded as an eBook, or listened to as an audio book. In short, how much we read on a daily basis (think text messages, emails, social media) has actually increased dramatically, and the ways in which we read have changed considerably.
Let’s start with a brief history lesson. Stay with me! Earliest records indicate writing was invented some 4000 years BC, so reading has been around just as long. Of course, reading and writing has evolved enormously over the centuries. Writing originally lacked spaces, until they were politely introduced to make reading (and writing) more easy. Reading aloud was common practice (Saint Ambrose’s unusual habit of reading silently in the 4th century AD was considered most odd). In fact, silent reading didn’t really catch on until the Age of Enlightenment when scholars and philosophers adopted the practice, and it grew in popularity from there.

In the mid-15th century, the invention of the printing press meant that reading material including books became much more accessible to the masses. In addition, it meant that more people could produce the written word in larger volumes and on broader topics. It also became increasingly important for almost everything to be recorded for posterity.

When television first came into homes in the middle of the 20th century, many doomsayers predicted it would mark the death of reading and that future generations would be illiterate. In fact, more people than ever began reading and writing. Even more remarkably, the rapid growth of the Internet in the West from the mid-1990s and in the developing world during the past decade has seen nearly half the World’s population now using the Internet. Every day, billions of emails, blog posts, texts and social media posts are sent back and forth via computers, smartphones, tablets. Some are just one or two words, but all of them are read—by someone.

That’s good news, right? It seems our children and grandchildren have not become a bunch of degenerate illiterates (but let’s not digress into a debate about the diminution of grammar and spelling—that would require a much longer article). What has changed is the way we read. Reading has become much more dynamic and interactive. When we search for articles or information using a search engine, we click on a link, and then notice… more interesting links. ‘Click’. There are also likely to be images or videos on the screen. When you watch the news, headlines are streaming across the bottom of the screen. During TV shows, viewers’ tweets scroll past, causing you to read, listen and watch, all at the same time. When you read something on screen, you are likely to be prompted to ‘Like’, ‘Comment’ or ‘Share’. On screen reading causes us to be interactive and involved with the stories. In short, we have become accustomed to reading with ‘distractions’. There are no such distractions in a printed book. You are focussed on methodically reading the pages from beginning to end. When you read a book, you are required to do nothing more than absorb it, ponder it, and possibly analyse it in an essay or give a review to a book club.

Does this mean you need to change the way you write and what you write?

In an interview about his book How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, writer Mohsin Hamid said, “In today’s world, where people are watching TV, they are on Twitter, and they are absorbing lots of different types of things, we need new kinds of novels. That’s what I’m trying to do.” In other words, he wrote his book to appeal to the 21st century reader.

He has a point. If Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus by Georges/Madeleine de Scudéry (2.1 million words/13,095 pages) hit the bookshelves today, would it fly off the shelves or would people roll their eyes and say, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”? Another Frenchman, Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, which boasts the official Guinness World Record for being the longest novel at 1,267,069 words/3,031 pages, is a fair chunk of literature for time poor 21st century readers.

While most writers will never have the inclination to write over a million words (even in a series), a number of writers still produce very lengthy manuscripts. Publishing houses and literary agents cap books to around 80–100,000 words, depending upon the genre. If you are self-publishing or e-publishing, this is not as crucial a consideration. Let’s face it, it’s not easy to cut chunks out of a story you have poured your heart and soul into over a considerable period. That’s why you need a good developmental editor! Objective eyes will identify sections of text that are unimportant, confusing, repetitive or frankly, boring. If you aren’t ready to hand your masterpiece to an editor, try a beta reader first. They can give you valuable feedback although it’s important to note, they are noteditors. You really do need to put your pennies away and find a good one.

If you are writing with a view to selling your work (truthfully, not everyone is), you need to consider your ‘market’. You wouldn’t go to the local grower’s market and sell only Fujis, only to discover everyone wants Granny Smiths. You would do your market research first and find out which apples people are buying. It follows that before you embark on writing a certain genre, you research what people are reading now. Thank God for Google. ‘Click’. Obviously, I am not suggesting you write in a genre that you loathe or have no knowledge of, nor should you starve your book of imaginative and distinctive narrative that identifies your writing personality. You simply need to bear in mind what readers are looking for. Many of my clients tell me of their considerable angst (and efforts) in choosing a literary agent or a publishing house to approach. But perhaps this is not the main issue. The issue is making sure you are writing what people want to read, in a way that they wish to read it. You may have to be prepared to change the way you write—and the way you publish—if you want to sell books.

So what are the FOUR things you should take into account
if you want 21st century readers to buy your books?

Time waits for no man. It is the 21st century conundrum. Despite having more machines to do more things to save us more time than ever, we are getting busier and busier, so indulging ourselves with the luxury of reading for pleasure is harder than ever to achieve. Thus, disciplined writing and brevity are the order of the day. Keep in mind the length of manuscripts publishers or literary agents stipulate on their websites—and stick to those limits. A good editor will identify ‘waffle’, verbosity and superfluous text to tighten up your narrative and keep the story ‘moving along’.

Keep your readers engaged. You don’t want them nodding off mid-chapter. TV series often have ‘cliffhangers’ to keep viewers watching a whole episode, and ensure they come back to watch the next one. Similarly, try to feed your readers bits of exciting, important information that gives them a clue what is to come in the chapter(s) ahead. Give them mysteries to solve. Urge them to read on.

Keep it real. If your story is set in present day, incorporate aspects of 21st century life into your characters so readers identify with them. For example, think how people react when a stranger approaches them in their car, or when they see breaking news on the latest natural disaster or terrorist atrocity. Tune in to how you feel in these situations and bring your characters to life by conveying these emotions. Incorporate technology into your story. Rather than, “She wrote to Michael and told him to go to Hell,” consider, “She texted, ‘Go to Hell, Michael!’.”

Adapt. We’ve already talked about adapting your writing to suit your reader market. Publishers are bossy (and to be fair, if they are spending lots of money printing and marketing your book, they have every right to be). Be prepared to change the title, change the name of your lead character, cut out parts of your book that are your favourite. But before you even get to that stage, you also need to adapt your writing to keep up with the pace of the times. Consider a 2014 remake of a movie from the late 1970s or early 1980s. What changes would you see? Not just technology (mobile phones, computers and the Internet did not exist when the original was made) but fashions, social norms, mannerisms, slang and so on. The world our parents lived in is vastly different to the one we live in today. And these changes will continue. If you are still writing books in 20 years’ time (and I sincerely hope you are), what changes will you have to make to engage the readers of 2034? What will people be reading in 2034?

One thing is certain; people will continue reading. As Alberto Manguel stated, “We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but to read. Reading almost as much as breathing is our essential function.” (A History of Reading, 1996, The Last Page, p. 7). Thus, it follows that writers will continue to write. As Mohsin Hamid said, “The beautiful thing about writing is that it’s a global community and on your bookshelf are all the teachers you could possibly want.” (BBC World Service, Talking Books, Audio interview, Mon 6 May 2013 19:05 GMT http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0184xn9).

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