Until fairly recently, I didn’t care about readers.
Wait, did I really say that? Reading it back, I can hardly believe it myself. My position was never really that straightforward. Or imprudent (impudent?). The more nuanced version might be something like:
When I began writing, I wrote only to please myself. I never wanted to compromise the passion I put into my stories by pandering to the marketplace.
Hmmm. I guess that version sounds slightly less imprudent. But now I sound haughty. Even a little holier-than-thou. I realize that considering the market doesn’t make one a panderer. Well, not necessarily, anyway.
In my defense, I came upon my… shall we call it an attitude?, early in my writing journey. And coming to it was indeed defensive. How could I take on a project so ambitious and actually think that anyone would ever want to read what was fast becoming a massive first story? It seemed like hubris. My solution? I was writing it just for me!
Looking back, I feel compelled to add another element to my defense. When I started (‘04-‘05), epic fantasy seemed to me to be the opposite of marketable. I didn’t know anyone then who read it, the LOTR and Harry Potter movies were recent phenomena (and were considered “for the kids” by most folks in my orbit), and we were still years from the coming juggernaut of HBO’s Game of Thrones.
How could I justify spending hours that turned to days that turned to months and years laboring at something in which no one seemed interested, within a genre that many in my life considered a juvenile diversion?
Even years later, as the genre began to grow, and I began to interface with it online, I kept encountering reasons my work wouldn’t sell. I kept hearing things like, “You’ve got to have a really good system of magic,” and “Old tropes like ‘The Chosen One’ or ‘The Boy Who Becomes a King’ are passé,” or “The hottest books in adult fantasy deconstruct the old genre of high fantasy.” How was I supposed to try to sell a book with no real system of magic; one that largely embraced the old tropes?
My answer: The marketplace doesn’t matter. It can’t, because I can’t see my place in it.
I’m guessing most of you are seeing the dilemma I was creating.
The Dilemma and an Evolution
If the marketplace didn’t matter, why bother trying to make my story better? In fact, why bother with any sort of revision at all? I mean, if you’re not going to sell, whom are you trying to better please?
The answer for me soon became obvious. And once that answer became obvious, it started an evolution (thankfully). I gained the desire to better please myself.
As much as I was loving the storytelling process—the discovery, the magic of immersion—I knew through rereading it that my writing stank. I was frustrated by my inability to deftly capture the story I was imagining so clearly.
Which led to my earliest forays into seeking feedback, at first only from those extremely close to me, like my sister and my wife. Then a few close friends. This tightknit group gave me the perfect combination of encouragement and criticism. Through these early-reading dear people, I first gleaned that I was onto something. They fed my suspicions not just that my storytelling could engage another human, but that—if I could just hold onto them long enough—I could even move them. That sort of human connection is an intoxicating drug.
My competitive nature kicked in, and the evolution continued. Maybe, just maybe, my stories could become honest-to-Gandalf books.
Ignoring the Monolith
It’s an evolution that has continued to this day. But through it all, I kept the concept of writing to please an audience at arm’s length, sort of like an abstract thesis. Yes, I wanted the books to be better. Yes, I knew they had to be very good just to find their way to being published. But there was still a disconnect.
For a long time, the readership of my own genre seemed to me an impenetrable monolith. For years I had the vague but dread-inducing feeling that fantasy fandom would, as one, recognize me as an outsider, a pretender. Here I was, an aspiring epic fantasist who’s not even a gamer. (In fact, I’ve never once completed an on-screen game of any sort—not even solitaire.) As a reader, I skipped right over YA fantasy. It didn’t seem to exist when I was “of the age.” Heck, I’m as old as many of the hottest SFF novelists’ dads.
I’ve since met quite a few speculative fiction writers, through WU and elsewhere. But those relationships seemed to be disjointed from what I imagined to be the closed-ranks army of fantasy readers.
So I basically ignored the issue. And I kept going. But all the while I was getting closer and closer to that final hurdle of seeking publication. And, let’s face it, publishers are seeking sales—ergo readers.
Which brought me to the culmination of the dilemma. If I acknowledged that I crave the unique communion that occurs between storytellers and readers—and honestly, I’ve come to long for it—I was going to need readers. I could ignore it no longer.
Just as that elephant made itself comfy in my office, I discovered something that made me see what had previously seemed a monolith in a whole new light.
If you’re rolling your eyes right now, yes, I’m a laggard. I used to mostly avoid online video, and still prefer reading to watching. But I have to say, if you’re like me and are late to discover the expanding world of BookTube (on YouTube), you’re really missing out.
I first came across BookTube the way I imagine most people do: as a reader, looking for books to read. It didn’t take me long to find a few favorite vloggers. Or to recognize the value and breadth of what was being offered. Of course there are book reviews and new book previews, but there’s oh-so-much more. There are deep dives into genre, and series, and characters. And author interviews, and emotional reactions, and viewer prompts, and on and on.
And what a tool for writers! For example, one of the bright stars of BookTube, Merphy Napier (one of my favorites) has an ongoing series of videos called, Dear Author, in which she harvests comments and opinions from her audience of avid readers. Comments and opinions that are (wait for it…) about WHAT WE DO! From the very people we’re trying to do it for.
In my genre, BookTubers like Merphy and Daniel Greene and Elliot Brooks keep me apprised of the trends. They’ve gotten me to read books I’ve missed, and even to give a couple that I’d started and set aside another try (enthusiasm works wonders).
But for me BookTube was a gift as well as a tool.
The Gift of Blowing Up the Monolith
Keeping tabs on my favorite BookTube channels has changed the way I see my genre and its readers. Yes, these vloggers are much younger than me, as I’m guessing are most of their viewers. And they love books as much as I do. Including many of my most beloved books. It’s really fun to be in on their discovery of old favorites by the likes of Tolkien, Hobb, Jordan, et al.
More than anything, they’ve made me see beyond the monolith—shown me that a readership is nothing more than a collection of individuals who love books. Individuals with varying opinions and tastes. Duh, right? That sounds so obvious, but I needed my perspective shifted. Not to mention needing my attitude adjusted.
Through BookTube, I’ve heard readers voice opinions that the homogeneous fandom I’d imagined would never allow to exist. Things like, “I enjoy prologues!” (Huzzah, me too!) And, “A good system of magic is nice, but I don’t need it to be elaborate.” (Praise the writing gods!) I’ve even heard the wish expressed that there were more character-focused, minimally-fantastic epics out there. (Oh how THAT fills my heart to brimming.)
My New Take
Finding and getting to know the vloggers on BookTube and their voraciously reading viewers, even if only as a fellow viewer, has given me a much needed new perspective. Not to mention a new sort of hope. Yes, seeing what readers really enjoy and dislike helps me to fine-tune my work. But often it also shines a light on what I’ve sought to reveal all along. So often I find myself saying, “Yes, I love that too.” Or “Yes, that’s why I did such-and-such in my stories.” It lets me know the connection points are already there, waiting for me to get my story ready and to reach out to the marketplace.
Seeing these very human readers, with broadly varying literary tastes and passions, helps me to believe that one day I can, and will, find a readership. A readership that won’t in any way resemble a monolith.
I’m more confident that I will find the connection I’ve come to crave for my stories, one reader at a time, human to human.
So thank you, Merphy and Daniel and Elliot and Regan and… Thank you, BookTube, and all of the avid readers who share their passion there.
What about you? Do you, or did you ever, imagine the monolith? Have you already discovered BookTube? Tell me about the collection of humans that is, or will be, your readership.