Finding readers in a perma-free world

Nick Wells
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 27th October 2017

In the battle for people's attention, Nick Wells writes, we must be where our readers want to be

The day starts with its usual cascade of free offers. I'm on my way to work, my phone pings in a variety of delightful-to-irritating siren calls. I spin through Facebook, Twitter, Google-plus, WeChat, distracted from a long-form newspiece on the New York Times app. Email notifications begin to shake at my mobile: Groupon, Amazon, HMV, Techcrunch, Runner's World, Musicnotes, YouTube, YoSushi! I'm listening to a stream of nostalgic music, suitable for blocking out the sounds of travel all around me, looking forward, tonight, to the release of the new Star Trek Discovery on Netflix, to fill the gap left by The Handmaid's Tale and The Man from the High Castle series. I've just checked my podcast app and downloaded a couple of episodes of an American SF channel for late-night listening as I potter around, before forcing myself to bed.

Free, it's all free. At least it feels like it. Certainly it's all convenient, and we can make choices about where to direct our fragmented attention. Various insignificant monthly fees allow me, my family and their friends (apparently, so I discovered recently) to consume as much music and TV as often as we can stomach, whenever we want. We can order gifts overnight, with various tempting buy-one-get-one-free offers, or the latest click-and-collect excitement. Remembering my sister's birthday tomorrow, I type a quick note on my notebook app, knowing I'll be able to read it, synced, on my computer when I'm at work.

Out of habit, I reach absently for my book, and realise I've left it at home. I sigh, and return to the New York Times article, noting the number of unread emails blinking gleefully at me from the nest of entertainments buried in the launch bar of my mobile. A few seconds of subscription-free reading slips by as my memory is atomised by the journey's end, and I dive for the exit.

Demands for attention
At work, released from traffic, and forced to engage, briefly, with humans, I find a stack of waiting manuscripts. I am surrounded by submissions for our new fiction list, Flame Tree Press, and see an ever-increasing spreadsheet with short story submissions for our new SF and dark fantasy anthologies, promising further long reads. There is a small pile of letters; some of these are elaborately and quaintly handwritten by ladies and gentlemen of a certain age, offering me the opportunity of a lifetime to publish a unique gem of personal recollections. Of course, such treasures are buried among the invoices and other such demands for attention that clutch at our daily working lives.

Time to breathe
In publishing, battling with meetings, phone calls, emails, urgent demands for attention from social-media-saturated colleagues, it is a luxury to find the time to breathe, and think. But it is an essential luxury, and we all have to force ourselves to do it. When I was young I remember marvelling at TV magicians who could whisk away a tablecloth, leaving everything intact, if wobbling, on the table. In publishing, though, we must occasionally let it all fall over, and scatter, let chaos prevail for a few moments while we take some time to pause. Thinking leads to consideration. Consideration leads to empathy. Empathy leads to sensibility. Sensibility leads to (good) sense. And that's good publishing.

If we are bombarded with free offers, competing for our mental space, then so are our end-users, consumers, or as we like to call them, in our old-fashioned way, "readers"; as are the great intermediators in publishing, the retailers and the literary agents with whom we are allied, in the world of the perma-free, in the battle for the attention of such readers.

Our personal lives are dominated by technology and family, by the onslaught of the perma-free, the always on, the instant gratification of ill-defined search results. And so are our readers. If we publishers are to survive as worthwhile contributors to the modern world, we must work to our strengths, pause, think, study the long term, watch the terrain all around, not just in front of us, and make our publishing judgements.

To do this effectively, we must find our readers in the places they lurk, we must rise above the seductions of the always-free, engage, listen and enjoy. Last week, for instance, I discovered three book festivals in the UK, and in the US another four genre writers' groups I didn't know existed. They are packed with dedicated readers, who love their subject, and seek out their special interest. This is where our readers go when they dispense with the buzzing distractions of the perma-free, and the lowest common denominator. This is where we must be.

Living in paragraphs
Marketeers talk about influencers, personas, and tell us still that content is king (especially when promoted organically, with the latest digital jargon). But this marketing trash-talk always ends up splattered against the wall, replaced by the next generation of fast-moving consumable blue-sky thinking. For publishers, authors and readers, it's value that matters, authenticity, passion for the subject, the format, the people, it's the deep understanding that comes from caring, from inhabiting the places we frequent together, whether it's libraries, independent bookshops, literary festivals, comic-cons, cookery events, writing workshops, or online forums and blogger communities. To thrive around the perma-free culture of keywords and SEO phrases (the phrases that help people find your content) we have to seek out the places we wish to be ourselves, make friends with our readers, understand our common interest, our mutual understanding, and live our lives in sentences and whole paragraphs.

In publishing, the one thing that unites us all, online, in print, and in STM, children's, illustrated non-fiction, and literary and genre fiction, is that we all read. And we all need our readers, so we must find them in the places they love to go. And those places need to be the ones we love to go too.

Nick Wells is publisher and creative director of Flame Tree Publishing.

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Show Daily.