What do they want?

I hear it all the time: “People don’t read books anymore.” And yet, it seems like there are more self-proclaimed avid readers out there than at any time during my life that I can recall.

Are they actually reading? I don’t know. I barely read, myself. When I do, I really have to focus in order to avoid getting sidetracked.

It’s our attention spans. They’ve gotten so short that a two-minute video is considered an excessive expenditure of time. People don’t listen to whole songs. It’s just “skip skip skip skip skip, oh, I like this part, skip skip skip skip.”

I guess the only thing people are able to sit and pay attention to is visual media. And I have a hard time with that.

I suppose for many people, a passive entertainment experience has become unappealing. I get it. That’s my problem, but that’s mostly due to video games and I don’t play video games unless they’re retro ones that I can play and put down. I don’t like to invest a lot of time in playing games. I get no fulfillment from it. Some people do, and that’s great. The creators of those games deserve their success.

Myself, though, I’d rather write than do anything else. It’s often easier for me to write a book than it is to read one, these days. That wasn’t always so, and I could stand to balance the two a little better. I have to write, though. Even if it’s just a blog post like this. I spend about four to five hours a day doing it. I generally only watch TV on the weekends when I’ve got extra time to burn after I feel I’ve achieved my writing goals.

And what are those? I couldn’t really say. I stop writing when I feel satisfied that I’ve written something substantial. I don’t do word counts. I’m not knocking it, but it’s not for me. It doesn’t mean anything to me. If I craft even just a paragraph that I really like, I don’t get that nagging feeling of incompletion shadowing me the rest of the day. I hate that feeling. When I get it, I take a lot of notes.

Why should it be any kind of surprise that people don’t read a lot of books that are 800-plus pages long? Whoever said novels had to be that long? They weren’t originally. They don’t have to be. Dispense immediately with this idea that a book has to be 900 pages long to be taken seriously. Make 200-page novels normal.

Recorded songs weren’t originally released complied into “albums.” Singles were the standard, and now they are again. Except now it’s “plays” instead of sales.

What’s the literary equivalent of a single? Does that even work? What’s the literary equivalent of a TikTok video? Is that possible?

I don’t know, but in every other medium, when the consumption method changes, delivery of it changes to accommodate.

Not books, though. Books are still proudly ignoring what people actually want and telling them, “It’s this, or nothing.” It would be like if Sam Goody opened up a bunch of new locations and packed them with CDs and DVDs of music and movies readily available on various streaming platforms.

Sure, a lot of people would express hearty enthusiasm for such an idea, but they wouldn’t go into those stores and buy any physical media. Those people are all talk, just like the people who brag about reading so much.

So, what to do? How to reach an audience who craves bite-sized entertainment?

“Give them what they want,” is the short answer. But what do they want?

They don’t know what they want. We have to tell them. But first, we have to figure it out ourselves.

7 thoughts on “What do they want?

  1. As I often do, I agree with you on this Patrick. Though, yes, I am an avid reader. I spend hours every day reading. I generally have four books going at a time. You know me, I’m a hard sci-fi reader and I happen to love those 800+ page books. Adore them. But I have more 300-page books than anything. For me, it’s the substance that counts. Most of my favorite Philip K Dick stories are less than a dozen pages long. Short stories are awesome. So are multi-book collections.

    Like you said, the important part is the heart, or what the take-away is. As in your writing, if you write half a page and say, “yep, this was great today”… then so be it. Or if you write 10k worlds. Great. We should be more pressed for what we said (or read) than the count.

    Keep writing, my friend, and I will keep reading.

    Funny thing, I was asked two days ago IRL to name my favorite science fiction authors… and yes, “Patrick Walts” was one I named. And I was being completely honest.

  2. Wow, I’m flattered! Yeah, I like long books when it’s justified, but sometimes there’s just so much padding that you can tell is only there because someone said “make it longer.” Stephen King can get away with that, but I see so many indie authors pushing ultra-lengthy tomes that are “part 3 of an 8-book cycle” and publicly airing their frustrations over lack of sales.
    I get frustrated too, but then I also think, “What can I do to make my books more accessible and discoverable without compromising myself?” That’s what this post is about. I have no idea. Just brainstorming, thinking aloud.

  3. And of course, I know you’re an avid reader. You’re one of the ones who says it and means it. For me, though, I WAS, but I’ve cultivated an unhealthily short attention span that demands instant gratification, and that’s something I’m actively trying to work on. But I also recognize that millions of others have no such need to work on that because they don’t have a problem with it. I look at books that are a massive success even in this climate and ask myself what it is about them that grabs people. Sometimes I’ll find a book that just sucks me right in and I can’t wait to finish. Sometimes it’s a hard slog. I want to avoid the slog and be all grab, you know? That’s my thought process behind this post. I like a lot of twists unexpected turns that keep me reading, regardless of length. Sometimes I’ll get really into a book only to lose steam midway through because the stuff that’s padding the middle isn’t really worth a flip. I want to write books that are exciting all the way through while still retaining a healthy sense of pacing and character development. But that development can come about partially through the characters’ experiences. I don’t necessarily need to stop and dwell on someone’s inner thoughts for multiple chapters. They’re stressed? Show it by having them do things nervous people do. Angry? Show their shortening fuses through word and action rather than a twelve page explanation about how angry they are. So the trick is to write exactly what I want to write, and deliver it in a way that’s appealing to the general population. That’s why I’ve tried to make these Effugium books entertaining for people who might otherwise find sci-fi boring by grounding it in a reality they can understand. I put normal, everyday people into these outlandish situations, but their 21st century thinking and points of reference would ideally make a reader go “Yeah, I can relate to this.” People wrinkle their noses and say “I don’t really like sci-fi.” I want to grab those people as well as those well-versed in the genre. So it’s a tricky balance to try to achieve.

  4. I was kind of thinking along similar lines when I put together the business plan for my Sci-Fi series. I feel like novella-length fiction might be the way of the future. It’s bite-size, as you say, and by writing a bunch of novella-length stories in the same universe, using some of the same characters, I’m hoping to hook readers into binge-read my stuff the way people binge-watch shows on Netflix.

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