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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What Readers Really Want (that Publishers Fail to Understand)

Today's post comes from an old acquaintance of mine, author of speculative fiction, Saul Tanpepper.

There’s a conversation going on right now—yes, right now—between Readers and Writers:

Yo, I'll tell you what I want, what I really really want,
So tell me what you want, what you really really want,
I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really
really really wanna zigazig ha.*

Sound familiar?
For decades Publishers have been having this conversation, too—actually, conversation isn’t the right word. I think the word I’m searching for is mantra. I imagine it going something like this:

Yo, I’ll tell you what you want, what you really, really want.
And I don’t wanna hear what you think you really want.

But times are changing, folks. Readers know this; writers know this; Agents know this. But do Publishers now this? I don’t know. Maybe. They’ve been tone deaf for a very, very long time. The fact that they’re singing the same old tune makes me seriously doubt it:

If you wanna be my lover, you have got to give,
Taking is too easy, but that's the way it is.*

Do they realize that a new day has broken on publishing? A digital sun has risen, and it’s Writers—yes, Writers—who are singing a new tune:

If you want my future forget my past,
If you wanna get with me better make it fast,
Now don't go wasting my precious time,
Get your act together we could be just fine *

Readers are hearing it. They’re engaging writers directly, instead of Publishers.

What do you think about that now you know how I feel?
Say, you can handle my love? Are you for real?
I won't be hasty, I'll give you a try.*

So, really, what do Readers want?


Not the limited choices Publishers have been offering for decades, but the vast array of choices Writers can now provide. Not the, “You can have Grape Nuts or Shredded Wheats,” kind of choice, but the twenty-pack mini-box Cocoa Puffs Lucky Charms Honey Combs Berry Berry Kix kind of choice. It’s not about what we need. It’s not about whether it’s a good thing or not. It’s about what we want. Readers want to stand in the cereal aisle and gaze in wide wonder at the options they’ve got. Yes, they’ll still buy the Grape Nuts too, because as much as we love our Fruity Pebbles, we all secretly enjoy a little roughage every now and again. Some more than others.

Let me just say that I don’t think Publishers are evil. They’re businesses. And in the past they used what they felt were best business practices given the constraints they operated under. Obviously, decisions were made that, with time, turned out to be disadvantageous (such as the returns policy), but even that doesn’t make them evil. What they are is complacent. They’re stuck in a model that no longer functions very well, not because that model is inherently ineffective—it worked well enough for decades—but because the world has changed and the natural laws upon which that model was based are no longer relevant.

So here's a story from A to Z, you wanna get with me
you gotta listen carefully.*

Writers are listening.

Agents are listening.

Publishers, are you listening? Because if you’re not, you just might be hearing a lot more of this:

What do you think about that now you know how I feel?
Say, you can handle my love are you for real?
I won't be hasty, I'll give you a try
If you really bug me then I'll say goodbye.*

*Thanks to the Spice Girls, as always, for inspiration. Lyrics from their song "Wannabe" are the copyright of the Spice Girls (1995).

Saul Tanpepper writes speculative fiction for young adults and older. He will be self-publishing a collection of short stories in December 2011 called Zombies in Bermuda Shorts and Other Atrocities: a Macabre Menagerie of Mini-fiction, and a novel, Touch, in May 2012. He can be reached at, and can be found on Twitter @SaulTanpepper and Google+. He also curates the @WritersReTweets Twitter account.

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