The ’Rithmetic Behind Reading and Writing—J. Conrad Guest

The Pew Research Center reported in January 2014 that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the previous year. If you think that number is encouraging, consider that the number of non book readers has nearly tripled since 1978.


The reasons behind that dwindling number can be debated: Internet and TV conspiring to leave reading a boring activity in a society that more and more requires instant gratification, or parents who fail to teach their children the joy of the printed word. Which reminds me of a meme I saw recently: “If you think reading is boring, you’re not doing it right.” Novelist Samuel R. Delany said that a book is only as good as what its words make happen inside the reader’s head. Well, most books today do little to inflame my imagination.

But the gist of this post is the correlation between reading and writing. My writing keeps me from reading as much as I’d like, and I’ve read in a number of writing forums that most writers don’t care to read. Which prompts the question, if one doesn’t enjoy reading, how can one write well?

Depending on which source you read, somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published every year in the U.S. Many of those—perhaps as many as half or even more—are self-published. On average, a self-published title sells fewer than 250 copies, most to family and friends. It seems to me that self-publishing is an exercise in futility. Of course, some, like Fifty Shades of Grey, succeed at winning the lottery. But most writers stand a greater chance of winning a lottery than being courted by a major publisher and achieving bestseller status.

With so many new books being published annually and with the number of consumers (readers) diminishing, what is it that prompts so many to think they have a story to tell? Moreover, that their story is worth telling let alone reading, especially if it’s not well-written or even edited—in short a first draft uploaded to the Internet?

I don’t have an answer, and I’m not even certain the question is worth asking; but I am curious.

Many seem to view the writing life as glamorous. While I enjoy the creative process and find little else in life as gratifying as arranging words on a blank monitor, I don’t find the writing life glamorous in the least. While I find my muse in a cigar, a pot of coffee, and blaring Bose speakers, those images are hardly enchanting. I wonder if those household names who drive the profits of the big five publishers view the writing life as glamorous. Maybe James Patterson does now that he guests on Castle and appears in commercials to tout books that he no longer writes himself.

Writing requires work and dedication, along with a desire to learn and improve craft. And the real work commences after I type “The End”: finding an audience—or perhaps more accurately, helping an audience find me.

Many seem to think that uploading a file to websites like CreateSpace will result in royalties pouring in. A good social network is said to help—traditional publishers ask, in their submission guidelines, about your social network—but the numbers are slim: only one or two in a million succeed.

So I submit the question: What is it that prompts so many to think that they can lay claim to an audience that is declining?

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To Go, A Retrospect In Death, A World Without Music, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings, January’s Thaw, and One Hot January


Filed under musings, writing

4 responses to “The ’Rithmetic Behind Reading and Writing—J. Conrad Guest

  1. The numbers really are shocking, J. Conrad. But, I’ve noticed that many readers are buying books that are lighter reading these days. It seems as though life is so complicated and difficult, readers more and more want to escape. I find I am one of them. In the last year or so, I’ll read 4 or 5 light books to 1 poignant or flawed-character or circumstance book. I love to read, but it’s a mood thing.

    • Thanks, Coco, for stopping by.

      Variety, they say, is the spice of life. Once in a while I enjoy lighter fare; but it still must connect with me in some way—the story, the characters, the writing. It seems today’s consumer wants nothing more than to escape.

  2. It feels like one of those “if a tree falls and nobody hears, does it make a sound” questions. We write because the stories command us, and read because they compel. So perhaps if fewer read more will have to write.

    • Sheila: “…if fewer read more will have to write.” I’m not sure if that is meant to reassure me!

      Yes, I write because I enjoy the creative process; but I also write with publication in mind. Yet publication is but a part of the process. I also long to connect with readers. Without readers, at some point the luster of the process diminishes.

      Some writers chant, as if it’s a mantra, “I write because I must.” I wonder if that is an admission of sorts that they accept their lot, keeping their expectations low so they won’t be disappointed.

      Thanks, too, for your comments.

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