Monday, 4 March 2013

Know Your Enemy

I saw a discussion on Facebook a couple of weeks ago where apparently some author/marketing guru had expressed an opinion along the lines of 'The sad truth is that an author's job to lure readers away from other authors'. This proved to be an unpopular sentiment among the authors I know, who tend (I believe rightly) to regard other authors as their closest allies.

But, I can see a lot of newbie authors falling into this mistake one way or another, so I think it's worth spelling out in detail why it's wrong.

This, I think, is the argument that's being proposed:
- authors depend on being read for their livelihood.
- the number of reader-hours in the world is limited.
- thus, authors must compete with one another for that limited supply.

The first premise is unproblematic. So, technically, is the second, but let's take a closer look at it, shall we?

This argument treats the limits on the number of reader-hours in the world as fixed and immutable (otherwise, authors could just focus on expanding the limits on the number of reader-hours, of which more later). So, what's the absolute maximum number of reader-hours available? (We can assume that any other limit has at least some potential flexibility).

Let's say that there's an average of 16 waking hours in a person's day. 7 billion people times 365 days in a year times 16 hours is roughly 41 trillion hours every single year. Here's a Google estimate from 2010 that there were 130 million 'distinct' books total. According to this Wikipedia page, there are about 2.2 million books published in a year, so let's guess that means there are now about 135 million.

That leaves over 300,000 hours per book per year.

How many hours does it take to read a book? Let's ignore complicated cases like encyclopedias, dictionaries and textbooks, and treat every book as a sequence of about 100,000 words that you read cover-to-cover. Let's put the average speed of reading for comprehension at a (conservative) 200 words per minute. That's 12,000 words an hour, meaning it will take in the region of 8.5 hours for one person to read one book.

That means every book ever can be read over 35,000 times every year. There's plenty of readership to go around.

The problem we face as authors isn't other authors - each of us has a potential thirty-five thousand readers per book per year to play with. The problem is all the other stuff those readers have to do - working, cooking, cleaning, eating, sleeping etc. We're losing 5-10% of those reading hours just to kids being too young to read or young enough that they read significantly slower than 200 words per minute. Heck, if we could just get readers to stop sleeping (and let's face it, 'I stayed up all night to finish your book' is one of the highest compliments a reader can pay to an author), we could put all these estimates up by 50% - an extra twenty trillion hours every year.

It's not an author's job to lure readers away from other authors. An author's job is to lure readers away from non-authors.

I'm being a bit silly, of course, but the point stands. Any given reader can read many more books in a year than you can write. In fact, you could have a rich, fertile and very long career, and probably still not write more books than a single dedicated person could read in a single year.

The point I'm making is that the absolute, immovable limits on reader time are far too vast for us to worry about. The limits we should be worrying about are the daily chores (and, as a friend of mine pointed out when I told him about all this maths, Facebook). What we should, as authors, be trying to do is get more people able to read. Any time you turn a non-reader into a devoted reader, you unlock another potential 600+ books' worth of reading hours per year - which is far more than one author could expect to exploit.

Don't think of yourself as trying to steal readers from other authors. You should be stealing readers from TV, from Facebook, from videogames, from jobs, from pets and families, from sleep, from personal hygeine and nutrition... you get the idea.

On a more serious note, this graph suggests that about 20% of the global population lives in extreme poverty. Assuming that this means not having time to spare for reading (which may not universally be the case), that's 8 trillion reading hours per year - 941 billion books per year - going begging.

Don't compete with other authors. Compete with everything else.


  1. Sorry Rik -this maths is very flawed. It does not allow for the fact that your available hours are heavily bunched towards best sellers. If millions of people are reading one book those millions of hours are not available to any other book. Anyway I'll be happy to talk about this on Saturday. Big Rick.

    1. I think that's one of the smallest factors the maths doesn't allow for, really. I also haven't factored in that many of Google's 130million books are well outside regular readership interest due to being obscure, niche or dated, for example.