Every historic instance of growth in the publishing industry can be connected to the increase of readers within a given population. In medieval Europe, it wasn’t the printing press per se1 that increased literacy; it was a change in social and religious structure. In eighteenth-century England, it was the Industrial Revolution and the accompanying shift in wealth (not to mention the British’s imperial reach) that led to increased readership. And the great boom in US book consumption can be directly linked to the upward socioeconomic situation that occurred following World War II (and the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944).
Historically, readership increases among people who feel they have something to gain through reading. Be it a person reading a new tractate during the Renaissance, a Brit digesting a book on manners in the nineteenth century, or a post–World War II American poring over The View from Pompey’s Head in the 1950s, a sense that reading can contribute to one’s life is a defining characteristic of a reader.
People read for many reasons, but at the heart of it, the act of reading augments their experiences. Reading can provide us with knowledge, better understanding, and practical approaches. This works with trade as well as specialized publications. Be it a cookbook that helps us to prepare a new dish or a novel that transports us into another world, reading alters our lives. Of course, there are plenty of other things in our culture that provide life-altering experiences. But the act of reading a longer narrative is distinctive (and our goal).
Apart from the fact that they must be able to read and have materials to read, readers seem to share a group of characteristics:
- They are educated.
- They perceive themselves as upwardly mobile.2
- They are interested in improving their situation.
And while reading tends to be a solitary act, it is really about connecting humans. Thus readers historically tend to bond through (and to) the organizations from which they obtain books. Within these communities, the role of the publisher has been to curate the connections between authors3 and readers. Publishers help develop the works of their authors to be better adjusted to readers and help cultivate readers to engage with the authors whom they bring in.
This, of course, is a dialectic process. Readers, as they digest the narrative, are developing. Events change. And the ideas of authors change. So publishing is the act of mediation in an ever-changing world. The best historic publishers have done just that. They have brought in new publications within an audience that they have cultivated. And they have adjusted their editorial process, design aesthetic, and choice of publications within that dynamic.4
To do that, of course, means that we must know our readers. We must be in touch with them and encounter their reactions to our publications. Yes, we can delegate some of the work, but we must directly connect to readers. To be separated from them, either editorially or through the anonymous transactions on Amazon, means that we are incapable of maintaining that dialectic.
To attract readers, the books we help to create have to resonate with them. They need to develop along with the sensibilities of our audience. We need to enter relationships with our readers in ways that lead to growth. It may seem risky to move from our strict reliance on an esoteric group (authors, reviewers, publicists, and sales reports), but unless we are in a conversation with the readers in our communities, we cannot know their tastes and concerns. Thus we will not be able to develop books that help them transcend their current situation—or us ours!
1. This is an oversimplification to make a point. In reality, there is a dialectic relationship between the development of technology, social change, and increased readership. This will be discussed in an upcoming newsletter.
2. This does not require that they be economically upwardly mobile. It can indicate a perceived improvement of social position or even a concept of improving one’s ontological status.
3. We should probably use the term author here in its etymological sense, as the source.
4. Of course, technology, people’s aesthetics, and other important factors change as well. So successful publishers must account for a host of factors as well as what is mentioned here.