Ask Not What Your Readers Can Do For You...

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts recently, listing different ways readers can support authors. Most of them are pretty good ideas: buy their books, give them reviews, etc. I’m all about supporting authors; my book budget alone could support an army in one of those countries you’ve never heard of. (Assuming said army liked to read middle grade and YA.) But when I read these lists, I can’t help wondering if the authors who post them spend as much time thinking about what they can do for their readers as they do about what readers can do for them. I know, I know, you spent years slaving over your manuscript. Isn’t that enough?
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I’ve been seeing a lot of posts recently, listing different ways readers can support authors. Most of them are pretty good ideas: buy their books, give them reviews, etc. I’m all about supporting authors; my book budget alone could support an army in one of those countries you’ve never heard of. (Assuming said army liked to read middle grade and YA.)

But when I read these lists, I can’t help wondering if the authors who post them spend as much time thinking about what they can do for their readers as they do about what readers can do for them. I know, I know, you spent years slaving over your manuscript. Isn’t that enough?

(Definitions of unusual literary terms & jargon you need to know.)

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Scott-savage-author-writer
case-file-13-savage

Column by J. Scott Savage, author of 12 published novels, including
The Case File 13 series from Harper Children’s, the Farworld series from
Shadow Mountain, and several adult horrors, thrillers, and mysteries,
written under the name Jeffrey S Savage. His newest Case File 13
novel, EVIL TWINS, will be released June 24, 2014. Find him on Twitter.

Would it be enough if you went to a nice restaurant and your amazing meal was slapped down on the table with a, “Pay on your way out,” from the server? Would it be enough if your beautiful new car had no seatbelts, cup holders, or air conditioning? The author/reader relationship is much more important than you might realize. Here are some ways you can support your reader.

1) Find the best books in the genre you’re writing and study them. Many beginning authors get the idea to write a book when they read something so lousy that they think, “I can do better than that!” But being better than the worst is like your local coffee shop saying, “At least we’re better than that slop they make in your office.” Don’t work to be better than the worst, strive to be among the best.

2) Read reviews. Whenever I’m on the road, I choose my restaurants based on user reviews. (There’s an app for that!) I’ve found that if there are quite a few reviews, ranging from bad to great, I can get a pretty good feel for what I have in store. I would hope that the people running the restaurants look at what unbiased patrons are saying, and use it to improve their customer experience.

Reviews can be a gold mine if you know what you are looking for. Ignore the 5 stars. We all love getting those, but from a learning perspective, they’re about as helpful as grandma telling you your finger painting is the work of a young Rembrandt. Likewise, ignore the 1 and 2 stars. They aren’t your audience, and you’ll probably never win them over. The 3 and 4 stars are your bread and butter. These are the people that liked your work, but found something missing. Listen to these readers and carefully consider what worked for them and what didn’t.

Two quick caveats. Do not argue with negative reviews. Readers have the right to not like your work as much as you have the right to dislike the neighbor whose dog poops on your lawn. Responding to negative reviews is like grabbing that poop and throwing it back. Things get messy fast. Second, if you can’t bear to read your own reviews, read the 3 star reviews of other books in your genre.

3) Give readers a way to contact you, and answer their letters and e-mails if at all possible. As a middle grade author, I get e-mails ranging from gushing 2,000 word essays about why my book are better than Harry Potter (Thanks, Grandma), to the straight forward, “You suck!” I respond to all of them, and nothing is cooler than having a reader shocked that you actually took the time to answer them.

(Just starting out as a writer? See a collection of great writing advice for beginners.)

4) Respect your reader. When I was writing Case File 13, my Harper editor, Andrew Harwell, taught me something I will never forget. He kept taking out my best potty humor, and I couldn’t understand why. Kids LOVE fart jokes.

“That’s true.” he said. “My nephews would eat this up, and you can keep a few. But your writing is smarter than that. This story is something kids will love, but so will parents, teachers, and librarians. Don’t turn them off by dumbing down your story.” He taught me to write stories that were good enough and smart enough that every reader would enjoy them, and when Zombie Kid received a starred Kirkus review, I knelt at my editor alter and thanked him.

5) Lastly, take chances. Don’t try to be the next Fault in our Stars or Hunger Games. Readers loved those books because they were unique and amazing; they weren’t the next anything. When you sit down at the computer, table, desk or wherever you write, do it with the mindset that you are about to write something so unique you don’t even know if you can pull it off. If you fail, you try again. But if you succeed you’ve given readers the best gift of all—yourself.

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