Making readers work?

I've been thinking lately about the primacy of outcomes, a theme I've used in a dozen posts this year. Part of my interest is rooted in the ideas first presented last fall in "The opportunity in abundance". Some recent developments underscore how much we're still trying to solve problems as if producers called the shots.

A recent post by author Mike Duran, "How hard should we make our readers work?", claimed that "Literary fiction requires more work on the part of the reader than commercial fiction does." Admittedly, when I am thinking about outcomes, every problem seems to start with a container. That said, I had to ask myself, "Is this 'more work' standard necessarily true?"

It's easy to imagine that literary fiction requires more work on the part of the writer. Even though the structure of most fictional works follows some understood rules, it takes insight, planning, effort and editing to create a book of significant quality.

That said, the book need not be unreadable. In fact, a book's value comes not from how hard a reader has to work, but from how well the author's ideas are conveyed through the use of structure and language. As I've written before, making reading hard isn't a recipe for success.

On their own, difficulty, complexity and length are not proxies for quality. Rather, the ability of a written work to change minds, grow understanding or spur action, among other outcomes, is a measure of value.

For some time, Todd Sattersten has made this point about business books, a genre he knows well. In a 2011 post, "Let business books gets shorter", he concludes:

"Reader want ‘books’ that deliver value for the time spent. The question is who is going to deliver that in the new era of digital publishing."

I know: putting literary fiction and business books in the same post seems like sacrilege. My point is this: our focus needs to shift to outcomes, something that readers value. A book that no one reads may have timeless qualities, but it's still a book that no one reads.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.