We Are All Allies

by Dan Koboldt

IKoboldtn some ways, publishing is a zero-sum game. There are only so many slots in the schedule of traditional publishers. Only ten books can occupy the top ten list, and only one can win the Hugo. Yet the most dangerous and pervasive threat to the aspiring author is not another author, nor is it a big bad publisher. Nor is it a certain online store. No, the biggest threat is the ever-shrinking reading time the average person has in our modern world.

Books once enjoyed very little competition in this arena. Now, time that was once given over to reading is spent on the internet, on social media, on Netflix. The geek who used to read forty hours a week now spends them playing Dragon Age. That’s why authors need to band together: to remind the world of the importance of books. To get them to choose reading over skimming and streaming. Mark my words, fellow authors, we will live or die by our ability to do so.

The modern world has so many demands on a person’s time. That’s why breakout successes — books like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Fifty Shades of Grey — are so important. They don’t just grease the wheels of the publishing industry; they also put books into the public zeitgeist. Some authors have criticized the writing in Fifty Shades of Grey, but guess what? It got a lot of people who hadn’t read a book since high school to pick one up and see what the fuss was about. Fifty Shades had people reading and talking about books, instead of the latest cat pictures or what went down on House of Cards.

What If Readership Doubled?

Imagine for a moment what would happen if the world’s readership were suddenly to double. This isn’t a realistic near-term goal, but it makes for a useful thought exercise. If the readership doubled, the first thing that would happen is a lot more authors would be able to make a decent living out of writing. Barnes & Noble might become profitable, allowing it to open new stores instead of closing them.

Publishers could hire more editors, which would allow more books to be acquired from new authors. They could expand marketing budgets, rather than slashing them. This would remove some of the marketing responsibility from authors’ shoulders, giving them more time to write and develop their craft. Last but not least, this dream-scenario would improve the terms that major publishers offer in contracts, because they would desperately need authors to sign.

These are some of the things that could happen if we found ways to build the readership worldwide. So, how can we do that?

First Things First: Make Reading More Convenient

No matter how you feel about Amazon, you have to admit that they’ve done a lot to make reading more convenient. E-readers make it so easy to browse, sample, and download new books. One-click ordering makes the process quick and painless. They can store hundreds of books at once, ensuring that someone who finds time to read can always have a book nearby.

Smart phones provide increasingly polished ways (such as the Kindle App and iBooks) to read electronic books. But smart phones are multi-function devices, and that makes them a double-edged sword. You can read on a phone, but you can also play Angry Birds.

Audiobooks, too, are helping people find more time to read. Now, you can listen to a book while jogging or driving or doing other somewhat-mindless tasks. A surprising number of the book reviewers and fellow authors I approached about reading my book admitted that most (if not all) of the books they read now are in audio form. These super-busy people would probably have to give up reading, were it not for the audio format.

What Authors Can Do

Pushing the envelope of technology is probably beyond the reach of most authors. Yet there are other ways we can do our part to boost the world’s readership. Here are three:

  1. We can write great books. Books that enchant readers. Books that give other writers something to aspire to. We can also help others write great books. Beta readers and critique partners are among the most valuable assets a writer can have. Do that for others, and you’ll help their books become better. Just as they’ll do for you.
  2. We can read more books ourselves. Remember that piece of writing wisdom show, don’t tell? It also works for real life. I hate reading interviews with famous authors who say, “I don’t have time to read anymore.” Bullshit. You can and should make time to read. It’s like Stephen King said: If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” Authors are passionate about writing books. We should be passionate about reading them, too.
  3. We can remind others about the importance of books. I’m talking about people outside of our Twitter circles: the vast majority of the population who are not writers themselves. Whenever we can, we should talk to these people about books. Not movies, not television, but the written word. We can start conversations by asking what they like to read, not what they’re currently streaming on Netflix. We can friend them on Facebook, and share book quotes instead of funny animal GIFs.

In Summary

No one has a greater stake in the future of publishing than authors do. We are all united by the common desire to see our audience grow. As Margaret Mead said, a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. That can (and should) be us.


The Rogue RetrievalDan Koboldt is a genetics researcher and fantasy/sci-fi author from the Midwest. He works for the McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University, where he and his colleagues use next-generation DNA sequencing technologies to uncover the genetic basis of inherited disease. He has co-authored more than 60 publications in NatureScienceThe New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals.

His novel The Rogue Retrieval, about a Vegas magician who infiltrates a medieval world, was published by Harper Voyager in January 2016. Dan is also an avid hunter and outdoorsman. He lives with his wife and children in St. Louis, where the deer take their revenge by eating the flowers in his backyard.

18 Responses

  1. Carrie Zylka

    Absolutely spot on. It’s so much easier to watch an episode of something on Netflix or Hulu on my lunch break. Ironically streaming seems to have increased my workload too.
    I used to read a book on my lunch hour.

    Now I watch an episode of something while I work on my blog or podcast. Because it’s more convenient.

    Last week I bought a new book, Saturday morning I literally spent 4 hours on social media. I didn’t even realize how much time I had wasted until after the fact.

    That’s 4 hours I could’ve spent reading, but my mind is so ingrained to social media and streaming services.

    It’s out of control.

    Your point “you can remind others about the importance of books” really resonated with me.
    Next week I launch A Creative Mind Podcast, an audio version of my short stories. I’m hoping it will remind podcast listeners that books/stories are still out there just waiting to be found.

    Great job on the article.

  2. Stephen G Parks

    You mention the importance of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Fifty Shades of Grey in bringing in new readers. While I agree, I’d go a bit further back and suggest that we all owe JK Rowling a big thank you. She taught a whole generation of tweens that reading was fun, that big books weren’t intimidating, and that imagination was as good as a video game. In fact I think Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc. (but not 50 Shades) have been successful because they captured those same readers and answered their question of what to read next.

  3. Lenore Gay

    Hello Dan, you’re spot on. Now we have accessible media that’s sparkly. I read about our reptilian brains that were wired to spot and track fast-moving colorful creatures across the plains and the savannah. The chase back then was about survival – capturing food or not becoming food for another predator. The lure of media can be irresistible. As writers our work has to be compelling. As writers we need to support other

  4. Jeffrey L Kohanek

    Great blog post, Dan.

    In our ultra-competitive world, we are taught from a young age that striving to win is our path to success. The very nature of this mind-set breeds a combative attitude toward those that we perceive as rivals. Combined with a human’s natural tendency to feel jealousy toward those rivals should they achieve success, it is easy to find yourself seeing it as an adversarial relationship rather than a supportive one.

    As you stated, our real competition comes in the form of other media. When consumers enjoy reading a novel, they are more likely to seek out a similar experience. Following that logic, not only is a fellow author not your rival, but he or she can be a means to encourage readers to check out your work. In fact, the more similar their work is, the more likely that those readers would gravitate to yours.

    When I first fell in love with fantasy, I immediately began to seek out more books that gave me the strong world-building and character development that I enjoyed. As an author, I try to write what I would enjoy as a reader, leaving it up to me to seek out those readers that have a similar preference. Doing so by working with authors of similar works seems like synergistic approach.

  5. M. Alan Thomas II

    Is this based on any actual statistics, or just gut feelings? Because the _actual statistics_ on unit sales (and net revenue) year-over-year show trade fiction holding steady, according to the Association of American Publishers. http://publishers.org/news/us-publishing-industry%E2%80%99s-annual-survey-reveals-28-billion-revenue-2014 (The 2015 report will be out sometime in June.)

    You’re a scientist (and at my alma mater, no less!); you should look up the generally-accepted statistical research before assuming that books aren’t holding their own.

    1. M. Alan Thomas II

      Addendum: The figures I’ve linked above are actually significantly up from 2010 and 2011.

    2. Dan Koboldt

      Alan, thank you for the comments. I feel obligated to point out that this is an essay, not a scientific publication. If it were the latter, I wouldn’t consider the AAP an unbiased source of such information. I might instead point to the Pew Research Center, whose recent survey showed that the proportion of adults who read a book in any format declined from 79% in 2011 to 72% in 2015.


      This may not seem like a precipitous decline, but extrapolating to the size of the U.S. adult population: 188 million adults read a book in 2011, but only 178 million adults read a book in 2015. Losing ten million readers is, in my opinion, enough to justify my argued position.

  6. Steven Pickrell

    Great insight Dan,

    I would also remind our future readers that the library is actually a pretty awesome place. Here in the Quad City area our library is like a Netflix of libraries. Meaning, that if the library that you frequent in your area does not have a book, audio book, movie, etc. you can request it from another one that is connected to the system and will deliver it to the library that you frequent, FOR FREE! I have used this countless times because I have “read” so many audio books there that I have kind of ran out of stuff that interests me. What I always find funny is that people will ask me how much does it cost to get a membership at the local library…uh, free you pay for it with your taxes, and in my case late fees. Thanks again for the post Dan.

  7. Rowyn

    Good post!

    I think authors talking about specific books they’ve read and liked is helpful too. It doesn’t have to be a 500-word review: an enthusiastic tweet can help remind people that hey, reading books is fun!

  8. Dan Koboldt

    Great comment, Steven. I’m a huge fan of libraries myself — not only as purchasers of books, but as access providers for the many people who can’t buy books themselves.

  9. Brittany Thibodeaux

    Absolutely accurate. I think about this regularly, but on a more individual level. In my childhood and teenage years I spent countless hours each week, reading anything I could get my hands on. With the boom of social media, smart phones, Netflix, and video games, I recently found myself reading far less than I used to. This jolted me. I wasn’t sure if I could call myself a reader anymore. So I limit my social media intake, my Netflix binges, and my video game time. My non-work hours are limited – and therefore precious – to me. I don’t want to let the timesuck of social media to take over when I could be enjoying a beautifully written book.

  10. Will Burcher

    Great post Dan. I think you hit the nail on the head with your answer to all of this, i.e. we can write great books. Writing will always have certain advantages over other forms of media, due, I think, to the actual structures of our brains (something that neither YouTube nor Twitter can ever change). Writers need to recognize this and use it to their advantage. Instead of competing for the fleeting attentions of someone addicted to constant, superficial stimulation, we should be producing rich, intelligent content—stories that challenge and inspire.

    How many times daily do we hear that a book was so much better than some film adaptation? People know this instinctively, and they need the greater stimulation of imaginative, creative literature just as much (or more) than that fleeting snicker or amusement. It’s up to us to give it to them.

  11. Felix R. Savage

    Great post! This needs to be said over and over.

    I’d add one more thing we can do as writers to evangelize for books: Have kids and teach them to love reading.

    Nothing gladdens my heart more than when my four-year-old asks for a book.

    And when she ages out of books, we pass them on to the local nursery school!

    Rinse and repeat in future, we hope 😀

  12. Dan Koboldt

    Thank you, Felix! That’s a great suggestion and I wish I’d thought to include it myself. Reading to your kids often instills a lifelong love of books, and few things are more important than that.