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Want to Be a Better Writer? Go to a Bookstore!

By: Steven Porter


Serious writers are always on the lookout for useful tips they can use to improve their writing abilities and increase their chances of someday being published. So here is a bit of surefire advice any writer can use to help accomplish just that.

Ready?

Spend one day a week hanging out in a bookstore.

We’ve all been told that reading makes us better writers, but how in the world can spending an afternoon sipping lattes and browsing remainder bins have any impact on our writing?

Let me explain.

Bookstores are where the action is. It’s where the best of the world’s published books come to roost. It’s where browser and book come together in a mysterious bonding ritual. And it’s also where the magical cha-ching of the cash register seals the deal. So if you are writing for your work to be read, and presumably purchased, by a reader one day, analyzing the intricacies of how that happens makes nothing but perfect, logical sense.

The Who Unless you are visiting during the height of the holiday shopping season, the first thing you’ll notice wandering the aisles of your neighborhood bookstore is that there are not that many browsers mulling about. Most neighborhood bookstores are small – around 2,000 square feet – and carry limited selections, sometimes as small as only 10,000 titles. Most stores will have only a few customers shopping at any given time, and the number of people who shop in bookstores regularly in the U.S. is overall not very high anyway. People who rarely shop in bookstores tend to overestimate the number of customers bookstores serve on any given day. The customers are few, but the books are many.

The How Spend a few minutes watching how those customers shop for books. Nearly every book browser will pick up a book and examine the front cover first. Then if it meets with their approval, they flip it over and read the written copy on the back. It’s in every book buyer’s DNA! Publishers learned long ago that to get a reader to pick-up a book by an unknown writer, the cover needed to be spectacular and the blurb dazzling. The importance of the quality and appropriateness of the book cover design cannot be over emphasized.

The Where Take notice of how many browsers who come in through the front door ignore most of the books in the store and make a beeline to their favorite section. Mystery. Science Fiction. Memoir. History. Romance. Why? Because passionate readers know what they like! Readers find great comfort in their chosen genres, and those genres bring with them specific expectations. (Publishers have spent decades and tons of cash honing those genre expectations, by the way.) I meet so many writers who tell me their manuscript is some sort of genre-busting hybrid. “Oh. It’s a detective novel that’s part thriller, with a dash of romance, spaceships, and dragons.” Unless you are extraordinarily lucky, I say, “Congratulations! You’ve created an imaginative, exciting, well-written, new book that turns-off everybody!”

Children’s Books Of course, children’s writers should spend plenty of time perusing the kid’s book section. There is more competition among children’s books than any other section of the store. Writing a book that a child will love sounds so easy – and many do! But do you notice who is doing the shopping? It’s Grandma! The books may feature an adorable story and vivid illustrations, but they are written for kids only indirectly. They are primarily written and marketed to the book buyer – Mom, Dad, and Grandma. Five-year-olds tend not to have credit cards. (And another secret every seasoned bookseller already knows: many kids books aren’t purchased for kids at all.)

The Look Now look at the title selection in your favorite section. You will see that mysteries look like mysteries, and memoirs look like memoirs. Those that don’t fit in stand out, and not in a good way. If the right look and style isn’t there, then neither is the purchase. I recall once helping a 12-year-old select a novel about dragons. He was a smart kid and avid reader. We strolled down the fantasy aisle and I suggested several terrific books written by established, wonderful authors, but he was dissatisfied and becoming frustrated. “No, no, no.” is all he would say. Then eureka! He found a book he wanted to buy. “I like stories about dragons that look like… THIS!” he said triumphantly, waving the book cover in my face.

First-Time Authors Now spend a few minutes trying to locate a single book written by a first-time author. I’ll give you a little time… any luck? Sadly, it’s a rare find. If you do locate one, take note of what the book looks like and how it reads. In nearly every case, it fits right-in with its genre. In order to get published, it’s almost as if you need to have been published already. It’s a cruel catch-22 that’s difficult to break through. And if you don’t know what a catch-22 is, stop reading this and go read Catch-22.

***

Writing for oneself is the most enjoyable pastime I know. The only rules and criticisms are of your own making. Pure freedom. But if you want to write for others, know that you are writing for a defined audience that holds specific expectations. And there is no better place to learn about those expectations, and incorporate them into your own work, than among the stacks in your favorite bookstore.

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Steven R. Porter is the owner of the indie bookshop Stillwater Books and hybrid publishing company Stillwater River Publications in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is the author of three self-published books, and is president of the Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA).