I spend a lot of time on social media. I enjoy living vicariously through others timelines (and it’s kind of like writing). So it should come as no surprise that I follow a number of writers’ pages, groups, and blogs. It should be equally predictable that not too long ago, I started seeing memes like this one appear in my social media feeds.
At first, I responded with a hearty nod. I may have even pumped my fist in the air a couple of times. I definitely shared the shit out of one like it on my Facebook page and my Twitter feed. Righteous indignation boiled in me for a little while. Why the hell wouldn’t someone want to buy a book from a hard-working indie author, and instead go buy the overpriced filtrate of some roasted beans?
The revelation may have come while I myself was waiting in line for a caffeine hit. Or after passing a local coffee dispensary seething with legal junkies. Or it may have been looking at my own (dismal) book sales.
Our books aren’t worth as much as a cup of coffee.
And as distressing as this realization was, I decided to examine it. There was something valuable there. So I dug down deep and starting by looking at my own motivations for spending a few buck on coffee instead of a book by an independent author.
Reason 1: Predictability
Let’s not sugarcoat this: most books suck. Yeah, I said it. It doesn’t much matter whether that book is an indie rag or a corporate shill, most books are mediocre at best. That’s the definition of mediocrity. And unfortunately, independent authors don’t have the same gatekeepers as corporate-published books.
What’s more, independent books have a higher rate of suck. We don’t have the resources to polish our books endlessly, or have professional editors adjust the flow. We just have to do it on our own, find friends or colleagues to help, and maybe hire a freelance editor if your pockets are deep enough. And even with all that, there’s still a fair-to-good chance that your book will not be many people’s cup of tea. Or coffee. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
A coffee, on the other hand, is a predictable experience. I know when I get a cup of coffee, it’s going to taste like coffee and kick-start my brain (and probably my bowels). Even a bad cup of coffee will give me at least that small pleasure of increased energy and focus for a short time. Will your book? Will mine? I just don’t know.
Reason 2: Time Commitment
So we’ve now fully established that your book (or mine) probably sucks. Books also come with significant time commitments. Muscling through a dull, confusing book can be exhausting. And most readers will give a new book quite a lot of time before setting it down and moving on to more literary pastures. (I am not most readers, by the way.) Therefore, a bad book could potentially consume hours, days, or weeks of leisure time. Is that $0.99 ebook also worth all that time, especially for slow readers? Fuck no.
A cup of coffee, on the other hand, is a fairly simple proposition. It is a reasonable block of time, usually 10 to 30 minutes (or this guy’s answer). And we don’t usually feel as bad about leaving a bad cup of coffee to be thrown down the drain (or quickly thrown back like a warm, sour shooter). And again, that coffee will have predictable effects.
Reason 3: Multitasking
We’ve now established that books are risky propositions for offering enjoyment and are time-consuming. To make matters worse, reading a book tends to be a singular activity. One does not read a book while cooking dinner, chatting with friends, or doing mindless data entry in a cubicle farm. A book should consume the readers’ attention, preventing them from really doing much else. This is one of the reasons why people read, and why one doesn’t read while operating heavy machinery.
Coffee is different. It’s a social lubricant, a treat, or a functional beverage to make mind-numbing tasks more bearable. Your relationship with coffee is an open one. It doesn’t matter if you want to chat, work, or read while you drink coffee. It’s just happy to be with you and hopes you’re happy, too. You can commit to coffee, or not, and either one is totally cool.
Reason 4: No Whiny Memes
Yes, this is probably both twisting the knife and beating a dead horse. (Twisting a dead horse, maybe?) But seriously, these memes decrying the ignorance of the masses come across as whiny at best, probably even deeply out of touch. After all, the idea is to make the reader feel guilty that they are spending more on a cup of coffee than your book. But is that really how you want your reader to feel picking up your book, guilty? Not excited or intrigued or even happy?
Now I realize that you’re probably not rolling in royalty checks. In fact, if you’re anything like me in the beginning, it can be tough to pay even one bill a month with your writing. You’ve poured hours of time and effort into your book, and bared your soul to the world. It hurts when readers don’t recognize that, right?
Now here comes the big, hairy “but” you knew was coming at you. Does it hurt as much as, say, starvation? No, you probably have food, if only some instant ramen. Or living on the street? It’s likely you also have a roof over your head. You’re reading this after all. Does the world denying your genius hurt as much as cancer? Almost certainly not.
And you know what, the reader probably isn’t giving money to any of those today either. They will walk right past donation boxes for starving children, animal shelters, and burn units on their way to a cup of coffee.
Why? Well, why not? People work hard for their money and are entitled to spend it however they wish. That might be a few hours curled up with a favorite book, maybe even one you wrote, and it might be drinking a cup of coffee. Regardless, in the face of all the suffering in the world, would you like your reader to grab a little joy from life? I sure as shit would, and I’m objectively an asshole 84.6% of the time.
The Ray of Sunshine
So if this is the first time you’re visiting me, reader, you’re probably thinking I’m a cantankerous little prick. You’re right, at least in my writing. (In person, I’m one of the nicest, most polite people you’ll ever meet.) But I don’t want to leave you with too sour a taste in your mouth, so I’m offering up an alternative. Call it an olive branch, or the light of hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box.
If you really want readers, bring them joy.
Make your readers laugh or cry or scream, but give them that which they most want from the world. And inspire them to read your books, and the books of other authors both independent and traditionally published.
As a writer, you should never be offering guilt or shame. Instead, focus on making your reader a fuller, more complete person. It doesn’t matter if they are reading science fiction or romance or a post-modernist deconstructionist stream of consciousness about pastrami on rye. You should simply try to inspire the emotions your reader needs to feel, both with your writing and with your marketing efforts.
To help with this, I’ve constructed a few coffee-themed memes of my own. These are judgment free and positive (both of which can be challenging for me sometimes). These images are also free for you to use as you wish. Share them. Print them out and use them as placemats. Or just smile and nod, then go on your way.
And most of all, best of luck to you in all your writing endeavors. You can do it. You can make it.