Somerset Maugham wrote, “There is an impression abroad that everyone has it in him to write one book; but if by this is implied a good book the impression is false” (The Summing Up).
Far be it from me to add to Maugham’s words, but I’m going to. So I guess it be not far from me, after all. I would say that many people (maybe not everyone) have a book in them, but relatively few have a marketable book in them. Much of the difference is in the writer’s perspective.
Many of us approach the task of writing because we have something important to say, without giving a moment’s thought to the reality that readers and book buyers don’t necessarily care about what we care about; they care about what they care about. That may be a tautology, but it’s worth remembering.
We can all profit from the apostle Paul’s example. When he visited Athens in the first century, we can be confident that he wanted the Athenians to know Jesus. He wanted them to know truth. He wanted them to know that God loved them. But notice where he started them on the path to such knowledge. He stood among the philosophers in the Acropolis on Mars Hill and said:
It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.
The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn’t live in custom-made shrines or need the human race to run errands for him (Acts 17:22-24, The Message).
Some preachers and scholars think that Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill was a failure, but I don’t think so. Paul found an entry point. He recognized his listeners’ hopes, dreams, and needs. He didn’t start with his agenda; he started with theirs.
That’s so important for anyone who wants to write and publish a book. Many of us orient our books from our perspective instead of the reader’s. We jump right into what we want to say and expect them not only to pay hearty attention but also to pay cash for the privilege of reading what we write. But readers—the vast majority of whom you’ve never met, remember, haven’t had the opportunity to be impressed and charmed by your personal magnetism—have their own agendas. Even when they’re walking into a bookstore or going to Amazon, the hopes, dreams, and needs at the forefront of their mind are theirs—not ours.
I fairly regularly ask writers, “Why would I want to read that book?” The title and subtitle may identify the theme of the book while ignoring my hopes and dreams. The hook may promise me something totally unrelated to my already-felt need. The author’s overall approach may be clever; but if it solely or mainly reflects what the writer wants to say rather than what I (the reader) long to hear, it may never reach the reader at all.
Any writer who has a marketable book in him or her asks, What’s my reader’s agenda? What is he or she looking for? What is my entry point?
Or, put another way, Am I writing like Paul?
[Feature photo: By Valentin de Boulogne – Blaffer Foundation Collection, Houston, TX, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=596565]