I subscribe to a handful of email groups on LinkedIn and more often than not, I find myself barely skimming what they dump into my inbox. Today, I scanned a children’s books group summary more closely and came away with a grumpy sneer.
I’ll tell you why.
It boils down to research. It seems no one wants to do it. Simple questions could be answered by as little effort as going to a bookshop and looking at the very books they’re trying to write. It’s not hard and if you want to do it for a living, you should at least understand the most easily gathered information. When I wanted to know about publishing trends, readers, age groups, popular titles, genres and more, I quit being a web developer and got a part-time job at a Waterstone’s. Not everyone can drop what they’re doing and go drastic like that, but I strongly recommend it to those who can. Nothing – NOTHING – compares with the insider knowledge you can gain as a bookseller. Dealing with the paying public is part of the job, and it is sometimes unpleasant when you get customers who think you’re a lower life form for operating a till, but if you can forgive and forget those times, then the information you’ll absorb is worth buckets of gold.
If you can’t quit your job and be a bookseller, make friends with one. Hang out in a bookshop. Ask questions. If you pick the right time of day (meaning, avoid lunchtime and near closing), booksellers generally love to chat to their customers. People watch the browsers, attend shop events, author signings, and pay attention to the way a major shop is organised. You may not realise it, but shelves are organised strategically. Pay attention to it and figure out why.
Do the research, or don’t try to make a living writing. I don’t normally have such strong words on my blog, but after years of bookselling and what I gained from it, I really can’t believe the lazy questions by people looking to shortcut the process. The information is all around, and no quick answer on a discussion group or tweet is a substitute for finding it out yourself.
Writing and researching are equally important in the pursuit, even if research is as informal as observation.
I also suggest: Follow authors and literary agents on Twitter; you’ll soak up a lot of insider information through them. Read the online version of The Bookseller (print is a bit expensive for the individual, though it is a staple rag in bookshop staff rooms). And, get away from your computer once in awhile. Especially discussion forums. 😉