Fishing for readers

I’m always angling for books about “simple living.” I’ve read numerous approaches over the years—books on minimalism, “volunteer simplicity,” Scandinavian interiors, monasticism, and yes “sparking joy.”

I recently read a book on the simplicity inherent in fly fishing using tenkara: a telescoping bamboo pole, line, and fly. I don’t have any interest in learning to fish, but I was drawn to the sparseness and immediacy of the whole operation—a lightweight rod, no reel, appropriate bait. Tenkara emphasizes technique over equipment, and “reading” the setting, thus improving your odds of catching fish.

Simple Fly Fishing, written by the “O’Dell Creek Gang” (Patagonia, Inc. founder and owner Yvon Chouinard, Mauro Mazzo, and Craig Mathews), contains advice on slimming down your approach to catching fish, as well as some nuggets on simplifying your life. Their bare-bones approach also pertains to “hooking” your audience.

Fly fishers know which bait to use for which bodies of water, at which time of year. “Other than knowing where the fish are, it is most important to know what they are likely to be eating,” say the authors. Not that we can reduce readers to fish or writers to anglers, but it helps to know who is biting, and where, and what they’re hungry for.

Publishers know this, too, to an extent—the conventional wisdom holds that you release “thoughtful” books in the spring, and celebrity books in the fall (not that celebrities can’t be thoughtful…). They know when it’s best to sell the book in independent bookstores, and when to approach Costco or direct sales. As a writer, you can’t afford to leave the strategic thinking to your publisher. Marketing ideas shouldn’t start when you sign the contract. Yes, by all means, focus on your art—but also give your publisher a fighting chance by thinking of some promotional ideas early on. Marketing—i.e., connecting book to reader—begins with knowing your reader.

As a fly fisher reads the river, you need to read your audience. Know what motivates them, what they’re craving, and where they’re prone to gather. Doing so removes a lot of the noise around writing for a large crowd—and quite possibly will increase your chances of catching “the big one.” After all, how many fish do you actually need?

“Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

—Henry David Thoreau

If you go fishing with the wrong bait and poor technique, you’ll catch nothing. If you tailor your approach, you’re bound to be as self-sufficient as Nick Adams (though hopefully without the trauma).

Start with a hook—something to grab the reader. Your hook might be an explosive opening scene, or the fact that you’re an expert in your field, or that you’re approaching a well-trod topic from a new angle. Know which reader you’re targeting. Then reel them in slowly and respectfully over the pages.

Above all, simplify your approach: hook, line, reader.

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