Why readers bail on books. Maybe even yours.

book-stinkLots of readers seem to be downloading samples of your novel, but few seem to be clicking the “Buy” button. What the hell is going on?

Well, over the last year, I’ve read the start of over 200 indie books with one specific question in mind: what factors make or break that magical spell of reader immersion? Some were successful at holding my attention, and others were not, but after each attempt, I wrote up my thoughts about what went wrong (or right) and posted them to my ImmerseOrDie review series. Throughout this process, I’ve also engaged with hundreds of authors and readers in discussing the issues of immersion, and learned about what things bother them when they’re reading too.

Today it’s time to pull the camera back from the individual case notes and try to make sense of the bigger picture. Convincing readers to even open your book is hard enough. Let’s see if we can keep them there once they do.

What I’m going to discuss is obviously colored by my own personal experiences and preferences, but it is also tempered by the input I’ve had from those other readers and authors I mentioned, as well as by my research experience in the cognitive processes of creativity, which I believe play a large role in the psychology of reading. (Why do I think that? The full answer is a bit more involved, but in essence, immersive fiction is about a reader building and examining a new world in her imagination, which I see as a cognitively creative exercise.)

This is the first in a planned three-part series of articles that will explore the issues and impacts of reader immersion. In this first article, I’ll go through the psychology of what’s happening in the head of a typical reader as they approach your book. In particular, I’ll outline what you’re up against as you wrestle for their undivided attention, and why little problems are much more important than you might think. In the second article, I’ll dig further into the importance of tiny things, and show you the science behind why good editing may very well be more important to your writing career than good stories. Then, in the third article, I’ll present a list of the most common problems I’ve encountered over the span of these 200+ books and explain why they intrude the way they do. By the end of the three articles, you should have a complete blueprint for how to establish and maintain immersion, and a damned good list of reasons why you would want to bother.

So let’s dig into the psychology. It’s all about trust.

Let’s be honest. Readers approaching your work for the first time are skeptical. Maybe they heard something good about you from their friend Jim, or maybe they were lured in by a particularly poignant piece of marketing. But however they found it, when they finally sit down with your book in hand, there is a not-so-quiet voice in the back of their head just waiting to be disappointed. After all, Jim’s always been a bit of an idiot, and marketing is just professional lying. They’ve been burned by both sources before. So before the cover has even been opened, the typical reader is already preparing themselves for the possibility that your book will be another such disappointment. They hope it won’t be, but by preparing themselves for that possible outcome, they won’t have to feel completely gullible when it happens. That little voice in the background will be able to say, “I told you so” and as a result, the’ll still be able to feel good about themselves. After all, they predicted that it would suck, right? This is a common ego defense mechanism and most people do it.

So think about that. In a strange way, new readers approach your book already primed for it to suck. They almost want it to. Sure, they are hoping to find a new writer who speaks their language and takes them to strange and exciting new places. But if they can’t have that, then they can at least console themselves with that jolt of capricious glee—the one that fires up when their fears have been confirmed and they get to shout, “Aha! I knew it! Jim is an idiot! This author is a talentless hack!” Then, with great self-satisfaction, they can put your book down, or throw it against the wall, or even toss it onto a bonfire, depending on their level of frustration and indignance. And when that happens, once that moment of judgment has passed and the reader has committed themselves to action, he or she is lost to you, utterly. And they are never coming back.

So obviously, we don’t want this happening with our readers. But what can a writer do? How can we hold onto these skittish folk despite the itchy trigger fingers they hold poised and trembling over their judgment guns? Before I answer that, I need to draw your attention to an important mechanism in the psychology of immersion.

The immersion paradox

In the entire history of reading, no reader has ever been deeply immersed in a book and decided, in that moment, to put it down. When we are engrossed in a book, we are in the book. From eyebrows to toenails. We are not sitting in our chairs, or on our back deck, or in the airport. We are in Narnia, or Middle Earth, or the Outer Rim, or London before the Blitz. In that moment, psychologically speaking, we are in a state psychologists refer to as “flow.” The researcher who first coined it, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes it as a state of focus so complete that nothing external intrudes, not even a sense of the passing of time. (Sounds exactly like the experience of being lost in a good book, doesn’t it?)

So in that moment of our deepest immersion, it is simply not possible for us to form the thought, “I think I’ll stop reading now.” Why? Because at that time we are not even consciously aware that we are reading.

To make that decision to stop, we must first be dragged back into the real world. In effect, abandoning a book can only happen in those moments between immersions. Or, to put it in the promised paradoxical terms: immersion can only be broken when it has already been broken. The disruption can be triggered by many things—noisy children, a car honking, or even such mundane intrusions as a buildup of pressure in your bladder—any of these can yank us out of the realms of wonder, but none of them is a conscious decision. They are all external interruptions, in that they are outside the reader’s conscious attention.

The examples I cited above were all completely outside the author’s control, but there is another class of disruptions that are also external to the reader’s consciousness, but are entirely of the author’s or publisher’s own making. Think of them as speed-bumps—little obstacles that tug the reader’s mind away from wherever it’s focused, urging him to look instead at something in the immediate physical environment. These triggers can be quite trivial. A spelling mistake. A continuity error. A missing comma. It’s absolutely maddening how little it takes. After all, in the grand scheme of writing a novel—building characters, constructing worlds, choreographing those death-defying leaps of imagination and wonder, etc.—how fair is it that a reader can be distracted by such a tiny blot of ink as a stray comma? Why on earth are we so susceptible to such absolute minutiae?

The evolutionary importance of little things

Unfortunately, evolution works against us here, because when it comes to editorial gaffes, our very lives may hang in the balance. No, seriously. Our very lives. See, humans have evolved over a long and cruel history, and as such, we have developed subconscious danger alert systems that scan the environment continually, ready to warn us at the slightest deviation from the norm. Because who knows? If there’s a tiger hiding in that tree up ahead, waiting to pounce on us, the first warning we get might be something as inconsequential as the unexpected creaking of a branch. This alert sense is why you can live in a house for years and ignore all the regular noises of air conditioners, fridges, settling foundations, etc., but then wake up instantly when the baby falls out of bed.

When you’re awake and paying attention, your conscious mind can rapidly assess these little oddities as they occur and dismiss them for the nuisances they are. But when your attention is focused elsewhere, or is offline entirely, these alert systems are designed to jolt you back to the here-and-now for rapid threat assessment. The problem is that our subconscious doesn’t know the difference between a misplaced comma and the indrawn breath of a tiger preparing to leap. All it knows is that there is a pattern of “usual” things going on, and then it notices something that doesn’t quite fit. Sound the alarm!

So when your subconscious trips over a mismatched verb tense, or a missing quotation mark, Emergency Central summons the boss brain to assess the threat. Just a typo? No problem, sorry for the interruption. We now return you to your regularly scheduled erotic fiction novel. But in that brief moment of assessment, your immersion in the story has been disrupted. Set aside on account of possible tiger.

If that was all there was to it, these little editorial glitches might not matter so much. You’d pop out, dismiss the threat to life and limb, and then drop immediately back into the story. But your brain is a complicated thing, and when it notices this brief pause in your focus, this triggers another of its frustrating habits. Before committing resources back to a focused task like reading, it does a quick scan of any other, lower priority alerts that are waiting to be acknowledged. Have you got a roast in the oven? If so, this is when you might decide it’s time to go baste it. Is your wine glass empty? This is when you’ll decide to refill it.

Then, when all of those intermediate issues have been dealt with and you’re just about to slip back into your story, your subconscious processor triggers the most dangerous process of all (to an author). In general, you can think of it as the “Is this task worth my time?” cop, but to an author it might just as well be called the “Is this book any good?” goon.

And that, my friends, is a goon you do not want your readers spending time with. You want them to avoid that guy the way you want your daughters to avoid romantic encounters with one-eyed bikers. They’re nothing but bad news waiting to happen. And just like with daughters and bikers, the more often the reader comes face to face with the quality goon, the more enticing that leering face of his becomes. And every single time a reader’s attention gets jerked out of your book, they have to get past that goon before they can slip back into the story.

Quite simply, that goon (working in collaboration with the tiger interruptus reflex) is the biggest cause of readers abandoning books.

So what can you do about it?

The answer is simple, and you already know it. Keep your readers away from the biker goon. Minimize your mistakes. Make sure that your verbs agree in tense, that your nouns agree in number. Have every comma in its place, and every pronoun anchored to its referent. And if you don’t have the wherewithal to do that for the entire book, then at least do it for the first chapter, when that sense of trust has not yet been established. Give your reader distraction-free time to discover your story and fall in love with it. You can’t control the screaming children or the ringing telephones in their lives, but you can control the distraction of errors on the page. And each one you remove is one more time that Dear Reader isn’t going to lock eyes with that leering one-eyed biker and fall victim to his song. “Is this book any good? Are you sure?”

Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not like you have to make the book perfect. In fact, there is probably no such thing as a completely error-free novel. The welcome news though is that you don’t have to. As a rule of thumb, if you can keep the error rate down to less than 1 per chapter, you’re about on par with the average professionally produced novel, and you’ll be about ten levels above the average I’ve measured in self-published books.

But there is one place where mostly error-free just isn’t good enough. Remember how I mentioned that when a reader first comes to your books, they are almost waiting for you to screw up? By the time they reach Chapter 3, they should be well ensnared by the twin hooks of empathy and curiosity. But that ensnarement takes time, and before those hooks have sunk deep enough to hold the reader’s attention, he or she is much more susceptible to the biker goon’s enticements. So the earliest parts of your book have to be increasingly flawless, and nothing is more sacred than the opening page. Many pundits will say that you need to really hook a reader with the first sentence. Well that’s certainly nice to aim for, but not every story has a hook at the top of page 1. And if that describes you, or if you’re worried that you might need more time for the reader to bite down firmly on the hook, then there’s something bigger you need to worry about.

Do not, under any circumstances make even the slightest mistake until she does. Because in those early pages, when your reader has not yet fallen in love with your world, you do not want her talking to one-eyed biker boy.

“Are you sure this writer is worth your time, girl? Look how he spelled ‘kumquat.’ Now put that thing down and let’s go find somewhere to get cozy with all this coke I’ve got stashed in my empty socket.” 

Take it from a father author who has spent way too much time visualizing where that scenario leads: you do not want to give your daughter reader any reason to even make eye-contact with that guy.

So what’s next?

If I’m lucky, maybe I’ve convinced one or two visitors that little errors really are bad. But I can already hear the rest of you rationalizing. How bad is bad, anyway? Aren’t we talking about losing just two or three readers per year? After all, most people wouldn’t know proper spelling or grammar if it bit them, right? And speaking of those issues, what kind of errors are we talking about? After all, he’s only shown a few examples here. Are there more? How many more? And where is the master list of all things bad and disruptive?

Well, in the next two articles, I hope to answer those questions. In article #2, I’ll look at what practical effect editorial errors have on your expected sales, and then in article #3, I’ll provide an extensive list of the classes of errors I’ve documented that disrupt immersion, complete with examples. And I’ll make one promise to you right now.

Both of those articles are going to surprise you.

(If you want to catch those articles when they drop, let me know, and I’ll send you an alert.)

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.