The various types of readers

(This is the sixth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

(Before I start, I’d like to make sure you know this is all speculation and probably wrong.)

My guess is you can break book consumers into broadly five different kind of behaviours. Emphasis here is on consumers so this doesn’t cover corporate, institutional, or similar professional purchases at all.

  1. Heavy reader. People who buy several books a month, read most of them, and still have a mile-high ‘to read’ list. This is relatively small number of people who have an outsized impact on the market and have mostly converted to ebooks.
  2. The literate reader. People who read anything from six to twelve books a year. How big this group is depends on the language and culture. In 2010 in Iceland, for example, an extensive survey pegged this group at over half the adult Icelandic-speaking population (PDF). For most countries that proportion will be lower. This group has partially switched to ebooks but at a much, much lower rate than the heavy readers.
  3. Blockbuster reader. The reader who only reads one book a year and then only a bestseller. These are the people that only buy authors like Dan Brown, J K Rowling, and whoever the dude is that writes those Jack Reacher novels.
  4. Super fans. They like this here one thing and aren’t ashamed of it. E.g. Twilight fanatics who haven’t read anything else in their lives. Harry Potter nutters. They’ve found that one thing they like and feel no need to branch out. More likely to reread and re-buy that one thing than to read something new.
  5. Gift givers. For whatever reason, these types have decided to forgo the universally accepted traditional gift of ‘cash in an envelope’ and foist their cultural selections upon undeserving relatives and acquaintances.

Group 1, heavy readers, is the one that has been driving most of the growth of the ebooks market so far. They’ve probably either completely switched over to ebooks or will have soon.

Group 2, is, in theory, the next major growth area for ebooks and also the one where ebooks are likely to stall. My guess is that most people in group 2 don’t read on the commute (if they did, they’d probably read more than 6–12 books a year) and so aren’t that affected by the bulk of your average book. A lot of the books they read are lent on or borrowed and so don’t cause major storage issues.

These people read a few books a year and share them with their friends. They have a lot to lose from switching to ebooks and little to gain. Ebooks in general are objectively more ugly. They can’t be shared easily with your friends. They require an expensive device that in many cases is shared across the household (i.e. to read on the iPad you have to take it away from your kids who are using it to play games). The specialised ereader devices cost as much as this reader’s entire year’s worth of reading (i.e. as much as six to twelve paperbacks would cost, but without the benefit of lending). Certain segments of Group 2 do benefit immensely from ebooks (those with poor sight who prefer bigger font sizes and those who do read on the commute). They are also the ones who have probably already switched.

Many members of group 3 will only ever buy an ebook by accident. If you do something only once a year you damn sure want a souvenir. I can’t imagine this group switching in big numbers. Nor should they.

Group 4 will probably buy their favourite book as an ebook, and a hardcover, and paperback, and the UK edition, and the Japanese edition off Ebay. They’ll hunt down a copy from the first print run. They’d kill for a copy of the limited first run from that small publisher before the title got picked up by the big publisher. They’ll read and write fan-fiction (so much fan-fiction). They’ll buy the book in Kobo, iBooks, and Kindle and compare the three but they won’t buy any other title because it isn’t what they love.

Group 5 is unlikely to ever give ebooks. Why give an ebook when you can just as easily buy an iTunes/Amazon gift card which you can then pretentiously wrap? Why give a gift card when you can give real cash? Why give cash when you can just confess that you don’t love the recipient enough to give their gift selection some thought, and tell them to just fuck off and not bother you again?

How these five groups divide the industry between themselves is going to vary wildly from market to market, genre to genre, and ebooks aren’t going to shift that composition in any major way.

Moreover, one person can belong to different groups depending on the market. Here’s Hypothetical Karen.


  • Is a huge SFF fan. Reads several titles a month.
  • Is a semi-regular reader of literary fiction. About six titles a year.
  • Only reads other genres when a mega-blockbuster comes along.

If my theory above is true, Hypothetical Karen’s SFF fiction library would be mostly ebooks, her literary fiction novels would mostly be hardbacks, while the blockbusters would all be paperbacks, probably borrowed from a friend, with the exception of the few that she bought cheap as ebooks. Her shelves would be dominated by SFF favourites—some that pre-date ebooks, some that are just too good to just own in digital—and literary fiction.

But most readers won’t belong to more than one group. I think it’s likely that Hypothetical Karen and her ilk have already had an outsized impact on the market as early ebook adopters but are too small a group to influence future developments to any substantial degree. If this is true then ebooks might have to cross a second chasm after crossing the early adopter chasm since the early majority group might well be smaller than expected and the late majority group could well be more recalcitrant than expected.

Of course, like everything else in this post, this is blatant speculation and probably wrong.

My theory is that these are the four basic reader archetypes (plus one buyer archetype) and that the split between these five groups varies dramatically from genre to genre, title to title. Romance novels are probably dominated by group 1 with a smattering of group 2. Since romance readers are a large collection of heavy readers, it’s unsurprising that the genre is an ebook powerhouse.

Genre readers, in general, are likely to be of group 1 or 2 with group 3 coming in occasionally with individual titles. Most mainstream fiction and non-fiction (like celebrity biographies and autobiographies) are dominated by group 2 with only a smattering of groups 1 and 2.

And a title that is almost exclusively bought by gift givers is likely to tank in digital unless the publisher lucks out in some way and it gets adopted by a niche audience of some sort.

Even though some market segments may well have a much lower percentage of ebook buyers than others, sales successes are likely to boost the sales of all of a title’s formats. A blockbuster in an ebook-light genre is going to sell more ebooks than a mid-list title in an ebook-heavy genre. Big sales trump customer mix every time. The problem is that blockbusters are unpredictable and somewhat random while building a solid genre mid-list catalogue is in theory less so. Which suggests that if you have capital, you should focus on blockbusters and lottery stakes, but if you don’t have capital but do have in-house expertise, you should focus on solid genre offerings.

Of course, this is all conjecture and probably wrong. (“This is all make believe!”)

Figuring this out for real

What you really need to do is to figure this out for your readership. Exactly how to do that is tricky.

You need to find out how reading activity is distributed among your readers (i.e. how many are light, moderate, or heavy readers). You need to figure out their past format choices. Don’t ask them their preferences; they don’t know and will make shit up—people lie. Ask them what they’ve actually done in the past, preferably the recent past. You need to find out how much of what they read they buy themselves. You need to know what genres they’ve bought in the past. You need to find out what they want from you, because that might not correlate with their past choices.

If it doesn’t correlate, then take it with a grain of salt. Only trust customer suggestions that they are willing to immediately back with money. You don’t have to take the money, but their willingness to part with it is an important indicator.

How do you find this out? Beats me. Almost every realistic and economically viable way of getting trustworthy information about your readers will be biased towards either heavy readers and super fans or towards digital readers.

If you figure out a way, let me know.

Light evening trauma

One of the guilty pleasures me and my sister have is our enjoyment of crap TV, usually chatting on IM as we do, shaking our heads at the crap we’re watching.

—OMG, I can’t believe X did Y to Z.’

—I know! That is sooo out of character, the writers must have it in for X.

And so on.

Last year Grimm and Warehouse 13 served the purpose nicely. Mostly inoffensive silly fun. And judging by episode three, Agents of Shield might join them this year.

Of course, this only works if the experience of watching these shows is largely disposable.

One series that used to be on this list was Downton Abbey. Less realistic than Warehouse 13. Characters so two-dimensional that they make extras on Buffy seem like they have epic backstories. Soapy story lines. Incredibly reactionary and conservative politics portrayed in such a ham-fisted way that it borders on parody. It’s been one of the greatest ‘laugh at’ TV series in recent years. Perfect.

(Many of you know exactly where I’m going with this.)

Anybody who has been in a serious accident knows the psychological effects of trauma. If you’re lucky you come out of the incident mostly unscathed, if a bit keyed up and disoriented. You think you’re fine.


  • You don’t stop being keyed up, even days later. Your body is still in stress mode.
  • Your sleep is disrupted, you wake up more often, and don’t feel as rested.
  • Because the cause of the stress isn’t immediate, you are likely to misattribute the stress as anger or resentment towards those around you or your circumstances. Our brains aren’t more sophisticated than that.
  • You can sometimes become hyperaware of potential dangers, to the point of being touched off by trivial things. Because you can’t make sense of what’s happening to you, instead of realising you’re overreacting, you blame somebody close to you, taking offence to something trivial.
  • These negative effects can last for a very long time, often until the trauma sufferer is taught how to process them.

A traumatic experience has long-term and far-reaching effects. The psychological aftereffects of major traumatic incidents can ruin lives just as much as the trauma itself.

We are complex empathic animals whose mental processes can be ‘hijacked’ by exterior forces. Otherwise storytelling would be pointless and ineffective. For this reason portraying major trauma in a story can have significant effects on the audience.

There is a difference between trauma and violence in storytelling. It’s a matter of perspective, narrative distance, psychological detail and duration. If the character is one which the reader has ‘embodied’, i.e. feel a strong empathy for, then any act of violence against that character risks being traumatic.

This trauma is entirely psychological but the audience can still feel the full psychological consequences of trauma.

Yes, every trauma effect I listed above can be induced by simply reading something in a story or watching a scene in a movie. Sleepless nights. Constant stress. Irrational anger. Broken friendships.

Having experienced similar trauma in the past increases the likelihood of being affected. Ask, for example, anybody who lived through 11 September 2001 in New York what it felt like to watch the disaster porn sections of Avengers or Man of Steel. There’s a strong chance it ruined the movie for them.

But you don’t have to have experienced the act in real life if the depiction is severe enough and if you relate strongly to the character.

I’ve never been raped but watching the Swedish movie adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor) was a nauseating experience for me. I’d gone in forewarned about the major rape scene and so planned on skipping it (which I did) but I wasn’t warned about an earlier scene in the movie.

The aftereffects I suffered from cover most of the list I outlined above. Sleepless nights. Misdirected anger. Physical discomfort due to stress. It took me a couple of weeks to fully process and recover the experience.

(Yeah, I related a lot to Lisbeth in the early parts of the movie. I didn’t have her fashion sense but many of her characteristics reminded me of myself when I was a teenager.)

Strangely enough the novel was easier to deal with. I found it easier to flip past the rape scenes there as I churned on in disbelief about how incredibly badly written the book is. I don’t know if it was the English translation, but the book I read was rubbish and Lisbeth becomes increasingly caricatured as the story goes on. And, of course, the more cartoonish the book became, the less effective the depictions became. (Thankfully.)

Why did I read the book, even with skipping through major sections? To be able to look people in the face and tell them that I not only thought it was rubbish but that it is an actively and brutally misogynistic novel. I’m annoying like that.

The last time I was this badly affected by a movie was when I watched American History X. Rape scenes always do this to me. They are a surefire way to ruin the week, not just a single evening. The more closely I relate to the victim and the more graphic the depiction, the more severe the effect.

Unfortunately for me, rape is for many writers the go-to mechanism for female character development or as a way to spice up the drama in the story. Even in comics (DC, I’m looking at you: “They did what to Sue Dibny?”). So, it’s not just offensive but also a cliche. This means I need to be careful about what I read or watch, often requiring research on my part so that I can avoid having my light evening entertainment ruin my day.

But it’s not just light entertainment.

One recent example is the apparently excellent Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. Highly recommended by a lot of people, its core concept hinges on a rape. An act that is apparently depicted. Of course, I’m told Nnedi Okorafor handles it all with deft and flair and substantial skill—it’s not the work of a hack looking to spice things up. But a little bit of research convinced me that reading this book would be an incredibly traumatic experience and so I dropped it from my to-buy list. No book is good enough for me to subject myself to that willingly.

Who Fears Death sets itself apart by having a strong conceptual reason for depicting rape. Most of the time it is gratuitous, a sign that the writer doesn’t consider women to be fully human and is only capable of thinking about them as sex objects.

For somebody with that perspective, the only possible tragic backstory or life-changing event for a sex object is sexual trauma. Their only valid experiences are sexual. And their punishment for not acting like sexual objects is always rape or some other form of sexual assault. In these stories women never have female friends or relatives, only romantic rivals and maybe a mother (you have to have her to do the mother-in-law jokes, obviously). Their power and importance is always either sexual or linked to their fertility. No woman in these stories gains influence and relevance through skill, practice, wit, or experience.

The flip side of this are writers who portray women as deified cyphers put on a pedestal. Portraying them as mysteries is just as dehumanising. (Oh, and if women are indecipherable mysteries to you it’s probably because you are a narcissist who doesn’t actually care what the women around you think. Women are no more mysteries than men or children. People are always partially indecipherable because we aren’t a telepathic species. Men just think they know what their male friends are thinking. Most of the time they’re wrong even about that.)

The depiction of women in most fiction (and so-called ‘literature’ is often just as guilty of this as genre fiction) is horrifyingly bad. Which is bad enough, if it wasn’t also often actively traumatising.

The pivotal scene in last week’s episode of Downton Abbey (episode three of series four) was the rape of a major character. Fortunately, me and my sister don’t watch the ‘silly series’ we watch as soon as they’re out and so encountered spoilers before the fact. We won’t be watching the episode, nor are we likely to watch the series ever again.

Watching or reading things as they premiere—being early to a story—is increasingly risky as more and more writers buy into the idea that rape is a narrative inevitability for female characters in stories that are pretending to be ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’.

Which would be fine—you can always just wait a bit and read the first online reviews which usually warn you about these things—if that same narrative inevitability of rape wasn’t fast becoming an article of faith among the writers and producers of ongoing series (comics, TV, or novels). As the series plod on and the creators look for ways to spice things up, the probability of a writer, editor, or producer proposing a rape scene approaches one. Then, out of the blue, a rape scene injects itself into a series you otherwise considered a known quantity.

And what was a silly, stupid, and trivial piece of entertainment suddenly stops being silly, stupid, or trivial and instead become light evening trauma.