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[TIPS OF THE TRADE] How Many Readers is Enough?
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
October 2017
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
October 2017

How many readers is enough? 

Five panelists at the AWP conference in Seattle (February 26-March 1, 2014) posed this question and tried to answer it. 

“How many readers will it take to feel I haven’t wasted my time?” asked moderator Valerie Vogrin, who’s at work on her second novel. 

After considering the question from various angles and with various degrees of seriousness, she (perhaps tongue in cheek) came up with a figure: 150.

More numbers:  

  • Virginia Woolf thought 1,500 readers was a lot.       
  • For a university press, two or three thousand sales may be a bestseller. 
  • To make Amazon’s Top 100 list, you must sell 1,000 books within a few days. 
  • To make The Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list, 3,000 copies in a week.
  • New York Times: 9,000 in a week. 

But are those numbers “enough”? For that matter, is any number “enough”?

Panelist Kellie Wells thought not. “It’s unlikely,” she said, “that any writer has ever felt properly published, read, and remunerated.”

Maybe, for most of us, satisfaction doesn’t stem from numbers after all. But if not, what does keep us going? How do we measure success?

For some of us, what matters is the quality of our readers. Panelist Chad Simpson, for example, aspires to “a small but devoted cult following.”

For Kellie, too, it’s not how many readers but the depth of connection that counts. “Who is my ideal reader?” she asked. “It’s the reader who finds my writing compelling.” 

The readers who sustain us are those who let us know they understand what we’ve written, who show us that they’re moved by our work, who take our ideas to new places of their own. Even if these readers are small in number, they’re large in impact. 

And for some of us, our connections with readers can blossom to the point where we feel part of a community that suffuses our writing lives with satisfaction and meaning. 

Panelist Allison Hedge Coke told us she’s sustained by using her work as a vehicle for social change – sometimes in a very specific way. When she testified at a public hearing about the preservation of a Native American historical site, rather than preparing a statement she recited her poetry. She used her words to further a cause that was holy to her, and that made her work larger – bestseller list or no.    

For some, of course, it’s the dream of becoming rich and famous that keeps us happily chained to the desk, striving to do our very best. Nothing wrong with that, if it works. “I just hope,” Chad said wryly, “that once you’re finished, you’ll be happy to have done the work.” (“And,” he added, “I wish you a small but devoted cult following.”)

Many of us are sustained simply by knowing we’re part of the chain of writers who came before. Making a contribution to our culture’s literary tradition, communicating what it is to live on this planet, is a sufficient joy.  

And of course, there are those among us who write because we have to. Can’t help it, can’t live without it. For these writers, it’s not about the readers; it’s about meeting our own personal standard.

In this vein, Chad mentioned a great-grandmother he met in a writing class who didn’t care a whit how many people read her work. All she wanted was to leave this world having written the best novel she possibly could. For her, that was enough.

At AWP in Seattle, as I made my way through the throngs of 13,000 (yes, you read that right) conferees, I felt profoundly grateful. What a privilege it is to live in a culture that nurtures the literary dreams of so many, and in so many different ways.   

What keeps you going?

* * *

Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), which has won four national awards, including the 2013 Grub Street National Book Prize, and the 2013 Towson Prize for Literature awarded annually to a resident of Maryland.  Her first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly.


* This post was originally published in April 2014.

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  • Ellen Cassedy

    Wonderful comment, Mark.  I think you're not alone in having multiple motivations as a writer: changing the world, changing your readers, changing yourself.  

  • Mark Hughes

    I get the motive of social change behind the writing urge; it's a personal driver for me. As such, I look to the works of Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Upton Sinclair, and Louise Erdrich for inspiration. But that's only part of the why for me.

    I see perhaps three sources of pleasure/reward stemming from the work of putting a story together:

    1. The sheer joy of creation, that derived by weaving plot and character, by solving problems.
    2. The sense of having used my time in a constructive manner.
    3. The hope that it will fire reader's emotions and change the way they view the world.

    The work of putting a story together invariably changes me too, as it causes me to look more deeply into an issue or situation than I otherwise would. So, I'm perhaps affected as much or more than anyone who reads what I've put together.

    Ambition is a useful motivator, as are the desires for fame and fortune. Many, many profound works must have had those cravings as a large proportion of the drive that produced them. But many others likely didn't have that urge behind them, nor did their authors expect them to be read in any substantial numbers. Consider The Little Prince, for example (I'm guessing here).

    Thanks, Ellen, for bringing up the topic. I hope your work is read by multiples of the number you'd like to see.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    When you show your work in progress, do you let your readers know what kind of feedback you're looking for?  Highly recommended.  Michelle has a concise formula. 

  • Michelle

    Someone who reads it and gives me constructive feedback: what they liked and what areas could be improved on, preferably with recommendations for further reading.

    (I liked x and y. Your writing could be more concise. Try Raymond Carver.)

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Wow!  ONE reader is enough for Michelle.  But who is that reader???

  • Michelle

    One reader is enough for me.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    "When someone tells me they loved the writing" -- Laura, I agree that that is among the sweetest and most sustaining aspects of being a writer. 

  • Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I was struck by many, but the one that resonated with me the most was Allison Hedge Coke's desire to make social change -- that, and the hope that someone tells me they loved the writing, of course! 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Claire, I agree.  The interactions I have with readers, and with other writers, is hugely sustaining.  We can communicate as writers not only when people are actually engaged in reading our books, but in many other ways. 

  • Claire McAlpine

    What keeps me going is the exchange between readers and readers, between readers and writers and between writers and writers. We have more opportunity to connect, share, give feedback and seek it than we ever have. I have realised how much more motivated I am by the interaction with people, it gives it greater purpose, makes it less of a selfish pursuit because there is so much we can give as well.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Lynn, it sounds as if you're relishing building a community with your work.  More power to you.

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    I want the readers who need my book to get it. Those are the ones that really count, but that's the nature of a book titled You Want  Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers, Just thought I'd put the link there in case anyone wants to check it out.

    I want writers seeking information, knowledge, and more to read Writer Advice, In other words I want the right readers to find and appreciate the right books. And kudos to those who want to stretch out of their comfort zone. 

    Good to see you here, Ellen.