What Keeps Readers Away

I’ve been wondering recently just what it is that keeps some readers from wanting to look at No Going Back, prompted in part by several comments on a blog from people who said they’d seen descriptions of the book and decided they didn’t want to read it. One of them will now be reading the book and writing a review. I’ll be interested to find out what she thinks of it, and whether her fears/presuppositions turn out to be justified. (This was originally written several weeks ago. See below for the rest of the story.)

In the meantime… What is it about my book that pushes some people — natural members of the audience I’m trying to reach with the book (adults, readers, believing members of the LDS faith) — away from a choice to read?

Part of it may be negative publicity. There’s been some discussion (both published and behind-the-scenes) of No Going Back in less than glowing terms. However, most reactions I’ve seen have been positive overall. Besides that, in some cases at least, people seem to be reacting to a basic description of the book, not to anything they’ve heard about it.

I’m reminded of a comment from my brother-in-law, who read No Going Back and loved it (particularly the friendship between the two boys), but commented that if he’d seen it on the shelf in a bookstore, he would have put it back without looking further. This wasn’t a reaction to the specific book cover, which hadn’t been designed yet, but rather to the idea of the book — the fact that it tells the story of a gay Mormon teenager.

That’s a pretty fundamental negative. There’s not a lot I could do to change that, aside from trying to market the book as something it isn’t — which I don’t think would work that well anyway. I mean, the first sentence reads, “Paul had no intention of telling Chad that he was gay.” Pretty big clue, there. Not to mention the fact that tricking readers into starting the story probably isn’t the best way to earn their goodwill.

Part of it, I think, is that Mormons are just plain tired of this issue. Ever since the Proposition 8 controversy a year ago, we’ve been beaten up in the national media and encountered a lot of negativity related to the Church’s stance on homosexuality and gay marriage. We see it in the news; why deal with it in our fiction as well?

And then there’s the matter of trust, or the lack thereof. Picking up a book like this — particularly one that’s not published by Deseret Book — there’s no real way of telling what stance it takes on the issue: whether it’s fundamentally supportive of the Church’s position, or says that the Church needs to change its views, or whatever. The publisher and I have tried to counter this in publicity that emphasizes how the main character ultimately chooses to live faithfully to the Church’s teachings on this issue, but there are limits to how well that works.

I could go on speculating about reasons some people choose not to read No Going Back. While possibly useful from a marketing standpoint, however, it mostly doesn’t change what I’ve always thought, which is that the book’s best chance of getting a readership is through word of mouth — and reviews, which are a kind of amplified word of mouth.

Some related stories:

- Several weeks ago, I was sitting in the choir seats for stake conference after our rehearsal but before the session was supposed to start, and decided to show a copy of the book to an acquaintance from another ward who was sitting next to me. He borrowed it, telling me his daughter left the Church a couple of years ago over this issue. About a week ago, I got a very positive email offering to send a check and saying he planned to pass it on to other people. I later found out that he’d mentioned the book (positively) to our new stake president.

- Another friend read the book, found it very powerful, and decided to order a couple of copies for other members of her family, including one she thinks may be dealing with this issue.

- Another friend hasn’t read the book yet, though she’d heard about it from another source. It wasn’t until she was talking with me on the phone that it occurred to her she might want to actually get a copy and read it. Direct contact does work, in some cases at least…

And then there’s the case I mentioned at the beginning of this column. Despite her initial apprehensions, LDS author Karen Jones Gowen ultimately gave a very positive review of No Going Back on her blog, Coming Down the Mountain — followed up by a three-part interview about my writing process, the novel itself, and my publisher Zarahemla Books. Now if only I could duplicate that experience a few hundred times…

I’ve been wondering recently just what it is that keeps some readers from wanting to look at No Going Back, prompted in part by several comments on a blog[JDL1] from people who said they’d seen descriptions of the book and decided they didn’t want to read it.One of them will now be reading the book and writing a review. I’ll be interested to find out what she thinks of it, and whether her fears/presuppositions turn out to be justified. (This was originally written several weeks ago. See below for the rest of the story.)

In the meantime…. What is it about my book that pushes some people — natural members of the audience I’m trying to reach with the book (adults, readers, believing members of the LDS faith) — away from a choice to read?

Part of it may be negative publicity. There’s been some discussion (both published and behind-the-scenes) of No Going Back in less than glowing terms. However, most reactions I’ve seen have been positive overall. Besides that, in some cases at least, people seem to be reacting to a basic description of the book, not to anything they’ve heard about it.

I’m reminded of a comment from my brother-in-law, who read No Going Back and loved it (particularly the friendship between the two boys), but commented that if he’d seen it on the shelf in a bookstore, he would have put it back without looking further. This wasn’t a reaction to the specific book cover, which hadn’t been designed yet, but rather to the idea of the book — the fact that it tells the story of a gay Mormon teenager.

That’s a pretty fundamental negative. There’s not a lot I could do to change that, aside from trying to market the book as something it isn’t — which I don’t think would work that well anyway. I mean, the first sentence reads, “Paul had no intention of telling Chad that he was gay.” Pretty big clue, there. Not to mention the fact that tricking readers into starting the story probably isn’t the best way to earn their goodwill.

Part of it, I think, is that Mormons are just plain tired of this issue. Ever since the Proposition 8 controversy a year ago, we’ve been beaten up in the national media and encountered a lot of negativity related to the Church’s stance on homosexuality and gay marriage. We see it in the news; why deal with it in our fiction as well?

And then there’s the matter of trust, or the lack thereof. Picking up a book like this — particularly one that’s not published by Deseret Book — there’s no real way of telling what stance it takes on the issue: whether it’s fundamentally supportive of the Church’s position, or says that the Church needs to change its views, or whatever. The publisher and I have tried to counter this in publicity that emphasizes how the main character ultimately chooses to live faithfully to the Church’s teachings on this issue, but there are limits to how well that works.

I could go on speculating about reasons some people choose not to read No Going Back. While possibly useful from a marketing standpoint, however, it mostly doesn’t change what I’ve always though, which is that the book’s best chance of getting a readership is through word of mouth — and reviews, which are a kind of amplified word of mouth.

A few brief stories illustrate this:

- Several weeks ago, I was sitting in the choir seats for stake conference after our rehearsal but before the session was supposed to start, and decided to show a copy of the book to an acquaintance from another ward who was sitting next to me. He borrowed a copy, telling me that his daughter had left the Church a couple of years ago over this issue. About a week ago, I got a very positive email offering to send a check and saying he planned to pass it on to other people. I later found out that he’d mentioned the book (positively) to our new stake president.

- Another friend read the book, found it very powerful, and decided to order a couple of copies for other members of her family, including one she thinks may be dealing with this issue.

- Another friend hasn’t read the book yet, though she had heard about it from another source. It wasn’t until she was talking with me on the phone, though, that it occurred to her that she might want to actually get a copy and read it. Direct contact does work, in some cases at least…

And then there’s the case I mentioned at the beginning of this column. Despite her initial apprehensions, LDS author Karen Jones Gowen ultimately gave a very positive review of No Going Back on her blog, Coming Down the Mountain — followed up by a three-part interview about my writing process, the novel itself, and my publisher Zarahemla Books. Now if only I could duplicate that experience a few hundred times…


[JDL1]http://karenjonesgowen.blogspot.com/2009/11/okay-now-im-really-nervous.html

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One Response to “What Keeps Readers Away”

  1. Karen Gowen says:

    There isn’t much more I could add to your analysis of why Mormons are staying away from your novel (although I think this is an initial reaction; as word gets out, more and more LDS will want to read it. In droves.) Like me, most are unsure of what the stance is…the slant. Yes, we are tired of the issue being everywhere, and usually with a political stance we can’t agree with. But what’s so great about No Going Back is that it presents the gospel viewpoint in a realistic, honest, and entertaining format (by entertaining I don’t mean funny, I mean in the true story-telling sense of entertainment). That’s why I loved it and wanted to do what small part I could to get the word out. I wish you every success.

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