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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

When readers become champions

In 30 years of writing fiction for young readers, I’ve had one book take off; and that was an interesting experience. So much of what happened was a sort of underground process: stuff would pop, up here and there, from a mostly invisible percolation. “I’m telling everyone about your book!” “Hey, someone was recommending your novel at a teachers' conference in Arizona.”

Stuff like that. And what I noticed most about that was the vital, catalytic role that champions played.

By champions I mean people who read my book and then took it on themselves, almost as a cause, to tell others about it, get it into local libraries, persuade their school to work with it. That ability to personally motivate readers, more than reviews or sales figures or anything else, strikes me as the most important indicator of whether a book is really going to go somewhere. Are people popping up to advocate for it? Will readers, on their own, become its champions?

Every author notices — and we complain about this — that publishing companies tend to be quick to abandon titles that don't generate immediate buzz. Publishers know most books will lose money, and they tend to put their marketing investment behind those that win early praise from established review journals and opinion-shapers, and to drop those that don't. This can be infuriating, because so many good books don't get the chance to find and build their audience; but the ones that can find champions among general readers can come through and take hold anyway.

My book that caught on, a YA novel called The Revealers, was largely shrugged off by the critical establishment, but from the start it had, and still has, this mystifying ability to engage champions. This week, for example, 10 years after the novel’s first publication, a play version of The Revealers is on a tour of 20 schools in the historically black townships of Soweto and Mamelodi, South Africa. In this case, the South African National Children’s Theatre became the champion: all on its own, certainly with no help from me or the publisher, the NTC found the novel, adapted it for the stage, and raised the funds for this production, which is reaching mostly lower-income students. When something like that happens, you feel like there's an alchemy at work.

Why do some books, CDs, or films become part of the culture, while others that have fine, admirable qualities just fade into oblivion? I think it's this friend-making alchemy, which is not nearly the same as a formula that generates sales. This is what makes a new piece of work come out of nowhere. And if this specially motivating energy is not there, no amount of marketing or promotion can compensate.

I have a new YA novel, The Prince of Denial, which deals with the impacts on teenagers of parental addiction — and this past week I was able, thanks to a champion of this new book, to present it at the annual conference of New Jersey student assistance counselors, the professionals who work on substance-abuse issues in middle and high schools there. I had the chance to meet and connect with several people who are highly influential in the field of helping adolescents cope with addiction. I gave each of these opinion-shapers a copy of the book. Will they too become its champions?

I can’t know. There’s no way to know: only time tells whether this magic happens, and if it spreads. But when it does, what it speaks to is the power of individual readers. It’s they who become the champions. It’s they, not the supposed experts, who make the real difference. 

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