The Science Reader: Help Me Draw A Profile

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[As of 3/17 2 pm, the poll is closed. Thanks to everyone who responded. Results to be posted soon!]

[Update, 2 pm: Thanks for the big turn-out for my survey below. If you have trouble accessing it to enter your information, try again later today. I am hammering out some kinks right now. And I’ll crunch the numbers once the responses start to taper off.]

We writers, in case you didn’t know, are scratching our heads about what exactly to do next. It’s hard to figure out, because there are so many things we could do, at least in theory. If we wanted, we could write a novel in tweets, record an epic poem as a podcast, or transform a history of inorganic chemistry into an Ipad app. In fact, I’m sure that someone, somewhere, is doing all these things and more–but not all at once. Each writer has to figure out how best to use the twenty-four hours in a day.

It makes sense for writers to choose work that makes the most of their particular talents. And for writers who depend on writing to pay the mortgage, it also makes sense to write things that have a chance of being read, and perhaps (dare to dream) earn their creators some money. Ten years ago, the course for a writer wasn’t easy, but at least it had some clearly marked sign posts. You could try to break into newspapers or magazines with pitch letters and clip files. You could try to get a contract with a publishing house and write a book. Today, of course, people read in other ways as well. They read blogs, Facebook posts, Kindle editions, discussion threads, and on and on. The sign posts have been moved, turned upside down, or taken down altogether.

The writer is left to wander across a confusing landscape. This morning, for example, the Pew Research Center released a report on the foraging habits of the online reader that Gawker summed up fairly well: “Paywalls are anathema. Nobody clicks on ads. The value of news is zero dollars and zero cents.” But wait! Yesterday Business Week reported that ebooks are selling like hotcakes on the Iphone.

One thing is clear: it’s no time to sit in the monastery and continue to illuminate vellum scrolls. It’s time to try new things. Recently, for example, the novelist John Edgar Wideman skipped past traditional publishers to self-publish an e-book over at Lulu. It’s too early to know the outcome of that experiment; for actual results, one can follow the blogging of novelist JA Konrath, who is chronicling his experiences over the past year  publishing short stories and rejected novels as ebooks. It’s working out well for him, and promises to get even better.

I suspect that the fate of different writers will depend, in part, on the nature of their readers. As a result, I think the Pew’s report has a fatal flaw to it: it’s based on the old-fashioned notion that readers form a homogenous swarm. If you call a few thousand phone numbers at random, you will get a meaningful picture of people’s reading habits. But if there’s anything we know for sure, it’s that the country does not sit down in front of the TV and watch Walter Cronkite en masse. The motivations of the reader matter. Some people love to read about sports online, to the point that they will pay to roll around in baseball stats like a happy pig in mud (and no disrespect intended towards baseball fans or pigs). A lot of people will not spend that money. They’ll glance at scores on Yahoo News and move on.

So this is where you, dear reader, come in. Clearly, the simple fact that you are reading this blog means that you are…well, let’s call you exceptional, shall we? You may not be a baseball nut, but you are interested in science. Right now, you’re reading a post on a blog hosted by a fine magazine and financially supported by advertising and paid subscriptions. I want to get to know the science reader in 2010 better–how you get your science fix, where you expect to be getting it, what you hope for the future, and how writers may or may not be able to supply that fix and make a living at the same time.

While the science reader may be a bit mysterious to me, I know that readers of the Loom are willing to share their opinions. Last year a bunch of readers of the Loom took part in a survey about the cover of my latest book that ended up improving it greatly. So I’m going to impose on you again to participate in a slightly scientific, extremely idiosyncratic poll. While I have built this survey for selfish reasons, I hope they’ll be of interest to other people–both other writers and readers. Once the voting tapers off, I will write a post reviewing the results and giving you my homespun analysis. If you click the link below, a window will open up with my questions.

While Polldaddy does a great job of programming surveys and such, there well may be a few bugs. Please let me know if you find any. And don’t forget–use the comment thread if the survey isn’t describing your reading habits well. Many thanks. (And thanks in particular to Scott Sigler for some brainstorming.)


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