Trust: The author's killer app

I bought Bill Bryson's latest book, "One Summer," last night. I simply saw it on the shelf at my local bookstore, grabbed it, paid for it and walked out. There was no hesitation. But later on I asked myself, "Why did I do that?" 

The answer is simple: trust. Trust is a critical element of success that most authors—and certainly most aspiring authors—never talk about. You must have the ability to get your readers to trust you if you're ever to have a relationship that turns them into repeat book buyers.  

I've loved Bryson's works ever since I laughed myself stupid reading "Notes From A Small Island" while on a trip to Europe in 1999. Back then, he was primarily writing travel nonfiction, and since I was traveling for months to many of the locales about which he'd written, I devoured three more of his books on my journey. I've been a raving fan ever since, even though he's moved on to more of what I would call "historical-anthropological nonfiction."  

Bill Bryson has my trust. I trust that he will not waste my time or my money. I trust that his books will be worth my investment. A number of other writers—Harlan Ellison, Jim Collins, Glen Duncan, Michael Chabon, Jeff Sharlett—have my trust as well. Most don't. They haven't earned it by delivering material that consistently teaches, entertains, challenges, amuses or wrings my emotions.  

I'd like to see more authors—fiction and nonfiction—talk more about engendering trust in their readers as part of building long-term relationships. We're so awash in entertainment options, from e-books and blogs to YouTube, Netflix and rich media tablet "zines", that it's easy to flit from one to the other and ignore those that we feel might not be worth our limited time. When an author earns the trust of a reader, he or she can cut through the noise and get that reader's loyalty—rise to the top of the priority list. 

In my work with my ghostwriting clients, I often talk about earning reader trust, especially when working on business books. Books aimed at executives need to maintain one primary goal above all others: deliver useful information quickly and concisely. Don't waste a second of the reader's time, because odds are he's a busy C-suite resident who's reading your book on a flight from LAX to JFK and if he can't finish it by the time the wheels hit the tarmac, he ain't gonna finish it. You earn that reader's trust by giving him something of value in a way that says, "I get you, and I respect your time." 

Authors don't have to get inside their readers' heads, but they do have to understand the common qualities that lead to reader trust. There are a few: entertaining story, strong pacing, clear delivery of facts and/or character detail, sharp dialogue (if fiction is your thing), emotional connection, and value. Value, value, value. At the end of the book, the reader should smack his/her lips and say, "Yeah, that was worth my time." Oh, and concision. Get in, tell the story, and get out. Don't pad. Be lean, lithe and spare. Few things kill reader trust as quickly as feeling like they just read 100 pages they didn't need to read. If you want to get lost in asides and trivia, read, Marcel Proust, Laurence Sterne and Herman Melville.  

Now I'm off to read my Bryson book. On a plane. I won't finish it, but I don't care. Peace.