Jilly: Dunbar’s Number for Writers and Readers

How many authors are on your mental auto-buy checklist? How many are on your keeper shelf? And how long have those authors been at the heart of your reading universe?

I’ve been noodling around with these questions for some time—a couple of years, probably—ever since I first read about Dunbar’s Number. If you’re not familiar with the concept, Wikipedia describes it as a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. Or, to put it crudely: there’s a limit to the number of people your brain has space for.

Dunbar’s Number has been around since the 1990s, but I came across it when I started writing fiction with an eye to publication and realized that meant I’d have to get to grips with social media. If you’d like to know more about the idea in the context of online relationships, click here for a Youtube link to anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s 15-minute Tedx talk: Can The Internet Buy You More Friends?

If you’d prefer the short version, it goes something like this: we humans maintain social relationships at various levels of intimacy, and the number of people we have the capacity to manage at each level is more or less predictable.

  • We have a very inner core of intimate friends and relations, people we would turn to in times of deep emotional stress. Typically there are about five of them.
  • We have a group of best friends, people we know well, confide in, trust, spend time with. That group would likely be about fifteen people, including the inner five.
  • The next closest layer, good friends, would be about fifty people (including the first fifteen);

  • Friends would number about a hundred and fifty in total;
  • Acquaintances would extend to about five hundred.
  • The total number of people we’re able to put a name to would likely be about fifteen hundred.

I’m not equipped to express an opinion on the science, but from my own personal experience with my friends and family, living in a small town and a capital city, working in businesses from a multinational public corporation to a group of small, privately-owned entrepreneurial start-ups, intuitively these numbers make sense.

Which got me wondering whether the same dynamics would come into play with an author’s readership. Even though it’s not the same kind of reciprocal engagement as a friendship, an author’s readers make a significant investment in terms of time and emotion, and Mr Dunbar says those are the key elements that sustain the closest relationships.

I did a quick and totally non-scientific survey of the fiction on my kindle:

Right now there are half a dozen authors whose writing is top of mind for me and whose next book I’d definitely buy and read: Ilona Andrews, Loretta Chase, Anne Bishop, Megan Whalen Turner, Grace Draven, and Lois McMaster Bujold for her Penric novellas.

At the next level there are authors who are favorites but who’ve passed away and I already own all their books, or who haven’t published anything new in a while, or whose more recent works aren’t so much to my tastes: Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Dunnett, Jenny Crusie, SEP, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Elizabeth Lowell. That’s fourteen ‘best friend’ authors in total.

I didn’t try to tally up the equivalent at the ‘friends’ level, but I can say that the total number of titles on my Kindle, including ones I didn’t hate enough to delete but only vaguely remember, is five hundred and twenty two.

I’m wondering about all this because, as I may have mentioned a time or two, my goal for this year is to PUBLISH! . I know I’ll do all in my power to write the best book I can, but after that comes the (possibly even harder) challenge to find, grow, and keep a readership.

There are a lot of good books out there, so the idea that a reader might only have the emotional capacity for a dozen or so author besties at a time is scary, but it makes a certain kind of sense.

Mr Dunbar also says that holding a place in somebody’s inner circle requires a considerable, continuing investment in both emotion and time. If we lose contact with somebody, they slip down our circles. If we connect more, they climb. In book terms, I’m thinking that means that once an author gets on a reader’s radar (an entirely different problem), those who publish more frequently, even if their books are shorter, are more likely to stay in the must-read, front-of-mind, auto-buy group.

As I said, I’m noodling around, and I’d appreciate a little more anecdotal evidence to fuel my noodlings. What do you think?

How big is your author universe, and how many writers make it to your innermost circle? What do they have to do to stay there?

3 thoughts on “Jilly: Dunbar’s Number for Writers and Readers

  1. You know, I would have thought my numbers would be lower than average because I’m less social than average (introverted writers, raise your hands :-)), but those seem pretty on target for me. In my very inner circle are my husband, daughter, and then four writer friends. I would add my sisters and nieces to that list in the case of turning to an inner support group if there were a family crisis. My next layer is also chock full of writers, although that’s really just shifted in that direction in the last five years or so.

    From an anthropological perspective, the numbers you cited make sense given how, until a few thousand years ago (a drop in the bucket for human evolution), our ancestors organized themselves and their social groups for optimal survival. There are obviously people who ‘link’ to larger groups, as in the case of big-name writers or other types of famous people, but that also tends to take such a toll on those at the center of it. And, as you noted, interactions and emotional investments take energy, which is easily sapped for introverts like several of us here on the blog.

    All of which is to say, it’s a fascinating thing to ponder and I think you’re onto something, but I don’t know how to transfer it to the bigger picture of building, engaging, and keeping a reader community. If you get any insights, please do share!

  2. My circle is smaller than either yours or Nancy’s, and I can see how that ties into Dunbar’s numbers, because I have so many fewer auto-buys, too. I have three authors on my keeper shelf–Jenny Crusie, Jane Austen, and Charlaine Harris, the Sookie Stackhouse series (and I don’t know how long Sookie will stay on my keeper shelf). Sookie and Jane Austen are done, and Jenny doesn’t publish very fast these days, so my purchases are really focused on a confluence of events—I either need something to read and I go for the first book I haven’t read by an author I usually enjoy, or I’m tempted by a review and I’m sold on trying a new one. But I am so often disappointed! I just bought a book by a well-known author whose work I usually enjoy. The book was reviewed as having “sparkling banter,” and I quit 1/3 of the way through, still looking for banter of any kind, sparkling or not.

    In terms of social media, though—I think to build an audience, you have to put a fair amount of work into it, and do that regularly. That’s probably less true for established authors, but to break through these days, more effort is required. What that effort should be, though—newsletters? Facebook? Instagram? Pinterest? Something else? I think what’s best is what you find works for you, both in terms of what you like and how people respond to it.

  3. Pingback: Demoted – Claudia Blood

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