According to Wikipedia, a gateway drug is “using one "soft" non- or only slightly addictive drug will lead to the use of other "harder" drugs and the associated criminal and social consequences – the first drug used is thus described as a gateway to further abuse.” The term, however, can be applied to anything that introduces you to a taste, sensation, or idea which you will gradually follow up to higher levels. Pinot Noir could be the gateway drug to darker, deeper reds. Hershey’s could lead you into Godiva and then to Moonstruck.
With books, it is often the big-name, popular types that act as the gateway to get people to read. Dan Brown—for all the flack he gets—got a lot of people voluntarily reading again, and not just his books. People who picked up the Da Vinci Code moved on to read Angels and Demons, sure, but they also might have branched out to Holy Blood, Holy Grail or other fictional conspiracies like The Eight by Katherine Neville. These same people might now be reading Atlantis by David Gibbons, Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George, or A History of God by Karen Armstrong. Although it was only a work of fiction, the Da Vinci Code opened up many avenues of reading to those who may have been hesitant before.
Author as gateway drug can also work in a different fashion when a well established author jumps genres or from fiction to nonfiction. The loyal audience follows (sometimes knowingly, sometimes not) and a certain number of those might like what the find. Suddenly they might be open to trying other things in this genre or area of reading that they wouldn’t have thought of before. I have to wonder how many of John Grisham’s readers who like An Innocent Man will turn to other true crime writers now that they’ve been introduced. Will Ann Rule, Gregg Olsen and others benefit from their need to read other real life tales?
Perhaps too often, though, we turn to these big name authors to act as the gateway drugs to our friends when a more subtle approach would do. Haven’t we all dealt with the friend that we know would just love books X, Y, and Z if they would give them a try, but they won’t because name recognition tells them that they belong in genre S?
“Ewww, I’d never read fiction/mystery/romance/scifi/fantasy/true crime/fill in the blank,” they cry. “Don’t you have something good?”
Now you can either explain that X, Y, and Z are good until you run out of air, or you take a step back and regroup. Days later you dig out a nondescript paperback with a kickass story line; something subtle enough that it won’t tip your friend off until they’re fully drawn into the characters and situations. You then gush to said friend, leaving out any tip-off words or phrases and emphasize how crazy, wonderful this book is.
It must be crazy, wonderful in some way, otherwise it won’t work.
And once they are truly sucked in and have devoured the author’s whole backlist, you move them up, feed them the books that have a little “more” of whatever defines that genre until you’ve got them hooked on a three book a day habit and they’ve destroyed their library card with over-use.
At which point, if you were me, you would sit back and cackle, but I’m evil, so you might just get a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Or you might not have experienced this sensation at all.
What books, famous, infamous or other have used to hook others on your genre drug of choice? Do the famous types or those still building their fan base work better? What was your gateway drug?
*Hey, there’s a reason I call booksellers knowledge dealers.