Who DO You Write For?
Dorothy on Sunday talked about your audience, making sure you know who it is, and keeping yourself palatable to them.
This is important, to more than publicity. How it’s important, is something I’d like to explore.
We’ll start by how I came to think about it. You see, I’ve been reading a lot of historical mysteries. I’m feeling better – thank you – but through the huge, massive auto-immune attack that quite literally almost killed me, I wanted to read “comfort food” and that is mostly historical mysteries. Blame it on dad who had them lying about the house and therefore available for me to read from elementary on.
Anyway, as most of you know, a reading habit gets expensive. Most of my fun books, including a lot of the TBR list are boxed. Since we’re renting a house while we get the other one up and sold, I boxed everything I didn’t need for the next year. (This house is not smaller, but it’s differently arranged, and also, frankly, I was hoping the house would be for sale by now – yeah I know – and I’m still hoping we buy new place/move by end of the year, and I didn’t want to box books twice. There are a lot of them.)
So, to mitigate the hit to my pocket book, already faltering, not only under rent-and-mortgage but under famine-from-two-years-without-books and more importantly from money for improvement-fixes to house we’ll be selling, (and yeah, things are a week bit tight. So tight that if we hadn’t decided to renew our vows at Liberty con, we’d be skipping this year.) I am signing up for and using KULL as much as possible.
This is important because most of the books for borrow under the program are indie. Not all, mind. And some of the indie ones are reprints of originally trad books. BUT a lot of them are indie.
I don’t – duh – have a prejudice against indie, but in historical it is a bit of a potluck. Sometimes you find deeply, deeply knowledgeable people who, like me, for whatever reason, have an obsession with an historical time period or two. The problem is these people also very often have clue zero how to write fiction set in it. It is clear someone collared them and said “Hey, uncle Bob, you know, if you wrote some fiction set in that time you could deduct all your books.” Yeah.
The more common flavor are people who really don’t know much about the time period, but have read one or two “daily life in” books, and maybe watched a movie. These are not necessarily disastrous (arguably the successful historical is somewhere between, since you’re not actually writing for people of that time, and you need to meet your readers halfway) but I’d better not read them when set in say Tudor times, because my eyes bleed and I start screaming.
So, let’s say there’s a higher rate of cull in those than in non-historical.
But I’m also more tolerant.
In my blog I hinted about a common problem, which is being a third through the book and NO murder. Lots of local color, but no murder.
Well, the latest of this went all the way to the middle of the book, and no murder. (Though it compensated with five murders in the last half.) And some things about the word choice “gave away” to my mind that it was indie. For instance, the characters, in an historical, ask each other “are you mad?” in the American sense of angry, something that doesn’t even apply to contemporary England.
I finished it – I mean, it was compelling enough to keep me going – and I was set to leave a three star and a slightly patronizing review, when the bio at the end stopped me. The book is a translation of a bestselling Scandinavian mystery. Oh, uh?
And then (except for having opinions about the translator. Really. They taught us our métier better once upon a time) I started wonder about different expectations of different audiences.
I can comfortably tell you that in the traditional market here that book would never be published. You’re well into the middle of the book before there’s any hint of a crime, beyond maybe some sort of political intrigue, so nebulous you don’t track it.
However, he’s a bestseller in his own country, where clearly the expectations are different.
Now anyone who has read any amount of historical mystery or sci fi for that matter (and historical, in these circumstances is not set in history, but older mystery or sci fi) knows for a fact that expectations and narrative techniques have changed over time. The things expected/tolerated in the thirties would now drive the reader up the wall. Say, the total lack of character development in a lot of mysteries, or the fact that novels were MUCH shorter.
What most people don’t think about though, when reading these, is that how the tastes have changed is not necessarily the tastes of the PEOPLE but the tastes of the “tastemakers.”
Put another way, between the eighties and the early oughts, it didn’t matter what the people reading the books wanted. What mattered is what the publishing houses wanted. Not only would you never be seen by the public unless you were bought and published, but the push model, in which the houses told the chain stores what to stock was so effective, that they could make you a bestseller even if the public really didn’t want that kind of book, and they could make you disappear even if the public really wanted it.
So, the important thing was what the publishing houses wanted.
If you want a glimpse of what they want, read one of the “how to write a blockbuster” (by various names) books published in that time period. Mostly it amounted to a lot of “make it significant” which often involved a political agenda that accorded with the publishers, plus a lot of more or less arbitrary “this is what we want this year.” How arbitrary? Well, in the early nineties a lot of how to books told you the cozy was dead. They were wrong, and the public wanted it so badly it came back as craft mysteries, but the publishing houses did their best to kill them. Or there was the whole “Stop immediately after the crime is resolved.” Which is not only arbitrary but, unless you’re writing a certain kind of plot-driven thriller, will drive the readers nuts.
Sometimes I thought these pronouncements were made to see who would jump when the “tastemakers” said “frog.”
None of this matters now because – one reason most of my how-to-write, save stand byes like Swain – were sold/got rid of when we boxed books, it has all changed completely.
Even though traditional market continues (duh) the prominence of Amazon and the collapse of chains has put paid to the push model. The publishing houses who don’t know this yet are dead men walking.
Which brings us back to how to appeal to your audience.
How do you appeal to the audience when we know nothing about them? How do you write to that vast public who, until recently, were hidden completely by the taste makers?
I don’t know. And neither do you.
One way to study it is to look at indies who are doing really really well. One thing I’ve noticed, in passing is the prominence of omniscient viewpoint among indies who are doing well, something totally verboten for decades in traditional.
If I ran a traditional house and intended to make a lot of money, I’d be looking at the best indies every month, not only to see if I could poach them, but to see what the real taste out there is. Because that’s the audience now – those people out there that everyone ignored for years.
I don’t so I do the best I can and try to read the top indies in my field. And I can write for the reader I am, which is the closest approximation I have to the “underserved reading public.”
That’s your audience. That’s the people you’re writing for.
Like in other changes in tech in entertainment, this change will be the death of a lot of careers and the making of a lot more. Think of when movies got sound. That’s what you’re talking about here.
If you want to have a career, you’ll learn to write not for the increasingly more out of touch would-be gatekeepers, but for your readers.
Even if you want to go traditional, succeeding with the reader public is your best route right now.
So go and learn who your audience, your fans are. Write for them. Ignore the gatekeepers. They’re only passing by.