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.

60 thoughts on “Who DO You Write For?

  1. This reminds me of running across a 1980s “modern fantasy” compilation. “Turgid prose” is a very apt description; it’s obvious that the writers were still shooting for that particular “high fantasy” tone that works if your initials are JRRT but can be difficult to pull off otherwise. I think it was published before David Eddings put out The Belgariad, which is a fantasy epic done with an easygoing tone, but after the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books, which I’m told are also not excessively elevated in tone.

    I don’t know if readers at the time rolled their eyes at that particular book, but I do know that sometimes people get an idea in their heads about what a particular genre is made up of, and if they were to write in that genre, it would tend to be a little bit overly that form. (I won’t even get into the group of “high fantasy is Tolkien rip-off” folks. I had to drop a particular author entirely when I finally got to his award-winning trilogy and found out it was a LOTR rip-off, right down to the dwarf mine with the kraken at the entrance. And it *was* award-winning, which bothered me so much that it poisoned the rest of his writings in that world.)

    At any rate, I think you should always shoot for something you want to read in the end, because otherwise you’re going to be spending a lot of time with something you don’t like…

    1. If you’re talking McKiernan or some of the other Seventies Tolkien fanfics that got published — well, the readers and publishers and authors were all desperate for more Tolkien, and they couldn’t just get on the Internet or easily buy Tolkien fanzines.

      1. I think McKiernan gets a bad shake. There is a weird story behind why he did a Tolkien rewrite. I never could get through it or the duology it was written to support. However, I have very much enjoyed the books once he was freed of that particular demon. I consider Dragondoom to be a forgotten classic of the field that deserves wider reading.

          1. I know it’s not fair, but after reading the Iron Tower trilogy, I just couldn’t shake off the flaws I’d seen in his other stuff. Mind you, I still like having read it, I just wasn’t going to read it again.

        1. Hey, I liked his early work! It’s the fairy tale retellings I couldn’t get through. I need to see if his stuff is in ebook form. I really don’t enjoy reading dead trees anymore.

  2. I started out writing for me, myself. I knew what I wanted, and I knew few people were writing it anymore. Now that I am selling, and selling well, I’m trying to write for both me -and- my audience.
    Yes it is hard at times knowing what my audience wants, they do leave reviews, (but I wish they’d email me more!) but the reviews are not always easy to navigate and get a whole picture. Especially when they’re only 1 percent of your readers. So I try to look at what sells, and how well it sells, and yes, what else is selling.

    But I do have to come back to this: That when I write what I enjoy, for my own enjoyment, people like it. When I try write those things that I enjoy in a manner to have a slightly broader appeal, is when it seems the most people like it.

    And if I try to please everyone, it stinks.

    I have a new series I’m going to be putting out soon, that I honestly never thought would go anywhere, but my beta readers love it and think it would be great YA stuff. I like good YA stuff myself, but I don’t think of myself as a YA author, but hey, there are things I like and enjoy that fit that mold, so I’ll give it a try and see how it goes. If people like it, I’ll write more of course, if they don’t, well it was a fun experiment. There are a lot of different things I’d like to try writing (like the old masters of my youth who often strayed all over the map), and I hopefully will do well enough, at enough of them, that my readers will enjoy them, and buy my books.

    But I honestly don’t feel that I’m a good enough writer to write something I don’t like, and write it well enough that other people would enjoy it. I know there are many out there who can do that, and my hat is off to them. That is a very impressive skill.

    1. ditto–I write what I want to read, but I’ll tweak characters and plots in a direction my audience prefers. Someday, however, the evil angst-loving me will break out. I’ll have to have a pen name established by then.

    2. I write what I want to read, but I’m of two minds about what that is. I write legal Sf which is very bourgeois, but I just published something that is pure adventure that has been sitting in the back of my brain for a long time. The adventure is doing much better than the first two right out of the gate, but I’ll still be doing the legal stuff. I just wish I wrote faster.

  3. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but even if the gatekeepers were honorable businessmen with a lick of sense (yes, I do delve into unrealistic fantasy at times) their goal would be to find product with broad appeal. The deeper your potential customer pool the better the fishing. A work that has too narrow a focus, appeals to a tiny niche audience, simply isn’t worth the not insignificant investment in resources to bring a book to publication.
    Not so the indie author who can create a work that appeals to one tenth of a percent of the population (330,000 in the US alone, 5 million world wide) and if they sell to only a tenth of the US potential at a buck each that’s 33 grand.
    No wonder tradpub is popping a sweat. Once their indentured servants finally figure out what they are charging for a generally crappy service their passing by will at last be complete.
    I suspect something else will take their place, but as a true publishing service that an author can buy by the yard while retaining complete control over their intellectual property. Were I younger and a lot less tired and cranky I just might consider that a very attractive business opportunity.

    1. I think what happened to the Trad-Pub people is that because they ‘inherited’ the business, they thought that ‘what is, will always be’. And when sales started to decline, it wasn’t because they were offering crap, but because ‘nobody wants that anymore’.
      After that, they just doubled down on stupid.

      I was out to dinner with an old friend last night and I mentioned the Hugo’s. His first response? ‘They’re all crap! Why would anybody buy anything with a Hugo award on it?’ I hadn’t even gotten into the sad puppies campaign yet! It just goes to show how divorced from reality the Trad-Pub people have become. In a day where more and more people are reading and writing than ever before (because of the internet and text messaging) it is shocking that these publishers can not hold their own, much less expand the market.

      1. Much as the CHORF would deny it, there does come a point where anecdotal evidence does become conventional wisdom.
        Regarding your friend’s comments, which have been repeated seemingly endlessly the last few years, that is exactly what has happened to the Hugos.

        1. Indeed, the only reason I might buy 3BP is because many SP supporters are giving it favorable reviews. For the last few decades, “Hugo Winner” has meant to me “boring dreck and kludge, skip it.” When I saw some parties complaining about how SP might push good works like 3BP off the nominations, I instantly thought, “Oh, it’s Hugo-winner material. Skip the boring preachy dreck, then, never buy.”

          Frankly, I’ve found a lot of good new authors I like via the Sad Puppies nomination lists, and I hope they keep it up for years… and I hope that they attract enough fans to voting that the good works can make Hugo-winning a mark of quality instead of a warning to stay away. In the best of all possible outcomes, ten thousand fans will nominate and vote every year, and all the logrolling and slates will be as drops in the ocean.

          1. I think that if it had been written in the U.S. it would have been “same old, same old.” The different perspective really does matter, because for one, the Chinese record on environmentalism is the most dismal in the world (clear-cutting BECAUSE clear-cutting, not even for fuel), and for another, the Cultural Revolution had some nasty repercussions on display.

            It has some characters who are very anti-human. And they’re not portrayed in a particularly favorable light.

            1. You should go to China some time. Amazing place.

              I was there over a week, didn’t see the sun once. The guy who was traveling with me spend the entire trip choking because of the smog. I was still smoking at that time, so a little bit of smog didn’t effect me.

              Out of the many ways the Chinese pollute, one of the most interesting is the burning of rice paddies after the harvest. Apparently the remnants of the rice plants don’t decompose very quickly. Burning them speeds decomposition, and helps fertilize the next crop.

              It’s rather amazing driving along the highway, seeing huge clouds of smoke coming off the fields…

              1. >Out of the many ways the Chinese pollute, one of the most interesting is the burning of rice paddies after the harvest.

                Texas gets that from Mexico every year. Some years you can even track it from satellite.

                1. It’s a medieval method. In Portugal they burn stubble on the fields before keeping them fallow. Well, maybe renaissance. Subarbanbanshee, do you know?

                  1. When I was a kid, the hill tribes in northern Thailand would do the same for poppy fields.

                    1. Laura, Sarah, John, Gingeroni,

                      Thanks – that’s fascinating. I’ve read a lot of old stuff, and never seen agricultural burn offs mentioned, so I’d thought it was uncommon. Of course a lot of the older stuff isn’t written from the peasant’s point of view, because peasants didn’t know how to write!

                      Where I have seen burn offs mentioned is in clearing forest for agricultural land. Wrote (and sold) a horror story about one 🙂

                    2. Up until the transplanted Californian’s put an end to it in the 90’s (and pissed off the farmers in Oregon) they used to burn off their fields every year for certain crops. .

                    3. None of the farmers up here do that (I grew up on a farm).

                    4. No. But I’m Canadian, and other than politics, the Ultimate Blood Sport, don’t follow American news.

            2. Oh, and talking about the Cultural Revolution – there’s a movie called Everlasting Regrets, which is set in the Shanghai area, starting before WW2, ending in the seventies, which included the Cultural Revolution phase. It is in Chinese, but there are English dubbed versions. I saw it on the plane coming back from China, and it was a fascinating piece of work.

              If you can find it, it’s worth watching.

  4. Dadlamit, John, I’m already feeling guilty to the tune of a million dollars because I haven’t reviewed for a month due to first, hardware problems, and now wetware problems, and then you have to remind me again of the fact that you guys NEED the reviews like a baby bird needs pre-digested worms. That’s why I started reviewing: y’all need FEEDBACK.
    Okay, I’m working on my comeback. I have a backlog of reviews for books I’ve read, plus at least two more from books I’ve been given.
    But I need a nap, now.

      1. Ooooh, look at the pretty little Portagee pot calling kettle Pat black.
        Not that I disagree in the slightest, just wish Dan or the boys would record some of your good advice and play it back to you at night when you’re asleep when it might sink in.
        I don’t give a bloody flip what your doctor told you, you had major surgery and recovery from such is measured in months if not years. We all needs our Sarah and needs her healthy and full of life and snark, not abed and suffering. So, GET WELL, D*mn it right back at yah.

      2. Yep Sarah, anybody who thinks you’re a man named John is obviously sick. [Very Big Grin While Flying Away Very Very Fast]

          1. Frank Herbert.

            The Dune stories, especially the first, and maybe the first three, are so compelling it took me several tries when I wanted to go back and see how he did it (after I sort of learned to write). I kept getting pulled INTO the story instead of figuring out the writer stuff.

            He writes omniscient.

          2. I’m going to say David Weber. I’m somewhere around #4 in the Honor Harrington books and I’ve been noticing how we get everyone’s view point. Why is it called omniscient when it works, and head hopping when it fails?

            1. I don’t think of that as omniscient, though. I might need to dig an Honor Harrington book up and check. I thought he stayed in one head in any given scene, but he changed viewpoints a lot because scenes went from what was happening in one ship to what was happening in a different ship, etc.. Usually “head hopping” is, yes, it’s when it’s done so badly its noticeable, but it changes point of view within a scene.

              I think.

              Not that it really matters. Really.

              Onmicient to me is something that tells you what the character doesn’t know or at least hasn’t ever bothered to think about. “John would never admit it, not even to himself, but clowns made him nervous.”

              But truly… I don’t think most readers notice. So long as they don’t get confused, they don’t care.

              1. He definitely switches the main POV between scenes and has a cast of thousands, but there are definite times within a scene where we get someone else’s thoughts, and it’s not just Honor thinking the other person must be thinking whatever. He does it well, just about as seamlessly as Georgette Heyer. I think I only notice it because I pay attention to that and scowl ferociously when someone “gets away with it” and wish I had the nerve to do it, too.

          3. Here’s a good definition of how omniscient works, and what helps it work well:

            Third-person omniscient gets a bad rap because most times people don’t realize they’re using it. The story will be primarily told in the third-person limited and then the author will mistakenly go omniscient. It’s brutal because of expectations. The reason it doesn’t work is because the shift from character to character is not clearly done or there’s no transition. Good authors who use omniscient won’t jump heads mid-paragraph. It’s like a reader is a cat chasing a laser pointer–and then the author points the red dot at the ceiling. Don’t treat your readers like the cat. Good writers wait until a full thought is complete, switch paragraphs, give a transition, and then tell us what’s in the other head. There are many classic SF&F writers who use this style to great effect, such as Frank Herbert in DUNE and Robert A. Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.

            Third-person omniscient is highly prevalent in Horror–and it can work if you do it right. Look at Robert McCammon (see EBR’s review of SWAN SONG). Many of his classics are told in the omniscient PoV, but you know that going in. It takes a deft hand to steer the narrative in a clear and concise manner when using this narrative form. If you can’t pull it off with expertise, don’t even bother. Poor handling of omniscient will make us put the book down after a chapter.

            The full article is here: http://elitistbookreviews.com/2015/06/12/blog-off-entry-commentary-point-of-view/#more-3545

            Thanks to the puppies for pointing me to this site, btw.

  5. When I started working on my first novel, I wrote in a subgenre I love but which traditional publishers have long since abandoned–planetary romance (or sword and planet, if you prefer). The book spent six weeks on Amazon’s space opera best sellers list. No, I’m not going to retire on that kind of income, but everyone knows that indie success is a long haul sort of thing.

    Unless an author has tastes which are truly out of line with the rest of the world, I think an indie author can build a respectable career simply writing books he wants to read. The trad publishers think planetary romance is dead–and maybe the market is too small for them–but I can serve that niche market quite well and be happy with considerably fewer sales than a trad publisher can accept. This is the true beauty of the indie market!

    1. My earlier point exactly!
      And just a suggestion, if you haven’t already, submit that first novel to the weekly or so book promo. I and I suspect a few others would like to at least take a look at it.

      1. I submitted the first two a few months ago and got a nice little bump in sales. I’ll do the same when I release the first book in my new series. (I assume the idea is to submit them once and then let other titles have a shot.)

  6. Speaking of Omniscient PoV, what is it with the new fascination with a first person, well not omniscient, more like multiple first person PoV. I’m a writer. I’m already close enough to having multiple personalities. I don’t get this. I guess it works but it just feels weird.

    1. I’m reading a (rather mediocre) mystery/romance right now and there were two pov’s and then all of a sudden there was a third! And another! Not in a soap opera kind of way, just a whatever. IT is a little strange in this kind of book. (whereas it’s totally normal in something like game of thrones).

      1. Aahhhh… that’s a matter of setting expectations. Someone mentioned Weber up-thread. He switches scenes in the earlier Honor Harrington books in a very systematic way. At the end of one (the first one that didn’t *end* I believe it was, I was annoyed) the pattern was there, and then suddenly the point of view shift went the wrong way, didn’t happen, or some such… it was *jarring*.

        I don’t know if I’m any good at it, but I worry about creating a pattern and then changing it. I have one story I’ve worked on some with two distinct points of view and then the guy somehow needs to be in a coma. *sigh* So I’m thinking… *can* I switch it up? Or rather, what would it take to signal that so readers don’t get thrown out of the story?

        Perhaps the only way would be to add different points of view sooner so that they’re always fluid.

        1. In the Martian, we’re in Mark Watney’s first person POV for the longest time, and then, wham, some dude on Earth is in the story. It was jarring, but I didn’t care. The Earth dude was good, too.

    2. I like first person singular, maybe because I was a big fan of Roger Zelazny and he wrote that way. I can write in third person, and have with all of the PNR stuff I did under a pen name, but I like the way first person draws you in.
      However, I have a story in the que that is going to require multiple viewpoints, and I don’t know yet how I’m going to handle it, as all of the people in the story (who each had their own book) were each done in first person. I’m thinking that instead of chapter numbers, I’ll just title each chapter with whoever has the narrative.
      But not sure yet…

      1. John, some authors have had “sub chapter headings” that name the view point character of that part of the book.

        IE in Chapter Twelve the first part has John as the POV character so there’s a “John” sub-heading. Later in Chapter Twelve, the POV switches to Fred so there’s a “Fred” sub-heading.

      2. Seanan McGuire had one of her books where each chapter had a graphical heading depending on the POV character—one had a dance step chart, one had math, and so forth. It was very subtle but as the POV characters also had distinctly different voices, it worked pretty well.

  7. John just to let you know I just blew thru your Portal series last week on KU. Loved the world’s you created.

  8. I know my audience, it’s a small niche, and they expect the guns, gun play and ballistics to be accurate! AND they want a viable story line too! Feel good, PCism, not so much…LOL

  9. Dreadfully sorry, the circumstances of having no reliably functioning brain cells meant I neglected to mention here that I have posted parts one and two of a response to the vicious treatment so many of my friends have been subject to. I’m writing it under the heading of ‘Tolerance’ since that seems to be a term others don’t understand. When I finish (I have 1.5 parts remaining) I will complete my much overdue review of the brilliant work of Hugo nominee Jeffro Johnson, and then I have several book reviews, including at least Forge a New Blade by Peter and The God’s Wolfling by Cedar and two by Alma and one by Laura and Oh Crap What Was That Book by The Author I Can’t Remember Right Now, plus I’ve got to check to see if I’ve reviewed Family Law by Mackey.
    But here’s Tolerance 1 & 2. Tolerance 2 is subtitled ‘About Getting Drunk.

  10. Bravo! Yes, not one knows exactly what will sell.


    If you write something you would like to read, there’s a pretty decent chance that other people would like to read it as well.

    Of course then there’s the issue of how you find those people 🙂

    1. Ugh. Happened again. First line should read:

      Bravo! Yes, no one knows exactly what will sell.

      I shouldn’t type fast when I’m in this much pain.

  11. Glad I discovered MGC. I’m learning quite a bit of writer’s lingo here that I never had cause to learn… It’s a little like many people wouldn’t be able to tell you a given grammatical rule in English even though they can write prose compliant with them in their sleep. Or many intuitive musicians cannot teach well because they don’t know how or why they do what they are doing, never having given it any more conscious thought than we give to breathing…

    1. I know what you mean. As readers we know what is working but we don’t necessarily know why. When Sarah recommended Dwight Swain’s Techniques of a Selling Writer I felt I’d found a treasure trove. He really breaks things down, to the level of “you know the beginning is over because someone has made a decision.” I was watching the first Hunger Games movie on TV shortly after reading that, and when the MC takes her little sister’s place in the games, I was jumping up and down saying, “there’s the decision! There’s the decision.” Sigh. It’s a really useful book.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: