So… why do we write, and who is our audience?

I’ve been mulling over this question for some time, following the Hugo Awards brouhaha in recent years, and the growing debate over ‘message fiction’ in various genres.  I thought I’d put some ideas out there, and let you, dear readers, continue the discussion in Comments below.

The Hugo Awards imbroglio (see here for one side of the issue, and here for the other) demonstrates what happens when (to use battle imagery) a clique captures a strongpoint and won’t let go.  They fortify it against all comers, and refuse to yield ground even when their continued occupation becomes meaningless, because the battle has moved onward from the position to which they cling so fiercely.  To them, the message they espouse and proclaim is the genre – or, rather, they’re going to make sure that the genre continues to proclaim it, and nothing else.  The genre serves the message, rather than the other way around.  In other words, the genre is nothing more than a tool to be exploited in a wider ideological battle.  As one commentator noted recently about the Hugo affair:

The Marxists infiltrated at almost every level except the one that really mattered. That was the readers. The big problem was that, unlike countries where Marxism was the rule, the infiltrators, some of whom didn’t understand that they were supposed to be Marxists in the first place and went right into creating the same old propaganda that and stuff that nobody wanted to read. The stuff might [be] PC, but it’s also mind blowingly dull, filled with porn in the idea that the sex might replace actual story telling.

He’s right, in my opinion.  Overwhelmingly, ‘politically correct’ science fiction (of the sort embraced and celebrated by the Hugo Awards in recent decades) sells very poorly indeed.  As a result, the genre is increasingly dominated by independent, non-politically-correct authors, publishing their own work through outlets like Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct program.  The mainstream publishers in the SF field (with the notable exceptions of Baen Books, which dominates military science fiction in particular, and more recently the fast-growing Castalia House) are increasingly being ignored by SF readers (presumably because the message they preach in their preferred fiction is unpalatable to many).  Author Earnings pointed this out recently.

Author Earnings - science fiction sales 2016.png

Author Earnings - fantasy sales 2016.png

The numbers say it all.  Independent, self-published authors are increasingly dominant in the SF and fantasy genres. If their sales growth continues, they will shortly occupy the largest part of the market.  Traditional publishers, particularly those who hew to the ‘politically correct’ line, are steadily losing ground.

The question then becomes:  if traditional science fiction and fantasy publishers are concentrating on their message (to the detriment of their actual product), what are independent authors doing?  Are we writing to a ‘message’, or are we writing to and for our market?  Are we even consciously aware of this dilemma when we write?  I suspect many of us aren’t.  Let’s consider a few possible approaches.

First up is the artistic approach;  those who write because they feel driven to it as a means of artistic or personal expression.  To them, writing is a labor of love, an expression of themselves, a creative art.  They may not take their potential readership into consideration at first;  they’ll regard themselves as successful if they put out a book that expresses what they want to convey, even if readers don’t like it very much.  It’s like an artist who puts his heart and soul into a painting.  To him, it’s part of his very being, and a lack of public appreciation for his painting (much less criticism of it) amounts to rejection of himself.  (The well-known saga of the novel ‘Empress Theresa‘, and its author’s reaction to criticism [do, please, follow those last three links for details of truly extraordinary authorial hubris], is an extreme example of this attitude in the literary world.  The currently available reviews of the book are a tiny fraction of the hundreds, even thousands, that greeted its initial publication.)

Then there’s the combination of a message-oriented, but market-driven approach.  This requires that one’s message be tailored to what the market will accept and/or tolerate.  I’ve heard it described as the ‘camel’s nose’ approach.  If one sneaks in just enough of one’s message to get one’s audience accustomed to it in broad outline, one can (hopefully) add more of it to subsequent books, just as a little of a new and unfamiliar seasoning in a meal can lead to more being used later, as diners become accustomed to it.  I know a number of authors with personal religious beliefs have used this approach to mention God and faith in passing, knowing that many readers have no interest in the topic, but hoping that such innocuous references may make them think about the subject.  Opinions are divided as to whether or not it can achieve success.

There’s the more specifically market-driven approach.  This is one I’m forced to follow myself, as those who’ve read the tale of why and how I became a fiction author will understand.  I have to earn a living.  Most traditional avenues of doing so were closed to me by a disabling injury.  Therefore, I’m going to write what I think readers want to buy, because my livelihood depends on it.  Sure, I’m going to write in genres I enjoy, and where my background gives me ‘writing fodder’;  but at all times, I have to keep in mind that I can’t afford (literally) to go off on an artsy-fartsy tangent.  I have to write to the market, because I can’t survive without it!  That may seem appallingly mercenary to some authors and readers, but for me, it’s the exact and literal truth.  The food on my table is only there because readers buy my books.  That’s a heck of a motivation, believe me!  It’s why I’ve (so far) written, or am writing, in no less than four genres;  science fiction (specifically the military sub-genre), fantasy, Westerns and memoir.  If I can find others where I think I have something to bring to the table, and which readers will enjoy enough to buy, I’ll write in and for those genres, too.

There are plenty of other reasons to write, and motivations for authors.  I can’t possibly go into all of them in a short article like this.  Nevertheless, it behooves us as writers to be aware of why we write, because that directly and immediately affects what and how we write.  It also affects who will buy our output – a not unimportant consideration!

So, dear readers:  why do you write?  In the same light, why do you read?  To what extent are you consciously aware of your motivation, and how does that motivation affect your book writing and/or purchasing decisions?  (That’s not as simple as it might sound.  You might buy a book because you know the author, even if you don’t particularly like it, because you want to show your support;  or you might buy it because everyone’s talking about it, and even if you don’t enjoy it, you want to be able to take part in the discussions.)

Let us know your reactions in Comments.  This could be fun!

40 Comments

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40 responses to “So… why do we write, and who is our audience?

  1. THERE’S PEOPLE IN MY BRAIN TRYING TO GET OUT!!!1!

    Ahem. I feel that I have some worthwhile tales to relate to a receptive and under-served audience. ~:D

    • There’s words in my brain trying to get out!
      (It’s not clear that all of them come from people.)

      And there’s a second part: I want to believe that other people read and enjoy my strings of words. So while letting them spill out, I’m always asking myself, “Is this entertaining? Would I like this scene in somebody else’s novel? Is this so totally sucky that I would throw my own book across the room?”

      Answers probably depend more on my mood at the moment than on observable reality. Still, I do try to entertain.

    • Mary

      There are people in my brain who won’t get out unless I write them.

      The original reason was written word deprivation, to be sure.

  2. paladin3001

    I am writing because I have stories to tell. Interesting situations, and characters that poke their heads up and give me directions on where to go.
    I read (fiction that is) because I want to be told a GOOD story. If the writer/author tells a good tale I will pick up their next book and give it a shot. Some writers don’t capture my attention, sometimes it’s too much message, or I find that the writer doesn’t write a story that appeals to me. If a story doesn’t appeal to me it doesn’t mean it’s not a good story for someone else.
    Whether writing or reading it’s all the same. I am trying to tell a good story (any message is accidental), and I try to emulate good writers.

    Hopefully I will succeed. BTW, I aim to be as mercenary as my conscience allows. 😀

  3. Christopher M. Chupik

    “The well-known saga of the novel ‘Empress Theresa‘”

    Aaaah! You named She Who Must Not Be Named!

  4. “In the same light, why do you read?”

    I used to read so I could visit new and exciting places, meet exotic and interesting people, and do adventurous things.

    These days everything at the store is Grey Goo, so I have to make my own new and exciting places for my people to play in.

  5. joedoakes7

    I live in a deep blue city in a deep blue state working in a politically correct industry staffed by Liberal Democrats who get their opinions from Slate and MSNBC. I keep my head down, my opinions to myself, and read to escape.

  6. TRX

    > my livelihood depends on it

    Which is why the academics and “arts” crowd have had another advantage, being willing to write just to pad their resumes or for notoriety. Every completed text is a win, even if they don’t sell a single copy.

  7. To quote a friend of mine, “I get reality for free every day. Why would I want to pay to get it in my entertainment?” Put simply, I read to escape from the stress of everyday life. Too often, I’ve found myself falling back on older books, ones I read during my formative years as a science fiction fan.

    The books I write are ones I want to read–planetary romances filled with daring heroes worthy of the name and space opera adventures featuring characters I’d like to meet. My goal is to create books people enjoy reading because they’re fun, not because they contain some special message. I assume I’m doing something right, since I get a lot of reviews from people my own age (I turned 60 a couple of months ago) who say my books remind me of the stories that originally drew them to science fiction in the first place.

  8. Christopher M. Chupik

    Because my brain won’t let me not write. Even on days I’m too busy or tired to write, I’m thinking about what I’ll write next. It’s damned annoying. 😀

    • I know, right? Those characters, constantly demanding attention.

      I’ve got a cop with a big, tall robot girlfriend -demanding- I pay attention to the high heeled shoe they found. Because they found a foot that matched it a little farther down the alley…

      I’ve got a crane to put up, a truck to fix and trees to cut down. I don’t have time to go find out who’s foot that is. But there they are, pointing at it and making impatient gestures to make me look.

  9. BobtheRegisterredFool

    Why write? 1. If I hadn’t learned to compensate for my communications difficulties by throwing effort at it, I would not be communicating with anyone. 2. I’ve trained the pattern matching part of my brain for creativity in worldbuilding. If I don’t finish the job, work out plot and character, and start selling, I’ll be stuck with a trained habit I can’t untrain, and can’t otherwise make use of. tl; dr: Something is wrong with my head, and I’m not optimizing my use of time.

    Why read? Boredom, entertainment, chewing the mental cud.

  10. I write because the stories are so strong that they’d leak out in less healthy ways if I don’t. I’d spend far too much time in cloud-cookoo land. And because people are willing to pay me for my stories.

    I read to learn, and to escape. I want to visit other worlds, be they in the past, in the scientific lab (like the anthropology crime book I’m reading – pre-historic murders?), or long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

    • TRX

      That reminds me of the “Dishonest Abe” thing in Bester’s “The Demolished Man.” One of the characters, an otherwise straight-arrow policeman, would occasionally go off the rails and spin absurd-but-believable yarns that disrupted official procedures…

      The wierd’s going to start leaking out *somewhere* if you don’t direct it to some more-acceptable path.

  11. As a young author (in terms of career, not age) who finally made the plunge because indie means the popularity contest aspect of the field is with the reader first and last not agents first I’ve been giving this thought. Especially as all the writing advice starts “if you’re not writing because you love writing you’re in for disappointment”.

    I don’t agree with that in a literal sense although I do think I meet the spirit.

    Recently I changed the tagline at my blog to “Telling stories worth retelling”.

    I love telling stories. I write as a way to tell more stories to more people. My tagline is my goal in it…I want to tell people stories they want to retell either by going on about “this awesome book where this happens…” or passing the book along.

    Yes, if you can do that you can make money and I have a half-plan to do a final career change on June 10, 2026 to full time fiction writer.

    But that’s not why I write. I write to tell stories. Writing is merely a medium that helps me find people willing to sit down for a longer story, find more of those people, and have a chance to sort the story out fully before telling it (and not have quite as many errors).

    • Why do I read? To hear stories and learn stories. I think I’m such a big rereader because some stories you want every bit you can get from them.

  12. I read to escape, be entertained, and to be informed (not necessarily in the same book).

    Escape & entertain: genre fiction, without a doubt (and predominantly indy for the past few years), but every now and then information seeps in too (1632, for example).

    Inform: usually non fiction books, where I expect people to address the topic in a factual or neutral sense. No wailing about global warming in a gardening book (please!), but I’m receptive to occasional comments about techniques to reduce the amount of water needed or looking at local plants.

  13. Somehow missed Empress story – and when I poked through it, it reminded me of the Duning-Kruger effect (sp?). The writer has a problem.

    I enjoyed rereading your story, as well. What a fascinating life you’ve led.

    I don’t know any more why I write. Because I can’t stop until this story is out, complete. And because, like you, there is nothing else I CAN do, except that I’m hoping your disability is physical, and doesn’t include some of the nastier side effects of mine. I started over twenty years ago, with a detective novel which was submitted to traditional publishing and never went anywhere (I may get to it some day), because I had always planned to write in retirement, and disability brought that part of life somewhat earlier than I’d planned.

    When you’re a voracious reader, you must at least ask yourself whether you could and would want to write. Those books come from somewhere! I’m surprised more voracious readers are not authors, but then the people I know who are passionate about books are mostly online indie authors now.

    I’ll never be fast enough to be prolific; I’ll have to hope the product’s quality recommends itself to readers. Meanwhile, writing keeps me out of both trouble and depression, and gives me a huge sense of joy. What’s not to like?

  14. I read to get my brain to stop spinning so hard and fast. And every now and then for ‘the refreshment of the spirit’ to steal from CS Lewis and the Magician’s Book (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

    I started writing because I have stories to tell. I have considered publishing because I have noticed few and fewer of either kind of tale to be available for purchase these days. All the tales seem to be designed to spin you up and leave you agitated or depress the spirit. Or both. A lot of both. I thought maybe the tales I tell might help fill that niche. We’ll see.

  15. I write because I love history – especially American history – and want to teach people, to encourage them to take an interest in history, to know where we came from, why and how. Making a ripping good yarn out of it – and based on good research – is at least as good a way of drawing in readers.
    Well-written and fact-based historical fiction is a gateway drug into a serious interest in history.
    As for what I read myself – anything as long as it is diverting, has interesting characters, logical plots and sparkling conversation.

  16. Luke

    Because I sometimes like to to spend my time in a world where I understand the rules.

    Ok, that’s for making up imaginary worlds.
    I write stories set in them for a number of different reasons.
    The most common is to nail down an implicit conflict in the rules governing the setting. These really aren’t for anyone’s entertainment other than my own.
    The second most common is as a coping mechanism. Life sometimes sucks, and telling stories can help you through it.
    The third reason is that I simply enjoy stories. Crafting a story that I’ll enjoy is a good thing in and of itself.

  17. mrsizer

    Starting with what I actually do: I read because I’m a boring, introverted person and I want to go to exciting places and do exciting things. If Dr. Who ever showed up on my doorstop, I’d probably run screaming in the other direction, but it’s nice to pretend that I’d hop into the Tardis (and not die on the first stop).

    I (want to, but apparently not very much because it’s not getting done) write because I want to tell the stories I wanted to read; say around High School age. In a way, that makes would make me a bit trendy because I have gay characters, but they’re doing heroic shit in spaceships, not whining about their victimhood.

    I also have things I want to say, but just saying it is boring and trite. For example, “don’t be prejudiced.” Is that even worth saying these days? But, what is the right reaction to a bunch of telepaths suddenly showing up in the population? There will be a (very) wide variety of reactions. Showing that, not spouting trite nonsense, is what I want to do.

    Right now, I also want to write a collection of Hero’s Journeys that fail. To avoid grey goo, I’m willing to let them get on with life (e.g. washing out of Basic Training is not as bad as getting shot dead in a training accident), but “teenager goes on to be Captain Amazing” has gotten very old.

    • real life: Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. Final party got to the pole a mere five weeks after Amundson, then perished on the trip back. Of course Shackleton had his own issues in Antarctica when his ship got stuck in the ice and the party had to make a dangerous trek just to get saved.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      Perhaps they aren’t journeys that failed, but ones that led in unexpected directions.

  18. I write because… uh… I don’t see any volunteers for writing the stories I have. Dammit.

  19. Draven

    I have stories to tell. Are they good? will they make me money? answer is uncertain, try again.

  20. Arwen

    I read to escape because sometimes life hurts.

  21. Writing: primarily it’s because I feel the need to express myself in some way. This usually is because I’m pissed off about something and I really don’t want to end up in jail. I usually also need more exercise as well. I can usually tell when I haven’t had enough exercise because my dreams turn violent, and often quite sadistic. I’ll also write because a particular scene is nagging at me. I have hundreds of scenes done (or maybe better to describe it as dozens of scenes with each one have dozens of variations), with no story around them, hoping that some day a story will develop where I can actually use that scene. I don’t let anyone read what I write because my skill set is horrid and I suck at actually telling an interesting story.

    Reading: primarily I read for enjoyment. I did too much reading for pure education when I was in school, and it was almost all pure drek. If I never have to open another text book again until the day I die, I’ll have not died soon enough. Yuck!. So now that I’m an adult I’ll read to gain the knowledge needed for a particular task, but mostly it’s just stuff I find enjoyable. A lot of this is older SF/F and mystery. Outside of a few modern authors most of what I read was written in the early 90’s and before (Baen authors are the one modern group where I’m always willing to take a chance on someone I haven’t heard of before).