Questions from a hopeful Neo: #1

I recently had a series of dialogues with some new writers about subjects of the writing life and craft and I thought. Heck, why not blog about it? So here, without further ado, are some questions about an important facet of writing: writing what your target audience wants to read.

Neo: I don’t understand this talk about “audience”. Why do I have to choose an audience? I’d like to reach all races, genders, generations—excite the young, male reader of adventure fiction AND send a timeless message to the serious fiction reader. Can’t I split the difference between readerships?

You certainly could come up with a story, a writing style, and a voice that “split the difference” in audiences, but I think you need to understand the realities of the publishing industry and the audience demographics before you craft your final manuscript and approach an agent or editor.

I applaud the desire to bring a timeless message to your readers; what I have reservations about is the idea that a fantasy series aimed at tween and teen boys is going to appeal to adult readers who are looking for more than an action adventure.

You hope to find an audience that will span all races, genders and generations. That’s a great goal. And multicultural audiences flock to great stories like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars because of their universal themes. But historically, fantasy fiction has—until very recently—reached a smaller audience than, say, murder mysteries or thrillers, though there are certainly breakout authors such as JK Rowling and George RR Martin. To put it bluntly, genre fiction is a literary ghetto — fantasy and science fiction are especially “ghetto-ized.” Those of us who live in the ghetto love the ‘hood, but we are aware that mainstream readers and even readers of other genres look down their noses at us. They write “real literature,” we write “escapist fiction.” (Fiction that, according to critic Lee Mortimer, takes the reader to an alien planet and neglects to bring him home again.) No matter how literary our fiction gets, it will never be real literature in their eyes.

Neo: Yeah, but if it’s done well and the critics like it, it’ll sell a million copies, right? And then everyone will want to read it—just like Harry Potter.

First, writing well and even having reviewers notice it doesn’t translate to sales, as I well know. I’ve had reviewers say my work “transcends the genre”, but that doesn’t make me JK Rowling. There are other factors (promotion, voodoo, chance, a butterfly flapping its wings in Transylvania) that contribute to a book’s popularity that even publishers don’t understand.

Neo: But fantasy is so BIG right now. I mean just look at all the fantasy movies that have been popular in years past—Star Wars, LOTR, Star Trek, Harry Potter...

Uh-uh, but we’re talking about READING here, not movies, which are a visual medium. Sure, Jackson’s LOTR was a universal hit, but I can’t tell you how many people tried to read Tolkien’s books and couldn’t. They found them boring and difficult to read. Millions more people flock to good movies (and even bad ones) than read books every year. Yes, Star Wars spawned a host of media-tie in books. But many, if not most, of the people who read those books don’t read original science fiction and fantasy. Royalty statements don’t lie.

Neo: Yeah, but what if  I write it in such a way that it will fall between High Fantasy and Action Adventure. The adolescent male is in my cross-hairs, but can’t religious readers, fantasy readers, historical readers, and action adventure readers be on the same target?  If I water down the heavy elements enough to win the youth adventure audience, can’t I count on the serious fan to “get” what I’m trying to say?

Alas, these readers are not only not “on the same target” they’re not shopping in the same bookstore aisle. If you target the adolescent male you almost automatically lose most of the other groups. Most of the fans of literary fantasy I know don’t read what gamers read, for example — with a few exceptions. The things that turn the 15 year-old boy on turn these other readers off. And the guys that read media tie-in adventure fiction tend not to read the other stuff.

More to the point, you have to get past agents and editors who have very distinct ideas about what they want. An editor who has a slot for a young adult novel aimed at 15 year old males may not be in a position to acquire a stylish fantasy for an adult audience. And the editor who’s looking for the next Curse of Challion isn’t going to be interested in something that smacks of the movie “300.” The publishing business is conservative and careful. It wants to be able to clearly label a product for shelving. If it can’t label a book as adventure, fantasy, thriller, whatever, it most likely will not buy it. If it can’t identify a distinct target audience, it doesn’t know what to do with the book.

Publishers must package a book to appeal to a target audience. Title, cover art and cover copy, even who’s chosen to give blurbs for the book are all used to focus the marketing effort. If a publisher does buy your book and decides to package it as a young, male-oriented action adventure, you would lose me and a lot other readers of fantasy. These are not fans who are hungry for testosterone or need to have the “heavy elements” of a story watered down for them with liberal action sequences. I’ve had editors from major publishers tell me that trying to appeal to two different audiences will lose you readers from both because each is looking for something different in their reading material.

I write stuff that “falls through the cracks” all the time. Many of my protagonists are people of color, men who bear no resemblance to an action adventure hero, or women. I like magic in my realism and realism in my magic. I write about spiritual and religious themes in both fantasy and SF. So I know something about running head-on into the wall of publisher conservatism. I recently had a detective novel rejected by a traditional publisher that three editors said was fresh and savvy with great characters. Unfortunately, it was too fresh for the marketing department. The editors wanted the book. The marketing director said she didn’t know what to do with it. I suspect it was because my female protagonist was Japanese-American and my male protagonist Hispanic and the marketeers couldn’t figure out how to market a colorful cast to a mostly white audience (not realizing they didn’t need to do anything special.)

And though I write both media tie-ins and original work—or maybe because I write in both worlds—I’m very aware that the same audience that will read and love my upcoming Star Wars novel, Shadow Games, will probably scratch their heads at Taco Del and the Fabled Tree of Destiny and vice versa. I put my heart into both acts of creation, but I know they most often won’t appeal to the same readers.

The upshot of all this is simply that I recommend you go for the highest common denominator. Try to reach the serious fantasy reader and hope that your work also collects some of David Eddings’ crowd as well. Who knows, maybe you’ll beat the odds and catch the next unexpected wave. I certainly hope so.

Maya is the author of the vastly dissimilar: Star Wars: Shadow Games (with Michael Reaves) and Taco Del and the Fabled Tree of Destiny (with Doug, the Fabled Tree)



Questions from a hopeful Neo: #1 — 5 Comments

  1. This ties into the importance of the cover. The role of the cover is to signal to the reader what kind of book it is — so that the target reader can find it. If you can’t think of a cover for the book, that may be a sign; if your book seems to cry out for italic titles and floral designs, or upraised swords and bronze bikinis, or castles with maidens peering from the battlements — well, that’s the signal you’re sending, and you might as well go with it. Some of us have had totally inappropriate covers, and that’s the way to sink a book.

  2. This post has a lot in common with Patricia Wrede’s most recent post on selling out But I think that what both posts show is a bit of the Neo’s disdain for their readers. Marketing is important, and it’s good to know who your book will be targeted towards, but that group isn’t a single monolithic person. Among teen boys who want Action-Adventure, you’re going to have the ones who are looking for something meaningful and moving. My cousin, a devotee of the destined farmboy genre, loves a strong romance in his books.

    It seems to me that what you have to try to do is write the best book you can, the one that is what it is, and transcends it, not because it’s filled with extraneous things, or because it’s ‘watered down,’ but because it’s speaking as much of the truth as you can show.

    And people talk. If someone loves a book, they’ll talk it up to everyone, even people who wouldn’t normally read that sort of thing. (NB, I’ve just sold my mom on Lois McMaster Bujold after much resistance of the ‘SciFi? Really?’ sort.) And that’s what ‘going viral’ means.

    If you write your book for the lowest common denominator, no one will be interested. If you write a book that everyone in your target audience actually loves (rather than just devours and tosses aside), then you’ve got a fighting chance. (Probabilistically, only a small one, but more than otherwise.)

  3. Cara — I have to laugh because when I read “selling out,” my mind immediately went to “earning out (an advance).”

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there are surface aspects to a story and deeper aspects. Maya’s Neo and the people in Patricia’s article are worried about the superficial stuff, the gore and glitz and sex and warm fuzzies. I think it’s important to be consistent, that is if you arouse the reader’s expectations that this will be a certain kind of story, it’s unwise to violate that “contract.” However — big however — the best of any stories, genre, mainstream, whatever — also have deeper stuff and they work because of that deeper stuff. The action/gizmos/sex carry the readers along but what sets them on fire are the resonances and chewy stuff that the author has subtly woven in.

  4. Brenda is dead bang on about the cover. And a publisher can sink a writer if the cover sends the wrong message. I did a book event years ago with Persia Woolley, author of an amazing trilogy about Guinevere. She told the horror story that went with those books. Book one was orphaned when her editor left the publishing house. When she saw the cover, it screamed “Fantasy Novel!” Arthur on white horse with crown, etc.

    She called her new editor and was intercepted by a secretary who told her, “You just go back and write your books, dear. He doesn’t want to talk to you about covers.” The book was released and shelved in the fantasy section. This caused it to be reviewed as a fantasy novel. Reviewers commented negatively on the lack of magic in the books (which were NOT fantasy) saying, “Hey, this is Arthur and Merlin. These people should have magic dripping from their fingertips.”

    The second book was released with a red cover (she showed us) with Guinevere in a vivid velvet dress, her hair blow-dried and curled, flowing in the wind. There was a little oval cameo on the spine. You guess it—shelved with the romances.

    A new editor came onto the project, I believe, just before the third book was to come out. Persia steeled herself for the horror and was pleasantly surprised. This time, they’d given her a mainstream novel cover. Understated but lovely.

    Persia’s takeaway though was that editors don’t want to talk to writers.

    I had just had my first novel published and had an opposite story to tell—my editor not only wanted to talk to me about covers, he took pains to pick out the scene for the cover himself and called me to ask how I liked it. He encouraged me to submit ideas, which I was to shy to do, alas.

    I think Cara’s point is well taken and it’s really the advice I give new writers when they ask “Should I write to a market?” My advice is, no. Write the best book you can and then figure out how to position it.

    In this case, not only was the neo trying to target a particular demographic, but she’d fooled herself into thinking that buckshot was a form of smart missile and that somehow she could write a book that was all things to all readers.