Questions from a hopeful Neo: Why do I have to choose an audience?

Most published authors field questions from new and aspiring writers at some point in their careers. They wonder how to get published, who to schmooze and, if they’re really serious, they ask questions about craft and style and substance.

More than one aspiring writer has asked me some variant of the following…

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 try to 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 with a hero who’s all swagger and panache.

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 its “robot child” 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 literary 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 Morty’s 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. Ask Kevin J. Anderson, who once showed me two checks he’d received—one for a media tie-in book he’d penned and the other for a Nebula Award-wining original he’d written that is still one of my favorite SF novels (Climbing Olympus, with Doug Beason). Let me just say that one of these checks was not like the other and Kevin had learned, to his chagrin, that the people that put the media tie-in on the New York Times Bestseller list did not read original work by the same authors they enjoyed when reading Star Wars or X-Files novels.

More to the point, before you get to readers, 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 as identified by brick and mortar bookstores. 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.

My first detective novel (THE ANTIQUITIES HUNTER) was rejected by a mainstream publisher though three of their editors said the novel 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 how to market 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.) There’s also a very subtle bit of (possible) magic in the book—you’d only see it if you wanted to—which may have also had something to do with it.

Oh, and there was no dead body on page three … because it wasn’t a murder mystery.

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 Star Wars novels, Shadow Games and The Last Jedi (no, this was before the movie) will probably scratch their heads at the fantasy, detective fiction, alt-history and magical realism I’ve written. I put my heart into all 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.

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Maya is the author of the vastly dissimilar: Star Wars: Shadow Games (with Michael Reaves), The Spirit Gate (a fantasy novel, sans dragons) and Tinkerbell on Walkabout (Detective Gina Miyoko’s genesis tale)

The Spirit Gate by Maya Kaathryn BohnhoffTinkerbell on Walkabout (a Gina Miyoko Mystery)

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Questions from a hopeful Neo: Why do I have to choose an audience? — 1 Comment

  1. I too fell victim to the Marketing Department with “Confessions of a Ballroom Diva.” Three editors panted breathlessly to buy the book. Markets couldn’t figure out what to do with a Psychic Vampire competing on a celebrity dance show, the chief judge is the Vampire Hunter who staked her at Woodstock in 1969…

    Honestly, get me a gig on “Dancing with the Stars” as a competitor, or guest judge, or even in the audience pointed out by the host. Instant best seller. But they didn’t know how to get off their duffs long enough to make a phone call.

    You’ll find the book and its two sequels here on BVC.