advice for writers

open book against blue sky with white clouds

Who Are Your Readers?

Warning: this is a mild rant. A rantlet, if you prefer.

I’m speaking as a fiction writer here. I know the situation is different for nonfiction. And yes, I have opined on this topic before. I just checked.

But I’m going to revisit it anyway. Here goes–

Writers are constantly advised to identify their reader demographic so they can direct their promotional efforts accurately.

What is a demographic, anyway? It’s a group defined by factors such as age, sex, ethnicity, education, geographic location, and interests.

For a writer, it’s the people who have bought your books and enjoyed them, with the assumption that they have other characteristics (age, sex, etc.) in common. But can you find out enough about the individuals who have ordered your book online or bought it in a bookstore to discern a demographic? Some (but not all) readers may leave a positive review at a site where you can track them down and find those details. Stalking, anyone?

Even an author who sells books in person at an event (not likely now!) can form only a limited idea of their “market.” Age and sex, that’s about all you can discern visually. And what if your buyers are both old and young, men and women? Is an author supposed to interview them as part of the sales transaction, to winkle out their occupations and interests? Salespeople in bookstores certainly never do that.

Or maybe you write books specifically intended to be bought, read, and enjoyed by a defined group — men aged between 30 and 59 who like golf, for example. How do you know if you succeed? What if people outside that group like your books more than the ones inside it? That golf-loving dude may be the ideal reader you imagined while writing, but what if young women who hate golf like your book? Is that failure on your part? Should you tailor your next book for the golf-hating young woman market?

Even if you manage to collect demographic information about some of your readers, I’m certain you won’t have complete details about every one of them. How does incomplete or inaccurate information help your marketing efforts?

I have to admit, this piece of advice, which I see often, mystifies and annoys me. The only way I know a specific person has bought, read, and liked one of my books is if they tell me, either in person, in a comment on my blog, or in a review. Even then, it’s not always possible to discern an individual behind an avatar or internet persona. Rightly or wrongly, I have only the vaguest idea of my reader demographic. (Hey — some of you folks reading this post are part of it!)

Yes, I know social media is somehow supposed to be the answer. But I just read a piece of advice saying authors should direct their social media efforts to their target market, which assumes we already know what it is.

At that point, I sat down and wrote this rant.

Maybe I’m missing something obvious. Has anyone identified their reader demographic in a useful way? Does anyone have a target market, apart from “children,” “teens,” or “adults?” How do you obtain the necessary data about your readers?

If you want to join my reader demographic, you may be interested in my latest book. It’s available at the pre-order price for only a few more days. And it’s now also available as a paperback.

Cover image for Tales from the Annexe

Available at a special pre-order price of $0.99 USD (or equivalent) from these Amazon outlets
US UK CA AU DE

Featured image by Kranich17 from Pixabay

open books, grass

Creating and Fulfilling Expectations: Books as Products or Works of Art

The book as product: specific word count, story arc, number and types of characters, type of ending, and a cover suited to the genre. It may help its author make a living. Or it may not.

The book as work of art: whatever gives the writer the feeling of having a hand on the lever of creation. It may or may not become a “classic.” A posthumous one.

This is what happens when I’ve been reading too many “how to do it right” posts for writers. (Snarky aside: Judging by the vast amounts of advice we need, we writers are self-indulgent, impractical airheads, fumbling our way through the real world.)

The author of a recent such post expressed acute distress (“I almost cried!”) when a writer admitted they didn’t know the target audience for their book.

OK, all you writers hiding behind your computer screens, is this you? You don’t write your novels for a defined demographic? Well, I suppose YA authors do, but what about the rest of us? I certainly don’t. I feel a ghostly reader peering over my shoulder as I write, but I don’t know anything about them except they’re reading my book and I owe them a good experience.

I write from a need to embody in written language the stories churning in my brain. That’s what makes me sit down and crank out the words, not a market survey that indicates a taste for a specific type of novel in a particular slice of the population.

“What if they find out that … ?” and “Let me tell you how it happened. There was this thing–” These are the sources of story. Not market studies.

Many indie authors see their writing and publishing as a business. Authors with contracts to traditional publishers are nudged to deliver the correct book-shaped products with cover images accurately labelling their genres. Products must be packaged to match customer needs and expectations. That’s totally fine and logical.

Trouble is, not every writer thinks of the books they write as “products,” even if they publish them using the same platforms as do businesslike, marketing-oriented indies. Today, publishing takes many forms.

As they prepare to publish, writers may find it helpful to examine their intentions and expectations. In private, in secret if necessary. Do you want to sell a million copies? Be #1 on some list? Connect with a few readers, a secret society of people like you? Achieve perfection? Become famous? Just be able to call yourself a “published author”? Produce a printed book you can hold in your hands and post pictures of on social media? Every writer fits into one of these categories, or the infinity of spaces between them.

As in other areas of life, it helps to know what you want and act accordingly, with your expectations set to “realistic.” Then you can read and absorb only the advice that’s relevant to you, and cheerfully ignore the rest.

Despite all the expert advice, there are many indies who don’t conform, whose books straddle genres, or mix them up, or don’t belong to any genre at all. What about all those off-beat or zany cover images? (Airheads, right?) From experience I can say those books aren’t all terrible and worthless. Some are excellent, but prospective readers have to be adventurous and take a chance. Think farmers’ market or craft fair, not big box store. Spend a dollar or three and maybe discover a new and wonderful reading experience.

Until the end of July you can do just that at the Smashwords Store. The Summer/Winter Sale continues until July 31st. My books may be found here.

Unwanted Good Advice

A while ago there was a discussion on LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers Group about whether reading “how to write” advice is a waste of time. There certainly is a lot of advice to be had — books and courses and blogs dispensing shoulds and shouldn’ts, dos and don’ts and sententious pronouncements for those who aspire to be Writers — get a professional editor, rewrite no fewer than 55 times, bow deeply to the God of Marketing, blah, blah, blah. On this blog, I’ve dispensed advice as well as commented on it, so I’m as guilty as anyone.

The interesting thing was how many said they don’t bother reading blogs by “just anyone.” Ha! It’s kind of ironic that on a forum frequented by self-published “indie” authors there should be suspicion and distrust of advice from fellow indies. I’m not surprised though, being inclined to argue with such advice no matter where I find it. Statements starting with “You should,” or “Never,” or “Always,” trigger an inclination to challenge. Sometimes I argue myself around in a circle and actually end up agreeing with the statement. Another irony; life is full of them.

My advice to writers inclined to dispense advice — stick to your own experience, describing things you’ve done that worked or did not work. That might actually be useful to others, especially if you include the ideas behind the actions.

I suspect that 100% of writing blogs are written in order to draw attention to the bloggers’ own books. That brings up the final irony for today, which is that we are preaching to the choir — other writers. I’ll bet most people who don’t write, even those who read a lot, aren’t really interested in dissections of grammar or the details of how to write dialogue. Blog posts on how to write, therefore, aren’t very good for marketing, and if other writers ignore them, what’s the point?

That said, practical advice from someone with credibility does have value. In that spirit, I endorse a post on proofreading from Michelle Proulx, a fellow WordPress blogger whose first book is due out in January. While you’re there, check out her post from December 13, featuring a first try at a book trailer for her book, Imminent Danger.