This writing business is tougher than it looks! For most of my working life, I was an academic. I wrote scholarly stuff to prove to other scholars that I was doing my homework. An academic book requires the author to include such deadly material as detailed, endless footnotes, copious illustrations, diagrams and authentic photographs, frequent references to other scholars in the field, a complete recitation of the current status of scholarship in the field, and at least one theoretical framework. It was sometimes boring, but I was pretty good at it, and I had publications with major university presses.
Then I retired and turned to a new field of study—one that had always interested me but in which I had little formal instruction. I wanted to write about a small battle of the Civil War, basing the narrative on a letter collection written by my great uncle who founght there. I wrote the kind of book I knew how to write—full of illustrations, professionally drawn maps, lengthy bibliography, and tons of footnotes. I sent the manuscript off to the university presses I knew, and they said “No, thank you. Not enough theroetical positioning, not enough discussion of the current scholarship in the field, no review of literature, yada, yada, yada.”
So I re-grouped, faced the fact that my audience was no longer filled with fellow academics, decided there was another audience out there, and sent it off to some smaller publishers who specialized in Civil War books. One accepted it almost immediately and I sent it off unchanged from the original. They published it, in all its academic gobbledegook, and offered it to re-enactors and battlefield visitors. it fell flat. Only my friends bought it, and they did so only to be nice.
When the publisher remaindered it, I took back my publishing rights, did a major overhaul, and created the kind of book the Civil War buffs seemed to be looking for. I took out the footnotes, rewriting to put any vital citations into the text. I took out all the illustrations and put them up on Pinterest for anyone who was really interested. And then I tightened the storyline, hired a cover designer to come up with a more appealing picture, and put much more emphasis on the human interest angles. It was still my book. I was still writing what I knew and what I cared about, but this time I kept the reader in mind. And I sold over 700 books in the first two weeks of Kindle publication.
That’s what I call “giving the readers what they are looking for.” KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE!
I still have to remind myself of that from time to time. Almost all of my books are set in and around Charleston, South Carolina. Recently I published a novel set in western Pennsylvania, and my South Carolina readers hate it. It’s not what they expect. I’ve gotten the message. The next one returns to Charleston.
I had a NaNoCabinmate a couple of years ago who tried to talk me into writing medieval fantasy. I could do that and It would probably be fun (I love Harry Potter!). But I won’t do it. My readers know I’m a historian as well as a writer. They comment on how much they learn from my books. They trust me to give them the nitty-gritty, even when it’s not convenient or pleasant. I can’t betray that trust by turning to fantasy and telling them that dragons are real or giving Henry VIII a seventh wife.
One more horrible example set by someone else. A highly selective book award contest recently asked me to review a new book just coming out. It was a war story, but it flashed back and forth between the story of brave and single-minded soldiers in wartime, and the blatantly sexual antics their wives were up to back home. The audience the writer had in mind was quite obvious. (Note: On Amazon, he had one review from a fellow who admitted he read a lot of “erotica” and gave it five stars.)
He was writing for a certain male audience who would enjoy wallowing in their own pornographic fantasies. That was his choice, and he was free to make it. I think he understood that audience. But the poor fellow made the mistake of thinking that everyone would like the kind of book he had written. So he entered a serious book contest designed for military writers. And instead of someone who likes erotica, he got a reviewer-judge who happened to be an elderly military wife. And she was not amused.
Bottom line: You are free to pick your audience. Decide who you want to read your book, and then figure out what they want to read. Then write for them.