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.
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
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.
I've been noticing a heavy push toward audiobooks on various writing blogs lately. I have no idea why it is suddenly "THE THING TO DO," but before too many of you run off to find the nearest microphone, let me tell you about my own experience.
Ugh! I've tried using audio books
as a marketing plan, too, and it was a spectacular failure. I chose to
try out this format on my best-selling book, Beyond All Price. My choice
of a production company was ACX, the Amazon affiliate, because they handle the
contracts between author and narrator and do all the final formatting. I got to
audition several possible readers and selected a talented and experienced woman
who seemed to be a perfect fit. She agreed to do the job on the basis of a
50/50 royalty split. If I had had to pay her on an hourly basis, the cost would
have run into several thousand dollars.
Too late, I learned that royalty
splits are a bad idea because the narrator does not have any immediate hope of
getting paid. As a result, the project goes to the bottom of her list of
priorities.This project stretched out for over nine months because the narrator
had other paying gigs and concerts (she was also a professional singer) that
took up her time. The whole thing was easy for me, but I, too, found myself losing
some of my enthusiasm as time passed.
All I had to do was listen to the
tapes at the end to make sure there were no obvious errors, and I think we
ended up with a great product. However, it simply has not sold. My readers are
not the kind of folks who listen to audio books, apparently. They don't
drive cross-country, or go to the gym or do other mindless things that would
give then the time to listen. If they travel by car, they also have a spouse
and children who aren't interested in historical biographies. (Beyond All
Price runs for over 13 hours.)
ACX sent the narrator and me 75
code numbers apiece; those numbers could be exchanged for free copies. The idea
was to distribute them to our friends so they would write reviews for the
website. I soon learned that I couldn't give the audio versions away, even by
running contests. I still have over 50 left. My narrator had the
same problem. And then we realized that we would receive no royalties on those
give-away copies. So we had exhausted our small supply of readers by
giving the product away. The result after six months of publication?
There are exactly 18 copies in circulation beyond those we gave away, and the narrator and I have each
received payments of approximately $50.00 total. I feel really bad for
the narrator because she did all that work for free. At least I only spent a
few hours on the project. But I'll never do another one.
Maybe it's a great idea and I just
did a lousy job of marketing. Maybe I don't really believe in audio books (I've
never purchased or listened to one), and if you don't believe in something, you
can't sell it. Maybe I'm just an old fuddy-duddy who's stuck in a rut, but I've
gone back to writing the next book, where I know what I'm doing.
Once again, you have to know a lot about the people in your audience before you can decide on the best way to reach them.
I just "scooped" an important post about writing and egos and audiences. You'll find it at:
among other places.
The message rings true to me this morning because most of my week is filled with other people's writings, and I'm realizing how important it is for a writer to step back and think about the people who are going to read a particular book. I'm one of a group of judges working on a major writing competition. As such, I'm reading stuff I might otherwise never have picked up. And what an eye-opener the experience has been.
I'm spotting contradictions between form and content that I might never have recognized in my own work. I'm thinking about symbols, and how they can mean different things to different people. For example, I just ripped someone for using a symbol in his company logo that can represent a very negative impression on others. Then I looked across the desk and saw my own books with their black cat logo. Now, I have a beloved black cat, and to me that little symbol reminds me that Miz-Miz is asleep on the rocking chair across the room, patiently waiting for me to have some time to scratch her ears. How cute she is! But for others? Black cats also mean bad luck, don't they? Maybe my logo needs a little modification.
Other examples of failure to think about the reader are all around me. Several of my assigned readings have an ego-specific component, which in itself is fine, but all too often there is also an underlying assumption about the superiority of one's own nationality, or faith, or ethnic background, or gender, or skin color. What happens when a reader finds himself (or herself) being condemned for the sins of another individual? How does a male reader react when a female author makes a judgmental remark like, "All men are little boys." As writers, we like to think that our stories tell universal truths--that they hold up a mirror to the world. But what if that mirror shows only the reflection of the writer?
I look across the room at the stack of books waiting for me to assign a ranking, and the responsibility weighs heavily upon me. I keep reminding myself that each book contains the heart and soul of its writer. How can I presume to judge another author? In this context, Roy Faubion's piece, "Remember the Reader," offers a useful guideline. A book that offers something to its readers will touch the world. A book that reflects only the writer's ego pales in comparison.