There’s an unfathomable number of articles and blog posts available about the technical facets of publishing, more than we’ll ever need to know. But here I will focus on the one element that’s actually more important than finding an agent or signing up with a particular publisher, and if we go for self-publishing, it will be more relevant than any marketing gimmick we can ever come up with: understanding our readership.
Forget all the political conundrum of traditional versus indie, of paperback versus electronic, of agent querying, publisher hunting and editor fishing.
Agents, editors, publishers, marketers—they all come to the promise of a career, they don’t make a writer’s career. And we have that promise of a career if we have a quality product and understand the readership we will supply that product to. Only then there will be sales, and where there is steady money, there will be a career and an industry to revolve around it. Everything else is nonsensical fantasy.
Industry savvy doesn’t mean knowing how to conform to the environment created by other people’s careers. It means knowing how to create a quality product, place it where we find or generate demand for that product, and create a stream of steady exchange from there on out, that will draw the industry toward it.
Too businessy? Lemme rephrase.
Industry savvy means knowing how to make the industry serve YOU, not the other way around.
We don’t have to stare into the abyss of the publishing industry until we see the bottom, and then dive and hope we don’t hit every protruding rock on the way. I know this is how most fresh writers feel like when they start to seriously consider publishing. There’s a lot of nausea and fear involved, and a strong sense of ceding control to an incomprehensible machinery. But this isn’t what it’s all about. All we have to understand is how an industry is formed, what it is after, and how to draw it on our side and make it dance for us. This is much simpler than trying to dissect it, and the best part is that a lot of it is in our control.
What this means concretely:
1. We must know what we love to write
This isn’t always easy, but it’s absolutely required before anything else. If you’re not really sure you’ve found your genre of heart yet, or a theme you’d love to exploit for the next decade, take your time and figure it out. Uncertainty in this aspect is very destructive, no matter how much we’d love to believe otherwise. We can always change our minds later, but we must never be so naive as to believe that just writing something, *meh, shrug, whatever*, is sufficient to launch a career.
2. We must excell at it
Learn, practice, improve, all the damn freakin time. Every day, every writing session, always. There’s no excuse for not trying, none whatsoever. We all suck, we all trip and break our faces, but we get up and we keep walking. We write crap, we get smashed by those who see our crap, we learn from them and we write better. We listen, we study and we write write write, and get better every time we do so.
3. We must identify the receiving end
Find out who our readers are, and what they want. At the very least, identify our general target audience (how Randy Ingermanson calls it). If we write romance, the demographics (the majority of people spending money on romance books) is made of southern, middle-aged, married women. If we write horror, our readership will be younger and mostly male, and if we write YA urban fantasy, the readership will be predominately comprised of teenage girls. It’s absolutely essential to understand what our targeted audience is and how it can be reached best, when we start planning for our writing career.
4. We must understand our readership’s needs
For this we must mingle. No reading of dry articles and charts will be enough. We must actually go out into the world (physically or electronically), mingle with our readers and understand what they want. Join forums, reading groups, book clubs and reviewing sites, watch the targeted reader in his natural environment, if you will. We must open our ears and eyes and engange in open conversations with our readers, not as authors, but as people and lovers of the genre or theme, understand what they love to read and why, and how we can make our stories better fulfil those needs. This is crucial for self-publishing, but also when we query an agent. People already in the industry will smell our command of what matters (building a readership) and it will influence their decision greatly.
What this doesn’t mean:
1. We’re not writing whores
Knowing what our readership is and what it likes doesn’t mean we dance any way it pleases and pervert our love for fiction to make money.
It can always happen that there’s no previously established readership out there for what we love to write. In that case, we do not butcher our self-respect and write something other that what we want just because it sells. We must understand what it is we’re writing, what we love so much about it, who else might love it and how we can find them out there, and we must learn how to create a buzz around something new or different, and draw a new breed of readers to us. This is much more difficult than to write for an already established readership, but it’s also a possibility to make literary history if we understand what we’re doing and work hard enough to give it significant consistency.
2. We’re not used car salesmen
When we find our readers, we do not sprinkle our product with glitter and shove it down their throats. We do not engage with our readers with the sole purpose of fishing money out of their pockets. The only people stupid enough to believe this approach is beneficial to anyone are ill-advised writers. The reader will feel cheated into buying something, and she will resent that writer. No one likes to be courted and coaxed into buying something, even if they might have wanted that product.
Do you like to be approached by a random person saying nice things to you, only to discover ten minutes into the conversation that he doesn’t give a shit about your interests and only wants to sell you a vacuum cleaner? Don’t ever do that to your readers, not even once! In the long run, this creates bad word-of-mouth noise around your name—your brand as a writer—and thus it becomes bad for your entire career. The sale of a handful of books this way just isn’t worth it.
Wouldn’t you rather appreciate that person and his vacuum cleaner, if he engaged in an honest conversation about great vacuum cleaners with you from the start and demonstrated his knowledge of what makes a quality cleaner, and then you discovered he has a good one to offer himself? Wouldn’t you recommend him to your best friend over the asshole who tricked you into buying his damn cleaner and then left?
3. We’re not hitmen
Winning a readership that can sustain our career is not about finding a few targets, hitting the bullseye, and then walking away. We need more than one product and a large number of readers to have a career. Even if our first book sells well, we need to write a second and third book, and have a steady base of buyers and engaged readers that carry conversations about our stories without our direct participation (word-of-mouth), before we can say that we have a writing career. So when we start engaging with our readers, we mustn’t only focus on the immediate, single hit, but think long-term and broad-span.
Okay. Let’s refresh our memories.
An industry is formed around a steady exchange between providers and receivers. To achieve that for ourselves, and have the industry come to us and serve us, we must take control of the providing end and identify the right receiving end for what we offer.
It makes no sense to lose our heads in trying to figure out what goes on inside the industry machinery, unless we’re working for it. As writers, we do not work for the industry, the industry works for us. And it does so when we have something to offer and someone to offer it to.
So venture forth and find the people who love the things you write about, get to know and understand them, and improve your writing by taking their love into consideration. If you realize that what you offer is new and different, create buzz and open conversations around your new and different topic, and draw new readers to it. Don’t waste too much energy dissecting the industry and nitpicking. Instead, understand your readers and make your story shine for them.
This post is part of a series discussing the essential ingredients
that make up a professional writing attitude.