Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Unless You're an Apple Pie, Not Everyone Is Going to Love You

Who is your audience? Do you write to please everyone?

Genre writers have a pretty good handle on who their readers are, but those of us who write in the more nebulous categories of general or literary fiction don't always have a good grasp of our audience. Since our work transcends literary boundaries we sometimes make the mistake of thinking it transcends demographic boundaries, too. We want our book to be the one that everyone is reading in the subway car, on the beach, in the airport. We want our book to be the one that cuts across all audiences, that appeals to grandmas, hipsters, and middle-aged men alike. We secretly hope that our book will be the one that will unite the world and usher in a period of world peace--or at the very least, be at the top of the bestseller list for an obscene length of time.

I'm a firm believer in dreaming big, but there's no point in shooting for the unattainable. You can't be everything to everyone. There's almost nothing you can create that will hold universal appeal. Take the demographic groups I cited above--grandmas, hipsters, and middle-aged men--what common interests could these three diverse groups possibly share?

Universal appeal is rare and usually contains sugar.

Stereotypes aside, the point I'm trying to make is that unless you're a homemade apple pie, odds are you're not going to be able to make everyone love you or your work. And that's okay.

In a recent interview with America's Test Kitchen, celebrity chef Mario Batali discussed his process for designing a restaurant. His advice to budding restauranteurs? Articulate your concept in two or three sentences so that potential customers can decide if they want to be part of that experience or not.

Likewise, the very successful big box store, Target, designs their stores to appeal to college-educated, female consumers aged 30-50, many with children still living at home. What do Mario Batali and Target have in common? They are not trying to be everything to everybody. 

This is not to say that you should pick a demographic and then write toward that particular group. As writers, our audience tends to pick us--not the other way around. When I was working on a publicity strategy for THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE, I imagined my audience would be made up of middle-aged ladies who were avid readers. When I attended a few book groups, however, the older ladies had a tepid response compared to the younger members of the group. Now, several years removed from the release of that book I have a much clearer (and surprising) idea of who made up the core audience--95% of my fan mail, positive reviews, and mentions in favorite book lists has come from men, ages 25-35. Not that I Google my book or anything...

The take away here is obvious, but worth remembering: You should always write for yourself first, but when your work reaches the wider world don't feel slighted if it doesn't suit some people's tastes. Having a narrow audience can be a good thing. In the words of author Paul Coehlo, "If you try to please everyone, you will be respected by no one."

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