The audience. That’s the big ‘if,’ isn’t it? Who is the target audience? Who will read what we’ve written, tell other people about it, participate in Goodreads discussions and share postings on their Facebook pages?
It starts with a label, of course: YA, contemporary, sci fi, magical realism. The list is long. But it’s considered important to communicate – articulate – what it is that defines this product, who will be attracted to it, and then find a way to sell it to them.
Any marketing strategy requires achieving the proverbial balance between something familiar and something unique. If one author hits the big time with vampire romance, you can be sure that a blitz of vampire romances will follow. But the new ones have to be different enough to avoid saturation, copy-cattedness, creative stagnation. It’s a game, certainly, a crap shoot in some ways. And it’s most assuredly ruled by the marketplace, the almighty dollar. You can’t be a ‘success’ without it. You can’t get published again without it. You can’t pay the electric bill without it.
I’m not knocking book sales. I want them and need them as much as the next author. It’s just that, if we operate exclusively from this perspective, write from this perspective, we become purveyors of a product, can find ourselves determining audience by consumption and the promise of ‘value’ – as in ‘getting your money’s worth,’ or ‘entertainment value.’
But what else might fall under that broad and somewhat intangible ‘value umbrella?’
This is where my story comes in.
This week, a bookstore in my area (thanks, Kazoo Books) arranged for me to visit a private juvenile detention center. It’s called ‘an academy.’ The kids are there by court order, spending anywhere from six months to a year-and-a-half in the program. They’re not there by choice but whatever value they might derive is by their own volition. They can participate or resist but the consequences, as explained to me by the director, are primarily peer-driven. I had no idea what any of the girls had done to get there, only learned a bit about the circumstances of their lives from what they told me while I was there.
Some of the girls in the group arranged for my visit had read my book. A few others had read part of it. The discussion was lively, dynamic, challenging, fun. In fact, it was one of the most stimulating experiences I’ve had in a long time, certainly the most rewarding in direct relationship to my fairly embryonic writing career. Why?
The main reason was that the story I had written provided an excellent opportunity for engagement. It also allowed us to digress a bit into issues that were of particular interest and importance to the audience (teen pregnancy, the juvenile criminal system, lesbian experience.) The girls liked talking about the story. They had questions I hadn’t considered. They made suggestions I wished I’d thought of. But, more than anything, they found the story real. It made sense to them. The characters felt authentic. The results of the characters’ choices seemed, if sometimes disappointing, at lot like what might happen in the world they were familiar with.
One girl said that it was the best book she’d ever read.
No member of this particular ‘audience’ had paid a penny out of her own pocket for the book. Not one had read a review, knew the reputation of my publisher, had met any other authors to compare me to. And that made their opinions more valuable to me than anything else I have so far experienced.
I left in an exhilarated daze. We all could have spent a lot more time together and that was a great way to end. I hope I get to go back. I wish I could follow up on what happens next in their lives but I know that’s not going to happen. I think they might agree that they’d like to follow up with mine.
The point is that, among those girls whose futures are about as up-in-the-air as any teenager’s can be, I found a critical component of my audience. Far outside and beyond the marketplace, we found valuable points of connection.
They, and anyone else who is motivated to think more, feel more, discuss more, evaluate more, are the audience I care most about. They are who I’m writing for.