Friday, September 14, 2012

Cues from the Coach: Q and A

This month’s question comes from a man whose first book was published in the early 2000s after a decade of futile efforts to place his manuscript with an agent. Despite some good feedback from his submissions, he received no offers of representation. His disappointment and frustration spurred a multitude of questions that we will consider, among others, over the next months.

Here is one that applies to many aspiring writers—one that doesn’t always receive the consideration it deserves. Does a writer need to identify “market” before starting a book?

Consider this scenario: You have a terrific idea for a story. Do you sit down at the computer and begin writing? Do you decide first who will likely be your reading audience? Does it make any difference who reads your book?

I’ve heard writers say, “My book is for everyone.” Really? Think about it. Does this even make sense?

Let’s suppose your story involves an African safari. How would you write it for your five-year-old son, grandson, or nephew? Would you focus on the animals and how they live? Would you team up with an artist to create cute drawings of animal families in the jungle?

What if your safari tale is aimed at preteens and/or young adults—how would it differ from the five-year-old version? Do you think a more sophisticated storyline would be in order? Perhaps you might want to interject a mystery or something about attempts to create an animal sanctuary.

On the other hand, an adult safari story might be a thriller, a tale about poachers, or the threatened extinction of a species that’s being hunted and slaughtered for some expensive body part. Or it might be nonfiction, a report on the need for more refuges as humans continue their relentless encroachment on natural habitats. This might include photographs and on-site reports that support your book’s premise and help you make your case. As you can see, the adult approaches differ from each other as much as they do from the juvenile and YA stories.

Clearly, market needs to be identified. Just as one size clothing does not fit all, one approach to storytelling does not meet the needs of all age or interest groups. Nor does a book aimed at the technical computer market fit the bill for someone who wants to become an online business whiz. We have the clich├ęd apples and oranges.

How do you write for your market? Have you written for more than one age or interest group? As a reader, how do you choose books you buy or borrow from the library?

Linda Lane and her editing team want to help writers learn to write well. She will soon be opening an online bookstore of family-friendly books that promote literacy and encourage renewed interest in reading for pleasure. Visit her editing team at

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  1. Yes, you need to know your market while you are writing. You must know what it is before querying an agent. I won my book contract based in part on the promotional campaign that my agent required. The choice of publication came down to the promotional plans. If you write it, readers will not come without you telling them why they want to invest time with your story.

    With years in marketing and being the director of communication for the local arts council, I know virtually everyone in my area. So, that's where my promotional plan began. And my book is still on schedule for April.

  2. Betsy, you've expounded on a vital element of book sales and a natural extension of knowing and writing for your market. Good promotional planning and reaching out directly to your intended audience is an essential part of the process. This is necessary for traditionally published writers and even more so for independently or self-published ones. A great book will not reach its intended audience without good marketing.

    Thank you for your excellent comment.

  3. While I completely understand the importance of promotion and having a marketing plan, a little part of me is saddened that marketing propels publishing now, not content. I have seen some poorly written books reach best-selling status based on clever marketing, while gems are overlooked. Just the idealist in me wishing we were still in the golden age of publishing. (smile)

    I do agree that we have to know the audience we hope to bring to our books.

  4. Maryann, those of us who are first and foremost writers almost always migrate toward content as number one. The harsh reality is that sales are largely due to great marketing rather than stellar content.

    The good old days of big publishing houses that nurtured and marketed their stable of writers is a thing of the past. Now the publishing scene changes so fast it's almost impossible to keep up whith what's working today, which likely isn't the same as what worked yesterday or will work tomorrow. The other side of that coin, however, gives hundreds of thousands of writers a chance at publication that they never before would have had. While this is, at best, a questionable perk in many cases, it remains our reality.

    Ideally, we can keep content quality foremost in our minds as we write for our audiences and plan our marketing strategies. It's a lot to think about and places much more responsibility on the shoulders of writers than we had to deal with in the past.

  5. I think it's a delicate balance between writing that which remains true to oneself and that which is accessible to a chose audience. I'm aiming to build up a "market" based on readers who love the same things I do - that way I get to write for me, but write for real readers at the same time.

  6. Sounds like a plan, Elle. You're so right about that balance — it's next to impossible to write about something that doesn't interest us.

  7. A lot of things about writing can be related to the world of theater. Audience and motivation! Elle, I like your idea of a marketing plan that lets you write for yourself. :)

  8. My current work includes the voices of three generations of women starting with a fourteen-year-old. I'm writing for a womens' lit market, yet have wondered all along if the young voice will throw off some readers. You've given me a lot to ponder here.

  9. I totally agree with this, and rather than limit your readership by defining a niche, you actually create more opportunities to sell your book if it's clearly defined as you suggest, Linda. Very good post, and I look forward to reading more about this. BTW, the same theory applies to marketing online. For example, if you write a yoga book, look for yoga bloggers to host a promotion, not generic book reviewers. Makes sense, right? Maryann, the Golden Age of Publishing is a myth. ;) Content has always been important, and all the old publishing houses knew that marketing could and would make or break a book. And, boy, did they make their authors travel to promote! Can you say tired? I like the online options much better, not to mention the control an author has over his own life and time today. Good old days of publishing - snort! Not the way I saw it in the eighties when I was representing some major imprints. It was brutal.

  10. I guess I ended up with some disagreement after all. LOL.But not the blog post, just within the comments.

  11. Liza, I recognize your quandary from among several of my own clients: does their look at a child's life make it an MG book, YA, or an adult book? It all depends on intent, voice, POV, how old the protagonist is at the climax—all sorts of things. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd) had a young protagonist all the way through yet was definitely an adult book. Same with The LIttle Friend (Donna Tartt). The distinctions can be tricky!

    But if you start out knowing, as Linda suggests, your intentions will transfer to the writing and make your intended audience clear.

    As to Maryann's comment: if you want to write only for yourself, you have no bounds! But a book intended for publication requires that its intended audience can be found and marketed to. I think a real writer will always write the story they love, even if it has to be within the known boundaries of a market.

  12. I write books I want to read, so I guess that's how I determine my market. My short stories are contemporary romances, but my full length novels are all either romantic suspense or mystery.

  13. Audrey, I agree that it's very rewarding to write for ourselves, but it's just as important to keep our audience/age group in mind. It's a bit of a balancing act, I think.

    As for the theatre — a great book runs like a movie in the mind of the reader. The images in the mind will be just as vivid as any on the silver screen. We want our reading audience to laugh, cry, applaud, scold, all the things they would do if they were watching the show rather than reading it.

    Liza, you raise an interesting question about multi-generational characters. I don't think it will be a problem because all of us who are older were once fourteen and can relate to that age -- provided the older characters carry the larger portion of the story and interact realistically with the teenager. Let me know how it goes. Sounds like an interesting story.

  14. Yes, Dani, audience and marketing are like fraternal twins. While they're not at all identical, they grow up side by side as a book wends it's way down the path from concept to completion. Creating those marketing opportunities along the way can add up to significant sales; we need to pay attention so we don't pass any of them by.

    Kathryn, The Secret Life of Bees is one of my favorite books.

    Terry, as long as your books are selling, you're successfully reaching your audience/market. That makes your situation a win-win in my book. :-)

  15. I like writing for the "audience" better. Know if you're writing to little kids or adult women or business people so you can speak to them in their language - or you'll be in for total rewrite later. After the first draft, then you can determine the "market," whether it will be a romance or history or whatever and add the appropriate elements.

    Mine started out a family memoir, but was so historical I wrote it for middle school use. The schools don't usually care, though, instead seniors who lived through WWII are my biggest fans and university libraries order the book. Go figure.

  16. Linda, you've nailed it. Audience is very important, and speaking the right "language" makes your book their own. However, sometimes the members of that audience come from unexpected places. As you said, go figure. :-)

  17. I've heard it's best to write the book of your heart. After it's done, though, if you want people to read it, you need to have some idea where it fits in the scheme of things.

    Morgan Mandel

  18. Morgan, what you've heard probably is true. Our readers know when we write from the heart. You're also right that giving our story direction (aka directing it toward a particular audience) is equally important. We mustn't forget that second step.


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