Who’s Your Audience?

On Saturday, my mom mentioned that they were heading out to a fun local bar to watch the Aggie’s football game. Now, this is the woman who advised me that I could find the perfect man by trolling the aisles at Tattered Cover bookstore during a Bronco‘s game. It used to drive her crazy that my stepfather, Leo, would loll around all weekend long watching football games. And basketball games. And baseball games. Leo passed away a few years back and now my mom is remarried – this time to, Dave, a Texas A&M graduate. When she told me about the plan for the game, I said, “I wonder if Leo ever realized that all he had to do to get you on board with football-watching was to take you to a fun bar?”

“Even if he had,” my mom replied, “he would never have paid to watch a football game.”

It occurred to me that Dave is a wise man, who knows his audience well.

I read an interesting review the other day of Margaret Atwood’s new essay collection, meant to be an examination of fantastic stories. (Caveat: I have not read the collection myself and am relying on the reviewer’s assessment here.) Margaret Atwood has always been a favorite author of mine and I’ve admired her ability to straddle genres. It’s always been my impression that people are somewhat bemused by her science fiction books (Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood), sprinkled amidst the “literary” ones (Cat’s Eye, Robber Bride, Lady Oracle). The reviewer confessed disappointment that she really had little illuminating to say about the genre for anyone who is a dedicated SFF reader. He suggests that those who pick up the collection only as Atwood fans who otherwise don’t read much SFF might get something out of it. And I thought, yeah, but I bet most of the people who aren’t SFF readers won’t pick up this book.

Writers and, more to the point, publishers and marketers, often ponder who the audience for a particular work will be. As a newbie writer, I really hated that question. It was very difficult to imagine who my readers might be, besides “someone like me” (my standard answer) or people who already loved me and thought I was wonderful. I think this is something you get better at knowing, the more you publish. Meeting readers goes a long way towards this. You discover who these people are, who don’t know you but love your stories.

I’ll give you a hint: they’re not like me, either.

In many ways, I still believe that writing the story should be all internal, about what the story and I decide it should be. But there’s a point at which you have to bring your critical eye and think about who will be reading this. Will they understand that reference? Will they squick at some dark detail? Deciding what to do from there is part of the acquired skill of being a professional writer.

Sometimes it means paying out a little bit, in whatever currency that might be, a bit of sacrifice, a little pain, in order to achieve the greater goal.