A Writer's Audience: Important or Not?
One of the biggest debates among writers is whether you should write for an audience or not. This debate goes hand-in-hand with the debate over what defines “good” books—and how it relates to “popular” books.
Some people say screw the audience! That if you consider the audience, you are selling out. That if you write for anyone but yourself, you are selling out. That if you write exactly what is in your heart, it will be wildly popular—and if it is not wildly popular, then at least it will be good writing, unlike those popular books, which clearly feature authors who sold out and write with less coherence than a sock puppet.
Other people say worship the audience. That if you don’t keep your fingers on the pulse of your audience, riding the latest trends, you are ignorant. That if you listen to your audience, it will be wildly popular—and if it is not wildly popular, then at least it makes people happy, and you are not being haughty and self-indulgent, the way those nearly incomprehensible artistic books are.
But before we can talk about whether an audience is important or not, the “proper” way to pursue writing, or even what constitutes “selling out,” I think it might be helpful to talk about our goals. After all, our literary goals radically inform how we think about our writing--as well as how we can most happily and successfully pursue it! So. To help you start that scintillating bit of conversation with yourself (if you haven’t already had it), I’ve composed a flowchart designed to help you figure out why you write with a minimum of buzzwords—and thus, who your audience truly is. Or at least, who your audience truly might possibly have some (however distant) relation to.
All you have to do is head on over to the top of the article and take the flowchart test. Then, read up on your type below the cut. And, because it's such a loaded, buzz-filled word, you may also want to check out what I mean by "consider your audience..."
You are the Hobbyist! You are like the runner who runs not to stay in shape or to compete, but simply because she likes the feel of the pavement beneath her feet and the wind through her hair. You have no wish to share your writing through publication or otherwise, and you certainly don’t leave your notebooks lying open conspicuously where others might find them in the secret hope of being discovered. For you, it’s more about having friends on paper you can come back to, a way to express yourself and the ideas you’re struggling with, and the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction working on any complex project can bring.
For the Hobbyist, audience truly does not matter. If you are writing only for yourself, the only person you need to take into consideration is you.
(Yes, Literati, I know it should be Literatus, but face it: Literati sounds cooler!)
You are the Literati! Your main goal is writing an objectively good book—and that’s an admirable goal. You believe that there is a set of standards that define good books, and that good books are not necessarily the same thing as popular books. You probably love rare words and complex symbolism, and have a strong urge to love incredibly subtle books because of their high degree of artistry. If you aren’t already a member, you yearn to be a part of that clandestine and esteemed club of literary elites, the Literarti—those select few readers and writers speak the secret language of books, and whose writing is pure.
For you, self-publishing defeats the point. You know how biased your own view is, and you want an objective expert to judge your work. If it doesn’t make the grade, that’s fine—you are ready to go back to the drawing board and make it better. But when it finally does, you will know you have accomplished something great—something truly worth doing. The audience of the Literati is not the masses: it’s the experts. It’s those who’ve spent their lives studying good books. And figuring out how to write an objectively good book is in many ways figuring out how to please that most selective audience of experts.
You are the Craftsman! You love books—from pulp to high art to everything in between—and you want to be a part of the industry that creates such gorgeous things. Your goal is to produce a finished product that you can be proud to share with others. You likely see writing as a craft, working hard to improve your writing, taking your audience into account, and always fixing in on your standards. While being appreciated by the experts or ranking on The New York Times best-seller list would be neat, you don’t particularly write for affirmation. Your books are love letters to those first books you fell for, and to the industry that created them.
For the Craftsman, your audience is you—as you relate to each genre and audience. You don’t particularly have anything against self-publishing, but it likely wouldn’t be for you unless you figured out a way to make it up to your standards. The consummate craftsman, you recognize all the expertise and effort that goes into making a quality book at a traditional publisher: the developmental editing, the copy editing, the proofreading, the typesetting, the art directing, the artist, the copy writing, the advertising, the quality printing, the distributing, the who-knows-what-else. A book to you is more than words—it’s a whole package. And more than anything you want to be able to hold that finished paperback book in your hands at the end, and feel proud.
You are the Entertainer! You probably don’t trouble yourself too much over what the experts think. After all, haters gonna hate, and you’re just going to keep on writing things that entertain the hell out of people. You want to tell a story that has everyone on the edge of their seat—one that delights and captivates and has something for just about everyone. You don’t particularly care if your prose is artful, or if everything is super original and unique, or if your writing style can compare to Hemmingway. You want to make it to The New York Times best-seller list—because that is the surest sign that people enjoy reading your books.
You don’t necessarily have anything against the traditional publishers, but you probably think it’s awesome that self-publishing allows more people—including you!--to share their stories directly with the people who will love them. Your main concern is making sure people get to experience your stories, and that those people are entertained. Your audience is the broadest there is—it’s the people! At least everyone in your chosen genre, and sometimes, just everyone.
You are the Insider! You take the idioms “write what you love” and “be yourself” very seriously, and you pour yourself into your writing—as unadulterated as you can. Changing for an audience would likely feel like a betrayal—like lying. You’d rather write the story that is in your heart, and because you were true to yourself, you know that when others love it, you will have found loyal readers with a true connection to you and your writing. And how amazing is that? Using your writing to reach out to random strangers all over the world who somehow have this shared connection. It doesn’t matter if everyone doesn’t love your books—in fact, is probably better if they don’t. You love the purity of audience that your work elicits. When you are amongst fans of your writing, you know you are amongst your people.
For the Insider, self-publishing and ebooks are the greatest thing since the printing press. They allow you to tell the stories you want to tell, exactly as you want to tell them—unsullied by oversight, or by what one or another person thinks will be the next big thing. Your audience is not the experts or the masses—your audience is people just like you—however many people that may be.
Writing Is Whatever You Want It to Be
Of course, why we write is a complicated issue, and we often want to write for all of the above reasons, all at once, or maybe on alternating days. We can want to believe that a “good” book can be a “popular” book—that it’s somehow possible to satisfy both crowds while staying true to ourselves. We want to believe that our dreams, exactly as they are, will appeal to large numbers of people. We pour our heart and soul into a story, and if we choose to share that story with others, we likely want acceptance, on some level, from those we share it with.
But I hope that by considering what you want out of writing, you can figure out how to improve while remaining true to yourself. I’m a firm believer that being yourself doesn’t mean stop improving—otherwise, why would we bother to learn anything at all?—and that writing for an audience does not mean you should sacrifice your style, self, or authenticity. That writing for an audience—as anyone who seeks publication on some level does--just means giving someone a gift they’ll like, rather than giving them the gift you want. And knowing your audience is a great first step.
See also: what I mean by "consider your audience."