Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Seven Reasons Writers Are A Lousy Audience (And Two Reasons They're Good)

You may have heard some wise writing gurus say it:

"Writers don't buy books."

That's one of those "common knowledge" statements that aren't literally true, but are very much true in spirit.

Sure, writers do acquire a lot of books. We even read some of them. We may even pay a premium price for them. And because writing is a lonely profession, we tend to hang out together a lot... and that's where the problem is.

See, as writers, we're all told that we're supposed to be building a "platform" -- an audience, fanbase or following. This is true of traditionally published writers as well as indies. We need lots of blog followers and Twitter followers and Facebook "friends" and people who comment on our blogs.

And it's really really easy to pump those numbers up with writers. All you have to do is talk about the writing business. Write about book pricing or how to edit or how NOT to edit, or how to get followers for you blog, and how to market, and also about successful indie writers, and how they paid their mortgage last year with just one short story.

Writers are vitally interested in that stuff, so they are really easy to get them to subscribe and follow and comment. They will give you lots of satisfaction as you see your hit counts and follower numbers and other such things rise and rise.

The problem is that these things are not of much interest to people who aren't writers -- to your general readership. Sure they like to hear about the creative process and rags-to-riches success stories here and there, but they are not driven to see it out, and very often too much of it bores them and drives them away.

Now it's true that many writers are not trying to build a platform when they blog or post on Twitter -- they just enjoy the company of other writers. And that's good.

However, if you are blogging and tweeting and all that in order to market or promote your work -- to gain a readership -- you're making a mistake if you focus on writers. Writers are extremely easy to catch, but as a demographic, we leave a lot to be desired.

Why Writers Are A Lousy Audience For Writers

7.) We don't have the time to read like we used to. We all have huge TBR piles because our eyes are always bigger than our schedules. We've got a lot of work to do, and very often we are using our reading time to write.

6.) We don't have the mind space to read. Our imaginations are busy making up our own stories, and often quite satisfied with them. So finding a good book is not as urgent as it is for readers who don't write.

5.) What reading time we have is partly committed to professional needs. To be a real pro, you need to read authors who are better than you are to learn from them. You also need to read for research, and to keep up with the industry. You read critique partners' raw manuscripts. Not much time left for pleasure reading.

4.) We read hyper-critically. We're used to proofing and editing and critiquing. And being on the lookout for things we know we do wrong ourselves. We have pet peeves which are blown all out of proportion.

3.) We buy for the wrong reasons. We like to be supportive of our fellow writers, and we'll buy our friends' books, even if we aren't really interested. Which is fine if you have a lot of "real" readers too. But if most of the people who are buying your book don't normally read your kind of book it throws off the algorithms and "also bought" lists -- making it harder for Amazon to recommend your books to the right people.

2.) We're cheap. Writers are used to being exploited, and not knowing if their next paycheck will come at all, so we are reluctant to part with cash. Other than those "friendship buys" we tend to squeeze a nickel until Jefferson screams.

But the big reason is:

1.) Most of us are not anywhere near your target audience. We gather together because we all like to write. We like each other as people and respect each other's talents. But we don't all like the same or even similar things. In any writer's group, you will find people's tastes are scattered all over the place.

Remember this when you get caught up in all those promotional activities which you hear about in writer groups. Most of the time, those activities work with writers, but not so much with readers. If someone starts a blog or discussion group to promote indie books, you'll find LOTS of writers hanging out there, but almost no regular readers.

The bad thing is that regular readers are much much harder to find and recruit. Readers only become vitally interested in what you have to say after they buy and read your work. Before that it's an idle interest. You can only get those people the old fashioned way -- writing and waiting and writing and waiting. And that's so slow, and so quiet, it seems like it doesn't work, not when you compare it to how easy it is to snag a writer's interest.

Why Writers Are A Good Audience

1.) Writers ARE readers, and love books. Writers are more likely to be open to new writers -- we are the "early adopters." We're most likely to hear about a new writer before anybody else, if only because we read each other's rough drafts. That can bump sales numbers and make you feel good.

Just remember that for most of us, that bump is artificial. Because it was so easy to get that sales bump from fellow writers, it can be like a drug, and you keep trying the same methods to get more sales... to less and less effect.


2.) Sometimes writers actually are your main reading demographic. This is particularly true for literary and "artisan" writers -- who may write things which are a little more experimental, or a little more about the process itself. If your voice and subject matter is new and different, writers may be the only ones who really appreciate what you are doing, at least at first.

In the end, don't measure your success by followers and hit counts. Instead, keep in mind that you may have multiple audiences: one for your writing interests, and a different group for your writing itself.

See you in the funny papers.


a said...

As long as the usual suspects keep pointing out to newbie/wannabe authors just how tempting it is to make yourself popular among your fellows (in terms of giving you hard statistics of "followers," page views, etc.) as a surrogate for doing the work necessary to develop a readership, the new people should have the tools they need to figure out the difference between the two. You've done a valuable service with this post, Camille.

Incidentally, I notice the romance genre is one of the worst for seeming to suck aspiring authors into this internet merry-go-round of hanging out mainly with other authors or those aspiring to be so.

But maybe that's just my impression, because I haven't stumbled across any haunts of, say, mystery writers or (non-romance) fantasy writers.

David Michael said...

I describe it this way:

You are not your market.

Someday I should figure out *why* I have a blog. I suspect it's just because I like talking... =)


The Daring Novelist said...

Azarimba: yeah, a part of the problem is the "big fish in small pond" thing -- writers who get their egos stroked by having lots of young writers following them. They don't have to be good at writing, or even at the business side of publishing -- they just have to be good at attracting followers among newbie writers.

David: LOL! Yes, most of us are blogging because we love to talk. (If you only knew how many blogs I have -- this this is the only active one right now.)

Anonymous said...

Ha! It's funny, I can't argue with any of those points. Pretty darn true.