Friday, March 2, 2012

Who is the real audience?

The tension between art and commerce is often expressed as a clash between the spiritual and material. At its bluntest and most oversimplified, it's expressed as: Do I write from my heart and tell my True Stories, or do I sell out and make a lot of money?

And of course, it's not nearly that simple. First of all, neither of those things--writing from the heart or writing big-selling books--is easy. It's not a matter of snapping one's fingers and deciding to do it. Coming up with original ideas and polishing one's craft to a shine require tremendous commitment, and effort doesn't guarantee achievement; a writer can still miss the mark. Writing a bestseller does not mean stringing together a bunch of trendy cliches and watching the money roll in.

Obviously, what most writers want to do is write what they love and sell a bajillion copies, but that's the hardest trick of all. And so there's a more subtle version of this conflict that plays out in the lives of many writers: Do I write this story that's calling to me, but that my agent doesn't think he can sell? Do I try to write in the genre that's selling big right now?

There is no single right answer to those questions. A writer may pursue the story that sings to her, but find no readers for it. But there's no guarantee she'll find readers when she tries a popular genre, either. On the other hand, she may try a new genre because it's currently hot and find that she loves it and feels at home in it. That balance of risks and rewards is an individual decision.

Ultimately, it's natural for a writer to want to please herself and to please readers. It's an interesting task we take on: to express something meaningful or entertaining, and to have it relevant to someone outside our own rooms.

I know writers who say they never worry about the audience. And I know writers who say the reader is their foremost concern, that the reader is what it's all about. From reading their work, I know that either approach can produce good books.


  1. I must be totally selfish because the only reader I think about when I'm drafting a story is myself. I write books that I want to read. And I get bored very easily, so every novel I've written is completely different from the last (YA Mystery/Romance, Humorous MG, Historical YA, Contemporary Edgy YA, YA Survival.) If I had to think about what was popular or what I thought would sell, I think I'd go out of my mind. ^_^ I have no idea which story an editor might fall in love with, which one will sell a bajillion, or if any of them will ever reach a mass audience. But I write to entertain myself, the same reason I read.

    1. I think I also write for myself first, but I consider potential readers "to some extent" (how's that for vague? ;-) )

      I forgot to say that I think audience-consciousness can also change as authors get progressively more feedback: first critiquers or teachers, then agent and editor comments, then reviews and sales figures. That feedback can have an effect even if the author isn't intending it to--but then, such feedback isn't necessarily a bad thing.

      And yet there's also something to be said for returning to that wellspring of creativity, and shutting out all the other voices in order to hear the voice inside.

  2. Wow! I tell you, the number of tabbies I could plaster all over this blog would be monumental. I agree with you that writing either book is difficult. Writing is work despite where your motivations come from.

    As for me? Who am I writing for?

    Hmmm... Uh...

    Geez! Talk about making me ponder here.

    Uh... This isn't good, is it?

    1. If you're writing, I suspect you have an audience in mind, even if you haven't articulated it. It's those moments when we're choosing among projects, or wondering whether to abandon a project, or figuring out which direction to take a revision, that the question, "Who am I trying to please?" comes to the forefront.