The Business Rusch: Audience
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Ah, the sound of bubbles bursting. On television, bursting bubbles have an audible “pop!” so loud it almost sounds like a gunshot. In real life, bubbles make almost no sound as they pop, maybe a faint little wet smack as they cease to be, barely louder than a kiss.
Bubbles really are an apt analogy for dreams. Children get a jar of bubble water, often from a well-meaning adult who then shows the children how to make bubbles. First, dip the round wand into the bubble water, then blow gently, and watch the bubbles—catching light like a thousand rainbows—drift slowly away. Don’t touch them, because they’ll pop, sometimes spraying you with their remains. And even if you make new bubbles, they’ll never ever be quite the same as the old.
Dreams are that way. If you actually touch them, they shatter, revealing themselves to be something other than they appear to be.
Most writers want to be bestsellers—a long-term bestsellers. They want the kind of superstardom that Charles Dickens or J.K. Rowling had, the kind that influences not just one culture, but several cultures. The writers want the money that goes with the bestsellerdom which they imagine to be unlimited, and they want fame—the writerly kind—where people don’t necessarily recognize the writer on the street, but they do know the writer’s name (and whisper it with reverence, since said writer is A Bestseller).
The reality of bestsellerdom is much harsher—and I am not talking about the usual statistics of how many bestsellers there are. I’m talking about something that Tracy Hickman had on his website this week.
For those of you who don’t know, Tracy Hickman is a New York Times bestselling author who has sold millions of books. He has published at least forty different novels in a variety of series, including Dragonlance. He has worked with his wife Laura Hickman and with New York Times bestseller Margaret Weis.
The reason I added “for those of you who don’t know” isn’t because I’m being snarfy about Tracy or demeaning his work in any way. I am, in fact, reinforcing a point he made much better in a blog he posted this week.
That point: bestselling writers—even those like Stephen King—aren’t really well known.
In a post called “Writer Vs. The World,” Tracy explores fame and that desire to get recognized. He’s been a bestseller for more than twenty years now, yet he writes, “Whenever I get to feeling too proud of my career as a writer, I always tell myself the following: There are entire provinces in China [filled with people] who have never heard your name.”
Heck, there are probably entire counties in the United States where no one has heard of J.K. Rowling or Tracy Hickman or Nora Roberts or Stephen King.
Rather than settle for the personal side of the observation, however, Tracy adds this about Jurassic Park—not the movie, but Michael Crichton’s novel, which sold millions and millions of copies, and was the blockbuster novel in 1990 when it appeared. I don’t know where Tracy got his statistic—I couldn’t quickly back trace it (even to do the math myself)—but that didn’t stop me from falling in love with it.
Tracy writes: “Consider this: that book sold to 2% of the total number of readers in the United States.”
The reason I love that statistic is because it feels true. Most people who claim to be readers in the United States Census read no more than one book per year. Even if the statistic is off by a factor of ten (and doing some quick math, I think it is), it still comes out to this: Jurassic Park, one of the biggest if not the biggest novel of 1990, sold to a tiny fraction of the population of the United States.
That doesn’t mean that these people even read the novel. They might have been like some neighbors we had growing up—people who bought every single bestselling book and left it in the middle of their coffee table to spark discussion. Often that discussion would reveal that those neighbors of ours did not have time to read. They always intended to get to the books, but never did.
Tracy’s point about Michael Crichton comes from someone who has been there. Someone whose books have sold millions of copies but who is still, even in his hometown, mostly unknown.
Tracy’s point comes from that moment when sticky fingers touch a floating bubble and break it. Become a bestselling writer and become famous. Well, no.
But really, fame is not what writing is all about. Again, Tracy makes the point better than I ever could. He writes:
“The point here is that you do not have to feel as though you are in competition with the entire world. You don’t NEED the entire world to be a successful writer. What you need is an audience—just enough of an audience, mind you—who reads your words, is changed by them and wants to come back for more.”
An audience. More importantly, an audience that reads and “is changed by” your words. Not an audience who loves them, not even an audience who likes them. An audience who is changed by them, and because of that experience, “wants to come back for more.”
Simple. Important. Usually forgotten.
Most writers never make that realization, and the writers who do rarely share it.
Even when we achieve worldwide bestseller status, we never become super-famous. Writers are never as famous as movie stars, but movie stars aren’t even famous in every province in every country of the world. Very few people ever achieve that level of fame.
What about riches? Michael Crichton certainly didn’t die poor. Some estimates put his net worth when he died at 175 million dollars. But, you say, that’s all movie money. It’s not. For example, Nora Roberts who has been notoriously stingy about selling her work into Hollywood (with only half a dozen or so TV movies from her books) makes anywhere from $28.8 million to $60 million annually—and that’s on about 10% of the cover price of her novels. Imagine if she sold them indie, and got 50%-70%. Do that math. I dare you.
So the riches part can and does happen, even with the least known of the bestsellers. In fact, prolific writers who’ve never had a real bestseller can make six- or seven-figures annually.
The money bubble stays intact then. But the fame bubble—the “everybody knows your name” bubble—that one is a true fantasy. At the height of Stephen King’s fame, when he sold books at the rate J.K. Rowling would twenty years later, and every other movie had his name on it, I met a woman who had named her son Stephen King.
“After the writer?” I asked.
She said, “There’s some writer named Stephen King?”
Even writers like Nora Roberts or Stephen King or Michael Crichton have a limited audience. No writer reaches everyone, and no writer ever will.
Yet writers make all kinds of bad decisions in search of the biggest audience they can get. And writers think of that audience in singular terms.
These writers give their books away for free, hoping to hit some bestseller list and gain readers. They only sell in one marketplace because it’s the biggest one in its genre or its category. Or these writers will pursue a traditional publishing deal, not realizing that most writers who sell into traditional publishing never make much money and will never ever ever hit a bestseller list.
The key to developing an audience is to stop searching for one audience. The key to developing a lot of readers for your books—audiences plural—is to do what musicians do: play a lot of venues.
My husband Dean Wesley Smith has a great blog post, complete with nifty pie charts, on this very concept. He separates the approach into long-term and short-term thinking.
The short-term thinkers try only a few markets and attempt to goose sales inside those markets. The long-term thinkers try to develop audiences in dozens of markets, with the hope that the audience “will be changed” by what it finds and “will want to come back for more.”
An audience can’t be goosed. The audience must be built. And then it must be nurtured. Audiences aren’t fickle. They’ll return when they see a notice of something new from one of their favorites. But if their favorites cease to produce, the audience will move onto something else.
Because you must remember one thing about any audience: its free time and its entertainment dollars are finite. So if you fail to produce work your audience loves, eventually your audience will move onto other things. It won’t abandon you: audiences are very loyal. But your audience will think you abandoned it.
Another bubble floats by—and this one has quality written on its side in rainbow hues. What about quality? the bubble-chasers ask.
You don’t gain an audience if the quality of your work is poor. How many people voluntarily go to concerts put on by grade-school music students just learning their instruments? Sure, parents and friends show up, mostly out of a sense of duty. But what about everyone else—the music lovers, the people who dish out hundreds of dollars every year to hear their favorite musicians in concert? Every town has dozens of free concerts a year by beginning musicians, and yet the only attendees are people forced to be there by blood or by some other obligation.
It’s the same with writing. If your writing grates, if your quality is poor, then you’ll get a handful of the family faithful to read your work and no one else.
If you have published work indie, and no one is buying it, then there’s something wrong. Maybe your blurb is poor or your cover sucks. Or maybe your writing is bad.
Or, perhaps, you have mislabeled your book. I adore music of all types, but I’m not going to sit through concerts filled with atonal jazz nor am I going to attend a two-hour long rap concert. But what if those concerts are mislabeled? What if the atonal jazz concert turns out to be American popular song from the 1940s? Then I probably missed something I would have loved. What if the rap concert is actually hard rock with just a bit of rapping thrown in? Then I’d feel bad that I missed it.
But most of the fans would miss anything that’s mislabeled. We all have prejudices and things we vow we’ll never read. Remember, our time is short and our entertainment dollars few. We’ll buy books in the genres we like and ignore the genres we don’t.
Most writers have no idea what genre their writing fits into. Dean teaches a genre structure workshop every year, and every year, only a handful of professional writers sign up for it. Yet when we assign professionals to write a story in a particular genre, they usually miss the genre entirely. When we ask professionals to label their novels in query letters or in pitches, the writers again put the wrong genre on it.
The correct label assists readers in finding a quality book, yet most writers never learn how to label their books correctly. And traditional writers suffer from this as much as indie writers do. Traditional writers often send their romance novels to science fiction markets, thinking the spaceship makes the story science fiction, when sf could care less about spaceships and happily-ever-after endings. More novels than you can imagine get rejected because the writer mislabels them and sends them to the wrong department in a publishing house. Does that department move the novel to the correct part of the publishing house? Of course not. That’s not their job.
Right away, the writer has failed to find an audience. Granted, the writer is trying for an audience of one—an editor—but the writer has approached the wrong person without even realizing it. (And getting an agent won’t help you here. Agents work by genre too. So a writer could easily send a book to an agent who doesn’t handle that genre.)
Traditional publishers try to build audience but they suck at it as much as writers do. Traditional publishers usually get the genres right, but traditional publishers look at the bottom line too much, and never give books time to find an audience, let alone build one. Series novels or word-of-mouth novels are rarely on the shelf long enough for readers to finish the book and recommend it to five friends.
Indie writers have the advantage here: their books remain in print as long as the writers want them to remain in print. But if the books are mislabeled, they’ll just gather dust on whatever shelf they’re sitting on.
Worse, so many indies do exactly what Dean’s students made fun of in the second pie chart. Those indies don’t even search for one audience, let alone several. Those indies are chasing bubbles—that illusive dream of being a “bestseller” which will make them “rich and famous,” when really it will discourage them, and leave them with nothing except the droplets of burst bubble on the back of their hand.
In my opinion, Tracy Hickman gave the best advice of the week for all writers.
“It’s a big world out there,” he wrote, “but you don’t need the whole world to succeed as a writer. You just need a very small piece of it that is wholly your own.”
Take a cue from the musicians. Go to multiple venues. Learn how to appeal to readers. Make your work available in a variety of formats. Label it correctly. Most importantly, do the very best work you can.
And you will become successful by doing it the right way. One reader at a time.
Every Thursday for three years, I have posted a business blog in this space. If you had told me three years ago that I would have achieved such a thing, I would have laughed. I know I can be consistent, but I honestly didn’t believe there would be a readership large enough for me to give up my fiction writing one day per week.
But the audience built. You folks have returned, and some of you brought your friends. Others linked or tweeted. Many of you donated, because you understand the economics of this blog: it has to earn its way or I’ll take the fiction day back, and focus on the part of my writing that earns more than my daily bread.
As always, if you got some value out of this week’s post, please leave a tip on the way out.
Thanks! And thank you for three years of support.
“The Business Rusch: “Audience” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.