One thing that is easy to do when you’ve written for a while is to let others do your thinking for you. I expect a reaction to that statement. Shock! Indignation! “What do you mean? I do my own research, create my own characters, develop my own stories – How dare you!” That’s not what I meant.
In one of my earlier posts I mentioned that when we publish we need to put in print something others are going to want to read. Doesn’t it make sense that each of us make an effort to find out what that is? Each of us has a group, a constituency, a segment to which we want to speak. Why not ask them what they want and like? As important, maybe more so, ask them what they don’t want and don’t like? I recommend this highly.
Why is the first paragraph’s topic sentence worded in a way that suggests we allow others to do our thinking? Because in our rush to please the industry’s “gate keepers,” we lose track of the most important fact: Readers buy books, not agents, “experts,” and publishers. Sometimes, industry folks, being so close to the trees, find it difficult to visualize the layout of the multitude of possible forests. We need to find a way to please both.
Each of us is creating our own forest when we write to publish. It’s better if our forest is not one bush. The way I try to be sure my books will address the wants and likes of my targeted readership is to ask them by the use of a questionnaire.
Here’s what I’ve done five times in the last twelve years. I have a list of ten to fifteen questions I ask a sample of book-buying readers. I get the results by standing outside book stores and libraries. (Yes, I’ve been run off a time or two.) I also get some answers from appearances and signings though I’m careful to restrict those observations to a quarter or less of my sample. The sample size goal is 200, but I’ve never done less than 202 and the largest sample was 231. My samples are strictly taken from readers who buy the genre of books I write. I quantify the results by gender and age. The best way to explain what I do is to provide you with an example.
Question – What are the biggest complaints you have about books you purchase?
a) Book starts good/fails to maintain interest
b) All action, no story
c) Too complex
d) Too slow moving
e) Too much like other books in same category
f) Ridiculous/Insults my intelligence
g) Language too complex
h) Language to elementary/childish
I) Other – write-in
The alternative answers for each question are expanded as new answers garner a significant response. Results for the example, expressed as a percent of the times checked on the sheets, for my most recent questionnaire, were: a) 65% b) 39% c) 20% d) 60% e) 59% f) 31% g) 17% h) 23% i) 6% . These figures vary, but items a, d, and e always lead the list though in different orders. I further refine the results by male and female observations (quite different at times) and by age groups in ten year increments.
An interesting portion of the questionnaire is the part where I provide an open opportunity for the person to express their “pet peeve” and state what’s their favorite reading experience. The answers are often the most illuminating.
For example: “I hate the increasing number of books I buy where everything is loaded in the first few chapters and the author doesn’t seem to know how to continue.”
And: “The lack of originality and the sameness of the novels I read bothers me. This is particularly true of stuff from the major publishers. It’s like everybody writes to the same template. Same style. Same everything. It’s like they were written by artificial intelligence on a computer.”
When I sit down to write, I know what I should strive for and avoid … to please the specific audience I want to draw. My questions are crafted to find out things I want to know like- Do you disregard or dislike prologues? (Answer a resounding – NO!!) The great part is each of you can pick the brains of your desired audience by customizing your own questionnaire. It’s a lot of work, but in the end you’ll know, not guess, what your readers want.
If you’d like more info on what I do, go to my web page and the contact link to ask questions.
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