"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

The Souls of Readers: A Marketing “Guide”

June 5th, 2017 by

To start the week off, I present here what I am calling a branding/marketing/self-promotion anecdote. (I wasn’t able to fit this under a hashtag, so I’ll just go with the slashes I have here.)

This morning, I walked again with two friends. I am coming back from a health problem that prevented walking for several months, and it was good to get back to this habit. Both of my walking friends are writers, and so it didn’t take too long to get onto the subject of self-promotion and marketing. This is interesting by itself. I imagine writers seventy years ago getting onto the subject of books and stories and favorite writers, not marketing. But that is the subject for another day.

One of my friends began noting that we need to make others aware of our products, and he added this: “You need to ask who your reader is. You need to imagine them. That’s what I had to do—picture them. Who are they? What are they like?”

This is of the sort of advice that I like to call “advice to end all advice.”

My friend was advocating something he read in a marketing self-help guide. Imagine your reader. As a novelist, I imagine my characters all the time. And, I suppose, I am aware of thinking of a possible reader looking over my shoulder, imagining how he or she might respond to the scene I am imagining. And yes, it is always just one reader there at my shoulder, not readers in the plural.

Fiction or Nonfiction
My friend is writing nonfiction—self-help. I see why he might try to do this, to imagine his reader as a character. However, I am writing fiction. As I try to take the advice, to turn from the scene I am writing to that ghostly reader just behind me, someone who might want to pick up my novel and stay with it, I run into roadblocks where it seems the imagining has already been accomplished by an average publishing house marketing department, and in the following key areas:

First, most readers of fiction are women.

Second, most novels are marketed on the premises of genre. There is romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, western, action-adventure, mystery, literary, and so forth. And within each of these genres, there are sub-genres. My novel is vaguely contemporary and, as one writer friend has said, high concept. My main character goes on a reality show where a lot of bad things happen to him, especially in a parking lot outside a Texas barbeque (I don’t think I’ve just given any spoilers).

It is also vaguely Christian, though it doesn’t fit snuggly there. As Christian fiction goes, it could be inventing its own category, which I will, for the sake of argument here, call grumbly Christian fiction. It is aware that it doesn’t quite fit—almost anywhere.

Third, after genre, most will ask about the gender of the protagonist/main character. The obvious connection here is male protagonist appeals to male reader, and female protagonist appeals to female reader, though I have some reason to doubt the universality of this equation. Furthermore, what kind of male or female are we talking about? My male protagonist lives a life in which he seems to think questioning things is a way to belief. This doesn’t win him many friends.

When my walking friend this morning first said that I needed to imagine my reader, the first image to come to my mind was of a woman who is perhaps just two degrees right of center but not tone deaf to good arguments from either left or right of her voting record. She is perhaps between 30 and 50 years old. She has a Master’s degree and is raising or has raised children. She hasn’t lost her idealism, but she doesn’t reject what’s in front of her in the name of some childhood fantasy. She likes to cook good food. She’s white and probably protestant, though I would love to have religious and racial and ethnic diversity in my readers.

The Soul Also Reads
I’m not sure what this does for me, though. Am I only to market to smart, white, middle-age women?

The thing is, I think that my book should appeal to souls, and as with university assessment plans, I’m not sure how to market to this “demographic.”

The novel presents experiences as though actually lived through, and it presents certain perspectives on those experiences. It also raises a few ideas and controversies without the presumption of settling any of them. There are things my protagonist does like “pay attention to the help,” distrust anyone who is selling something, questions those in authority, though never overtly, and doubts his own abilities.

In other words, he’s pretty typical.

End of the Side Walk
At the end of our walk, I had to say that this imagining of my reader had gotten me no deeper into a marketing scheme than I was before. My one friend left, and my other friend, before walking off himself said, “I think you need to just try a lot of different things. See what works.”

I like this advice. Instead of deciding that only left-handed knitters with two male children are my audience, I will, as Ecclesiastes has it, cast my bread on the waters.

I know that this is not good marketing teaching. But it is biblical. And as the preacher says, in so many words, after many days, we will see what will come back.

I offer this dubious “guide” to marketing, of course, hoping to hear from many of you reading this who can offer better ideas. I look forward to hearing from you.

Posted in Uncategorized| 2 Comments


Comment by Lynn Maudlin on June 21, 2017 at 1:54 am

I feel your pain! And I’m really with you on this: “…after genre, most will ask about the gender of the protagonist/main character. The obvious connection here is male protagonist appeals to male reader, and female protagonist appeals to female reader, though I have some reason to doubt the universality of this equation.”

In my own experience, I’m much more likely to be drawn into a book with a male protagonist than a female, although I suspect that’s more about the genres I like: in my teens and twenties, I read a great deal of science fiction and a fair amount of detective/noir fiction. And I absolutely *loathe* romance (fwiw, I also loathe horror, which is different from suspense or “true crime”).

I think you, like me, are more likely to think about the personality than the gender and most of the time *it makes no difference*. When people would complain that the Lord of the Rings didn’t have enough female characters, I was confused – what does that have to do with anything? And one of Tolkien’s primary female characters actually argues that position, that she’d rather ride to war and die in battle than waste away in hiding with the women and the children and the old men! Besides, once you read The Silmarillion and understand who Galadriel is historically (rebel queen!), it gives a whole other perspective to Lothlorien and Frodo’s offer to give her the ring.

I was asked by on of the top A&R guys at Capitol Records, “who’s your audience?” and my response (“everyone who comes to my shows”) didn’t work for him – even in the mid-1980s they were looking for artists/authors to market themselves… I think your casting the bread upon the waters response is appropriate. And you’ll know more, a year from now. The next novel you’ll have a better sense of how to do it, of what worked and what didn’t. You are not Athena, springing fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus!

Comment by Tom on June 22, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Lynn, you and I are very similar in this, and you and my wife also have a great deal in common. She also prefers male protagonists–mainly because of the genres she has read–scifi and mystery.

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