“No decent career was ever founded on a public.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
There was a time when F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t keep Zelda in mint juleps. This was a terrible thing since every southern belle graded her husband on mint juleps.
Poor Scott only earned $879 from his short stories in 1919, meaning he didn’t even have to file a tax return. Same goes for today (I asked my accountant and she said I didn’t have to file one, either).
Zelda probably spent that $879 the first week and, since Scott had that southern disposition — gallantry and all — he turned around and earned $17,687 the next year, placing the couple in the top two percent tax bracket (you’d have to earn well over $100,000 a year to be in that bracket today).
You might say 1920 was a banner year for the Fitzgeralds, with 11 short stories sold to magazines for $3,975, four short stories to the movies for $7,425 and $6,200 in royalties for This Side of Paradise. From then on, including his time in Hollywood, Scott averaged $24,000 a year (which my accountant says is still more than me).
If you mentioned market penetration, you’d probably be slapped silly by Gertrude Stein and followed home by Anais Nin.
Now, if this was today, you’d probably go straight to the analytics, calculating the market penetration, demographics, response rates. Then you’d write a blog titled “10 Ways to Increase Your Audience,” concluding that Fitzgerald figured out his audience and that led to his success.
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald didn’t have the benefit of analytics in those days. Neither did any of the other writers of the “Jazz Age.” If you mentioned market penetration, you’d probably be slapped silly by Gertrude Stein and followed home by Anais Nin.
(Anais Nin, by the way, did well in the erotica market before there even was an erotica market. She and her friend, Henry Miller, found their own niche which, unfortunately, also had them banned in many countries — including the U.S.)
I know analytics have turned us all into “stats fans” (sort of like sports). Once we’ve got the numbers, we become experts.
Well, maybe they do, but as Steve Jobs once said “Audiences don’t know what they want until you show them.”
As one writer said in a post “There’s nothing wrong with writing to an audience. That’s what writers are supposed to do. And analytics help us know what our audience wants.”
Well, maybe they do, but as Steve Jobs once said “Audiences don’t know what they want until you show them.” I tend to agree with him. It’s one thing to say, for instance, women love romance novels. Trouble is, only 40 self-published authors (that’s where most romance novels go, folks) are successful, compared to hundreds of thousands who aren’t.
Here’s the thing about audiences: They’re like cats. The minute you show them attention (or you want their attention) they walk away. It isn’t until you start doing something else that cats suddenly crawl all over you.
As I said, audiences are like cats, and successful writers probably understand cats better than most people.
Writing isn’t a profession of getting what you want when you want it. There are always rare and remarkably strange exceptions like EL James, but the life of a writer is far more like author Anne Enright (The Green Road) who’s won two Man Booker awards, and only sold 9,000 copies of her book in the U.K. (her home turf, even though she’s Irish).
As I said, audiences are like cats, and successful writers probably understand cats better than most people. I ignore cats entirely, and they love me to death. My first published short story (Rosebud Magazine, 2001) was written with a cat on my lap — which explains the hair on the final draft.
So if audiences are like cats, what is it that attracts their attention? Well, essentially it’s the same thing. You have to let them come to you. Go about your business, show them you’re not needy. As soon as they see you’re not needy, that’s when cats — and audiences — become needy.
Fitzgerald wrote about wealth, attaining it, losing it and all the nuttiness in between.
Crazy as this sounds, it’s exactly what Steve Jobs was talking about. Audiences don’t know what they want. Fitzgerald didn’t know what they wanted, either. Like all the writers at Scribner’s, they didn’t come to Max Perkins (chief editor) with novels. They came to him with consistent themes.
Fitzgerald wrote about wealth, attaining it, losing it and all the nuttiness in between. Hemingway wrote about being a man. Erskine Caldwell wrote about the poor south. These themes are what sold books to millions of readers.
If you read the biography of Maxwell Perkins, he wasn’t interested in who the novels reached. He was far more interested in who the author was. As he explained, “It’s not so much the construction as its intention.”
By intent, he means you must have a distinct voice, a clear understanding of one thing (I’m sure it amazes people that Hemingway only had one theme). Once audiences see you’re your own man — or woman — they’re interested. They want to know more about you. They want to read your intentions.
Same goes for audience-driven writing. It gives the reader a headache as well.
As Nolan Gould once said, “In this world, one thing you should definitely strive for is originality. Just be who you are, and be your own person. That’s what will make you stand out.”
When you write to an audience, you’re really swinging a catnip ball around. Sure, the cat wants it — all cats love catnip. They also know it gives them a splitting headache after a while. Same goes for audience-driven writing. It gives the reader a headache as well.
If you’re serious about writing, then you have to be serious about your intent. To say “Well, I’m writing to my audience,” well, that isn’t a goal. You can’t pander and expect anyone to see you as anything but a panderer.
Sales of what we call “popular categories” look like too many catnip balls — and not enough originality.
Think of writing as being one of many people in a room with a cat. If everyone starts shaking catnip balls, who does the cat go to? It’s confused and eventually takes a nap instead. That’s what book-reading audiences are starting to do. Sales of what we call “popular categories” look like too many catnip balls — and not enough originality.
In other words, stop being needy. Find your own intent, your own theme, and let the cats come to you.
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.