Of Authors and Audiences

I’ve been thinking lately about authors I’ve enjoyed through he years. Some I’ve “been with” a long time. Some I’ve discovered only recently. And some have fallen by the wayside. Considering how we are constantly told our success as authors depends on finding an audience, perhaps there’s some value to discussing the different ways authors might lose their audience and some ideas for keeping them.

People change. Authors change. It’s quite clear that some authors I used to love are not the same people they were when I first loved their work, and it shows. We’ve diverged over the years to where I just don’t enjoy their work as much as I used to. The things I loved about their earlier work are evidently not something they care about any more.

Now, the flip side of that is that I’ve undoubtedly changed, too. I may care less about certain aspects of their writing than I used to, too. Perhaps while our respective changes only “bumped the dial” a little bit, collectively it was enough to put us on different stations in the end.

Oh, I can still go back and enjoy the books that made me like them in the first place, certainly, but I just don’t pick up their new books any more. And while it’s probably flattering to an author to have people devoted to their old books, financially it’s a problem. We don’t get money from readers who only re-read the books we wrote years ago. We need to them to remain excited about our latest works as they come out.

Some of this may be related to our target audience. If we write children’s books we can pretty much guarantee our audience is going to outgrow us at some point. YA writers may be able to retain their audiences into adulthood, but it’s still going to be more difficult. If we’re fortunate, we can enjoy sufficient longevity as a writer to still be around when they grow up and decide to buy our books for their own children.

However, the interests of children do change over time, and as writers we would have to keep with those changes in order to appeal to subsequent generations. I’ve discovered on several occasions that books I enjoyed as a kid feel dated to my kids. If the writer is still writing that way today it’s doubtful my kids will want to read more.

But even among adult writers retaining an audience can be a challenge. Writers’ interests can change, and your readers don’t always change along with you. Numerous writers through the years have had a single break-out novel only to fail to find an audience with their next work, because it failed to meet their expectations in some way. Or worse yet, if all of an author’s works begin to feel the same, audiences can grow bored and go elsewhere for some novelty.

Similarly, some writers try something different and find their audience doesn’t follow them. For whatever reason their readers as so interested in their original works they just don’t even want to give the new work a chance. I remember enjoying Terry Brooks’ Shannara books as a teenager, but when he came out with “Magic Kingdom For Sale” the tone was so different I was turned off and stopped reading Brooks altogether. J.K. Rowling, whose initial readers are surely adults by now, still has some difficulty getting her audience to read her adult novels.

Other writers just accept that their audience won’t follow them and instead reach out to build a new audience. Richard Paul Evans switched gears entirely to write YA adventures and did quite well at it, and yet it seems unlikely that the fans of his original adult novels got excited about his Michael Vey books.

Brandon Sanderson likewise has targeted the adult, YA, and middle grade markets with his work and found at least respectable success in each. And yet large portions of his audience do cross over with him. I’m one of them. While his Alcatraz books were different enough they didn’t grab me, The Rithmatist is one of my favorites. I enjoyed his Reckoners series of superhero-esque YA books, but I love his Stormlight Archive series so far and can’t get enough of his modern-day, largely reality-based Legion novellas.

So how do we successfully keep our audiences reading us? Well, looking at the above examples there are a few strategies:

  1. Don’t try. Some writers just accept that their readers are going to rotate over time, whether it’s because they write children’s fiction and they’re going to outgrow those books eventually, or because the writer likes to try different things. If you are prepared to have to continually keep earning new audiences you can still build a career on it. Just learn what audience it is you’re trying to attract, learn what it is they’re looking for, and deliver it in spades.
  2. Stick close to home. Many writers find one genre they’re comfortable in, perhaps even one setting or set of characters, and focus on that ad infinitum. Or if they do branch out a little, it’s within the same genre or sub-genre, or with novels of a similar tone or theme.
  3. Write really, really well. Some writer are able to write so well and/or consistently deliver an intriguing style that their readers will follow them everywhere. In the case of Brandon Sanderson much of his success comes from his consistent style and magic systems. No matter what he’s writing, his readers know what to expect, and it’s what they like most about him. So whether it’s the Mistborn series jumping from fantasy to quasi-Westerns, or epic fantasy jumping to near-future dystopic superhero fiction, his readers know they’re in good hands, and they follow along. Stephen King is another author who seems to be able to do this.
  4. Make sure your marketing is solid. The one things you absolutely don’t want to have happen is for your marketing to convince your reader they’re getting one type of book and instead they get something very, very unexpected. I bailed out on Terry Brooks because I was hoping for more Shannara, and instead got something that almost seemed to be mocking the genre I was expecting. Michaelbrent Collings somehow manages to keep his horror readers, his children’s readers, and his YA readers clued in on what type of book they’re looking at via careful consideration of covers and marketing. It would be a disaster for him if one of his Billy fans were to pick up “The Apparition” expecting it to be a children’s book.

The main take-aways here are nothing new. Write well. Tell a good story. Know your audience. But even if you change things up it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the authors I’ve parted ways with through the years are still happily producing and publishing and making money without me. I may not be reading them, but clearly someone else is. The key is, whatever route you take, make it a conscious effort. Know what you’re trying to do and have a plan for how you’re going to do it. Most lengthy careers don’t happen by accident.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.