Thursday, February 12, 2015

How Selective is Your Audience?

Joe Clifford’s name has lingered on the periphery of my consciousness for close to a year, one of those guys I “really ought to read sometime.” About ten percent of those guys actually get read. The fault is all mine. There are too many good writers and good books, and not enough time.

Then I went to Bouchercon in Long Beach and saw him on a panel, learned more about him and his writing. That bumped him up near the top of the queue. (The last writer to get such a Bouchercon Bump was Les Edgerton, after seeing him in Albany. If I end up liking Clifford’s books half as much as I like Les’s, the trip to California was worth it, right there.) Clifford’s Junkie Love is still a few books down the list, but his blog has caught my attention. He posts about once a week, and I’ve yet to read anything that was not thought provoking and well-conceived. Definitely worth checking out.

Last week he wrote about forgiveness, and morphed it into a discussion of audience. (I’ll wait here while you check it out. It’s worth both our time.) He references a friend named Joe Loya, who changed Clifford’s views about writing for an audience. (The abundance of Joes in this story forces me to stick with last names. Sorry if it seems impersonal.)

Clifford had been of the opinion to keep the audience in mind at all times. (I’m paraphrasing. You want the straight scoop, read the damn blog. I gave you the link.) After a chat with Loya, Clifford has reconsidered. Loya’s money quote: “I tell my students, find your audience. If your audience is ten people and a chapbook, then it’s ten people and a chapbook. Go out and write your story.”

This resonated with me. I had come to a similar conclusion a couple of years ago, fortified by the (limited) success conferred on me by the contract and reviews of Grind Joint, and the Shamus nomination for A Small Sacrifice. Not to be an arrogant ass, but I knew what I was doing, and I was good at it. There were people who enjoyed and appreciated it. Maybe not enough of them to make a living at it (certainly not so far), but enough to give me comfort on long winter nights that I was not some poseur dicking around as an “artiste.”

My concern was, that’s the kind of attitude a person takes when he doesn’t have the balls to take the chances needed to rise above the crowd. Having come to respect Clifford’s opinion as I have, I consider Loya to be thoroughly vouched for; his concept explains a lot. It’s not unfair that James Patterson/Dan Brown/E.L James sell so well, even though I wouldn’t read any of them for money. (It’s not personal. What they write isn’t to my taste.) That’s fine: I’m not their audience.

We can only control our output, based on the gifts we have. Rare is the writer who gets to choose his or her audience; audiences choose us. Paraphrasing Loye, write your story, own your book, and see who comes to it. By all means, get the word out as best you can, but the audience that comes is your audience. Appreciate them. Love them. They’re giving you their two most valuable possessions: their money and, maybe even more important, their time. Just don’t pander to them. People can spot a phony.

Thanks, Joes. Not only did you provide some validation, you got me thinking about it from a different angle, so I appreciate the concept even more than I had before.


tom pitts said...

I was lucky to be at the table when Loya turned on the light. I agree with both the Joe's though. Is that allowed?
To me, the result is inevitable. We've got no choice but to write our story. We may stumble while we find our way, but if we keep at the typer, we'll end up in the same place. That's all God gave us. And you're right, readers can spot a phony, even when they don't realize there's an attempt to fool them, they know when something doesn't ring true, doesn't come from the heart. It's the same with music.

Dana King said...


Both Joes have good points. Authors who don't find a large audience can't complain if they have steadfastly refused not to try to accommodate a broader audience. The ultimate question comes down to "How much should you/do you care?" Everyone will have their own answer for that.

Music (and literary fiction) are good parallels. Contemporary classical composers and 'literary" authors more and more want to write for their perceived peers. That's great. Go for it. Just don't whine when the general public doesn't get your stuff.

Your point about spotting phonies is also well taken, and better put than was mine. Even when taking audience into consideration, there's only so far an author can go before it doesn;t work anymore. Elmore Leonard was able to transition from Westerns to crime; it's doubtful romance would have worked out as well for him.