Wednesday 9 February 2011

Knowing what's wanted

I think that all of us who write struggle with one big question: what do readers want? And it's a really difficult one. No-one knew that readers wanted Harry Potter until Bloomsbury finally picked it up, and no-one could have predicted that Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves could have become a runaway bestseller. Truss's book had a small initial print run, but it just went on selling. A wonderful and deserving book, but it was genre-less, and no-one could have expected so many readers to want to read a book about punctuation. So her follow-up about modern manners - Talk to the Hand - should have sold well too, shouldn't it? But it wasn't nearly so successful. Then there was Stephen Hawkin's A Brief History of Time; another bestseller (although apparently most people never managed to get through it; it was far too complicated. I knew better than to try). And the lovely No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series; hardly a conventional read, but very successful indeed.

So maybe we don't know what readers want quite simply because they don't know, either; that is, until they find it. And then they realise that that's exactly what they wanted all along. As a reader, I can understand that. But as a writer, it's of no help at all!


  1. What a fantastic point. As a reader, I may well know some general things I'm looking for, but I never really know if a book is on my hot list until I've read it. I never really thought about the implications of that as a writer. I'm not sure I care for them. hahaha

  2. Glad you agree, Nevets! Now, where does that leave us?

  3. The lesson I take from all these unexpected bestsellers is that there's no point in chasing the market. If your muse is for something that no-one else is reading, follow it anyway...

    After all, who wants to write hackwork? Unless it's yout livelihood, you don't have to.

    I doubt I'd have much more chance of getting published by following the trend and writing "Wuthering Heights and Vampires" than I would pursuing my own resolutely uncommercial path anyway!

  4. An interesting point since I have recently been asked by a fellow club member to read the first part of her WIP and decide what genre it falls in.
    I think Tim has said more or less what I was going to. Perhaps we should just write to please ourselves and hope that some far-sighted agent will recognise its merits.

  5. Hi Tim. You're right, of course. Adn you cant' chase the market, because that bit of the market, by definition, has already been done.

    Hi, Keith. Yes. If we don't please ourselves, we can't expect to please anyone else. We all write becuse we want to (and are driven to - most of us) and therein lies the pleasure. But the money is nice (if it comes at all!).