Thoughts on knowing and targeting your audience

Writing can be a tricky business.  Whenever you do it, it has to be with an audience in mind.  When I do blog posts here, I’m usually aiming for a general audience.  I try not to assume that my readers know obscure scientific or philosophical terminology.  That’s a decision I’ve made, hopefully one I’ve lived up to.

I’ve read many other blogs which are aimed at audiences more versed in whatever subject matter they cover.  Years ago, I contributed to a local technical blog which assumed that the readers were familiar with IT system administration concepts such as group policies, firewalls, or shell scripting, and I’ve frequented a lot of web sites over the years that were gibberish for anyone not versed in programming concepts such as pointers, semaphores, or data word alignments.  Some of the science blogs I read today assume at least a layman’s understanding of physics.

There are good reasons for doing this.  It can save a lot of time.  I know I sometimes get impatient with popular science news articles when the first 75% is spent covering very basic concepts so that the final portion can describe the new discovery or development.  Of course, the flip side is that many people need that basic coverage, and if it’s skipped to save time, many of those readers will be disenfranchised.

When writing books, this remains a crucial consideration.  Many of the computer books I read assume a lot of knowledge on the reader’s part.  They have to, otherwise they’d be thousands of pages long.  And I still recall the history books I had to read in college, where the author was writing about, say, William the Conqueror, but assumed the reader was already versed in 11th century French and British history.

This consideration doesn’t go away in fiction, particularly in science fiction.  (I’d imagine it’s also very much an issue in historical fiction.)  I’m sometimes asked by people, who want to start reading SF, which books they should begin with.  This isn’t always an easy question, because many of the best works in the genre assume a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader.  I still recall how confused I was as a boy when I first started moving beyond media tie-in books.  Literature SF books seemed to assume an understanding of scientific concepts such as Newtonian dynamics, which comic books and the media stuff had not prepared me for.

Something that helped with that transition, at least for me, were SF juvenile books by authors like Robert Heinlein and Lester del Rey.  Today they would be classified as Young Adult.  But unlike much of today’s YA books, these older books educated while they entertained.  I knew more about interplanetary navigation after reading Heinlein’s ‘Space Cadets’ then anything I ever watched on TV.

With that in mind, it seems like an SF author has certain choices to make when deciding how they will approach concepts in their stories.

  1. Cater to the current understanding of the general population.   If faced with the choice of challenging the reader with a new concept or compromising to meet their preconceived understandings, go with the compromise.  This is by far what most TV and movie science fiction does, although it’s also done by a lot of books, and not just the media franchise ones.
  2. Fearlessly explore the concepts without helping the reader.  It’s up to them to already have the knowledge, do research on the side (much easier today than it used to be), or go read something else.  A fair amount of hard science fiction is done this way, and it appeals to a certain type of reader.
  3. Expose the reader to new concepts, but take the time to help them through it.  This can work well if there aren’t too many concepts to digest.  It has to be done carefully, since more experienced readers may lose patience with long explanations on the basics.

Tastes vary.  Star Wars and Doctor Who novelizations can safely live in 1 and sell a ton of books.  Arguably, these books serve as “gateway drugs” for a lot of fans who may eventually graduate on to the more serious stuff.  (The ones in the 70s certainly did it for me.)

But when I did graduate from the media franchise stuff, the first books I gravitated to were those that didn’t challenge me too far.  At first, I was really just looking for more of the same, and only gradually came to appreciate the additional rigor and expansive concepts in the more serious works.  It was a very gradual progression.

The thing is, the higher in the level of challenging material I climbed, the smaller and more specialized the markets became.  I love books by Alastair Reynolds and Greg Egan, but their sales are nothing like that of a John Scalzi or James S. A. Corey, whose books are mostly 1 with some 3 mixed in.

Of course, most books are some combination of the three categories above.  It seems like the biggest sellers live mostly in 1 and selectively bring in 3 or 2.  The higher the weight given to 2 and 3, the smaller the market.  (Although often those markets are fiercely loyal.)

I think one place where 2 is often seen is in the short story markets.  Part of this is that readers are often much more tolerant of far out concepts in something they’ll finish in 10-60 minutes than in something they’ll spend days reading.  Another part is the fact that there simply isn’t time for a lot of 3 in these stories.  And finally, short story readers tend to be among the hardest core sci-fi fans around, and are probably far more prepared to entertain challenging concepts, and generally aren’t satisfied by 1.

Indeed, a lot of authors are more experimental in shorter fiction than in their longer works.  Fantasy authors like Brandon Sarendon and Mary Robinette Kowal seem more willing to do science fiction in short form while sticking to fantasy in their novels.  And John Scalzi seems much more willing to experiment with dark plots in a novella like ‘The God Engines’ than he is in his longer stuff.

All of which is to say, when writing science fiction, you have to have an idea of your target audience.  Do you want to appeal to the masses?  If so, then you may have to roll with a lot of popular misconceptions.  Or do you want to explore more far out, and hence challenging concepts?  Doing so could be gratifying, but it might well come with a much smaller audience.

As an aspiring writer, my own inclinations are to try to figure out a way to make challenging concepts have mass appeal.  Of course, that is far easier said than done.  If your concepts involve posthuman characters or other strange settings, developing a story that resonates with readers who want to read about people whose struggles, fears, and passions they can relate to, is a challenge.

Ultimately I guess every artist has to decide how commercial or avant garde they want to be.  In many ways, we’re lucky to live in an age where the self publishing revolution makes both options equally possible.  Indeed, it seems possible now for authors to dabble in both.

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14 Responses to Thoughts on knowing and targeting your audience

  1. James Pailly says:

    I struggle with these issues a lot, and I’m never quite sure if I’ve succeeded in finding the right balance. You don’t want your readers to feel lost, but you also don’t want to insult the intelligence of your readers either. I try to go with option three on your list as much as possible. Too much of option one feels like cheating, and too much of option two feels pretentious, in my opinion.

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    • My thoughts exactly. I’ve concluded that there’s not any one balance. The good news is that it’s a lot easier for people to quickly look up a concept today than it was when I was a teenager. (Particularly if they’re reading an ebook on an internet connected device.) Although if I as a reader find myself doing that every two pages, it can get tedious pretty quick.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wyrd Smythe says:

    It is probably always true in the arts that there is a choice between the artist expressing what’s truly in their heart versus creating art that sells. Sadly, it’s not often those things overlap a lot.

    Is it better to be recognized as awesome by a small group of cognoscenti (whose appreciation is informed and meaningful) or have millions of adoring (but likely less critical or informed) fans? (You can tell my obvious bias from my phrasing. 😄 )

    I started reading SF in the early 1960s — literally as long as I’ve been picking my own reading material — and a lot of my very first science training came from Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke. I’m among those who love Egan’s work (along with Forward and Hogan)! Diamond-hard SF is some of my favorite kind!

    I’ve always believed it was possible to entertain and educate. Those early SF books sure did. As you indicated, it’s often just one new concept in a book, but over many books, those things start to build.

    One problem, perhaps, is that SF has lost some credibility. So much supposedly “hard” SF turns on such trash science (Lucy being one example and Interstellar another) that it’s hard to know when to take the “science” seriously. That was always a little bit true, but you could usually distinguish the two.

    The deeper problem is the lack of interest in science shown by most. (It’s awful what the various formerly science-oriented cable channels have turned into!) No doubt the percentage of those who love the taste of hard SF is in decline.

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    • Ahhh, the big three. I miss being able to read Asimov, Clarke, or Heinlein’s juveniles for the first time.

      Funny. We were just talking about Piers Anthony and Arthur Conan Doyle and how they got trapped by the commercial success of series they became sick of.

      Authors can probably do both commercial and serious, although they might have to do it under different pen names. An author’s name is a brand. If they make that name with one type of story, fans who encounter the other type might feel betrayed. I still remember the disappointment when I tried to move beyond Heinlein’s juveniles to his later adult books.

      I’m not sure I’d say that hard sci-fi is in decline. The commercial and critical success of Cixin Liu’s ‘The Three-Body Problem’ seems to show that there’s still a lot of life there. But it’s definitely been swamped by fantasy and the softer stuff.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Heinlein is a weird example. His young adult stuff and early serious stuff is classic SF. But somewhere around Stranger in a Strange Land (certainly after) a lot of us found him weird and disappointing.

        He went from, as you say, one of the Big Three, to Wow, What Happened?

        I can think of a few authors who manage to pull of both the silly and the sublime, although come to think of it, that’s not quite the same axis as commercial versus serious. (Even the way we phrase it… commercial versus serious,… popular versus esoteric,… mainstream versus off Broadway,… Why must those things so often seem mutually exclusive? They aren’t for me!)

        I was thinking of Roger Zelazney and Alan Dean Foster, two long-time favorites, both of whom have entire bodies of distinct work (hard SF, fantasy, comedy SF). Reading Zelazney has the added bonus of letting you say you read SF from “Asimov to Zelazney!”

        “I’m not sure I’d say that hard sci-fi is in decline.”

        Depends on what you mean by “decline.” When I said hard SF has lost credibility, all I meant is that even TV and movie SF that looks and feels hard, often is just a lot of phlebotinum. Star Trek, for all that I love it, had what we often termed “the particle of the week.” (One of my favorite lines in a Ten Things You Never See on Star Trek: The Enterprise encounters a strange energy of a type they’d encountered before.)

        There is also, I think that if you consider the entire body of fans before Star Wars (B.L.) to the entire body of fans after (Anno Stella Bella, so to speak), I believe a much larger portion B.L. saw SF as both educational and entertaining. The ASB fans lean more towards a fun ride.

        As you know, we’re now in the era of movies as amusement park rides and even channels formerly devoted to science and education have thrown in the towel. Sad and why I tend to disdain the vox populi.

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        • On Heinlein, I think what happened there is a perfect example of some artists needing a foil to produce their best work. He frequently clashed with the Scribner editor who published them. When that editor rejected Starship Troopers, he found a new publisher. By then, he was “the Robert Heinlein” and could plow through editor objections. Based on what he did from then on, it seems like that Scribner editor kept him from going off the reservation.

          Good point on Foster. (I’ve actually never read any of Zelazney’s stuff.)

          On before and after Star Wars, I think we have to remember that thoughtful sci-fi has always been in the minority. We just tend to forget that majority not so thoughtful stuff. But who can forget classics such as… 🙂

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “…example of some artists needing a foil to produce their best work.”

            I very much agree! (In Heinlein’s case I do wonder if he changed with age as well.) My canonical example of that is Frank Miller, the man behind the classic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. That’s one of two works (Watchmen being the other) that forever changed the comics landscape. Many years later, Miller came out with Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which I thought was incredibly indulgent and just plain awful. I’ve always wondered if no one had the courage to stand up to the great Frank Miller.

            In Sin City, he took minimalism to astonishing heights. What he accomplished with just black and white (no half-tones!) is really remarkable. He used that same minimalism in B:TDKSB (but with color), and it really didn’t work for me. (It could just be me, but it did get a mixed reaction, much of it negative.)

            Equally I wonder about that other trilogy Lucas made (which so many agree was complete trash) as well as Jackson extending The Hobbit to three largely uninspired and mostly uninteresting movies.

            As I mentioned in that post about my college film, we fought bitterly during the making and I’m convinced that’s one reason it turned out so well. I’ve seen that play out in the arts time and again.

            “I’ve actually never read any of Zelazney’s stuff.”

            I think you’d like it. A lot of it is fairly hard, but at least half of it is fantasy. I was particularly a fan of his Chronicles of Amber (fantasy) series. For me, he’s in the second tier after The Big Three. I rank him with Niven, Chaulker, Farmer, Clement, Harrison, and Laumer. And notable as an early fantasy writer.

            “On before and after Star Wars, I think we have to remember that thoughtful sci-fi has always been in the minority.”

            I’m not entirely sure I agree, but we’d have to first define the scope (written and/or film) and then do some research. My gut sense (informed by a lifetime of SF) is that it’s a closer call in the written world. There has always been, and still is, thoughtful literary SF (what I continue to think of as “true” SF).

            Despite films like Mars Needs Women (which is intentionally goofy, extremely low budget, and closely aligned with serious SF in its roots), I think it’s a less close call with movies and TV. Given the glut of SF, most of which is just stupid, I think the ratio is different. (Mostly due to all the bad SF. It’s just a case of bigger bushel, more chaff.)

            Maybe one way to look at it is this: The older classics — the really enduring films — were Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the modern era we have what… Star Wars? What modern SF movies will be remembered at all in 50 years?

            Some of that is the sheer glut of content these days. Anything gets lost in the crowd. But the enduring classics of yesterday are deeply thoughtful with powerful literary roots, whereas Star Wars is a fairy tale for little kids.

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          • I definitely think Lucas is an example. I noticed that his work lost a lot of its edginess after his divorce. By the prequels, he was a legend and no one was going to argue with him about his creative decisions.

            I think the same thing happened to Gene Roddenberry. In the 60s, he was constantly fighting with the studios and network. By the late 70s, no one argued with his decisions with the first movie, and it was widely regarded as a failure. On ST:TNG, it seemed like the series got a lot better when his health forced him to withdraw from it.

            On literary science fiction before Star Wars, I can’t speak to the 60s since I wasn’t born until 66. But I do recall reading a lot of mindless SF in the 70s and 80s, much of which had been published prior to SW. Of course, at 10-13, I wasn’t exactly after the intellectual stuff yet 🙂

            I think we also have to remember that there was a lot of dreck during the pulp eras. We remember the classics but forget the hordes of lower quality stuff. A couple of months ago, an Analog article had an excerpt of a “typical” story from a 1930s issue of Amazing before John Campbell became editor; the writing was pretty appalling.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Heh, yeah, ST:TMP wasn’t great (none of the ST movies were, really). I don’t know (and I mean that in the sense of literally not knowing, not in the sense of doubting) how much Roddenberry had to do with how it turned out. It’s certainly true that the first couple of years of ST:TNG were a bit rough (the pilot, especially).

            I do think (as I said) there probably isn’t a huge shift in literary SF. It’s a hard thing to quantify, comparing a genre in its early days to its mature days. Any undersea story has to compare to 20,000 Leagues just as any time travel compares to The Time Machine. Is it even possible to create “classics” in a genre after so many years exploring it? Maybe it isn’t.

            (Remember that the 1970s and 1980s were the era of experimental storytelling in SF. That whole time in the arts was a time of “post-modernism” and deconstruction. (I mentioned Frank Miller’s B:TDNR and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, both of which were seminal post-modern, deconstructive works.) One consequence of that kind of experimental art is that a lot of it turns out to be “not a good idea.” There’s a reason why the classic forms have survived so long and experimental ones don’t. I was thankful when that era ended.)

            ((Also keep in mind that in the 1930s SF wasn’t at all respectable. Writers were paid tiny amounts per word, and no “respectable” writer wrote “that stuff.”))

            But I think my question still stands. Are there any modern classics on par with Forbidden Planet or The Day the Earth Stood Still? Is it even possible for such to exist in a mature genre plus the glut of material created? Maybe it isn’t.

            Or maybe, as with science programs and news programs, the public mainstream taste is simply devoid of anything really interesting or challenging. Producers make what sells.

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          • On classics, I think we have to remember that ‘Forbidden Planet’ and ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ stand out in comparison to all the other junk that was out back then. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_science_fiction_films_of_the_1950s

            On modern classics, only time will tell. That’s ultimately what distinguishes a classic from the also rans, that it remains relevant after its initial time. I think there are many candidates. Films like ‘Inception’, ‘Moon’, or ‘District 9’ come to mind.

            Producers definitely make what sells. Most classics are accidents that emerge from those endeavors. Few people successfully set out to produce a classic. Most of them are just making something they hope viewers like and are willing to purchase. I read a William Shakespeare biography in college. He thought he was writing disposable entertainment and seemed unconcerned with preserving any of it in his later life. I think most classics are only classics in retrospect.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “I think most classics are only classics in retrospect.”

            Of course. Classics are those works that do stand the test of time and remain engaging to generations long after their creation.

            As I said on the other thread, there’s always chaff. It has occurred to me watching Doctor Who for two days straight that it already is something of a classic. It engages true science fiction fans as well as mainstream fans and has endured since 1963.

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