Why Writing “What You Like to Read” Is Bad Advice (Kind Of)

My friend, Trevor, who reads like a sumbitch (which is Texan for “a lot”), once mentioned to me that he wasn’t a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s book, Interface.* Trevor might not remember this conversation. I think we were roleplaying trolls in Everquest at the time—also, this was fifteen years worth of beer ago—but he said the novel felt like one long rant. I was ambivalent about the book, meaning that it was quick, twisty, and clever, which made me both want to write more and to give up forever.

Who’s your audience?

When you’re writing a book, knowing your audience is king. Interface had an ongoing theme about audience categories: demographics and focus groups. It broke the demographics down into hilariously named groups. Here are a few groups from the book, which I’ve interpreted for you:

Post-Confederate Gravy Eaters

“I’m not a racist, Emily. Some of my best friends are Mongoloids like you.”

Mall-Hopping Corporate Concubines

Two women shopping
“We’re standing on the corpses of ugly girls, but we got cute stuff!”

Activist Tube Feeders

“Screw you, old farts. I’m joining the Me Generation.”

Trade School Metal Heads

old metalheads
“My buzz is fading. Pass me the bong, Martin.”

Middle-American Can Stackers

woman with casserole
“It’s five kinds of cheese on a graham cracker crust garnished with cat hair…and of course, my own.”

Now, fast-forward fifteen years, and I find myself working in the marketing department of a very large corporation for my day job. And we use the same demographic break-downs.

Okay, not exactly the same. But similar. Early-adopters. Up-and-comers. Tech-vets. It’s the same darned thing.

Where am I going with this?

Identify your audience

I write in two genres: mystery (or cozy, culinary mystery) and fantasy. Actually, that’s not true. I write in many more genres, but these are the two in which I publish.

Selling books in these two genres varies wildly.

My main target audience for culinary mysteries:

“You sang five Whitney Houston songs in the shower, but you forgot to shave your left leg.”

My main target audience for fantasy with romantic overtones:

Twilight Fans
“I honestly don’t know what they’re screaming. Is that blood leaking from my ears?”

My recent experience at the Tucson Festival of Books drove these points home like nothing else. Without fail, I could identify a mystery fan at fifty yards. She was a well put-together woman with a roomy shoulder bag and a glint in her eye. 

“You’d better have more than one book in your series, missy, because I have exact change.”

Selling my fantasy books is a harder proposition. My target audience often doesn’t like direct sunlight.

“The shadow across my face represents my despair. When is book three coming out?”

Marketing to these wildly disparate groups is enough to make me go a little crazy. So how do I choose which to promote more?

Write what you like to read

Write would you like to read—that’s the standard advice for writers, but I call B.S. This is what I propose…

Write what you can sell…and secondarily, what you like to read

I know I can sell mysteries. Not so much fantasy (although I will finish out the trilogy). Luckily for me, I enjoy mysteries immensely. Coincidentally, as I get older, I realize I am more like my target audience…

My gawd, I am a middle-American can stacker.

“Load up the Buick, Gladys. For tomorrow we ride.”


* Stephenson co-wrote the book with his uncle and published it under the name, Stephen Bury, but it now has a cover that flat-out says Neal Stephenson.

A new Josie Tucker mystery is coming out this summer. When exactly? Soonish! Sign up for my newsletter so you’ll be the first to know.

8 thoughts on “Why Writing “What You Like to Read” Is Bad Advice (Kind Of)

  1. This is hilarious, and so well observed. Being English, I am not totally au fait with your points of reference, but I kinda get the gist. I think the ‘write what you want to read’ advice is good, but needs modifying – write what you want to read, but slant it towards what is likely to appeal to at least 20 other people that you know, as well. That way, it will, with luck, appeal to a lot more than 20 who you don’t know, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.