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The Myth of the Average Reader

Photo by George A. Spiva Center for the Arts
Photo by George A. Spiva Center for the Arts

There is no such thing as the “average reader.”

I usually see references to this mythic creature — the average reader — in one of two contexts.

First:

“I’m going for mass market appeal — I think the average reader would enjoy my book.”

Second:

“Well, the average reader obviously doesn’t know what good writing is. Why else would they buy crap like (popular bestseller)?”

I’m going to tackle these two usages separately.

The  myth of the “mass market” average reader.

Readership is not monolithic. In this day and age, there really isn’t a mass market consumer, and very few mass market products. Commodities like flour and milk are split into more and more specific categories: whole wheat, unbleached, gluten-free, 2%, 1%, lactose-free, organic, goat, cow, almond, soy, etc.

So how could something as subjective as reading taste be considered “mass market”?

Yes, you’ll have some FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) readers, who are jumping on the bandwagon, only because they want to discuss what everyone seems to be reading.  But with the plethora of entertainment choices out there, reading isn’t necessarily the water-cooler discussion point it used to be.  (Come to that, there aren’t really water-coolers that people chat around.  Break room discussion? Facebook discussion?)

This isn’t something to bemoan. This is not a cultural commentary, and quite frankly, I am not going to waste time making a judgment on a nostalgic “mass market/higher reading” audience. This is the reality we are working with.  Story comes in a lot of forms. There are simply more options than there ever have been before, and we have got to stop being so precious about it if we hope to create a sustainable living from it.

The days of demographics.

Demographics are the segmentation of a group of people by factors like age, ethnicity, race, religion, income, and education.

In the earlier days of marketing, any consumer description was couched in demographics.  For such-and-such a product, they might describe the ideal consumer as:

Woman, 30-40’s, married, household income of $60k, lives in suburbs.

The assumption is that people of the same gender, marital status, income, etc.  would have the same tastes, the same interests. More importantly, they could be reached by the same marketing techniques (which, at the time, were “push” promotion, spread through heavily controlled, one-way mass media.)

The rise of psychographics.

As people started connecting in new ways with increased and easier communication options, and sales of products became easier and more global, it became clear that simple demographics weren’t as effective as they used to be.

For example, the original assumptions of the rise of the romance genre was that it was mainly read by suburban housewives of lower education and household income, so marketing should appeal to that supposed “demographic” by referencing things like “when you need a break from the kids!” or literally marketing them like bleach or other household products, emphasizing similarity and brand over individual authors.

While this worked incredibly well for a while, the “category romance” has been in documented decline for the past decade, as their audience is, essentially, dying out.  It’s simply easier to get exactly what you want now, rather than settling for a limited range of “commodified” genre offerings.  The success of re-tooled category romance has come from the increased sharpening of focus by category lines and the diversification of sub-genres.  Even so, publishers of category romance are continually tinkering with the psychographics of their offerings as demographics have fallen by the wayside… looking at what emotional tropes are being served, rather than what the readership might look like.

Per Wikipedia, psychographics is “the study of personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles.”

In recent years, you can get more data than ever on readers and consumers.  Look at the rise in popularity of comic book conventions, for example. No longer the assumed bastion of single young men, it draws fans from all age groups, ethnicities, incomes, and education levels.  Their psychographic is the interest in sci-fi, fantasy, and “geek” culture.  Despite the disparity in demographics, all get an emotional satisfaction from it.

Just as there is more diversity in readership, there has been a corresponding diversity in sub-genres.  Fans of one sub-genre may not enjoy others, because the emotional needs served by the sub-genre aren’t satisfied.  Take mystery, for example. Those that like the puzzle but don’t like the gore may be staunch cozy mystery fans, for example, while police procedural fans may like the vicarious thrill of the chase. Both may be bored by the relatively light investigation and higher comedic value of a romantic amateur sleuth. Just marketing something as “mystery” is not enough.

That said, there aren’t crisp, discrete reader segments, either.  One reader can enjoy romantic comedies, British spy thrillers, and the occasional horror, with a few dashes of lit fic thrown in for spice.  You couldn’t draw a demographic profile for this reader. You’d have to focus on the interests instead, searching for where it intersected with your particular offering.

Finally, there are different consumption patterns for readers.  Some readers are voracious, reading a novel every day or two.  They are easily bored, and always on the look out for a new author and a new story.  Others are more selective, re-reading favorite stories and only moving forward on a new recommendation with lots of careful consideration, trusted peer input, and vetted reviews.  Some one-click like mad, snapping up books like candy. Others have tight budgets and, having been “burned” wasting their hard-earned cash on books that ultimately disappointed and frustrated them, will first go to libraries or borrow from friends before giving a new author their loyalty.

How does this help you, as a writer?

Marketing to everyone is inefficient and ineffective. Like anything, if you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll be so watered down and vague you’ll appeal to no one.  It’s far better to look for your Right Reader, your true fan. Which means looking at what you do best, what you love, and who is looking for exactly that.  That is your beachhead market: the passionate preliminary market.  This is where the much-heralded word of mouth starts.  They are not only vehement… they’re vocal.  They want more people to understand their obsession, and share it.

So how do you define the psychographics of your readership?

Know the reader. Love the reader. Be the reader.

Some may scoff at this advice.  “I am a reader!”

But let’s be honest. Very few writers can retain their reader mentality.  As a writer, we automatically start critiquing what we read, or start mentally editing it– what we’d do, if this were our story.  When we find authors whose works are immersive, we value them, and rightfully so. But often we stop reading in our own genres for fear of unconscious copying. Or we are derisive of the work of others who we feel are of lower quality than ours.

And that brings us to context #2.

“Why is this so popular, when it’s so terrible? Obviously the average reader wouldn’t know quality writing if it hit him over the head!”

I have heard or read statements this more times than I care to think about, in blog comments, in online diatribes, spoken with finality at writers’ conferences or chapter meetings or in public discourse.  And my back goes up every single time I hear it, and I think:

Dammit, writers! This is why we can’t have nice things.

For one thing, it smacks of sour grapes.  There are plenty of other books that aren’t well written, by the commenter’s standards. But the one that’s financially successful is the one that draws ire, because it’s an affront to the commenter’s world view. Well written should be recognized, lauded, purchased.  Poorly written should fail and die an ignominious death.  Usually said author isn’t making enough on a quarterly basis on his own fiction to buy coffee at Starbucks. (This is also usually where the phrase “I write for my art, because this is my passion” comes in, by the way. As if making money as a writer, if it even were possible, is something dirty — selling out.)

But worse than sour grapes, it shows an ugly sort of entitlement.

There is a slang term, “friendzone”, which when used as a verb means that a person you are attracted to has deemed you sexually unappealing, but is still cordial because you’re seen as a “friend”, a neutered and almost pitiable figure in the  fringe of their life. The anger at “being friendzoned” brings with it a certain sense of injustice — and expectation.  “I am a good person. She only likes jerks who treat her poorly! This is why she is not a good person/ why women are mistreated/why society sucks!”

Those who are “friendzoned” rarely say “I guess I am not her type/we are not compatible/she is interested in a different type of equally valid person who is not me.”  It’s usually ugly, paints the one rejecting the advances as fickle and unworthy, and points out the relative merits of the “friendzoned” as something that entitles him to the favor of the object of affection by default.

Now, let’s take Fifty Shades of Grey.  You can’t throw a dart without hitting someone who has something snide to say about the infamous bondage novel. Often, it’s by someone who says baldly that they haven’t read it, and when pressed, point out that they knew within the first page or two that it was simply unreadable, and so they did not continue.  With the subtext (or downright overt statement) that, obviously, anyone who would publicly profess to enjoying this novel is poorly educated (can’t recognize “quality” prose) or perhaps simply unintelligent despite their schooling, and that the proliferation of these readers signifies that civilization as we know it has gone to hell in a handcart, and all we can do is wring our hands and try to tape up the gaping wound of literature with valiant if ultimately unsuccessful band-aids made with thoughtful haiku.

We get so hung up on critiquing, so myopically focused on “how could this possibly work?” that we ignore the larger question:  what emotions does this story serve?

Psychographics, at their heart, are emotional. That’s why a “poorly written” story can inspire rabid loyalty and massive sales, while a literary masterpiece can molder on a shelf. Without emotional resonance, story doesn’t connect. Cerebral novels and short stories have a place and an audience, without question. But for fiction authors, emotion is the coin of the realm, and even the best intellectual stories have that core of authentic, even raw, emotionality.

If you want to succeed as an author, you need to identify and play to your audience’s emotional touchstones. For genre fiction, this is usually constructed within a developed character arc in a traditional and recognizable three-act structure. It doesn’t matter if the emotion is ultimately uplifting, or tragic, humor or angst. It’s how well the emotion is communicated, and how deeply the reader can experience it.  That’s what you need to know. That’s what you need to show… in how you describe the book, how you market it, and before all that, how you write it.

So let’s stop shying away from marketing. Let’s stop complaining about being “friendzoned.” Let’s stop taking other author’s inventories and start focusing on our own writing.

Let’s stop talking average readers, and start thinking our readers.

Have you identified your readership? What is the emotional payoff for your books? What can a reader expect (and count on) to experience when reading your stories?

About Cathy Yardley [1]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [2] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [2]