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.
“I’m going for mass market appeal — I think the average reader would enjoy my book.”
“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? [Read more…]