1. Hi Will,

    I’ve been reading you fairly consistently since the MySpace days – in fact I think I found your blog via Neil Gaiman – so that says something about the power of networking. I think you make some interesting points here; as a freelance writer myself, I’ve certainly had similar pitching experiences with editors.

    Certainly, I’d agree that (in large part) discussions about Publishing and, heaven help us, The Advent of E-Readers, tend to focus on what publishers/agents/writers think – or more specifically, how each group thinks it will affect their own business. Obviously, none of these parties are going to be as diligent about what a notional reader wants. But, I wonder if chasing reader’s opinions is really that useful.

    Bear with me here, I’m making this up as I go along.

    First of all, we can’t really know ‘what readers want’. All of us are readers to some degree or another. Some, like yourself (I assume), have developed a network of similar people who are also readers. Sure, we can talk about what we like and tell you, but extrapolating that to the wider reader population is, I think, problematic.

    Secondly, ‘what readers want’ isn’t necessarily what you or I (or whomever) is interested in or able to do. Obviously, this depends on how you view the whole process. I can see how, if I were James Patterson (for example), knowing ‘what readers want’ would be important planning & marketing data for my next fiscal quarter. But (and I don’t know, but in terms of commercial fiction, I suspect you’re closer to King than Patterson) not everyone can, or wants, to work like this.

    Third, the notional reader doesn’t necessarily know what he wants. To grab a common influence here, Neil Gaiman has often been quoted saying (in essence): readers always want what you did last time. But (this is me again) when they get it, it’s not always that valued. There’s a very good interview with David Mitchell (whether or not he’s your sort of writer, it’s worth the read) on the Powell’s site. He talks specifically about the ever-diminishing returns writers who chase their image of the market ultimately receive. I’m not suggesting that readers are stupid – far from it. But I am saying that nobody in 1996 was saying: “what I really want to read is a book about The Boy Who Lived”*.

    Finally (because this is already a stupidly long comment), here’s my theory: your best work is always the stuff you are in love with. You can – I definitely have – write for a market, or for an editor, or however, but the best work you do, the stuff you are proudest of, is that which you do because you must. It may not be a bestseller; those garlands are chance as much as anything else, but I also think that if your work is good enough, readers will find it. Maybe not as many as you like, or exponentially more than you have dreamed, but no matter how many contacts you’ve made on Twitter, all that stuff is window dressing. It may help a great book, but like Stephen King says about writing classes, (again paraphrasing) if it’s not good to begin with, you’re shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic.

    Basically, I think you give readers what they want by surprising them. As a reader myself, I can assure you that’s what I want.

    Quick postscript: not trolling here – I enjoyed your piece and thought I’d share the ideas it stimulated. Keep posting – your pieces are always interesting.

    Postscript postscript: * = those little-known books about the four-eyed kid with the lightning scar on his forehead. Totally underrated hidden gems.


  2. Thanks for the response, Eoin. Really good points. I agree to some point, certainly–readers don’t really know exactly what they want, what readers love is to be surprised, all that. Definitely. And you may be right to wonder if wondering what readers want–chasing their opinions, as you put it–is useful. I think the feeling that inspired this rant, on my end, was more that I’ve grown tired of chasing publishers’ and agents’ opinions, and grown exhausted by their chasing other agents’ and publishers’ opinions themselves.

    It was also at least partly borne out of frustration from seeing someone on Twitter ask how to best ‘interact’ with people. And I got what she meant, but really, interacting seems like such a wrong way to put it. It’s conversation and, maybe mostly if we’re lucky, listening.

    Quick postscript: long, perhaps, but thoughtful and certainly not stupidly so. So thanks again.

  3. Hey Will. I still come here because I like your writing. I like intelligent writing (or conversation, or discussion, etc.) It’s sorely lacking these days and, as such, it’s not very marketable (or vice versa; not sure which is the chicken and which the egg). I miss the fiction you wrote, but I’d also be interested in slice-of-life stuff; the pieces that tell readers about you, as a person.

    In my myspace forum, I tended to write cornicopically (not quite sure that’s a word, and nearly certain if it is I butchered the spelling). That’s because I read cornacopically (if I spell it differently each time maybe once I’ll get it right!). I miss the readers, and I miss the writing; I’ve been very remiss in that area, however I have transferred my creativity vibe into photography, an artistic area in which I’m improving each week (this is due to a contest I enter which I will probably never win, but from which I learn new techniques each week.)

    But I still read. The nightshift breaks are long and lonely; one must fill the time somehow and they do, at least, provide ‘puters to surf upon. So I’ll be around, regardless of when and what you post.

    And at some point, when the overtime ends and I have 3 and 4 day weekends again, I’ll get going on changing up ravnostic.com to a more photographic venue.

    Peace be with you, friend.


  4. It’s really nice to know you still pop in, Ravvy, and that I get to keep you company during those long and lonely shifts; that’s one thing I think writing is best for. I’ve been enjoying your farktography, too. And may start posting more in the way of fiction. Definitely slice-of-life. Peace with you, as well, friend.

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