Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Targeting Your Readers

At one of our recent Monday night discussions about “mistakes” writers make, Laura Joh Rowland suggested that one mistake writers could make would be to fail to define their audience.

I find that an intriguing idea. For example, we already touched on the possibility that the kind of devout Christians who would want to read about a priest as a mystery protagonist might be put off by that priest committing adultery. But Laura suggested that it might also be important to decide if one’s audience were mainly male or female.

It’s true that there is some overlap between the two genders’ reading choices. Both men and women read the Da Vinci Code and buy Harry Potter. But many, many books appeal almost exclusively to one sex or the other. Guys tend to buy Clancy and Coontz and Grisham, while the audience for romances, paraporn, chick lit, and romantic suspense is almost exclusively female.

Ever since we had this discussion, I’ve been trying to decide which gender my books are aimed at. My Sebastian series is not a cozy, and it has a lot of action and a certain amount of violence in it. That would appeal to men. The protagonist is male. There is a love story in the series, but it’s not a romance and the love story is not a happy one. Male writers put love stories in their series, too. But the Regency period traditionally appeals to women. Did I err in not defining my audience? Would a Regency mystery with a female protagonist and a lighter tone have succeeded better? It simply didn’t occur to me that the series wouldn’t appeal to both men and women. Do I need to worry?

Now I find myself wondering about THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT. It has both a male and a female protagonist. There is no love story. The book is not as dark as my Sebastian series, but there is certainly a lot of action and violence and suspense. Does that make it a guy book? Men are the traditional market for espionage and action thrillers. But does the presence of that female protagonist mean that men won’t pick up the book?

I’ve always known I’m not a very typical female, so it’s hard for me to judge this kind of thing. I don't like chick lit or paraporn, I don't like Oprah books. I like [well done] espionage thrillers. But I am still not the audience for, say, Rambo.

What do you think men like? Women like? What elements in a new book's blurb will make a male book buyer put it back down? What kind of elements make a book appeal to both genders? I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this.


Deborah P said...

Can't speak for other women, but I like books with memorable characters (likeable and unlikeable) and interesting plots. I don't like gratuitous sex, dead bodies multiplying like rabbits and guns in every other scene (unless held by police officers). I have a limited tolerance for conspiracy theories and terrorist plots-too stress-inducing!. Therefore, I tend to gravitate toward traditional mysteries and police procedurals with an occasional suspense thrown in. I stay away from thrillers (which I define as generally including conspiracy theories, terrorist plots, or the world order threatened in some fashion) because, even though I've enjoyed those I've read, I tend to become anxious and nervous after reading them.

Charles Gramlich said...

If I'm paging through the book and there are passages that scream romance, such as a lot of lingering eye contact and descriptions of beautiful bodies and beautiful hair I'll probably put it down.

Chap O'Keefe said...

I gave up trying to make books gender-specific in their appeal. It was too difficult. Like Deborah, I enjoy books with memorable characters and interesting plots. I've always featured two women in a core cast of six or seven characters for a Black Horse Western novel. And I don't have them there for decoration. The relationships between the characters are as important as the hard-action scenes that writers are told the market demands.

A couple of issues ago, I commented in the Hoofprints section of the online BH Extra magazine on how women were behind many of the mostly male author names on the covers. More than half a dozen of the current crop! I also quoted what Dean Koontz had to say about it: "Women often have a talent for research and a feel for historical periods that make them outstanding Western novelists."

cs harris said...

You're right, Deborah; it is impossible to generalize. I guess all we can do is get a sampling. Funny, thrillers don't bother me, but I can't read serial killer books because I find them too real and disturbing. Thanks for stopping by. And Charles, I suspect your reaction is very guy-typical!

cs harris said...

Chap, I think there are certain kinds of books that do appeal equally to both genders, and I suspect having both male and female protagonists is a part of it. It would be interesting to explore what those characteristics are. I suspect it's more a matter of what ISN'T there (lingering eye contact and multiplying dead bodies!) as much as what is there--all other things such as good writing being equal.

Kate S said...

For me, there has to be a female protaganist in it somewhere - she can have a fairly small role and doesn't have to be a romantic interest - but if there is no memorable female character, it's hard for me to stick with the book.

That's not to say I can't read a male dominated book - I'm currently enjoying the Dresden files - but there are still some great female characters in there as well. Same for Harry Potter. :)