Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Everyone! (translation: No One!)

A woman sits down next to me during a conference break and (surprise) starts describing her picture book idea. It had to do with a small dog, or maybe a mop. I couldn’t tell. So I ask her, “Who do you feel this book is for?”

And she says, in perfect earnestness, “Well, everyone!

Hold it, hold it. You can’t make people laugh that hard while they’re holding hot coffee.

So I catch my breath and address the coffee stains, and then I explain to her:

There is no such thing as a book that is for everyone. No, don’t argue with me. There isn’t, dammit.

There are occasionally books that are for a lot of different people (like Scribbles), and there are even more occasionally books that are for a hell of a lot of people (like Harry Potter, or The Secret).

But:

  1. You do not know that you have your hands on the next bestseller. Seriously. Let me tell you how many yahoos we get pitching us books as the next big thing. This tactic marks them as too dumb to work with, associate with, or confirm ever having spoken to. You are dead to us, Mr. “It’ll be the Cuban-American Harry Potter!” J. K. Rowling had no idea she’d written something that would take the world by storm. Her British publisher had no idea. And no, not because of stodgy publisher shortsightedness. Because you can’t predict what’s going to be big.
    1. And when I say “you can’t predict” I mean you, jackass, the one who hasn’t spent his entire adult life reading and thinking about children’s books and the book industry, and still thinks he’s better at picking bestsellers than publishers are. And you just happen to have written one! How convenient!
    2. And I also mean publishers.
  2. (Deep breath.) Even if you did have something with very wide appeal, there are plenty of people who do not own a copy of Harry Potter, and there is also a segment of the population who owns a copy and did not enjoy it. There is no such thing as a book for everyone.
  3. Finally, and most to the point, when we ask who a book is for, we do not mean “who could it apply to?” We do not mean “who could conceivably enjoy this?” We mean, “who will this definitely appeal to so strongly that they spend money on it?”

Oh, I’m sorry, is that asking you to make assumptions about an audience you have no connection to? Do you, maybe, think there’s a problem with having no connection to your audience?

If I ask you if three-year-olds would like a book and you say “I don’t know,” what you’re really saying is “I don’t know what three-year-olds like.” And that means that you don’t get to write for them.

Unfortunately, there are quite a number of people who don’t think they need to even know what continent their clue is on in order to write a book for children. Happily, they don’t really read this blog. Unhappily, that means I don’t get to cuss them out here.

19 comments:

Kim Kasch said...

Everyone needs a break now and then and, with summer, you're especially deserving

Anonymous said...

When I first started writing children's books, I targeted the parents thinking they held the purse. It worked pretty well in the 90's. Now it's so very different and harder. Not worse, though. Targeting an audience is one of the first things that has to happen. Otherwise, I might as well shout into the wind.

Editorial Anonymous said...

In other news, I have to stop blogging while working late at work. I'm always extra snarky.

Anonymous said...

But very funny.

Carly said...

Nooo! Don't stop writing while you're working late! I was going to comment that this post perfectly channeled the spirit of Miss Snark.

Anonymous said...

Can I just go on the record and say I'm one of the people that does not own Harry Potter and doesn't get the appeal?

So not even Potter is for 'everyone'. Heh.

Just_Me said...

Maybe it's time for a yoga break....

Anyways, back on topic, what kind of clueless human being thinks their book will appeal to everyone? I'm with the "I Hate Harry!" brigade. The idea was good but I don't care for how JKR writes. It's just not my thing. Other people loved it, she's a wealthy author, she gets people searching bookshelves and they might pick up my book (when it gets there) while they're at it. Hooray!

But part of writing is knowing that some people will HATE what you write. There hasn't been a genre I've met yet that I didn't gag over at least one book. Some childrens books make my head spin. A tired parent does not want to read 5,000 words in a bedtime story, especially if the pictures are bland. My kids would be rocketing off the walls before I was half-way through and I'd be falling asleep.

There are other books too... but now I'm curious, what was this ladies book about? And were you able to clue her in on what she needed to do?

Anonymous said...

LOVE your post today! You really nailed it. At my last school visit during the Q&A, a third grader asked me, "Do you know people that don't like your book?" It led to a great discussion about personal likes and dislikes when it comes to books and reading. I admitted that I don't like fantasy and a boy in the front row said "Finally someone that agrees with me!" Sad that children understand that no book is right for everyone but this aspiring writer doesn't get it...

Anonymous said...

What an idiot.
I'm not yet published, but I have 2 books done and 1 almost done in a series. Not a normal series because the main characters get older in each book.
I know exactly the type of reader these are for.
I knew that before I wrote any of books.
I wrote for the age of the reader for the book. Adults won't get some of it because I didn't write it for them.
I am going to have a hard time "selling" this to a publisher. Of course.
Any fool who says that their book is for everyone is one of those people my mother wouldn't let me play with.
I hated Harry Potter. She killed a teen aged boy and there was cruelty in the books.
What I want to see is if she can come up with another type of book. I doubt it.
Maude

Anonymous said...

I agree that the kind of perky "Well, everyone!" answer displays a certain lack of sophistication. Might you have reacted differently if the woman had said: "I believe most children will identify with the main character's need for friendship (or whatever)"?

In general, I think we all have an instinct to pitch our books to the widest possible audience, and although we may certainly be aware that not every little girl between the ages of eight and ten loves fairies, we still say, when asked, that we wrote the story for "girls eight to ten."

Also, shouldn't you acknowledge that if you want to know "who will this definitely appeal to so strongly that they will spend money on it?"--and you're talking about a picture book--you ARE referring to parents, NOT three-year-olds, right?

What I'm taking from this post is that you asked the woman who she wrote the book for, but you wanted her to answer how the book should be marketed. That's a difference we should all keep in mind when pitching our books to editors these days.

ae said...

Anon 4:53, your third paragraph is what is the challenge for pb creators (as a parent,I pride myself on being pretty good at picking out what my kids responded well to), and your last well....you MUST know your audience (age group...albeit the tastes within each vary) but I think that how a book will be marketed is going to be determined by the publisher/bookseller. How could the creator possibly know the market climate when publication is so far off, and also know who else is publishing what and how and when? I am no marketer. I am solely a creator for my age group. :)

Merry Monteleone said...

"Also, shouldn't you acknowledge that if you want to know "who will this definitely appeal to so strongly that they will spend money on it?"--and you're talking about a picture book--you ARE referring to parents, NOT three-year-olds, right?"

- I'm going to have to disagree with this... the parent may buy the book for the three year old, but if the kid hates it, it will only be read once... then it'll sit on a shelf gathering dust until it's given away to someone else who doesn't want it.

On the other hand, children's writers who know their market and love their craft can delight the reader (or the read to child). When that happens, parents take note. They look for other books by that author, they buy copies of that book for friends' children, and they often recommend it to other parents as one of their child's favorites. You should be trying to write a work that speaks to your audience, otherwise why are you writing it?

Anonymous said...

The serious writers and illustrators out there do not think that their books are for everyone--true. We like to think that we create for the readers who "get" us, and most of us do think that being true to our own voices and visions will somehow work out in the end and that we will find happiness in a well matched publisher and the right reading audience. And we are very happy with those modest expectations.

But some of you working in the business are largely to blame for the thought that books have to be for everbody. There is a lot of hype that goes on from the publishers themselves to promote books that THEY think are for "everyone" and that everyone will simply adore. And they back those books with a load of $$$$ to make sure they are well received, or at least that the public should think that these books are well received because of all the promo effort. So, you have to admit that it's easy for innocent newbies to think that making books for ALL is what they need to do--they are just buying into the hype created by your marketing people.

I am also not of the Harry Potter crowd, but I am even less of the Olivia crowd, which I consider the best example of big hype $$$ and much ado about nothing. I think of that series as just book after book of New Yorker cartoons (which I do enjoy, BTW) masquerading as children's books. Haven't met a real kid yet who has said, "I love Olivia!"

But you would never know it, based on the marketing.

Anonymous said...

I think maybe you're jumping on the woman's comment a bit unfairly. I'm sure she must have meant that she felt the book would have universal appeal to a wide variety of potential audiences, not that literally everyone on the planet would fall in love with her book. Her answer was not very useful from a marketing perspective, I'll grant you, but I imagine a marketing department could probably have asked a few follow-up questions to get her to narrow her focus somewhat. I'm not sure her self-serving ebullience and enthusiasm for her own book merit turning her into a strawman for the devil.

Auden is often quoted as saying that there are no good books that are just for children, since a good children's book ought to be well written enough to appeal to adults, as well. And Wilbur subtitles his poems "for children and others."

If a book is for both children and adults, in a sense it is for "everyone."

Shakespeare is universal enough to be for "everyone," and people of all ages and from all walks of life love Shakespeare, but this doesn't mean that literally every person on earth will enjoy Shakespeare.

Your moral, though, apart from the questionable attack on the poor woman whose imprecision earned your wrath, is a good one. When we start thinking in terms of marketing and business, and put aside our loftier ambitions as, dare I say it, artists, it is useless to say "everyone" but we must identify specific audiences and potential audiences.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Now, Shakespeare is not for everyone. Besides the fact that he only appeals to very literate adults (of this time period), I'm also of the opinion that there's little merit in sharing Shakespeare with kids who can't appreciate the language he uses (yet). The whole point of Shakespeare is the language. It's not like his plots are intrinsically better than those of other books.

And even in the case that a book is for children and adults, it's not for ALL children and adults. It's for "children who like X" and "adults who are Y".

Creating something just because you love it (and without regard for its eventual audience) does work, very occasionally. But not often. Truly.

Anonymous said...

But what did the woman mean when she said her book was "for everyone," and is it fair to jump all over her for not speaking in purely marketing terms? If she invented, say, a new flavor of ice cream, and proclaimed it was meant "for everyone," I think it would be pointless carping to assail her for not realizing that there are diabetics who cannot eat ice cream, or there may even be people who end up preferring vanilla. What she would probably mean is that there is something in the flavor that is likely to appeal to all sorts of people.

All I mean is that the woman was not writing a marketing report, but engaged in casual conversation. If someone remarks, "Everyone likes the Beatles," this is obviously not literally true, but I think we all understand the basic point is that a wide variety of people from all walks of life and like the Beatles.

I don't think Rowling could have predicted her success when she wrote the first Potter book, but I suspect that she would have said that her intended audience covered the zillions of people who ultimately bought her books.

Ithaca said...

If a book is about certain sorts of people (language fanatics, single mothers, orphans, Kurosawa fans) one might be able to guess that such readers would be drawn to it. But readers often want something that has nothing to do with their own experience. So after publication one sees why it might appeal to a Russian punk rock musician who likes Borges. I think it would be quite odd, though, to set out to write a book for Russian punk rock musicians who like Borges. I might think: well, it will appeal to anyone who ever wanted to drop out of school after one week at the age of 6. Anyone who ever wanted a better father than the one fate provided. (That sounds dangerously like everyone.)

Editorial Anonymous said...

Right, but you can't predict what the people who want something outside of their experience will buy, so they're really not in the equation.

The question is not "who MIGHT enjoy this?"
The question is "who WANTS this (really wants it)?"

Beth said...

I've known certain parents who are dead set against plunking down almost $20 on a picture book, but have been won over by their kids enthusiasm for a title. Dinotrux was not written for adults. So I second the mantra - write for your audience!