Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Audience Expectations: The Danger of Trying To Be All Things To All People

Last week I saw Brandon Sanderson was releasing a new book. Excited, I rushed off to find out when I could buy book 2 in The Stormlight Archive only to find Steelheart is the first book in a new dystopian series. 

What the…?

After some discussion with some folks, I learned that Brandon Sanderson apparently advocates writing multiple series at once in case some people don’t like one series or the other.


I see what he’s getting at, but I think it’s playing with fire. Readers already wait a long time for sequels in the fantasy market, and I was under the impression that his readers were already chomping at the bit because of how much of his time had been consumed by finishing The Wheel of Time. If you make them wait longer, by dividing your attention between series, you may frustrate them to the point of losing them.

I think this also applies to cross-genre writers. If you’re playing in two genres, readers won’t necessarily follow you. Sanderson can get away with epic fantasy and dystopian sci-fi, I think, because both are inside the speculative fiction genre. Hard SF, and erotic romance (separately, I don't mean genre mash-ups or crossing genres), might be a tougher sell….

Anyway, I was mollified by the knowledge that the second Stormlight book is to be released soon, but still, I think it’s a dangerous course.

After this experience, I started listening to Keith Urban’s latest album, Fuse, and I am not happy (I know, jump to country music, but bear with me). Where’s the country at? I began to suspect the name Fuse was a reference to genre crossing, and it turns out I was half-right. Fuse is a move away from traditional country. Urban says he wasn't trying to create a pop album, only to "capture a sonic energy" he hadn't captured on other records, but the result is something that sounds more pop to me than country. For someone who just loves that country sound, this is disappointing.

Urban says “If I were a new artist, I don’t think I could have done this." I would argue the opposite. If he were a new artist, no one

would yet have any expectations, and he could create whatever sound he wanted, and attract the fans who like that sound. With an existing fan base, you risk alienating them. How many of his other fans feel the same way? I don't know, but it strikes me as risky.

The lesson?

Think about the expectations of your fans. I’m not saying you can’t branch out and experiment, but consider if it might lose you fans. And if you might, consider why you are doing it, and if it’s a good enough reason. Don’t just expect that readers will stay loyal to you if you try something new. Look what happened to JK Rowling with The Casual Vacancy - it's now on the list of most unfinished books because so many readers started it and then stopped because it wasn't what they expected from the author of Harry Potter.

In another word - branding. You create a brand, and fans are loyal to your brand, not you. Think about whether something fits within your brand, could damage your brand, or needs a new brand.

How do you feel as a reader if your favourite authors switch between series or genres? How do you feel when your expectations aren’t met?

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Erica Wagner said...

Nice blog. I was thinking about this very thing the other day. Rowling, of course, doesn't have to sell another book as long as she lives and can dabble in whatever she likes. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that Sanderson's doing well enough he has some wiggle room. And a never-published author like myself can dabble in whatever tickles her fancy.

But for normally successful writers (who have a loyal fanbase but are not bestsellers), spending precious time writing outside their normal genre, or even subgenre, could be costly. Or could it win new fans as well as delighting old ones? As a reader, I might be more likely to try a book by a fantasy or SF writer I love, even if it steps outside my normal tastes. I've often wondered, though, if a moderate amount of fame that can come from a successful (but not NYT-bestseller-list topping) fantasy series can also be a bit of a creative straightjacket for a writer who will then be obliged to offer similar fare from there on out. Some writers who cross genre boundaries, use different names and cater to completely separate fan bases. Some writers (Robin Hobb/Meghan Lindholm) do this within the same genre. Of course, it would help to be the kind of writer who is quite prolific here.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Rowling doesn't need to, of course, but it's interesting that after the debacle that was The Casual Vacancy there was suddenly talk of a new Potter book. I think writers want to know their work is enjoyed as much as (or more than) make money from them, and the response to The Casual Vacancy can't have been pleasant for Rowling.

I think different names/brands for genre crossing is a good idea, although within an overarching genre like speculative fiction it probably isn't necessary (SF writers have long been known for dabbling in both sides of the pond, it's almost expected - I object to it happening mid-series though). No clue what Robin Hobb is doing (makes a note not to buy anything by Meghan Lindholm). Pen names are definitely recomended for anyone who writes chilcdren's or YA fiction as well as hot romance or erotica.

Moderate fame probably can be a creative straight-jacket, the same as for actors who are typecast, but fortunately psuedonyms are a much more readily available solution for writers. You're right about being prolific - I have so many fantasy ideas I haven't had time to think of any SF ones LOL.

ruthiechan said...

Some people can do it. Some can't. Basically, figure out if you yourself can juggle multiple stories/worlds without crossing contaminating your universes.

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