Who do you write for?

Am I the only one who doesn’t have a clue how to answer this question?  Whenever someone finds out I’m an author and starts asking me about my work, it’s a decent chance they’ll want to know who I write for.  Who’s my audience?  Who would enjoy my books?

I hate these questions, in large part because I don’t know the answer.  I don’t sit down thinking, “I’m going to write a book for teenage boys” or “I’m going to write something for struggling parents of newborn goblins children.”

The most honest answer would probably be that I write for me.  I write the stories I want to read.  (Which is a little embarrassing, because I guess that means a few years ago I wanted to read about nose-picking injuries and Tinkerbell flambé.)

If you really want to know who the book is for, ask my publisher.  They’re the ones who have a team of dedicated marketing scientists devoted to figuring out exactly who would like any particular book.  Cover art, advertisements, review copies, blurbs … all of these things are calculated to promote the book to its ideal audience, whoever that might be.  But they don’t actually tell me this stuff, and to be honest, I haven’t asked.

I write for me, remember?  I think I’m scared of finding out that my ideal reader is a 12-year-old boy with an overdeveloped sense of sarcasm and a juvenile sense of humor.

Part of the reason I dislike that question is because as soon as you try to say who should read the book, you’re also implicitly saying who shouldn’t.  That’s one of the problems with the whole age-banding idea.  “My book is for ages 9-14,” except for the 60-year-old who loved it, and the 40-year-old who sent me that wonderful piece of fan mail, and the 7-year-old who devoured it, and….

I do understand the question.  People want to know if they (or their kids/friends/family/whoever they want to buy the book for) will actually enjoy the book.  Sorry, but once again, I can’t help you.  I can tell you what the book is about, but I can’t guarantee you’ll like it.  And really, why would you trust me if I did?

From here on out, when someone asks who my book is for, I think maybe I’ll just smile, gently place a copy into the person’s hand, and say “I wrote it for you.”

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  1. 1. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    What I hate is when they ask is it okay for a 15 year old or a 12 year old or whatever. I think, sure! Cause yanno, I was reading Jack Chalker in 4th grade and John Saul in sixth, not to mention a whole lot of other stuff. But then some parents may think my books are too violent or whatever for their children. So I have no good answer. But that’s the one question I hate the most.

  2. 2. Kerry

    I think maybe I’ll just smile, gently place a copy into the person’s hand

    Hmmm… Gotta remember to ask next time I see you – maybe I can get me a free book *smirk*

  3. 3. Jim C. Hines

    Kerry – I’ll put the book in your hand. It’s up to you to sneak it out past the bookstore staff :)

    Di – yup. I have no idea if my book is “safe” for your child, or even what standards you’d use to decide what s/he can and can’t read. I’d let my kids read them, but I’m not parenting yours….

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    I’ve had one or two people ask me if my first novels are okay for a kid of X age. I dodge the question; I answer by telling them about the book’s content, and let them decide from there. (“No sexual content, a fair bit of violence but it isn’t graphically described, mostly made-up swearing, some politicking” — people usually are asking about sex when they ask that question, but I’m damned if I’m going to answer only in those terms. Kids who wouldn’t mind the sex and violence and swearing might be bored by the politics.)

  5. 5. Dave

    Other than yourself?

    People with money.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    I always tell folks that I didn’t write the Stoneways trilogy to be YA, but that I didn’t write it not be YA either.

    The holy grail in fantasy is to sell to everyone.

  7. 7. David de Beer

    when someone asks who my book is for, I think maybe I’ll just smile, gently place a copy into the person’s hand, and say “I wrote it for you.”

    Neil Gaiman did that with one of his books, wrote a dedication to the readers: This book was written just for you.

    it is an aap question*, isn’t it?
    don’t have much else to add here, but good post.

    *monkey

  8. 8. Simon Haynes

    I write for my own entertainment, which means tickling my own peculiar sense of humour. I don’t put angst, violence or nasty language in my books (plenty of that in the daily news, thanks), and there’s none of that kissy nonsense my brother and I used to groan about whenever the Sunday war/wild west movie cut to the Obligatory Romance Scenes.

    Jay Lake reviewed the first Hal book a couple of years back, and he said it was written for the inner fifteen-year-old. I’d agree with that assessment.

    As for the extremes … one guy wrote to thank me last year, saying his 84-year-old mum had just read Hal Spacejock over the weekend, the first book she’d picked up in years, had enjoyed it immensely and was now reading regularly again. And earlier this week someone wrote to let me know they’d read ALL FOUR Hal books to their three year old, who loved them.

    Cough, splutter.

  9. 9. Joe Iriarte

    From here on out, when someone asks who my book is for, I think maybe I’ll just smile, gently place a copy into the person’s hand, and say “I wrote it for you.”

    I love this. :D

    Have you considered answering the question by comparing it to other books?

    I’m starting to think about how I will want to pitch my nearly-completed WIP, and a problem I’m facing is that it doesn’t fit neatly into those standard categories. The protagonist is 13, which would make it a kids’ book, or maybe middle readers, but too young for young-adult. But thematically it just isn’t a kids’ book. It could be a young-adult book, but the rule of thumb in writing for kids is that your protagonist should be a couple years or so older than your intended reader, no? And anyway, I didn’t write this for kids, I wrote it for myself and for anybody else who might like it. So what I’m thinking of saying is something like, “This book would is for readers of all ages who enjoy reading books about young protagonists, such as those written by Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Steven Gould, and Anne McCaffrey.”

    Could you use an “If you like _____, then you might also like ___” type of pattern for your books?

  10. 10. Steve Buchheit

    I love that answer, Jim. Note to self, must remember to steal it.

    This reminds me of a (an urban legend – I’m sure) story about the producers asking the creators of Ren & Stimpy why they put so many adult references and jokes in a cartoon for kids. Just who did they think they were making these for? They replied, “For 18 year old drunken reprobates.” At which point they were fired, replaced, and Ren & Stimpy went down the toilet.

Author Information

Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines' latest book is THE SNOW QUEEN'S SHADOW, the fourth of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie's Angels twist. He's also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. Jim's short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress XXI. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's currently hard at work on LIBRIOMANCER, the first book in a new fantasy series. Visit site.

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