Listening to your readers is a good thing to do. Trying to please them all is something else entirely.
There’s an old story in the advertising business about an announcer’s efforts to make four client executives happy with his rendition of their product’s tagline.
He started with a warm, conversational approach. “Markley’s soap is good soap.”
“I like it,” said the first executive. “But could you add some emphasis to our brand name?”
“MARKLEY’S soap is good soap,” intoned the announcer.
“Almost perfect,” said the second executive. “Just hit the benefit a little harder.”
The announcer tried again. “MARKLEY’S soap is GOOD soap!”
The third executive nodded. “Terrific! All it needs now is some real conviction in that verb.”
The announcer gave it all the conviction he could muster. “MARKLEY’S soap IS GOOD soap!!”
“The fourth executive frowned, “The product itself seems to be getting a little lost. People need to know what we’re talking about.”
That produced the final take. “MARKLEY’S SOAP IS GOOD SOAP!!!”
The moral is obvious. Giving equal weight to every suggestion leads nowhere.
Or worse than nowhere—especially when your novels have an international readership, since reactions can vary widely by market, magnifying the differences of opinion found in any single market. Interestingly, when I look at reader reviews, I find that the aspects of my books that some people like the most are the very ones that others like the least.
Clearly, then, tailoring my books to all my readers’ likes and dislikes would be a logically impossible task—especially in today’s social media world of blogs and posts and tweets, where it’s so easy to feel intimidated by the swirling tides of readers’ preferences.
On the other hand, sealing oneself off from all audience counsel in today’s super-connected world may be as foolish as trying to please everyone.
So what’s my personal solution?
First, let me tell you that it didn’t come easily. As writers’ personalities go, I definitely fall at the hermit end of the spectrum. Like my series detective, Dave Gurney, I’m most comfortable in my own head. I’m not a natural conversationalist or advice-seeker, and I must admit that my instinctive reaction to the media technologies that are putting us all in such easy reach of each other was to retreat—to hide and wait for them to go away.
But not all my instincts operate to my best advantage. So rather than atavistically disappearing into my cave, I’ve taken the advice of people I trust and have decided to accept (albeit cautiously) the reality of the “connected” world.
I’m listening to my readers, all of my readers who care to make their thoughts and feelings known. I’m endeavoring to see my work from their points of view—trying to sense as directly as I can the impact my stories have on each of them.
That doesn’t mean I’ll do anything differently in an effort to make my happy readers happier or to defuse the complaints of the less happy. I’m finding that being more closely in touch with my audience can be its own reward.
Writing, after all, is about communication. And coming to understand how people feel about what you’ve said is an essential piece of the process. It’s not especially important whether they agree with you or you agree with them. What matters is understanding more deeply what had passed between us—the reality each of us sees.
Once in a while the voice of a reader can help me realize how I might do something better in the future, and that’s a plus. The trick is maintaining as much openness as I can—not an easy task for a defensive introvert like me.
Bottom line, what is this new experience teaching me?
To take a deep breath, relax, and listen to my readers very carefully.
To trust my heart, not my ego.
And to trust the people close to me to let me know which is which.
John Verdon is the author of the international bestsellers Think of a Number and Shut Your Eyes Tight, and the upcoming Let the Devil Sleep.