Writing for Yourself Versus Writing for an Audience
Was I being selfish and foolish by spending seven years composing the book I wanted to read, without considering why someone other than me might care?
I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat
The Body Scout
Jennifer Baker—author, podcaster, and senior editor at Amistad Books—used almost the same language when describing how she works with the writers she acquires. “I don’t think, ‘How do I balance the author’s vision and demands of the marketplace?’ I think, ‘How does this book find the audience it inherently has, and how do we expand it, while also finding the titles this work is in conversation with?’”
The word conversation resonated, as I’ve long imagined the books on my shelf chattering to one another when I’m not around, like the toys in Toy Story coming to life when alone. From a theoretical perspective, it also seems to me that a conversation is, at least in part, how art happens: as writers, we talk with, or talk back to, or rage against the books we’ve read and found moving, perplexing, upsetting, or astounding. Almost everything I’ve ever penned has been inspired by something I’ve read, and it’s helpful to think that by doing so, I implicitly considered an audience of readers who, like me, appreciate the work that sparked my own.
Knowing Baker both professionally and personally, I trust she guides her authors through this literary conversation with verve and sensitivity. There are publishing folks, though, who might discourage dialogue and encourage imitation. Within the publishing industry, comparative titles (comps) are used as a form of prediction—since book X was successful, book Y, which is similar, will be too. I once had an agent propose I revise my genre-bending novel in the vein of a popular book she’d recently read, because that would make for a compelling comp and be easy to sell. This suggestion didn’t seem in line with my vision at all and struck me instead as a marketing ploy.
Not only can comp titles feel intellectually and creatively hollow from a process perspective, as Gonzalez says; they also have a politically oppressive effect on what books end up making it to the market. “Publishing relies heavily on familiar books with a history of doing well and places too much importance on comp titles, which disproportionately affect marginalized authors, who can sometimes only point to the same handful of titles similar to theirs, if that.”
Writing with an awareness of your readership and writing to be viable in the marketplace can be two very different things, even if, in the business of publishing, the concepts seem synonymous. Baker told me that the idea of the “marketplace” itself can be reductive. “The ‘marketplace’ is a term the industry uses to define a particular kind of reader; however, I know for a fact that the marketplace is very broad, ever-changing, and not monochrome.”
Novelist Crystal Hana Kim, author of If You Leave Me and a recent recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, addressed this directly. Over email, she told me that she does indeed think of an ideal reader when writing, but that reader is not the one publishing has traditionally targeted. “My ideal reader is intelligent, moved by poeticism and impressionism, is drawn to character-driven narratives, and also, they look like me. They are Korean and Korean American and connected to our history. I write for them. This means that I do not explain Korean terms, nor do I italicize them. Why would I, when my characters know these words and terms intimately?”
Kim’s words prompted me to reflect on how my whiteness played a part in my inhibition to consider a specific readership beyond myself. Historically, most books published have been aimed at white readers generally, and white male readers specifically. Thinking that if I liked my work then surely everyone would is a product of that white default. Carefully and critically considering who you are writing for can challenge and change what you’re writing about and how you’re writing, and it can bring you to that most important question: Why are you writing this particular piece?
As Baker says: “I think when we write for audiences and understand who those audiences are, we also come to understand ways we may pander, ways we may stereotype, ways we may experiment. When I read material from BIPOC authors to acquire, I want to know the writer isn’t overexplaining things—so they’re not inherently defending their existence—and also that they recognize the ways we need to continually decolonize our mindsets and thus not present our pain for the sole sake of revelation rather than dissection and interrogation.”
In Kim’s case, she found there were agents and editors who did not connect with her debut novel, either because they weren’t the right reader for it or because they considered her audience too narrow. “The literary agent and editor I did choose—Katherine Fausset and Jessica Williams, respectively—understood me, my book, and my greater intentions.”
Why are you writing this particular piece?
When I reached out over email to Katherine Fausset, an agent and vice president at Curtis Brown, about how she works to help authors like Kim, she mapped out a gentle approach that was less about “the market” and more about her role as an advocate for the reader. For example, when working with a client who had a particularly brutal story to tell, Fausset told me, “My advice to her was not to rethink the subject matter but, instead, to consider the reader’s experience of the subject matter. I asked her to consider ways she might create moments of respite for the reader along the way.”
Kim said that it’s important to have an agent like Fausset, who isn’t dictating what will work and what won’t work based on the best-seller list but is “open and willing to learn, to grow with me as we navigate the publishing process together.”
In my experience, finding the right people to work with professionally has meant so much. There are, sadly, shysters and cutthroats out there. But when you find an agent or editor interested in open-minded collaboration, those people become early readers, working with you to help your project find its ideal audience.
Gonzalez took this idea even further, rejecting the words readership and audience and instead replacing them with community. “There is some mutual sharing of work that happens when you’re in a community, but it’s also about challenging each other to grow with regards to craft, the work itself. You can’t control who finds your work; you can only control your art, and what you’re putting out there.”
Over happy hour beers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Nadia Owusu, author of the memoir Aftershocks, concurred with Gonzalez: Considering community was ultimately a more productive, helpful concept than readership as she wrote. “In my community, we’re not all writers. But my book is concerned with things that we’re wrestling with and reckoning with together, like, ‘What is identity, actually? How do we think about how we fit into our families when, for example, we’ve lost our mother tongue, or we didn’t grow up in our family’s cultures?’ I was so engaged with other people about those questions as I wrote—that was my way of thinking of potential readers.”
As we talked, Owusu returned to Toni Morrison, who once described the invisible little white man who sits on our shoulders while we write and whom we must try to flick off. Sometimes, Owusu said, the publishing world can function in that same way—as a censoring, oppressive force. There are plenty of communities out there that publishing, as an industry, doesn’t see, value, or understand. But you as an artist can find those people yourself. “If you are in conversation and in community with people, then you know what moves them. If you write for them, then while I may believe the industry might not know how to sell your book, I would not believe that there isn’t a readership for it.”
Owusu’s phrasing—“the industry might not know how to sell your book”—hit me hard, as some years back, I experienced just that. While an at-home parent to my toddler son, I curated and edited an anthology of essays about fatherhood entitled When I First Held You, which sold to a now-defunct imprint of Penguin Books. Though I imagined the collection appealing to readers like me, interested in introspective and formally inventive essays about gender, family, and caregiving by literary authors like Peter Ho Davies, Anthony Doerr, and Rick Moody, when I met with the marketing and publicity team, they had a radically different idea. “We want this book to appeal to midwestern moms,” they told me.
That wasn’t an audience I was familiar with. Instead, I pointed to a variety of anthologies that had inspired me, like Jenni Ferrari-Adler’s literary/foodie Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, suggesting we model our marketing approach on those. If we did, then I was sure I could interest online literary venues to cover the book—those were the publications I read and wrote for.
Ultimately, the publisher disregarded my requests. They designed When I First Held You’s cover and promotional plan to reach a readership I had no connection with and, by doing so, made it harder for me to appeal to the audience I did know. The book garnered little coverage, its sales tanked, and it went out of print.
So yes, I thought, listening to Owusu. The publisher does not necessarily know more than you do when it comes to selling your work in the marketplace! In fact, they may know less, or they may have purchased your book with an entirely different sense of who it is for than you had imagined while creating it.
Often, when writing, and teaching writing, there are points where craft and therapy run together. For me, these conversations are a good example of those moments. I’ve come to understand that the dichotomy between writing for yourself and writing for an audience is, like all dichotomies, a false one. Instead, just like there are people in your life who see, accept, and celebrate you, there are readers who will do the same. That’s what matters—and that’s something you can, to some extent, control, unlike your work’s performance or positioning as a product in the capitalist marketplace.
Finding a community of readers may require effort and emotional risk, but I’ve witnessed it happen. I’ve had students who, when they gel in a workshop, continue sharing work years after the class has ended. I have been at events where I found myself so moved by someone’s reading that I’ve then bought their book, sent them an email, and found a new friend.
Writing may happen alone, but it is not solitary. Your readers are, perhaps, not as anonymous or scary or abstract as you might think—or, at least, as I once thought.
Brian Gresko is a widely published writer and editor of the anthology When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. He cohosts Pete’s Reading Series, the longest running literary series in Brooklyn, New York. You can find him online at briangresko.com.