Sunday, July 15, 2012

Create Your Audience

As is so often the case with me, I was thinking of something that lead me into thinking about something else entirely and making a connection between the two. Just follow along, and it will all become clear. I hope.

We are all, probably, (somewhat) familiar with the story of how Apple got its start and how no one believed that there would be any interest in the consumer market for the personal computer. We've all learned about how HP and who knows who all else turned down Wozniak and Jobs and how wrong they were for doing so. Short-sighted. Closed minded. Whatever you want to call it. All these guys said, "there's no market for that," and we've derided them for it ever since. I mean, I learned about this as early as 6th grade and continued to have it drilled into my head for the next 12 years, give-or-take, of schooling after that. All the way through my (required) college computer class. Those business guys were just stupid to not see the potential that Wozniak and Jobs were trying to introduce. This has become, in many ways, part of our cultural mythology.

The thing is, though (and here is where my thinking sort of went off track), those guys were not wrong. Yes, I said that. The HP corporate types and all those suits that said "no" were not wrong. There was no market for the home computer. To put it in other terms, the home computer didn't have an audience. Steve Jobs (and Steve Wozniak) created that audience.

And it's kind of amazing when you think about it. I use my computer all the time. It's a tool and a toy, and I can't really imagine trying to get by without it (even if it was nice to be away from it while on vacation (although, in that case, it was that it was nice to be away from the Internet more than the computer itself)). But, looking back, I have a hard time understanding why anyone would have wanted to own a personal computer way back in 1980. They didn't do anything. And, yet, we were enamored of them.

I had one friend who had one (not "one" as in a particular friend, like "I had this one friend," but "one" as in I only knew one person that actually had one), an Apple IIe (I think; It could have been a II+). His parents were doctors, not just regular doctors but some kind of specialized research doctors, and he's the smartest guy I've ever known. Smarter than me (if only by a few points (of course, a few IQ points are huge)). He was in his head all the time and had almost no social skills. I was the only person that could really relate to him when we were in 4th grade (before we got moved away to the school for smart kids), so I was the one that got to go over to his house and "play on the computer." He didn't have any other friends. There was no Windows, only a DOS prompt. There was some game that we played with this little guy that ran around and dug holes and climbed ladders. When we got to 6th grade and had our first computer class (remember, smart kid school; this was the only elementary school computer class in all of Shreveport, possibly in all of Louisiana), I'd go over to his house to test my BASIC program assignments. That's not an adjective, by the way, it's a computer language that I would bet most millennials have never even heard of. We got to write programs that did things like allow us to use the computer as a simple calculator. You know, because, if you didn't write a program for it, you could not use the computer for that!

Do you understand what I'm saying? When the first personal home computers came out, they did... NOTHING! I can't, now, figure out why anyone would have wanted one. And I have no idea what my friend's parents did with theirs. Of course, they were both research scientists, so I'm sure they had uses for it; I just can't imagine them. So, when those corporate suit guys said, "there's no market for that," they weren't wrong. And, yet, they were.

Because Steve Jobs went out and created a market. An audience. And, now, we can't imagine living without the things. Even though your smart phone can do oh so much more than the first personal computers ever dreamed of doing. I'm talking about your phone, here!

Likewise, there was a time when science fiction, as a genre, didn't exist. Imagine if it still didn't and Jules Verne was only just now writing his odd stories about travelling to the moon and into the center of the earth and in the depths of  the seas. Publishers would say "there's no audience for that" and they would be right. Verne, along with Wells not too much later, would create the audience.

And, although fantasy did already exist before Tolkien, Tolkien created the fantasy genre as we know it today. He was told, with both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there is no audience for this. Why? Because there wasn't. It's rather difficult for there to be an audience for something that does not yet exist. Tolkien created his audience.

But, as I said way back up there at the beginning, I was thinking about one thing that lead into a supposedly unrelated thing. That other thing is a conversation in this writing group on Facebook:

An author posed the question of whether it's a "bad idea" to switch from 1st person POV to 3rd person POV in the middle of a story. Of course, I didn't want to just say, "hey, I've done that, so I think it's fine," so I responded from a more neutral stance of asking why the author wanted to do it. Not that I wanted to know but that the author needed to know. Basically, there should be a reason for it beyond just the desire to switch POVs. Later, I said that the author needs to tell the story that she needs to tell it in the way that she needs to tell it (that's what I believe about any story (tell your story)).

What surprised me, though, is the number of people that responded that it is a bad idea and that the reason that it is a bad idea really boiled to "there is no audience for it." Basically, "it's not done that way" meaning  that it's not done that way because no one would be interested in that, just like no one would be interested in owning a home computer. Or science fiction. Or fantasy epics.

What gets me here is the lack of willingness, often, in the writing community to try anything new. To go to new places. People look around and say way to often "it's not done that way" meaning "you shouldn't do that." But the rest of the world doesn't really work that way. The rest of the world spends its time looking for the new big thing while the writing world spends its time only looking for only the next big thing. I think this is at the heart of the troubles in the publishing world. When e-books became a thing, a new thing, the publishing world screamed "it's not done that way!" and "there's no audience for that!" Clearly, they were wrong.

But that's beside the point...

The point is that you should never let someone tell you "there's no audience for that" for a thing that has never been tried. Or something  that has rarely been tried. I mean, if there's an audience for deep fried pickles, and there is, there's bound to be an audience for anything. And everything. The response, always, to "it's not done that way" should always be "yet." "It's not done that way... yet." So, you know, big deal if there's no audience for what it is you want to do. Go out and make your audience. Create it. Build it.

The thing is is that Wozniak did not build that first computer because he was trying to build something for public consumption; he built it because he was interested in it. He knew that he wanted to have something like that for himself. He didn't really know how many other people would be interested, but he knew he was. Jules Verne didn't start writing his science fiction stories because he looked around and decided that he needed to create a new genre of literature; he wrote the kind of story he wanted to read. The same was true of Tolkien. He wrote, created, what he wanted, what he felt a need for.

The lesson, then, is this for you writers out there: write what you want. Unless you are completely, uniquely idiosyncratic, it's more than likely that there are other people out there that want the same thing you want. So, if you want to switch from 1st person to 3rd and back or... whatever, if it's what you want for your story, do it. Then go create your audience.


  1. Coincidentally, your computer metaphor is not just a metaphor. Personal computers now allow us to access everything we could possibly want to read...right on the screen in our hand. The next step is to match up the .00001 percent of the people in the world who want to read about cheerleader asteroid miners with the one person who wants to write it. And that dude would be rich.

  2. Although I do get that you're not talking about finding the audience, but rather, creating it. So if our cheerleader asteroid miner writer just writes the best damn book he can, people might laugh at first, but the great variety of stuff available through the nets has also made readers fairly open-minded, I think. Ready for new things.

  3. I recall my early 80's computer classes at school. That was a ton of fun.

    I wanted a computer pretty bad back then, I finally got a Tandy 100 several years later... it had that awesome cassette recorder with it to hold programs. It would take forever for something to load.

  4. They always say fill a need, but maybe sometimes we need to make people realize they need it first.
    And I'm definitely in the audience for some deep fried pickles!

  5. Oh man, I remember my first PC. We got it, and I brought it home, and then I thought... okay, now what? It doesn't really DO anything.

    Also, it's funny you mention it because Brandon and I were just talking about the 3rd/1st person thing the other day. See, Stephen King's new book (in the Dark Tower series) is called Wind Through the Keyhole. It starts with a 3rd person story, and then the main character tells a full story (in 1st person) and within THAT is a 3rd person fairytale. It's everything we've been told as writers NOT to do, but it was pulled off really well and I loved it. So I would say if it works, and you can pull it off, do whatever the hell you want. Forget what agents and editors tell you you should or shouldn't do.

  6. My mom always wanted a computer so that she could write.

    I wanted one to play games on and to organize my own writing.

    But those were the eighties. The world has changed so much since then.

  7. 10 Read blog post
    20 Goto comments
    30 Type "Andrew Leon, that was brilliant advice."
    40 End.

    I don't actually remember much Basic, beyond "Goto." But I like your advice here: instead of trying to build a better mousetrap, build whatever the heck you want and then convince people to check it out.

  8. neal: Well, sometimes that means finding an audience that doesn't know it's there. I mean, before personal computers came out, if asked, I would imagine that most people would have said they weren't interested in one, especially if they knew that the computer wouldn't do anything. That audience was created from (mostly) young people who began to envision the "could be"s once they did exist. People don't always know they want something until it's there in front of them.

    Rusty: Yeah, I wanted a computer, then, too. It was, like, 15 years before I finally was able to get a computer, though.

    Alex: That's certainly true.
    And, see, that's an audience I bet didn't know they existed. The idea kind of repulses me, but, yet, I still want to try one!

    ABftS: You know, one of these days I will get around to reading some King. Maybe.

    Michael: Yes, it is. I'm not sure I like thinking about that, though.

    Briane: Yeah, why do people always want to catch mice anyway, huh? I think I want to build a dragon trap. Okay, well, maybe that's not the smartest decision. What would I do with one if I caught it?
    I love your program! I give it an A!

  9. Ugh, I just remember that computer lab consisted of feeding degrees to the "turtle" to make a circle, and then whatever I wanted to make after that. I sort of hated the turtle.

    Other than that, I try to write what I want to write, without thought to whether it has a market.

  10. This is why I'm putting my head down and just writing the trilogy I want to write. Most people will tell me I shouldn't write a trilogy, because what if the first book doesn't sell? But I don't care. I want to write all three and dammit I'm going to write all three...and publish them myself if no one in traditional publishing wants them. Now, to create an audience for stories about post-apocalyptic Wales. . .

    Also, just an observation, but statistically speaking you have a very high Colorado contingency in your blog comments. Don't know if you've ever noticed. :)

  11. Shannon: Um... I have no idea what turtle you're talking about. That sounds kind of freaky.

    And good for you!

    L.G.: Well, if it makes you feel better, it's much easier to get picked up if you've written the whole thing rather than just 1 with a "promise" of more.

    Hmm... that's interesting. I had not actually paid attention to that. Today, though, that is certainly the truth.

  12. I'm with Briane: "instead of trying to build a better mousetrap, build whatever the heck you want and then convince people to check it out" sounds like much better advice to me. Which is what I think all the best creative people do almost automatically, really - check out what's out there, figure out what's useful & meaningful, and then instead of taking that as THE WAY IT MUST BE DONE ZOMG they create something beautiful out of what spoke most loudly to them.

    But then I'm one of those old-fashioned wackos who thinks that "soul" and "honesty" in writing and art is vitally important, and that's just not hip, man.

  13. Jericha: Speaking of that, there's an antique shop here that has a display of "found art" right now. Stuff I bet you would find really cool.

    Just to say it, I like wackos.