Do You Write Red or Blue State Books?

NAOMI HIRAHARA

Fan mail is wonderful. Besides stroking your ego or perhaps creating a dialogue about what you’re writing, this correspondence provides you with demographics to do your own market study.

Over the past two years, I’ve noticed that most of my fan letters–with a few exceptions (Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, and North Carolina)–are from the blue states. California, of course, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and so on. So now when I’m asked who reads my books, I quip, "The blue states."

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Now this doesn’t necessarily relate to party politics. I’ve heard Walter Mosley himself say that his fiction has been embraced by conservatives and progressives alike. Even when there’s a strong underlying political message, the reader brings his or her interpretation to the table, which can completely twist the author’s intended ideology around. And since we write mysteries, our readers’ attention are foremost on the micro, not the macro.

But beyond politics, there might be something going on with regional cultures and what people like to read. Of course, since I write about Japanese Americans, it’s no surprise that a bulk of letters come from the Pacific Coast. But I’ve lived nine months in Wichita, Kansas, so I realize that you can’t paint states with static colors. Demographics change.

As much as the Midwest has preconceived notions of those crazy L.A.ers, West Coast urbanites have even worse stereotypes about America’s Heartland and South. When I left to go on my writing fellowship in Kansas, I was presented with a gallon container of soy sauce and a carton of Top Ramen by my L.A. friends and collegues. Attention Angelenos–they do have soy sauce and Top Ramen in Kansas! And more than eight Asian markets in Wichita in the mid-1990s (probably more in 2006). And a Japanese restaurant called Mama-san’s.

Wichita Public Library had a fabulous collection of works, both books and videos (probably CDs now). That’s where I checked out AMERICAN KNEES by Shawn Wong and Paul Beatty’s THE WHITE BOY SHUFFLE. And where I borrowed the collected works of Woody Allen as well as director Wayne Wang’s early work, CHAN IS MISSING.

Yet with shifting racial demographics touching every American community, whether it likes it or not, there are undeniable reading preferences. And as I mentioned earlier, based or e-mails and reviews, my books appeal more to the blue states.

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There are authors who are not that easily categorized, such as Midwest noirists Scott Phillips, Sean Doolittle, and Victor Gischler. It would seem that their work might even play better in the blue than the red, where many of the books are set. Earlene Fowler, who writes a popular quilt series and a L.A. Times bestselling standalone, THE SADDLEMAKER’S WIFE, lives in California, but I bet her books sell up a storm in the Midwest and South.

But labels are limiting, and in spite of the demographic response for my books, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to do outreach in the red states. I’ve been somewhat successful in Arizona and had a great time in Mayhem in the Midlands in Omaha, Nebraska, two years ago. I hope to someday travel to do events in Florida. I have a very good friend in Nashville (yes, J.T., I do know another Nashvillian!) who keeps doing research about the Japan societies in her area so that my husband and I will make the trip to the Music City. I know that these events will be powerful because we will be attracting people who march to a different beat than their neighbors. And undoubtedly to have ultimate success as a writer, you need to touch every segment of society, both red and blue.

So, I wanted to ask y’all this question: are your books more red or blue state? Or do you think that this demographic analysis carries no weight and can be thrown in the bushes?

Maps are courtesy of Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman, available at their website. The bottom map is a population cartogram, more representative of the population in each state.

CUTTING THE RED RIBBON: Starting with today’s entry, I’ll be starting a new regular feature, WEDNESDAY’S WORD, which will introduce you, dear reader, to a new Japanese, or Nihongo, word each week found in one of the Mas Arai mystery books. I’ll be compiling the words once a month in the glossary page on my website.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: atarimae (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 8)

Take a good look at the word–see something that you recognize? How about "ATARI," like in video games? Atari means "hit," "success," or "gotcha." Mae, pronounced mah-’e, means "before." Together, atarimae means "naturally," "a matter of course," or "of course."

GUEST BLOGGER QUIZ: On Wednesday, June 28, a guest blogger will take over here and to add to the suspense, I wanted to pose a "Jeopardy" type question: Our guest blogger has been on the front cover of one of her/his mystery books and came close to gracing the cover of a bestselling mystery writer’s. Who is this cover gal/boy? And what are the names of the two books in question? Go ahead and post your guesses in our comment section (one guess per person, please!) The first one to answer correctly will gain the undying respect of the Murderati crowd and we all–well, at least I’ll make sure Evil E does–will bow at your feet next Wednesday when the blogger’s identity will be revealed. Evil E, do your calisthenics!

21 thoughts on “Do You Write Red or Blue State Books?

  1. Naomi

    Well, that’s good to know, David! Especially since one of my favorite shows as a kid was THE VIRGINIAN. (Dad’s, too.)

    Would you like to venture a guess regarding our upcoming guest blogger’s identity? I’ll give you all a big hint: the publisher of the book with the author’s photo on the cover is a small independent press.

    Reply
  2. Patty Smiley

    Naomi, tt would be fun to track this type of information but I assume most fan mail arrives via email, so unless the fan tells the author where he/she lives, the author would have no way of knowing.

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  3. Naomi

    Patty–

    That’s true, although a lot of my readers mention the city and state they live in in their e-mails. When they don’t, I request that info when I write back my response.

    On the MWA-breakout list (BTW, MWA members who are interested in promotion, etc. should join that list in addition to Murder Must Advertise/yahoo group), we’ve been discussing contests. The Spam contest that I did recently was nice in having interaction with readers and learning where some of them were from. I know that your contest was keeping you too busy, Patty, but perhaps if you have one that’s geared towards your true-blue fans, you might get some valuable demographic information.

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  4. JT Ellison

    Naomi, this is such a thought-provoking post. I can’t wait to see where my books will be popular. (Please, let them be popular:)) They are based in Nashville, and the first jaunts through the Southeast a bit. But I’ll be interested to see if it plays in Peoria, or LA and NY, for that matter. I certainly don’t think of them as regional books, simply because of the themes and stories.Thanks for another great post!

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  5. Naomi

    JT–

    It’ll be interesting to see how your publisher markets your book. For instance, whether they will put any ads in regional papers. Mine put ads in alternative papers in L.A., S.F., Seattle, NY, Chicago, Boston, and I think maybe in Minneapolis.

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  6. Jason Pinter

    This is a terrific post Naomi, and something writers should think about. My novel series is set in New York, but in the middle of book 1 there is a trek to the Midwest, so I’m hoping to get some Middle America readers that don’t care about the Big Apple folks.

    I think calling a novel “regional” is misunderstood. That doesn’t mean it only appeals to a specific region, but is SET in that region. Dennis Lehane’s early books were technically regional, as were Harlan Coben’s. As are C.J. Box’s. And all those books are bestsellers. It’s good to go in having a built-in readership, especially since too many books are set in NY anyway (hiding my face).

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  7. Naomi

    Thanks for visiting, Jason, and congrats to you, J.T., and the rest of gang for launching http://www.thekilleryear.com. I have a question for you–

    As an editor, do you consider where a book will do well geographically? Like, this will play well in Texas or New York, etc.?

    Some of my Japanese American acquaintances are shocked to hear that non-Asians read my mysteries. Well, they better, or I wouldn’t be selling that many books!

    But I am interested in what regions are hot spots, just because I have limited promotional funds. Demographic information helps me to make decisions about what conventions and bookstores to go to, what mailings to do, etc.

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  8. Pari

    Hey, Naomi,Well, I’ve gotta say that NM is really quite purple these days.

    I think it’s an interesting question re: geography and where our books are most successful. You’ve heard me complain about being called a regional author — that I feel like that’s so limiting — but my readers seem to be from all over. Yes, many Southwesterners buy CLOVIS and BELEN, but I know I have readers in the South, NE and on both coasts. I still haven’t figured out where I should spend the most energy marketing though . . .

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  9. Sandra Ruttan

    You know, I always think about people not understanding Canadian regional politics.

    But I shamefully don’t know much about American regional politics.

    My book is set in Connecticut and I don’t even know if that’s red or blue. I suddenly feel very inept. But I’m guessing blue.

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  10. Naomi

    Yep, blue it is, Sandra. But as Pari points out, much of the U.S. is actually more purplish than anything else.

    May I ask you on why you selected Connecticut as the locale of your story? Just curious.

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  11. Brett Battles

    A lot to think about here, Naomi. I had not thought to much about in what, if any, region my book would be read more.

    You can tell your friends that I’m another non-Asian fan of Mas Arai’s. (I actually read a lot of asian based fiction…Murakami being a particular favorite!) Part of reading for me and, I hope, for most other readers is reading about things I’m not familiar with, such as other cultures. I wonder if that plays any part into the regionalism of things?

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  12. Elaine

    Sorry to be so late in coming to the party, been at the vet’s on and off most of the day. Ah,Siamese male cats! What can I say?

    Anyway, I’ve never analyzed reader geographics-interesting idea-so I’m not really sure whether I’m red or blue. But I do know that many emails are from readers who have visited Carmel, and are just thrilled to be ‘back there’ when they read the series. I’d say three-quarters have visited, and the rest want to-and are now convinced they will.

    I’m working on my knee bends, Naomi – so I’ll be ready to bow.

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  13. Naomi

    Brett–

    Love Murakami. Miyuki Miyabe’s good, too. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Kobo Abe–his heyday was in the ’60s, but he’s awesome. As a project, I was trying to read Banana Yoshimoto’s KITCHEN in Japanese (easy vocabulary) and compare it to the English translation, but I lost interest.

    In terms of where your book will be best received, you won’t know until it happens. That’s the magic of publishing. Half of it is writing, the other half is reading and what your readers bring to the experience. It’s scary but magical.

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  14. Iden Ford

    No offense or perhaps, but this constant orientation to coloured states that you Americans suffer is a reminder to me that The Civil War still lives 150 years later. It’s kind of like saying the Celts/Scots have different buying habits to the English, and the Welsh to the English. As far as I know Ian Rankin is read as widely in Wales as he is in Scotland, and England. That people from Saskatchewan prefer Gail Bowen over Ontarions, That British Colombians won’t read Maureen Jennings as much as Ontarions because she appeals more to our local history. Rubbish, readers are readers wherever they live and whoever they vote for which has nothing to do with it. No offense here of course, just trying to take the mickey out of you all.ask Elaine.

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  15. Sandra Ruttan

    Why I selected Connecticut? Geography. I know, this is hopelessly boring, but I grew up in eastern Canada, so I had an idea of the landscape I wanted for my setting. I had it down to a few options, talked to a friend who lives in NYC about it, and decided on Connecticut. I did look at websites and such, and felt it worked, and then I was watching The First 48 and the cops went to Connecticut and the road was exactly as I’d pictured it.

    Of course, someone will likely tell me now that there aren’t lakes in Connecticut so I’ll have to change the setting, but that was why I picked it.

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  16. Naomi

    No offense taken, Iden. Any friend of Elaine’s is a friend of mine. (Now all I have to do is meet Evil E in person!)

    Actually I expected more people to have problems with my red/blue theory. I wonder what’s it like for a French Quebec person to write heavily from that perspective (including a lot of French words). Of course that would play well in Quebec, but how about the rest of Canada? Just wondering.

    And to Sandra, the other Canadian–

    Your rationale seems totally right on. Isn’t it neat when your imagination matches reality?

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  17. Elaine

    Oh, Iden! Life would be so dull without you! So suave, deboniare, so mischevious!

    I’m flattered, Naomi – but you may live to regret your words – I know some pretty wacky people. But what the hell, they’re writers, so you’d fit right in. Just ask Pari-

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  18. Sandra Ruttan

    Naomi, about Quebec, for example…

    For some people, I think region (and culture and politics) play an important role in what they choose to read. Now, I’m not saying I agree with that. Some people have a somewhat narrowly defined comfort zone. My favourite story of someone surprising me was when I was talking to a very good friend of mine, a woman in her sixties, who is a missionary. She said she wanted to read my book (the one set in British Columbia). I said, “I don’t write about saved people” and she responded, “I f—ing well know that.” Until then, I’d been concerned about what she’d think of the one book. She’ll have no difficulty with the first book, the other one… well, at least I’m not worrying anymore.

    I’m a person who loves to travel. For me, I’m thrilled to discover a new location through literature. So, for me, a foreign setting, or a setting that represents a culture removed from my own (Quebec, for example) is appealing.

    As Iden pointed out, I’m not sure that there are that many regional differences within Canada, for example, when it comes to reading, except one thing I’ve noticed. I’ve been a fan of H. Mel Malton’s work for a number of years now, and I can’t buy her books in bookstores in western Canada. I’ve checked every single one I’ve been in, between BC and Alberta during the time I’ve lived in both provinces. If I want one of her books, I have to order them. Initially, I thought it was the press, focusing on eastern distribution, perhaps. But I know Steve Owad, same publisher, and he lives near here and his book is in the local stores.

    I don’t want to assume it’s down to Mel’s books being set in Ontario and Steve being based in Alberta, but I’d like to know what the reason is. I’ve been working on a regionalized list from the same publisher to see if that theory holds water, or not. Partly, it may just boil down to the fact that with lesser known authors, in Ontario Mel can be promoted as an Ontario author, a local author, and that makes the difference with getting her books on shelves.

    I don’t know – I only see this stuff as a reader/book buyer and it would be wrong to jump to conclusions, but I do wonder if others with more books to their name have experienced this themselves.

    Glad to hear my method of choosing a setting wasn’t as crazy as it sounded to me. None of the 13 states I have been to worked exactly the way I wanted for the book, unfortunately.

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  19. Naomi

    Sandra–

    Now is your publisher Canadian or U.S.-based? I wondering because some writers who have been published by Canadian publishers have told me that they have had difficulty getting widespread distribution in the U.S. But you have to go for the U.S. market because the Canadian market is so small. Does that sound right to you?

    Going to Bouchercon Toronto was my first experience in Canada. I loved it. It has a touch of NYC–especially people’s level of sophistication. I was taken out to dinner by a group of Japanese Canadian women. There are quite a few Japanese Canadian writers in Toronto–Kerry Sakamoto; Joy Kogawa, who wrote the seminal work OBASAN; Kim Moritsugu; and others (fantasy writer Michelle Sagara West).

    I’m fascinated by the theme of diaspora, both forced and voluntary. Many Japanese Canadians are actually from the Vancouver area and were forcibly relocated to the east during World War II. Many children and women were separated from their fathers and husbands at this time. Unlike the U.S., the men were barred from entering the military and later veterans’ groups protested the Canadian government’s reparations payment to these families.

    These women whom I had dinner with were doing very well in Toronto. Amazing stories of generations rebuilding their lives!

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  20. Sandra Ruttan

    Naomi, my publisher is in the US. I talked to independent bookstore owners who told me I was better going with a small press with Ingrams for distribution than a Canadian publisher any day of the week.

    I suppose it comes down to whether or not you want to sell or whether you want to live off subsidies. You can survive, financially, through grants. But if you actually want to develop a healthy readership you want to go for the US market or the UK market. The advice goes beyond that – the writer’s group I used to be in routinely indoctrinated new writers with the “you must set your book in the US” mantra as well. Now, for me, I always intended Suspicious Circumstances be set in the US, and I always intended that the other book be set in Canada. So I never felt like I compromised on that, and my publisher hasn’t expressed an issue with it, other than some “Canadianisms” creeping into SC. However, in the agent search, the Canadian setting for the other book was always a sticking point.

    But I’m only speaking for my own experience. I don’t know that many Canadian authors, actually. I find that their books aren’t promoted well, I have a harder time getting referrals to Canadian writers, and when I do hear about them, I have a hard time actually buying the books. I recommended Mel’s books to someone recently, and the person came back and told me the first two Polly Deacon books are now out of print – the first was only published in 1998. In this POD world we’re moving into, why should any book go out of print? She was told to buy used, which doesn’t make me think we’ll see another print run, at least, not any time soon.

    Your comments on Japanese Canadians are interesting as well. I’ve blogged about this, on occasion, because one of the “internment” camps Japanese Canadians were sent to during WWII was in the town I grew up in, the deep, dark, dirty little secret. We have things still to answer for that our society prefers to turn a blind eye to.

    That said, particularly the cities have a lot of ethnic diversity. I grew up north of Toronto. Oddly enough, Toronto is too big for my taste, although I love London and have been to London more than any other place outside of Canada. (Hypocrite, I know.) I also love Vancouver. It’s very much my second home, and we were sad about moving back to Alberta. Every area has it’s merits, and I love it here too, but I miss the ocean.

    Reply

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