What The Heck Do They WANT?

by J.D. Rhoades

A few days ago, a tweet (or maybe it was a blog post) from the extremely cool and uber-talented paranormal suspense writer Kat Richardson pointed me at this cartoon from fantasy writer Jim C. Hines:

It was one of those observations that’s been, in the words of Jimmy Buffett, “so simple it plumb evaded me.”

Sometimes the discussion on book blogs can get a little, as they say, “inside baseball“. Some of us talk about e-publishing and platforms, royalty rates and market shares of various formats. Some of us talk  about process and outlining and marketing,  and we make predictions and projections and pontifications about the future of publishing. It’s interesting to writers, both currently published and pre-published,  because knowing about and discussing this stuff is part of our business.  It’s interesting to some readers, because they like seeing how the business works (or sometimes how it doesn’t work).

But I get the feeling that there is a larger mass of readers out there–Hines’ “average readers”– who couldn’t really care less about why Amanda Hocking went with St. Martin’s or whether Barry Eisler made the right decision to self-pub or whether Joe Konrath is the Antichrist (answer: probably not). They may not even read book blogs, and it’s highly doubtful they read Publisher’s Weekly or Galleycat. They’re the equivalent of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority”: the “real’ Non-“elite” folks who  every politician of every stripe claims they  represent. 

Which leads us to the question: as authors, how do we reach these people? And what the heck do they want?

The knee-jerk response “they want a good book” is glib but empty, because no one agrees what consitutes a “good book,” at least until enough people like something enough that it sells a great number of copies. In that case, however, there’ll probably be a considerable number of people who’ll tell you that no, that top-ten bestseller is not a good book; it is, in fact, absolute crap, while this book over here that sold less than a thousand copies is, actually, the best book ever written.

It gets even more confusing when you begin to realize that the people whose job it is to determine what that great silent-but-hungry mass of consumers wants often don’t really know either. We’ve all heard the multitude of stories about writers rejected by dozens of publishers who went on to become bestsellers. And how many times have we seen the author that was supposed to be the Next Big Thing in publishing turn out to be the literary equivalent of the Segway? (You remember the Segway. It was supposed to be the future of personal transportation, “transforming the way you work, play and live,” according to the company’s website. So, do you own one?)



Even some of the things you’d think would be reliable predictors of popular success sometimes fail us. Our Alex has brilliantly explained the idea of “high concept”: those ideas that have already staked out a place in our “mental real estate” so that when you see one, you go “Yes. That. Want that.”

 As an example, she uses PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Because everyone knows pirates, right? They’re cool.  Everyone wants to see a movie about pirates. So explain to me why POTC became a franchise while 1985’s CUTTHROAT ISLAND bombed so badly that it took Carolco Studios down with it.


It even has a monkey, for Chrissakes!

Likewise, one series of  YA books about young wizards at a magical academy spawned multiple sequels and made its author one of the richest women in the world; another, earlier one…well, they’re doing okay, but they didn’t make Diane Duane a millionaire, more’s the pity.



Yes, that “average reader” (or viewer) is an enigmatic critter. They want something just like something else, only different, and every now and then they want something really different.   The only way they speak is with their cash or plastic, and they seem to be saying something different all the time.

So, since no one really knows what’s going to be big and what’s going to bomb, what are we to do? Why, whatever makes us happy and gives us pleasure to write. Unless you can tell me what readers really want….


38 thoughts on “What The Heck Do They WANT?

  1. Grace

    My two cents worth: the average reader knows what they like and what they don't and no amount of marketing is going to make them change their mind. Like the vote, the TV ads won't make them waiver – bless all the average ones in society – they keep things moving, are the backbone of nations and humble the arrogant. My opinion only!

  2. PD Martin

    Interesting post! I watched the Amanda Hocking/Barry Eisler thing with great interest too (although as you say, readers probably weren't that interested!).

    I think pretty much every book a publisher takes on they believe has the potential to be a best seller – they just don't know which ones are going to make it and which ones aren't!

    An Aussie publicist recently told me that even after 20 years in the business she has no idea why one book makes it while another (which is 'better') doesn't. Scary stuff!

    Sometimes I think writing a book is like buying a lottery ticket – you might get nothing (or virtually nothing) or you might strike it rich!

  3. JD Rhoades

    "An Aussie publicist recently told me that even after 20 years in the business she has no idea why one book makes it while another (which is 'better') doesn't."

    I hear this a lot, too. And I've had to bite my tongue to keep form saying "so WTF are they paying YOU for?"

    "the average reader knows what they like and what they don't and no amount of marketing is going to make them change their mind."

    Grace, agreed. I keep coming back to the example of John Twelve Hawks. A few years ago he was going to be the next Dan Brown. They hyped the hell out of him Now I get blank looks when I mention his name.

  4. Richard Maguire

    Yeah, J.D., CUTTHROAT ISLAND may have a cute monkey, but POTC has Kiera Knightley. I rest my case.

  5. Mark Terry

    A couple points.

    First, I know Jim Hines, he's a great guy and a terrific writer, and if you haven't read any of his books, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?????

    Second, there are definitely times when writers like myself and y'all here get going on something (like, say, e-books) where we seem an awful lot like a bunch of bees trapped in a glass jar.

    Third and finally, when we talk about a "good book" I'm reminded of a line from Peter Lefcourt's hilarious novel about the film industry "The Deal" in which a studio reader asks the main character, B movie director Charlie Bern, if he honestly thinks the script he's peddling is good. And he responds by asking her what's a good script? As far as he's concerned, he says, a good script is one that gets made into a movie.

    I'm inclined to think sometimes we'd be better off recognizing that a "good book" is one that gets read and leave it at that.

  6. Colette

    I agree. I don't think the average reader cares whether a book is traditionally or self published. They care what platform the book is on (whether they can read it on their device), how much it costs, and most important — how good the writing is.

  7. Mary Arrrr

    Part of the problem is that there is just a world of difference between the tastes of someone who reads a hundred plus books a year and someone who reads one to five. I learned this lesson talking with film critics. They hated movies with things they'd seen a hundred times before. Audiences either hadn't seen them before or were just happy to see them done "right."

    As to the pirate movies… having been around since when CUTTHROAT ISLAND was coming out, I read the script and knew it was a dog. Take a dead genre and try to make it new by making the hero a woman without bringing in the actual woman's perspective that made ROMANCING THE STONE a huge hit. Didn't work. Two decades later, look at a dead genre, recognize that fantasy is becoming huge, decide to make a movie that has cursed ghost pirates. Huge hit. POTC also recognized the modern notion of pirates as fighting against the powers that be, but made them rapscallions having a hell of a lot of fun doing it rather than dour and noble.

    I do think there is a fair amount of inability to predict what will be good and what won't. But there is also a great deal of willful blindness, and a strong tendency towards groupthink.

  8. Alafair Burke

    This is the kind of "inside" talk I can handle. Frankly, I tune out at chatter about ebook pricing and marketing, etc. If I wanted to do Power Point presentations about business models, I'd have a different job. I know writers need to pay attention to the business end of the business, but writing the books you want to write should always be both the reason and the goal.

  9. Eika

    "Likewise, one series of YA books about young wizards at a magical academy spawned multiple sequels and made its author one of the richest women in the world; another, earlier one…well, they're doing okay, but they didn't make Diane Duane a millionaire, more's the pity."

    As a long-time fan of Diane Duane's work, who bought her last few books while at college… Thank You.

  10. Dana King

    Good, thought provoking post. I find myself compartmentalizing my inner reader and inner writer, and the reader doesn't care whether the story comes to be as an ebook or paper. I take them as I find them, and I have the word of mouth pipeline and favorite list to ensure I never run out of things to read.

    As a writer, I've decided to go straight to e-books, even though I know i won't make any money. Part of this is because I'm not likely to make any money publishing traditionally (not enough to make it worth the BS that goes along with it), and partly for the reason JD notes in his reply to PD's comment: why should I pay (if indirectly) people who don;lt appear to know any more about what will sell than I do?

    Musicians have been hip to this for a long time. Leonard Bernstein had enormous respect for those who wrote hits, said he'd always wanted to but lack the gift. Not that he lacked for musical gifts, but there's something indescribable required to writing a hot, and you either have it, or you don't. You might have it and it never sees the light of day because you lack the other talents to make it work (like being able to play an instrument or sing well enough) but it probably can't be taught, only refined.

  11. PK the Bookeemonster

    I believe the problem lies in trying to write or to find the next greatest book for everyone. This is a huge country with a diverse population: where we live determines our likes/dislikes, our education level, our jobs, our family/culture, etc. How can one book have all those possible combinations covered? Hence, we have niches. (double word score for "hence" and "niche"?)
    I don't even know why *I* like what I like let alone have someone else determine it for me. I love historical mysteries and I think there are some authors out there are the best-est ever. I know a heckuva lot of people who detest that sub-genre. I don't care for noir or the darker side of of crime fiction but I know there are authors considered to be the cream of the crop that I wouldn't go near because my reading time is valuable to me. This isn't The Lord of the Rings: there cannot be only One. (or was that HIghlander?) I suppose the best one can hope for is to have gatekeepers to weed out what is truly dreck. But still, in crime fiction alone, each month there are between 50 and 100 new releases published. Somebody likes them. But they've got to let go of the blockbuster mentality.
    It's an impossible task set for people who cannot know how to truly go about it except by stumbling around in the dark. But please keep doing it because I'm a book addict and need more product.

  12. MJ

    I write, and read, and just want the books I want. For example, I'm a big fan of Michigan writer Loren Estleman, who has a great Detroit P.I. series (among others). His publishers have changed over the years, and now some are available on Kindle – I just want access. Whether the hard copy I bought at a signing in a long-gone Detroit bookstore in 1995 or the story collection I downloaded last month, I just want to read what I want to read. And if I can get my favorite writers on my Kindle now, all the better (though I don't care HOW it gets to the Kindle – Random House or Forge or self-pub).

  13. JD Rhoades

    "CUTTHROAT ISLAND may have a cute monkey, but POTC has Kiera Knightley. I rest my case. "

    CI had Geena Davis, though, and she ain't exactly chopped liver.

  14. David Corbett

    I read this post with keen interest, and ran through all the comments, thinking: How smart, how observant, how true. I considered writing an equally trenchant response, but the subject depresses me so thoroughly I decided to just, you know, write.

    Work on a novel, a story, a script.

    There's a bitchy little life lesson in there somewhere, I suppose. Creativity exists to ward off the demons. The demons who seem to animate so much of life: anxiety, dread, the relentless quest for money, success, prestige.

    Maybe writing is just a kind of constructive form of daydreaming, of denial. Or I tell myself it's constructive. I know what will happen if I stop, and it ain't pretty.

    How does that link to readers? If I only knew.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I can't answer all the other questions, but the reason people flocked to POTC and not Cutthroat Island has a lot to do with the fact that we've all been on that Pirates of the Caribbean ride – it's been ingrained in us since we were in strollers. You never went on a Disney ride called Cutthroat Island, right? We have the mental real estate for POTC.

  16. Debbie

    If an editor or agent is only looking for what will sell, rather than what is good, and this is in part determined by what the marketing department will accept, then the marketing department has already lost because they don't even have access to what is good. Editors and agents probably read more than most anybody else comparitivly. There must be books that stand out to them that get passed by and at times, they must become desensitised as a result of reading so much with a focus to selling. I wouldn't be surprised if several books are passed by because, 'we don't need any more in this particular genre…please focus on this one now.' Part of that is in making sure a company produces books in all of it's lines, consistant with past output, and both reader/market expectation and shareholder expectation and stock performance. Can a company really afford to alienate some subgenre of readers if the budget is x$ and that was all spent elsewhere? Kind of self defeting, but there you have it.

    That said, good is still a matter of opinion. Somebody I know with a Masters in English and a Ph.D. in comparitive studies, couldn't stand a popular series because he knew the author to be well read and informed and he felt that said author could have done so much more with the series.

    So what have I wasted all this time saying? Write what you want, publish in the format that's right for you and if you figure out anything along the way, remember that we like new things, we enjoy them for a while, then we get bored and…want new things. So forget what you figured out, and Write what you want! <grin>

  17. Jake Nantz

    I think a lot of it may have to do with perceived polish. Think of it this way: I never saw "Cutthroat Island", because I saw the trailer and it looked terrible. But I saw a Tommy Lee Jones film called "Nate and Hayes" that, while not the level of epic that POTC was, still featured a fun and energetic storyline. Thing is, if I'd seen a trailer between it and "Cutthroat Island", I would have said no way to BOTH. I saw N&H when I was 16 and bored over the weekend during the school year. Neither film looks as "polished" as POTC, and that's because POTC has the budget behind it. Plus, there are a hell of a lot more people (coughmostlywomenlikemywifecoughcough) who are enamored with Johnny Depp than ever have been with TLJ, or guys with Kiera Knightly than ever have been with Gina Davis. It sucks, but in many cases the book buying public goes for whatever appears to be the BIGGEST and BADDEST, and by the time they find out later that that appearance was wrong, they've already spent their money, which has helped to take it to bestseller status, which then shows up on the next run's cover to convince someone else to buy it instead of the much better book sitting next to it by a writer that they haven't heard as much about because he/she/they don't have as much backing.

    Are there outliers? Of course. But they don't happen as much, which is why they are called outliers.

    Look at it this way – why do you think there are so many Yankee fans, or (now) Patriot fans, or Laker fans, or Carolina fans? Because as much as I despise Colin Cowherd, he's right. The majority of the consumers in this country are mindless bandwagoners. Does that mean all readers are stupid? No, but the people that would buy Jo Rowling's books because they are good adventures would also buy Barry Eisler's Rain books for the same reason. It's the OTHER group of "readers", the ones who have only read 5 books in their lifetime (I teach a shit-ton of these) and 4 of them are from the Twilight series. THOSE are the ones who push one to bestseller status while another equally good series gets 'meh' results. My wife and I read them together, and I actually don't mind the Twilight books. But I teach scores of little teen girls and guys who are such fanboys/fangirls that they latch onto one and defend it to the death against a 'rival' series that is wonderful, but they wouldn't know because they've never read it. And if you think only kids are like this, I direct you to the 'Twilight Moms'. 'Nuff said?

  18. JD Rhoades

    "I know what will happen if I stop, and it ain't pretty. :

    Addiction's a bitch, ain't it?

  19. Debbie

    Good points Jake…there is a difference between good and fun, and fortunate is when you want both and find them both in a novel. For anybody who has at least opened a book and finished it, and even more so a series, yeah them. Hopefully, the next step is to give the land of literary imagination a go, richer than that of the big screen and more of an investment in terms of time, but we've got to start somewhere and hopefully, the positive experience will mean those readers will continue to read. One thing that might help them along the way…understanding the difference between what they like and what is good. It's true of movies and music too, and I expect the younger generation would understand that more readily than hearing that their beloved Twilight isn't quite up to the literary standards of say, hmm…some of the classics (some of which are mentioned in the very pages of Meyer's series)!

  20. pari noskin taichert

    Man, what a great discussion. I've given up predicting too. And now I'm kind of off the grid — writing what I want to write w/o worrying about branding or any marketing/pr things I know about — because the creativity is the thing. I'm going to self publish for awhile at least until I figure out if there's a particular direction that calls me.

    For now it's the story and the writing that matter most to me. If readers and I find each other that will be wonderful. If we don't, I'll keep writing anyway.

  21. David Corbett

    I think most if not all of the writers on this list can say confidently that they have readers who truly love their work and who are very much looking forward to the next book. The problem isn't writing books that readers respond to. It's the number of readers — and finding those who may not know of you yet but who would embrace your work if they knew who the heck you were.

    We would like to believe that the marketing folks in publishing houses focus on how to put specific books into the hands of readers who would enjoy them, but as already noted in the previous comments, this does not appear reliably to be the case. (That's the kindest way I can think to put it.)

    And so the blind end up leading the deaf, mediocrity gets crowned as excellence, and readers get turned off by how lousy the reading experience has become — unaware there are wonderful books to be had, maybe more than ever. But those books fail to get the traction they deserve because publishers use the supposed preferences of "readers" and "buyers" as an excuse to justify the failure of the books they've neglected to market effectively.

    People outside of publishing are astonished when they learn how seemingly random the publishing industry's marketing efforts are–specifically, how they can go to all the trouble to publish a book only to abandon it. The flip side is how garishly they market books that simply aren't very good. Sooner or later, people recognize the shoddiness of the product, and wonder why the writers they love so much remain obscure or get tossed under the bus.

    And yet, this has always been true. Tastemakers aren't required to have taste. And the marriage of art and commerce more often than not involves a shotgun wedding.

  22. JJ

    Cutthroat Island didn't have a 'drunken, on-the-edge' Johnny Depp. And to think Disney wanted to fire him after the dailies! Thank goodness smarter heads prevailed.

  23. John McFetridge

    Timing has a lot to do with it. Not many people were in the mood to see a pirate movie in 1985. More people were in the mood for pirates when POTC was released.

    One of the best things about e-books (indie or from publishers) is that they'll always be in print and in stock.

  24. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Welcome to friggin' Hollywood. Imagine dozens of producers, agents and studio execs throwing in their two cents, each one sure they have the answer to make their film a huge success.
    I think it's best if we write for ourselves. Really. Something tells me we should write what our hearts want us to write, and not even consider what readers want.
    John Vorhaus has a great quote: "Keep giving them you until you is what they want."

  25. David Corbett

    I wish I could remember the screenwriter's name who said this, but she described working in Hollywood as being like having a boyfriend who's constantly telling you how hot you are but doesn't want you to come.

    Stephen, I think you're right, but I have no hard evidence to back us up. I do believe that if you write with passion about something you believe in, and work hard to communicate that to the imagined reader — however you envision him or her — so the reader can feel it as well, you've done everything you can do. Or should do.

    Simone de Beauvoir said: She who writes from the depths of her loneliness speaks to us of ourselves. If you speak honestly from the heart with all the skill you can muster, you will touch your reader. Can you make a career on that? WTFK?

  26. Fran

    Man, if I knew what readers want. . .and that's a huge part of my job. All you lovely authors provide me with ample fodder, but it's almost an act of telepathy for me when someone wanders into the store and says "Recommend something". Twenty questions and a lot of frowning later, and I've been lucky or blessed, but for the most part I can come up with something, or know someone who can.

    But it's always a crapshoot.

    Fortunately for me, my only format worries are mass market, "enhanced" mass market, trade paperback or hardcover. New or used. Signed or unsigned. It's the little things that keep me sane.

    And yeah, Dusty, isn't Kat super-spiffy? She finds the most amazing things!

  27. lil Gluckstern

    Um, Johnny Depp-at his most outrageous, Keith Richard persona? Potter succeeded (IMHO) because every character, every circumstance, and experiences were archetypal. Beautifully realized, and freshly written, but if you've ever read myths, or fairy tales, it appealed to so many dark and light motifs that in the end, not much was "new." Maybe there isn't really isn't anything new , but I sure find a lot to read. However, it's presented.

  28. Allison Davis

    I'm still stuck on buncha bees in a jar. Why that struck me funny this afternoon, I'll never know. We're on an insect roll this week (or at least bee keeping).

    This is the same question all the 25 year old MIT graduates are pondering, what's the next FB or Dropbox or…

    Just gotta follow that passion like they said. The future is what will be on the blank page. Doing is part of the prediction.

    And I agree that Johnny Depp over the Monkees any day.

  29. KDJames

    I'm a writer but I've been a reader far longer and I can tell you what *I* want. Give me characters I care about with something significant at stake and use them to evoke my emotions. Which emotions? Depends on the genre. If you're writing in a genre you enjoy reading, you'll know.

    Yes, I do think it's that simple. And that difficult. Often, damn near impossible.

    I'm tempted to say something about voice here, but not all "good" writers have a distinctive voice. I think what they do have is a kind of confidence. Mastery of not just language but also story. It's the difference between a competent musician who can hit all the right notes at the right time, yet makes you yawn and wish the song would end already, and the virtuoso who hits those same notes but infuses the piece with life and passion and makes you feel it. Both performances require practice and time and endless repetition, but the virtuoso understands and has an empathy for the emotions being evoked. Easier said than done. I think it's possible one could practice for a lifetime and still never quite achieve that connection. Ultimately, the audience decides.

    The best we can do is to keep writing and keep giving readers choices. There will never be a book so good that I won't ever have to read another.

  30. Reine

    Well… I like a good story. Period. There is nothing new, so just tell it well. What I don't like. Mm. I don't like fiction that isn't written for the reader. Example. Recently I read a book by an author I love. It was advertised with an appeal to the mystery, what this author does well. I settled in with the new mystery, and discovered it was a barely disguised proposal for a pirate film. It was a continuous string of scene setups in predictable fashion for a pirate movie. I paid a lot of money to read a lousy action script with the he saids and she saids left off the page. I'd just rather not be fucked with.

  31. DA Kentner

    For those of us not a household name in literature, it all comes down to "fate," or if you prefer… luck. Our book happens to be read by a friend of a child of a well-known author who then shares it with her agent. The thrown dart lands on our manuscript in the slush pile on a desk. A nationally recognized reviewer happens to read a comment on a blog, likes it, checks out the author, reads a book, and tells the world about a book no one's heard of. A Twitter post is shared, shared again, becomes a daylong fad to pass along and suddenly thousands of copies of a book sell overnight.

    The bottom line for writers – keep writing. Keep hoping. Keep producing the highest quality story and product you can. Never give up the dream.
    Because one day the readers will find us. It is then our futures will be determined.

    I think mystery author Sam Reaves said it best: "The reader is the final arbiter."

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