Never assume you know your readers

Sorry about the Sunday post… AGAIN. Fridays keep blowing up in my face, mostly in good but terribly busy ways.

So the other night my husband and I went to a local place called Taco Stand which serves…. wait for it… tacos! Delicious tacos! It’s cheap, tasty, and very popular with families (what kid doesn’t like tacos?). This makes for a weird mix of townies and students, groups that are normally oil and water in our little University town, but it also means I run into people I don’t normally see. Unfortunately, this mixing has a bad habit of spawning the “what are you doing now, oh you have a book coming out!” conversation I thought (back before I was published) I would love having, but in reality is always pretty awkward given most people’s vague notions of fantasy and weird ideas about how authors spend their time.

This particular night I ran into a woman I used to work with at the church (my first job out of college as a designer/receptionist and, coincidentally, where I wrote my first novel), named Tami. Even though Tami was older than me and a mother with kids, we were cohorts in the trenches at our job, fighting against the pretty terrible decisions of those above us, and I always enjoyed her company. But, other than work stuff, I didn’t know her or her husband very well, always thought of them as a fairly conservative couple. So, while I was happy to see her looking so well, I was pretty anxious when she came up to say hello after four years and the “what are you doing now” conversation came up. I took the cheat way out and just told her I had a book coming out. Fortunately she had a tray full of tacos headed towards a table of hungry children, so the conversation was truncated and I fled to the other side of the room, safe (I thought) from having to explain yet again that no, my book was not Harry Potter or Twilight or Eragon.

Fifteen minutes later as my husband and I are walking out, Tami stops us. My heart sinks. Here it comes. I can almost see the Oprah question in her eyes. She asks what kind of book I wrote. I tell her fantasy, and to my utter amazement, Tami and her husband are immediately excited. What kind of fantasy? Epic like George R.R. Martin? Urban? Her husband lights up as he tells us how much he loves Joe Abercrombie and how upset he is that Patrick Rothfuss hasn’t put out a second book yet. Tami’s asks who I’m getting published by, and when I tell her Orbit she knows exactly who I’m talking about and tells me she loves their stuff.

At this point, my mind is blown. Here is this woman I worked with for a year, whom I thought I knew as a conservative small town lady with her husband who owns the local office furniture store, more likely (I thought) to read Rachael Ray than ever read Rachel Aaron, and they’re asking me what fantasy books mine is like. What new books can I recommend? Will my book be suitable for their 10 year old, who is already an avid fantasy fan? (My books are not YA, but they have no cussing or sex, just bloody swordfights, so I said maybe to that one. Tami assured me they’d both read it first, and I actually believe they will.)

In the end my husband had to pull me away from the conversation so we wouldn’t be late for our party. Still, I got a very valuable lesson about making assumptions about people, their reading habits, and my future audience. When I wrote my books, the reader I had in my head were people like myself and my husband – geeks, gamers, internet nerds, people who wrote fanfiction in highschool, etc., etc. But there are fantasy readers out there who never go to cons, get involved in geek culture, or even consider themselves geeks. They just like a good fantasy story.

Being so deeply involved in geek culture it’s easy to forget that there are people outside the bubble who buy the same books I do. Who may buy my book if they come across it. Fortunately, this encounter was a very gentle wakeup call and not the foot-in-mouth disaster it could have been. Still, lesson learned.

4 Responses to “Never assume you know your readers”

  1. November 22, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Eh, Friday, Sunday, whatever. Worth it for such a fun post, think. Reminds me of a time I was at a Fourth of July party at my mother’s friends farm, and all these older folks started talking about books, and I was gearing up for stories of Ken Follet or whatever the lastest mainstream bestseller was.

    The lady (I forget her name, and these parties are the only time I see her) starts out her description of the book, and she can’t remember the name of the book, so she says: “It’s a fantasy by one of those authors with two identical initials”, and I, being surprised and nosy, start proposing authors, and we finally figure out the book was ASOIAF by GRRM, and she’s more shocked that I know this guy than I am that she does, and we have a short but interesting conversation about the latest in good fantasy novels.

    I think in terms of offline encounters–which tend to *revolve* around shared interests–a lot more people than you’d think assume they’re the only ones who read a certain type of book, or watch a certain type of movie. I had friends in highschool I’d known for six years, and I only found out they read SFF when we both took independent study classes as an excuse for writing.

    I think the idea behind your title can be applied quite broadly to all sorts of interests.

  2. 2 Terri-Lynne
    November 22, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Most times, when someone asks what I write and I answer, “Fantasy,” about half of them raise their eyebrows, assuming I mean erotica. Sigh. And then the other half ask, “Oh, like Harry Potter?” Sometimes I just say, “yeah, like that.” Other times, I say no. Then sometimes, I too get someone who actually knows that fantasy isn’t only for children or those who like things spicy.

  3. November 22, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Hah! That’s awesome. 😀

    (Alas, most comments I’ve gotten–I write F/SF/H– is the ‘oh, that’s nice’ or ‘so like HP?’ and… yeah. No. Awkward. I kinda try to avoid the whole issue most times, sigh.)

    It’s definitely a good post though to show you never know what you might find. 🙂

  4. 4 rachel aaron
    November 23, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Glad you guys liked it! (And glad/sad to see I’m not the only one who get the HP question!)

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