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Through a glass darkly

They should have done some research first.
I spent two days in Seattle this week sitting in a dimly lit room, behind a two-way mirror, watching a group of total strangers. It’s called focus group research.

Yes, there’s nothing quite as exciting as talking about research. (Hey, wait, where are you going? This is science!)

Basically, we hire a firm to bring in total strangers and then a moderator grills the heck out of ‘em. For an hour of their time, they get to vet their opinions, butcher my copy before my eyes, and make a cool $100. Hookers never had it this good. The whole point is to gain some firsthand insight from our target audience. The great unwashed, thumb-licking, page-turning public of America.

For my part, I just sit behind the glass with my client––like a marketing voyeur, sipping bottled water and gnoshing on goat cheese pizza from Cucina! Cucina! (Not a big fan of goat anything).

And since the focus groups are happening in real time, I'll occasionally ask other questions, jotting down a note for a runner to slip in. I’m always resisting the urge to slip some random question for the academic, sweater-vested moderator to have to ask. Something like "who wants to see me get my freak on?" Or some obscure Zen koan that can’t be answered––"what is the sound of one leg dancing?"

In the end did we learn anything new? A little about my client But a lot more about human nature, group dynamics and the revelation that I never want my fate determined by a jury of my peers. Watching a group of strangers hash out their opinons is like watching hot-dogs being made.

So, speaking of target audiences. Have you quantified who yours is? Either for your books, or for your blog? Beyond the genre of what you write, where do these people live, how old are they, what are they like? Or do you write for a target audience of one? Namely, yourself.

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Reader Comments (16)

the whole focus group research sounds fascinating.
and really scary. i always wonder how much (or how little) pressure it would take for me to join the mob.

i would love to know percentages for my books. male/female/age. close to 1/2 of the email i get is from an equal combination of male/female, age 13 - 25. but my editor points out that we can't say half my total readership falls into that category because that age group simply tends to be more likely to go online and send an email to a writer.
April 22, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteranne frasier
Focus groups definitely aren't science. But they are interesting, in a train-wreck kind of way.

I keep thinking more and more about who I'm writing for. I know Joe Konrath talks about marketing his book to female readers since most book buyers are women; more women read mysteries, etc. Which strikes me as strange since his books have such a "guy-humor" thing about them. To me anyway. I wonder if he wouldn't be more successful if he stopped second-guessing the marketplace and wrote for a male audience. Then he might inject more humor and attitude which seems a little suppressed.

That's interesting about your readers. I wouldn't have guessed they skewed that young, but that does make sense from an email-friendly age demographic.

I noticed your book, Before I Wake, at the SeaTac airport on my way out of town. They have a small Borders in the airport's marketplace. Your books were given a nice piece of shelf real estate.

April 22, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie ford
I've never been in a focus group, but I have had the unpleasant experience of sitting on a jury (even though I tried to tell the lawyers what I thought they didn't want to hear in order to be released). I guess I'm not as sly as I think I am.
I agree 100%, Jaime, I never, ever, under any circumstances want my future freedom in the pissed off, stressed-out, self-important hands of people like the eleven I sat with in that musty jury room. (Can you say drama?)

As far as an audience for my book, it's pretty much girls ages 9-12, and it will appeal to most demographics within that age group. The blog? That I write for me…at least for now.
April 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMeleta McHarlin
I write my blog entirely in binary rather than in English. Because 1,000,000 years from now artificial intelligence machine-puters will be excavating the underwater ruins of Mountain View, CA. And when they finally dig up the hard drive lodged inside of Google's Blogger server A43543, my work will have finally found its true audience. ;)
April 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjackt
Meleta--I met a guy who as on the Exxon Valdez federal grand jury. He was replaced after 18 months of testimony. 18 months!

jackt--01101100 01101111 01101100
(There are 10 types of people in the world: Those who understand binary and those who don't.)
April 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJamie
Hey Jamie,
I demand as a faithful reader of your blog that you send a little note into the room with one of those funny questions on it...please for all our sakes. I know my target audience for my books...for my blog, kind of. My books are for the middle class woman set, mothers or not, there's something in my books. I also think men would like them, though they're not my target...My blog is trickier. I don't think the same people reading books are writing/reading blogs. Many are, of course, though most seem to be writers above all else...so I'm adding in more writing elements to my blog, but really it's slice of life stuff for men and women...yeah, that crazy description details exactly why i don't know my target audience.
April 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterkathie
For my writing, the initial target is definitely myself. If I'm not happy with what I'm reading, it doesn't go further. But once it does, I'm aiming for a 20-30something crime reading audience who want to have some fun while they commit a crime.

The blog was originally a way to get my name out there and to give me a reason to practice my writing. The reality of it is that most of the readers are writers at a similar stage in their careers. Which is great, because it makes me feel less isolated, and helps keep the motivation up.
April 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Hatadi
jamie, i'm thrilled to hear my books are still on airport shelves, especially since i haven't had one out for a year. (hush was the only one i ever spotted in an airport bookstore.) i find it strange -- but very nice -- that they would have had a copy of before i wake at all.
April 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteranne frasier
I'm with you on the blog thing Daniel. It gives me a place to keep writing, and it's nice to interact with other writers.

Anne--it was a small Borders book store. Much nicer than your typical airport news stand that just stocks rows upon rows of Dan Brown books.

Kathie--the next focus group I'll have to create some diversion so my client doesn't see. Maybe if there's a hosted bar in the viewing room...
April 24, 2006 | Registered CommenterJamie
That picture made me laugh out loud. Target audience for the book: anyone who gets my sense of humor. It's too wacky for everyone's sensibility. But it will probably be pitched mainly to women in my demographic (18-35).
April 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJess

As both a veteran focus group observer (through the mirror, not in the room) and a recovering lawyer, I wholeheartedly agree with you: I never want my fate determined by a jury of my peers.

April 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Hurtubise

Strange process isn't it? It always strikes me as research masquerading as science. There's valuable information, but so many strange factors can influence a group.
April 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie
a hundred dollars for their opinion!?!?!?!

and i've been giving mine away for free!!! often times FORCING it on people who were...wrong...

I coiuldnt find the link to read your first chapters...

April 26, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdoc-t
I write for kids, so I don't write for myself so much as I write for myself age 10. I guess that makes my target audience young bookworms. I hope they have more friends than I did though. :)
April 26, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJen
Doc--The first chapters will be back up in a few weeks. I had them up waaaaayy back when, but have since rewritten them. They'll be going up in pdf form soon.

But hey, thanks for asking!

Jen--I like the thought of writing for younger more lovable version of myself. Just without the acne and the crack in my voice.
April 26, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie
I used to write for myself and now I'm not sure anymore because it's hard to realize I'll even have a target audience in about a year.

Thanks for sharing about the research focus group. Once I was stopped at the mall for a survey for a free lunch. I was just under twenty and working at the mall. I answered some questions, got the two bucks, and bought myself a burrito at Taco Bell. ;)

Hey, I looked up Jen Solow. Her shirt is too cool. *laughs*
April 26, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

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