This morning’s Wall Street Journal features an article entitled “Test-marketing a Modern Princess,” about how Disney Junior is developing their new Sofia the First television series. Yes, folks, these executives are sitting down with pre-schoolers, reading them storylines and filming their reactions for later study. Given the ratings quoted in the article, it seems to be working. Should authors be taking a cue from some of these big guys and their market strategies? Some–whether they mean to or not–already are.
With the advent of social media, tribes of enthusiasts can gather as never before. Where an old-school Trekkie might have had to wait months for a con at which he could share his excitement about a new series, or perhaps set up a local fan group to meet on a more regular basis, the new fan merely has to open a browser and search for like spirits online. This offers both advantages and dangers for the author. For one thing, you can now eavesdrop on the conversations of fans the world over. If you’re deciding among projects to pursue, you can get an idea of what excites the kinds of readers you’d like to attract and see if one of your ideas will meet their needs.
Many in the trad publishing world decry the entire concept of “writing to market”, then, if you actually try to sell them a book, they will immediately turn around and ask you to define the market–what authors is your book like? what readers do you think will love this? And that’s all I’m really talking about so far. I’m a commercial author–I want to write books that will sell to a wide market, and it behooves me to have some sense of what that market is. It doesn’t mean I’m jumping on a bandwagon of urban fantasy about mermaids who live in the sewers of Denver, simply because some reader thinks they’d like to read that book. (would you? I’m thinking *not*) It does mean that I have enough ideas that I can cherrypick what I want to write based on what I think readers will be most excited to read. In that sense, the online focus group potential is a good thing.
It turns dangerous when it gets more personal. Because, of course, you can also learn what your own fans are saying. Whether you mean to or not, the author who works in series–unless all the volumes are out at once–is doing something similar to those Disney execs: showing a story-in–progress to an interested readership and receiving their reactions. What if they don’t like the direction it’s taking? What if they love a character you plan to kill off in the next book? Do you go all GRRM and kill him anyway? And will that make them more loyal because it raises the tension, or will it drive them away?
I know many authors who try to avoid the inadvertent focus group as much as possible. They don’t read reviews, participate in reader forums, or interact with fans who have ideas about the direction things might go. This was certainly a consideration for J. K. Rowling as the tension mounted toward the end of the Harry Potter series. I’m not aware of publishers being influenced by this sort of thing–they tend to adhere to the idea of the author as an individual creator, striving for a vision of the work which complies with internal rather than external ideals.
But there are also some interesting new authorial models online, things like fan-fic, in which fans literally write the plots they’d like to see for their favorite stories or even commercial ventures such as first chapters written by a pro author for books which will be finished by others. While an author might view the online commentators as a focus group on fiction, in this new world of empowered consumers, the focus group is no longer at the mercy of the author to provide its entertainment–if they get excited about an idea, they might just run with it, and wind up running the world.