After all my previous musing about finding audiences and how to appeal to them, I decided I'd start a series of posts where I look at the whole technology, so to speak, of finding and keeping an audience with a given work.
Every piece of work finds and keeps a different readership. It's not always possible to know, in advance, what kind of audience you get — although you can make educated guesses based on what the readership is for previous work in a similar vein. This is where the concept of the target market (I know, yecch) comes from, for good or bad, and I suspect I'm going to be invoking it at least as much as I end up deconstructing it and tunneling under it during these discussions.
Talk to Hollywood marketing folks and they eventually mention another word that makes creative people crawl under the table: demographics. Specifically, they talk about "quadrants": male, female, over-25, under-25. The way they see it, a movie that can hit all four of those quadrants is a guaranteed financial success. If something only appeals to one or two of those, it's limited at best. If the film's not a clear sell to any of those demographics — or if they don't think it is — it gets pushed into the swamp and laughed about some years later in "X Biggest Bombs" lists on io9 or FilmJerk.
I thought about how a story in general can be considered to have quadrants of its own — not in terms of demographics it's meant to reach, but in terms of what it provides to the reader. Here's the split I came up with:
Entertainment. The reader should have a good time actually reading the book. This could be in a very brainy, rarefied way (Thomas Pynchon is one kind of fun), or in a straight-up mainstream way (John Grisham is another kind of fun), or in a totally maverick way (Daniel M. Pinkwater, long may you run).
Information. Whenever possible the reader should leave the book knowing something a little more than when they went in. This is technical or worldly knowledge, research.
Wisdom/insight. The author should find some grain of truth about human behavior and communicate it. If that grain of truth seems superficial (the idea that good and bad is in all of us) then the author should do their best to dig a little deeper (it is easy to believe we are not responsible for the provisions of good and bad that we all carry, but such thinking is a temptation to be fought).
Empathy/affection. The author should find some way to make the reader care about what goes on, especially through the people it all happens to. The variety of emotion can vary: we can admire these people despite their behavior, because we're curious about what they do next (villains are good for this); we can root for them; we can simply want to feel that we'd like to spend time with them in the real world. This last is a rule of thumb I've seen elsewhere, via the Gene Siskel Test for films: Given a particular film, is it as interesting as a documentary about the cast and crew of said film sitting around having lunch?
I noticed after typing this that each one of these elements requires slightly more explanation than the previous one. No accident, I suspect: the further you go into the list, the more heavy lifting is needed on the part of the author. It's easier to entertain than it is to inform, and it's easier to do both of those things than to either impart what you've learned or make us care about someone.
Small wonder, when I hear one of the hardest kinds of books to write is works for children. There, you can't not afford to engender empathy and affection for your characters; it only looks easy from the outside.
This formula is still very much under wraps, and I don't expect it to be any kind of absolute. Consider it a draft guide for my thoughts as they continue to evolve on this subject.