Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Does Your Story Have Mass-Market Appeal?

When working alone on a novel it's easy to become engrossed with the story, the characters, and the world. But once you put that story into the hands of beta readers the question nags at the back of your mind sometimes: Does my story have mass-market appeal?

We'd like to think our stories cover most of the bases when it comes to readers.

Recently I took a walk around the track at a park with my three-year-old. Walking with a child slows one down and in setting a gentler pace I had the opportunity to survey my surroundings with an eye more observant than normal. What struck me most was the variety of trees growing in the park. I saw tall evergreens, flowering trees, trees so bursting with life that they sprouted new branches all over the trunks, and one interesting tree with few branches but each covered with leaves over the bark like feathers on a bird.

Each tree was different. Even if they were the same species or variety they held different shapes, heights, and sizes. They each had different functions and they each held a unique beauty. Not unlike the stories we writers come up with. We may write in the same genre as someone else but our stories are different.

What does this have to do with mass-market appeal? I noted during my walk that despite all the differences, these trees also had the same function. They provided beauty, shade, homes for small animals, and they helped hold back the fury of the wind. They had several common denominators.

It's the same for stories. A story may be too unique to be a tree like the rest of the mass-market appeal stories. Your story may be a flowering bush or evergreen shrub instead. There's nothing wrong with this type of uniqueness, as long as the expectations of the writer fit. I see some writers blind to the fact that they've written a bush and have high hopes of it hitting the public like a towering redwood.

Mass-market appeal books try to reach as many audiences as they can: they often have characters of different ages and backgrounds, and do a fine job balancing the story elements so as to touch the interest of not only one or two demographic groups, but several. Mixed genres or genre elements are usually found in mass-market books.

This post isn't to say let's all go out and only write mass-market appeal novels. It's to help distinguish what mass-market means. Maybe you've been beating yourself up because you don't have droves of beta readers drooling over your story like other writers. If you recognize your story might not be mass-market material and that's okay with you, then stop the personal abuse. Love your story for what it is and don't set your ambitions in the wrong arena. If you're aiming for mass-market appeal but realize from beta readers' responses that you've missed the target, then it's time to sit down, analyze your story and make a decision. Do you want to rip it apart and work harder to make it more appealing, or would this destroy the main essence of the novel?

There's so much pressure to sell, sell, sell and with all the new marketing-hype forced on writers, we come up with a lot of unrealistic expectations for ourselves. The pressure's intense. It's easy to become overwrought, to feel lost, and even depressed. There are a plethora of voices out there telling us every little step we must take to mass-market our stories. Sometimes we're not even sure what kind of tree we've written, let alone how to approach marketing it.

Figuring out what kind of story we've written first and making it the best we can should be the top priority. The rest will sort out once you've gotten that done.


  1. I like how you said that uniqueness is good, as long as the writer's expectations are in the right place. I think that's a key element in writing any genre. You need to know your audience, big or small.
    Great post!