Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Demographics and Your Writing: How are you affected?

When I did magazine advertising, we'd highlight reader demographics to potential advertisers: age of readers, income of readers, geography of readers, gender of readers, political stance of readers, religious stance of readers…

Our advertisers wanted to know if their money would be well-spent marketing to our audience.

As a writer marketing your work, you need to be aware of your audience demographics. We all love to think everyone wants to read our work, but the truth is otherwise. Your ideal reader is someone like you.

Can you pinpoint your demographic?

I recently had a few good lessons in demographics through critique sessions.

Cynics, Women, and Angels

I have a short story, "Cemetery Angels," where a plot point is that some guys, high on drugs, are planning to rob a mother and daughter in a cemetery during the middle of the day. They want money for drugs - and who expects to be robbed in a cemetery of all places?! (Outside of my mother and me, that is.) I was a little worried that someone might question this, even though it's based on stories I was familiar with - I don't recall if they were news or common urban legends - of druggies doing just such an act.

The first and second persons who gave me feedback didn’t question this point at all. Feeling comfortable, I shared this with one of my in-person critique groups (I have a lot of critique people & groups - which actually gives me a good spread of demographics). No one in my in-person critique group understood this plot point - and some had very specific ideas of what those "crazy kids on drugs" ought to be doing in a graveyard ("Perhaps show them defacing gravestones?")

What was the difference?


The first two people who reviewed my story had a certain level of urban experience and were deeply cynical.

My in-person writing group hasn't a person who is half as cynical as either of the first two readers, and most of them are used to living in suburban, country, or otherwise low-population areas.

Another point:

The mother in this story makes sure to check the back seat of the car - something that was emphasized all my life. All of the men who reviewed my story asked how the mother knew to check there. None of the women questioned this.


Your Mama! (Not mine)

Different story, similar vein: In my correspondence writing group, a woman sent out a story about motherhood. It was a moving story, but had a harsh outlook on "society's" treatment of mothers. She mentioned that her story evoked either a lot of love or a lot of hate from the other readers. When I read it, I was deeply moved, but had to step back. I loved the story - but an awful lot bothered me. In many places, I was saying, "But this isn't how it is! Not for my family or anyone I know!"


My colleague was describing a detailed slice-of-life from the demographic of upper-middle class, mostly white, mostly well-educated and white-collar, mostly Protestant, suburban-upon-urban, middle-aged-and-older women.

My family was blue-collar and regular middle class, but deeply Catholic and, in my mom's case, child of Polish immigrants. I'm also a generation-and-a-half below this writer; my friends are all having children during this recession, so our treatment of our mothers is very different than how mid-generational or older generations treat/ed their mothers. For many of my group, mothers are vital to childcare and survival. On the other hand, I do see a difference in my friends & mothers' relationships who are in higher income brackets as opposed to those in lower income brackets… and those who live in more suburban areas as opposed to those in urban areas.

The critiquers who didn't step back and consider demographics had a gut reaction if my colleague's story hit home or didn't hit home (i.e. "was wrong") for them.

Demographics Affect Perception

What demographics will favor your story? Who will understand and relate to it? This is important not only in regards to readers, but agents and editors. Who are you marketing your writing to? This is where looking at the likes & dislikes of agents and editors - and meeting them at conventions and conferences when you can - makes a big difference.

Before you spend your time and resources in marketing, do what the smart advertisers do: check your audience demographics.

What demographics will most likely buy your product: your writing? Where is it worth spending your resources?


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