Those who know me, know that I think Zinsser’s On Writing Well is the Bible of advice to authors. I even talk about Zinsserizing a manuscript–an mischievously ironic term, since Zinsser abhors such neologisms.
In the book, Zinsser self-consciously makes an apparent contradiction.
On the one hand he tells writers not to worry about the audience, what people will like or understand or agree with. Don’t write for an audience. Write for yourself, he tells them confidently.
On the other hand, Zinsser advises writers to work very hard to keep readers’ attention, to not let them get distracted in the middle of a paragraph. “The reader is an impatient bird, perched on the thin edge of distraction or sleep.” So one must be very aware of and concerned about the reader (pp. 26-27, 5th ed.).
How can writers do both at once? By realizing they involve two different issues. One, he says, is a matter of attitude. The other a matter of craft. Be willing to express your attitudes or interests or personality regardless of what others may think. But do so in a way that engages them and compels them to read on–even if they disagree with you.
Yet what is certainly right for authors may not be right for publishers.
The best writing comes when authors follow Zinsser’s apparently paradoxical advice. But that doesn’t mean such works are always right for a particular publisher. Sometimes proposals come our way from authors who inhabit a niche–a denominational niche, an cultural niche, a geographic niche, a theological niche or the like. They come to us because they see we reach a wider range of readers than they could through the publishing houses that typically concentrate on their special audience. I’m always flattered when people think that is the case. Unfortunately, it’s often not true. If an author is writing for jazz-playing bull riders, it is unlikely that a publisher can use this offering to expand the cultural palate of its typical audience of sushi-eating accountants.
Usually, the best audience for a book is the core of readers a book is already most closely tied to. That may seem like a tautology, but it can all too easily be drowned out by the siren call of a wider readership. The fact is that one can typically sell more books by going deeply into a niche than one can by skimming the surface of a broad audience.
So the question for a publisher is, Do we have a track record of being able to reach a particular niche? If we do, those sales can act as a base, a foundation on which to build so that the book has an opportunity to reach more widely. Without that niche, it’s probably not wise for a publisher to move forward with the project.
As I’ve written here and here before, successful publishers focus on their niche, their brand, and continually reinforce it. A well-defined image is the pot of gold at the end of the publishing rainbow.