Wednesday, September 9, 2015

WHAT WRITERS CAN LEARN FROM MARKET RESEARCH



Chris Knopf is one of three co-publishing partners at The Permanent Press, and for many years has been a partner in a very successful advertising agency, Mintz + Hoke, with 55 employees. His thirteenth thriller, Cop Job, a return to his Sam Acquillo mystery series, has had excellent pre-pub reviews and will be published this September. Chris has won the Nero Award, one of the major mystery awards, and has been a finalist for many others, and his books have been translated widely. Beyond that, no further introduction is necessary. This is his blog.

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For decades I worked on fiction whenever I could steal the time from my life as an advertising creative.  Though the ad world can be all-consuming, and exhausting, I actually found the escape into this made-up world a welcome diversion, a creative pursuit of an entirely different character.
           
While actually writing, I enjoyed the solitary nature of the work.  But when I thought I had something that could be a finished product, I suddenly felt isolated, sort of professionally deaf, dumb and blind.
           
Unlike the literary world, advertising is highly collaborative. The basic unit isn’t an individual, but a creative team, usually composed of an art director and copywriter.  You create together, huddled in a room somewhere with drawing pads and magic markers.  You build off each others’ ideas, volleying back and forth when things are flowing, goofing around and debating nonsense when they aren’t. 
           
When the team either feels they have something to show, or they’re just out of time, other people enter the process.  The creative director does her winnowing and shaping, and then frequently the ideas end up with a researcher.

This is where we’d learn if the people we hoped to influence with our creative work were, in fact, influenced.  The myth both within and outside advertising is that market research is a science.  In some cases it’s pretty scientific, but when checking out creative work, it’s much more of an art.  And a lesson in humility.

I did a lot of this myself, researching my work and the work of others.  In its simplest form, you take rough renderings of your ideas and put them in front of people who represent the audience you want to reach.  If you’re doing it right, they know as little as possible about what you’re trying to do.  To use the term of art, you want unaided respondents.  Because any foreknowledge will tend to skew the results. 
           
How does this relate to creating fiction?  Most inexperienced writers make the mistake of either clutching their writing to their chests, fearing the consequences of criticism, or showing it to friends, family, co-workers, etc. This is a terrible idea.  What you’re likely to get are reactions that are either too kind or too harsh.  Or simply uninformed.  Thus, bad feedback is worse than no feedback at all. 
           
To overcome my sense of isolation with my first book, I had a brainstorm.  I contacted a friend who lives in New York, and is also an accomplished short story writer.  I asked her to pick a reader whom she felt had decent literary judgement, but with no professional axe to grind.  The other criterion, the most important, is that this person didn’t know me from Adam.  Knew absolutely nothing.   100% unaided. 
           
What I got back was priceless.  I revised the draft, Marty and Judy Shepard liked the book, and there you go.
           
I still do this with every book, though by now I also have readers who know me well.  But I trust their judgment.  Aided respondents also have their place, though that’s a subject for another post.
           
 A word about writers groups.  Good ones can be very valuable; not-so-good are dangerous.  With good ones, you leave your ego at the door, and you hold up your end with honesty and seriousness of purpose.  As soon as your get-togethers turn into group therapy, the efficacy is lost.  Or turns destructive. 
           
There’s one thing that’s even more important than untainted feedback.  Your own judgment.  Take everything you hear with a grain of salt.  Consider everything with an open mind, capturing what improves the product, rejecting what doesn’t.  
           
At the end of the day, you’re still the god of your made-up world.

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You can reach Chris by email at chrisk@mintz-hoke.com or by responding on this website.

WE WILL BE TAKING A SHORT BREAK after this blog, a brief time off from our Wednesday blogs for five consecutive months.  We also invite anyone having anything to do with books to submit a blog to either Chris or to me, Marty Shepard, at

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