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Focus Groups and Teen Opinions

This question comes from my Writers Digest webinar. The reader asks:

I recently conducted a focus group made up of 68 teenagers (male & female between the ages of 13-18). I had them read my manuscript and complete an anonymous survey at the end. I received many wonderful comments and scored an 8.5 on a scale of 1-10. Should I mention this in my query to agents or not?

The writer has done a lot of work to reach out to readers, which is always admirable. But does it matter? Will it sway my decision? Not really. Why? Because an agent’s first customers in publishing aren’t teenagers. In the trade process, my customers are publishers: the editors bringing my manuscripts to acquisitions, the sales and marketing people evaluating the work’s sales potential, the finance guys upstairs crunching numbers (in the form of a P&L, a “profit and loss” statement) to determine whether the project makes good business sense to bring to market.

While teens are the “end user” in the YA publishing process, they’re not my first buyer. They’re not even a publisher’s first buyer. After a house buys one of my manuscripts, they will edit it and then pitch it to booksellers and librarians. Those are my customer’s customers. And it’s booksellers and librarians who will then reach out to the teens: my customer’s customers’ customers. So before an actual reader gets their hands on a book, it will have gone through several layers of gatekeepers and decision-makers.

Is a B2B system that ignores its end-user in favor of a customer with more capital a good one? There are people who say that this is one of the things wrong with the publishing business model. Most publishers simply don’t do the kind of “on the ground” research that this writer did for their manuscript. But while these questions and issues are definitely valid, this post isn’t an attempt to address them. And for now, that’s the way things are in the trade publishing landscape.

With the above in mind, I say that I don’t really care what a focus group of teenagers said about a manuscript. Because I’m going to be pitching this project to editors, not teenagers. And most readers who don’t work in publishing and don’t read as much as the people who work in publishing may not have the discerning taste of those who work in publishing, so they’ll usually rate random things pretty highly.

It’s all a matter of context. Agents and editors, who read thousands of manuscripts a year, can be picky and choose the best of the best because they’ve also read the worst of the worst and the meh-est of the mediocre. The average teen who reads maybe a few dozen books a year will see something and think it’s pretty good because, well, why not? They don’t really have to be all that picky and entertainment is entertainment.

This is also why I’m not a fan of sites like Inkpop and Authonomy. Sure, they’re sponsored by HarperCollins, and, sure, highly rated manuscripts posted there get some official Haper eyeballs on them (having spoken to a few of the people who are on duty to vet these manuscripts, I can tell you it’s less glamorous than described), but your chances of getting a book deal out of posting there are still about the same as your chances of going through the slush or self-publishing something that becomes an international bestseller.

Writers often come to me with praise from real, live kids or high ratings on these online writing communities. But since most kid readers and most online community participants don’t have the kind of context and standards that I have — and since they’re not my immediate customers, publishers are — I don’t really weigh their opinions heavily when making my decision. I know that I have to impress publishers first, then impress the reading public with the products that publishers create on my client’s behalf.

I’m an agent. A tastemaker. A gatekeeper. My unique opinion and judgement, after all, is why people come to me in the first place. (And if they don’t like my judgment, they can go to another agent.) My personal list is what I shop around to editors. Who I rep and what projects I attach my name to are a matter of my opinion. When I’m considering a project, that’s the only opinion that matters to me. (And, of course, the opinions of my colleagues and my foreign rights co-agent but you know what I mean).

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  1. Ishta’s avatar

    Interesting post. I understand your point of view, Mary – knowing that a bunch of teens liked a manuscript isn’t very valuable to an agent who will be pitching to editors, not teens.

    But what about the use of focus groups to hone your manuscript, as a writer? You get critique from your critique partners, and you have Beta readers. Why not also have a few teens who can read through it and give feedback along the lines of, “I liked so-and-so, except when she did this, because that just didn’t seem like her,” or “I couldn’t get into it, because of the way the first chapter started – it was too unbelievable,” or something to that effect? Is it valuable to get this kind of feedback so you can get a sense of whether you’re getting across to your intended audience, before you submit to an agent or editor? Can groups like this help you develop your manuscript to a query-ready stage?

  2. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Ishta, that’s an interesting question. I’d like to see what Mary thinks on that too. From having read Amazon and GoodReads reviews by teens and younger kids, I’d be really wary, though. While some are very, very good at expressing what they did or didn’t like about a story, a good deal more aren’t… and they don’t hold back either! (Example: This was SO boring. I don’t know why.) I guess it all comes down to the people in the focus group, teens or otherwise. Some teens will provide great feedback, others won’t.

    The other problem with focus groups is that they haven’t had to PAY for the book. I read all kinds of stories (while critiquing, at the library, borrowed from friends, bought at carboot sales) and enjoy them, but would I actually shell out the full cover price for every one of those stories? Nope.

  3. Leisha Maw’s avatar

    Thanks for the reminder that this is a business, and our first customers are agents. Sometimes we, as writers, get so caught up in the end goal of getting our book into the reader’s hands that we forget the steps in between. :)

  4. Kim Reid’s avatar

    My favorite part of this post is “meh-est.” I’m going to work this into my WIP.

  5. Mary’s avatar

    Ishta and Siski — I think anything you do to help you writing process is valid but Siski is right…teen feedback is very candid, which is great, but it sometimes isn’t articulated in a way that’s helpful to a writer. Remember, teens are all wildly different and will analyze something based more on their feelings and reactions than in a way that writers can use. Their constructive criticism skills aren’t as finely honed yet as those of trained writers or writing teachers. But whatever helps you is what you should do! The person asking this question was asking specifically about mentioning this kind of exercise in a query.

  6. Kari Young’s avatar

    I really enjoyed this post, I always appreciate good information about the industry. I never thought of publishing as B2B model but it makes sense. Thanks for the insight.

  7. Cynthia Lkidlit.com/2011/03/02/focus-groups-and-teen-opinions/eitich Smith’s avatar

    I’m vaguely skeptical of the idea that feedback from any one group of teens is representative of the market as a whole. Communities, cultures, regions, socio-economic groups, etc., each have their own vibe. It’s really tough to get a valid cross-section to extrapolate from.

  8. Thomas’s avatar

    Teen feedback may be very candid at times, but there’s also the danger that they’ll just try to say what they think you want to hear (a habit picked up from years in the education system). It’s flattering to be asked to comment on someone’s novel, so it’s human nature to pull punches in response.

  9. Tamara Paulin’s avatar

    I worked at a board games store for years, and every lame self-published board game comes with an enthusiastic designer who says that “everyone who played it said it was the most fun they’ve ever had.” It’s completely true, but moot.

  10. John M’s avatar

    Something’s wrong when those involved in the development of a product seem uninterested in the opinions of the potential consumers of that product. I understand that publishing is a business, but wouldn’t those investing in books care about the opinions of the buying public at least as much as their own personal tastes? As much as some “gatekeepers” may think they know what’s likely to be successful and what’s not, it is the consumer who ultimately decides. Sure, a qualified agent or editor has skills and talents vital to the selection process, but they still gamble every time they back a book and its author. I would think they’d welcome some empirical evidence to back up their bet.

  11. Mary’s avatar

    John — I completely agree with you, as I said in the post, but this particular post isn’t a discussion of whether or not publishing could do more to reach out to the “end user,” it’s about whether or not to include your “focus group data” in a query.

  12. John M’s avatar

    Fair enough. I just thought that an agent might be interested in a query from someone who’s done their homework as it pertains to their target audience. I’m sure there are a great deal of poor offerings of said evidence (e.g. “My grandmother thought it was the best thing she ever read–since having her stroke.”), but I would have thought the focus group evidence that the poster cited would be relevant to an agent. I guess the first buyer principal trumps all.

  13. Mary’s avatar

    John — It’s a fair point. There are many ways to be a savvy potential client, though. Being savvy about writing craft is usually more important to me than being savvy about polling teens, for the reasons some other comments have detailed above. I’m by no means saying that a writer who is polling teens is misguided. Or that I’d reject them for putting energy into this task. It just doesn’t hold a lot of water with me when mentioned in a query…the writing and story premise are most important.

  14. Eileen Cook’s avatar

    I think there are other issues with putting this in a query. Who composes your focus group? Are they students and you’re a teacher? Friends of your own kids? In these cases the focus group may be more inclined to give positive feedback. Was there even a focus group? How do I as the reader know? (Not that I think this poster is making it up- just saying there would be nothing to stop someone from doing that)

    For these reasons I’m not sure it adds anything to the query.

  15. EricJ’s avatar

    While “I am an agent” sounds like it’s getting on its professional high horse (which can drive a wedge with well-meaning submitters who know how to submit properly), let’s keep it basic:
    Despite the thrill of saying “Focus group”, the writer was trying to give an important-sounding variation on The One Thing You Never, Ever, EVER Say To An Editor, #23: “My friends/writing group/2nd-grade class loved my story!”

    Most friends hired to read a manuscript will either be tactful, most strangers will be too bemused by reading something unpublished to be flat-out harsh about it, and most youngsters will be too caught up in the novelty of reading something unpublished, thinking it’s “real”. Not only does it not mean A DANGED THING, it’s probably the best known newbie red-flag in cover letters. (And calling it a “focus group”, or even trying to form a real one, flags amateur’s self-delusion comically.)
    Good thing the OP was only asking before actually doing it.

  16. Ishta’s avatar

    Thanks for responding to my question, Mary. I guess what you’re driving at is that the manuscript is what’s important, and that’s what you as an agent need to see – the details of how the writer got the MS to that stage are less important to you. And I think that makes sense.

  17. Jordana’s avatar

    Just thought I’d weigh in here – I work for Teenreads.com and we offer Sneak Peek focus group promotions where we ask teens, librarians, and teachers to give feedback on a pre-pubbed manuscript. The difference is that book has been already bought by the publishing company and they are looking for some feedback to bring to their accounts. Because that’s further down the road, closer to the “end user”, it can be really useful.

  18. Sharon Mayhew’s avatar

    Interesting post, Mary. I’m sorry that the author went through all that work to no benefit of helping herself or himself getting an agent. It’s a great lesson for all of us, but perhaps his or her hard work will show you or some other agent how devoted he or she is to making the novel a success.

  19. Rod Griffiths’s avatar

    I seem to recall a story that the publisher who finally took J K Rowling’s first book did so after giving it to a six year old to read, either his son or his grandson I think. Of course this may not be true, and you can read all sorts of things into the story. It seems to me that the message that comes out of these posts is that publishing is a game and if you want to do it that way then learn to play the game. Some parts of the game have little to do with writing.
    When I took my driving test I was told to put the mirror out of line so that I had to move my head when I looked in the mirror; that way the examiner could tell that I was using the mirror. Not good driving but part of the game of passing the driving test.
    As far as publishing goes, you can of course publish yourself either as an ebook for virtually nothing, or on paper at rather more personal risk. If you decide to do that then you have to decide for yourself whether to risk your money on the basis of opinion from teenagers.

  20. Chris Kelly’s avatar

    I’d think the best way teens could help a WIP would be with critiques of the character’s language. Teen speak is regional/ethnic/gender related, of course, but kids can point out where speech seems inauthentic.

    Teens are the final arbitrators of the finished book, but not until the publishing process has dealt with the basics. So I don’t think the OP wasted her time. It’s all good! (except for the rejections.)

  21. Martha Ramirez’s avatar

    This is a great post, Mary! Thank you. You have an excellent point.

  22. Anne Pfeffer’s avatar

    Hey, Mary … I’m reading this dialog with interest. I’ve had my books on Inkpop, and while everything you say makes sense from an agent’s perspective, I can think of good reasons why it’s useful from a writer’s and editor’s perspective.

    1) It keeps the writer going. Being loved by the very people you’re writing for is wonderful moral support after a string of cold, indifferent editorial rejections. Writing’s a lonely business, and we have to get our love wherever we can. Where better than from our target market?

    2) It builds a writer a fan base of end users — kids who know your name and love you before your book is even published. Obviously, a manuscript has to be judged good enough by the standards of a professional editor, but once it has been, that editor should be happy the writer has this kind of leg up on the market.

    3) Inkpop judges something different, but equally important, from what editors do. It judges whether kids like your book.

    Editors are good at judging literary merit, story structure, and the like. But, if all the unsold books in this country are any indication, they don’t always know what kids are going to like. Believe me, many manuscripts (most of them) die and flounder on Inkpop. There are only a handful that rise to the top, i.e. that kids like to read.

    If I were an editor and had a manuscript I thought was good, I would love to have a crystal ball into kids’ minds, something to tell me whether it would click with target readers. Inkpop can be that crystal ball. It’s not everything an editor wants to know in deciding whether to buy a manuscript, but it’s one piece of the puzzle.

  23. Stoich91’s avatar

    Haha! Yes, I agree! Meh-est wins the word of the week award! Meh-est of the mediocre, ftw! ;D

    I do think Inkpop had a significant positive influence on my writing when I used to be on the site, but I still think anyone who is actually only writing on those sites TO BE PUBLISHED is missing the point and giving in to grande delusions.

    The point of Inkpop was to read and be read; if that reader happened to be a publisher/agent it was just the cherry on the sundae. I’m not really sure people took feedback to seriously on that site, and obviously not a lot of published books came out of it. However, a lot of better writing DID come out of it, and it encouraged a lot of kids, like me, to learn that if I wanted people to enjoy my writing, I had to work harder and write better. Isn’t that the publishing world in a nutshell?

    Soliciting feedback for an ego kick, however, is a big no-no, and I think that’s what this post is trying to get at, no? Plus, at the end of the day, YOU have to be your biggest critique and harshest, most well-read reader. It saves you time, ego-blows or raises from others, and best of all, a harsh reality check if or when you ever send your work out to the “real world” expecting too much.

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