Getting What You Want

Photo by Fernanda Rodriguez from

Happy Halloween! You cannot get away from it. Websites like BloodyDisgusting and The Lineup, which are hardly sedate during the rest of the year, really kicked out the jams in October by letting everyone know about frightening books both new and old, as well what the streaming services are showing to commemorate All Hallow’s Eve (the answer: plenty). 

Out on the street, however, it’s been another story. Some folks have loathe to let their kids out for trick-or-treating for a variety of reasons. Others were concerned about passing out candy for a number of concerns.

I accordingly decided to go dark this Halloween for the first time since I became what I like to think of, probably self-deceptively, as a functioning adult. That raised another issue. What about the children on my street? They are each, to the smallest ankle-biter, uniformly kind, courteous, and in some cases sweet. A solution arrived in due course.

 I decided that I would distribute candy to the neighbor children at their homes before the official Halloween hours commenced. I was mindful that nothing will ruin a Halloween more for a child than finding a bunch of candy that they don’t like (or Apples. Or pretzels. Or anything made by Oral B) at the bottom of their bag at the end of the evening. 

The solution was simple: I did a little market research. I inquired as to the favorite candy of each child. I asked the parents, of course. The sight of an adult male who is elderly, stocky, and bald asking a child about their favorite candy does not make for a good look. Each kid, interestingly enough, had a different preference. I expected some consensus out of the fifteen little neighbors but none was to be had. I had never heard of some of the choices (Warheads? What the feck are Warheads?) but each of them was easily located, thanks to the local Dollar Tree. That, plus some baggies full of dog treats for the families with a Fido saved the day. It worked out fine. Everyone was happy, even (and maybe most of all) Grumpy Old Me. 

Market research. Remember that term.  Candy manufacturers (and manufacturers of just about everything else, really) sink all sorts of lucre into market research, focus groups, and the like before they roll out new products which then swim or sink in the ocean of commerce. Those that tread water and swim multiple laps get pride of place on the shelves of supermarkets. Those that go under three times (usually a product that I really like) don’t get so much as a lifejacket tossed to them. 

The publishing industry is really much more subjective. An author has to find an agent who likes the manuscript AND thinks that it can be sold to a publishing house. The agent finds an editor willing to stick their neck out, who takes it up the line and, well, sticks their neck out to get the book published. Again, it’s not enough for the editor to like the book. The ultimate determinant is whether they think that the book will sell. Editors don’t get in trouble because of the books or authors they miss. They get in trouble for the books they champion and usher to market that miss with the audience. The saying in such a case is, “We shipped twenty-five copies and got twenty-six back.” No one along the line, including the author in most cases, has any real research to back them up when they do this, other than that past performance will (hopefully) be the best indicator of future success. One major exception to this is Dr. Steve Hooley, an author who frequently comments on TKZ. Dr. Steve spends a lot of time at various stages in the writing process bouncing things off of his target audience, and to good effect. He is the exception rather than the rule on this. Authors want to write and finish. Publishers are looking for the successor to the last big hit, which has been at various points Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code or girls with dragon tattoos or on trains. Older readers will recall when Stephen King first broke hugely, and the shelves and racks were full of horror novels. It looks as if that horror cycle is beginning again for a number of reasons. We’ll see. 

Photo by maounping at shutterstock

All of that sounds depressing. It might be. It might also actually be liberating if you are the writer slaving over their keyboard with high hopes of creating a bestseller, or any seller. While you do this, don’t aim to be next on the current trend line. You want to be first on the next trend. You want people to wonder who will be the next YOU. How do you get there? For starters, remember this bit of wisdom. An announcer who began his career on a low-watt radio station in western Pennsylvania eventually, through a lot of hard work and after experiencing years of failure, created a broadcast and merchandise empire by being himself. He did this in part by reminding himself each morning that “Someone is going to be successful today! Why can’t it be me?” Indeed. For seconds, don’t write like someone else. Someone has already done that. Tell yourself your story out loud until it sounds like something you would say. You’ve got a voice. Use it to sound like unique you, not someone else. And have fun while you’re doing it. If you’re not having fun you are probably doing the wrong thing or doing the right thing wrong.

Enjoy your day and evening. I hope you get exactly what you want in your candy bag. Be well, and thank you as always for being here. No you, no me. 

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This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writers, #writetip by Joe Hartlaub. Bookmark the permalink.

About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

35 thoughts on “Getting What You Want

  1. Happy Halloween to you, Joe. For some reason, I woke up with the earworm “Monster Mash”. I don’t think it’s fair to keep it to my self, so I’ll share it with fellow KZers. “He did the mash… He did the Monster Mash… It was a graveyard smash…”

    Market research. Man, where do you start. I just went over to Amazon to see what’s up. I wonder how many folks know there are two Amazon BS charts. One is “Most Sold”. The other is “Most Read”. They’re two different things. I see Grisham is killing it on both and so is Rowling. No surprise there. But, I saw something very interesting. In the #4 spot on Most Sold is a re-release by William Morrow Publishing (first week on the list) of Agatha Christie’s “Death On The Nile”. Does my short bit of market research suggest that what’s old is becoming new again?

    • First! Thank you, Garry. I hope your day is full of treats. I wonder if the renewed interest in Death on the Nile is being sparked by the forthcoming movie. If it is…fantastic. Anything that gets people reading is a plus. Enjoy your day.

    • Yet-to-be-released DEATH ON THE NILE is a major motion picture starring Kenneth Branagh (also director) as Poirot and Gal Gadot of WONDERWOMAN fame so it’s in the news as its fate is determined with the dang virus closing theaters. I know it’s a Poirot mystery, but the image of Wonderwoman playing Miss Marple makes me happy.

  2. Joe, your line cracked me up:

    “The sight of an adult male who is elderly, stocky, and bald asking a child about their favorite candy does not make for a good look.”

    How thoughtful of you to do neighborhood market research! Bet all the kids and dogs on the block love you.

    In response to Garry’s ear worm: every October, my zumba teacher plays Halloween songs and the class has been monster-mashing like crazy. I’ll be glad for November.

  3. Happy Halloween, Joe (and everyone at TKZ). Our neighborhood has never worked for trick-or-treating – rocky dirt roads, steep climbs and descents, houses set way back from the street, and it’s often snowy, so the community puts on a ‘trunk or treat’. You’re wonderful to do all that research and make your neighborhood kids happy.
    As for publishing: it’s not enough for the editor to like the book. The ultimate determinant is whether they think that the book will sell.
    Which is another reason I’m satisfied with my indie publishing route. Too many rejections that said “good story, good writing, but I already have three others I’m trying to sell.” Or, “Is it a cozy or a police procedural? I won’t know where to market it.”
    Meanwhile, I’ve got something like 30 books out there, and while I might never make a best-seller list, I have readers who like my voice and my stories.
    Take Joe’s words to heart: “Tell yourself your story out loud until it sounds like something you would say. You’ve got a voice. Use it to sound like unique you, not someone else. And have fun while you’re doing it. If you’re not having fun you are probably doing the wrong thing or doing the right thing wrong.”
    And for most of you out there … don’t forget to set your clocks back.

    • Thank you, Terry, for your kind words and particularly for reminding all of us to set out clocks back. Caught me nappin’ on that one.

      If anyone has a suggestion for modifying a cat’s internal clockwork to adjust back to standard time…please share.

  4. Happy Halloween, Joe! Going door to door with candy for the neighborhood kids is one of the sweetest things I’ve heard recently. In a time when so much is certain, your big heart shines through.

    Market trends… “They” (whoever that is) reported true crime was on the decline this past summer as I was not-so-patiently waiting for my new release in that genre. Freaked me out for a while, too. Thankfully, “they” were wrong, according to my publisher who tells me they’ve gotten “tons and tons of requests” from bookstores and libraries.

    The announcer’s quote you mentioned are words to live by. “Someone is going to be successful today! Why can’t it be me?”

  5. Thank you, Sue. You’re very kind. I’m very fortunate that my street has wonderful children living here, and, obviously, wonderful parents.

    Whoever said that true crime is on the decline isn’t paying attention. The statement “If it bleeds, it leads”) still holds true. Conventional wisdom, more often than not, is neither.

  6. Good morning, Joe.

    Thanks for the mention. You are too kind. is a great place to streamline the feedback process, and do it economically. You can even sign up for a few months while you need it, then sign out until the next book. Targeting your focus readership, then getting feedback with an online site, makes the process cheap and easy.

    I loved your quote and Terry’s comment above about her philosophy of writing. If we’re enjoying the process, the joy will shine through (as JSB has reminded us.)

    Your reverse trick or treating, or home delivery of the treats, made me think, ” I wonder if we could hand out books.

    Happy Halloween, Joe. And have a wonderful weekend.

    • Good morning, Steve, and Happy Halloween to you! Thanks for the tip about I just looked at their website and it’s very impressive.

      It’s funny…your thought about passing out books crossed my mind when I was planning my candy distribution. Maybe next year.

      Have a great weekend, Steve. May you have much candy and few leaves!

  7. Good timing, Joe. I’m working on my new novel, The Girl Who Was A Wizard And Could Break Ancient Codes.

    Re: having fun. I’d add joy (h/t Steve Hooley). There’s joy when you work hard, strive to learn and grow, and then write something that’s better than what you’ve written before. Go for that joy by putting in the work.

    Happy Halloween, dude.

    • Thanks, Jim! Happy Halloween to you. You nailed it on the “joy” part. That sense of wonder is an absolute much.

      Good luck with that new novel, which is sure to be a success if it is even half as good as the title.

  8. There’s joy when you work hard, strive to learn and grow, and then write something that’s better than what you’ve written before. I like that, JSB. That’s where I live these days, and the joy is real.

    Joe, question: I’m dying to know who that Pennsylvania announcer is…do tell!

    And a truly spooky evening to y’all.


    • Have a scary evening, Deb! I may spend it watching either “Hush” or “Don’t Breathe.” Or both.

      The radio announcer I mentioned started his career in Missouri at age 16 using the name “Rusty Sharpe,” then worked in Pennsylvania as “Jeff Christie.” He became successful several years later while using his real name, which is Rush Limbaugh.

  9. Alas. It is the day of the evening of terror that will come. And my wife and I know that we will not see children this evening.

    We made the decision over a half-dozen years ago to finally close up the house and live probably the rest of our lives in senior adult housing.

    The facility we chose makes it difficult for anyone to come to see you, but much more difficult for children. When our grandchildren–some of whom now drive–and great-grandchildren come to our apartment, they must work their way through the electronic door system by calling us, then signing in at the door by the business office. This year, they must wear masks and bear the looks of senior adults who are not quite certain they should be here. More than once, a crusty senior has growled at our grands, grilling them as if they were suspected escapees.

    So, we have made the reluctant decision that our grands are probably not want to come to our apartment for candy if they can collect in their neighborhoods. Of course, we buy large bags of treats–if you look at the ingredient lists on the bags, you wonder–and have them here for the next time they come see Gramma and Gran’pa.

    So, if you’re at the age where you are going to be thinking about the accommodations for your remaining years, I should tell you to consider the impact your decision will make on the year ’round holidays, because your decision may mean you will spend at least one or two of them without children.

    This year, though, we do have a special circumstance. One of our grandchildren has been medically diagnosed as highly autistic. Because his Daddy was away, he has been living with an aunt, uncle, and cousins who have spent a lot of time with him, singing with and to him, reading to him, and putting up with his occasional-to-frequent tantrums. The tantrums are often the result of frustrations he goes through because he cannot get anyone to understand what he wants or needs.

    However, because of the work his aunt, uncle, and cousins have been doing with him, one of the specialists he sees has made the evaluation that our grandchild may not be as autistic as originally thought. We are, of course, overjoyed and anxious to see where this all leads.

    Somehow, it’s going to lead to an especial weekend with his grandparents and extended family, being grateful and happy. It’ll probably mean that there’s more fruit slices and grapes and peanut butter in his future. And his Daddy will be home by that time.

    We’ll not spare any expense in seeing that he gets some things he likes, rather than simply some of the things that he needs.

    • Jim, I’m…not speechless, just unsure what to say. What you have shared goes much deeper than might be evident from a few paragraphs. It’s a cautionary tale, certainly, with regard to moving into senior housing, but also encouraging with regard to your grandson. That comment about getting him what he likes rather than what he needs really resonates with me.

      Thanks for sharing your feelings and baring your soul, and for choosing this space to do it.

  10. I get lots of newsletters from successful indie authors, and most of them ask their core group of fans what they want to read. Market research can be as simple as that, particularly when this core group is their volunteer marketing group.

    For the traditionally published, they are pretty well screwed unless the publishing gods and the people who pretend to understand marketing, not that anyone except the bestsellers and a rare wunderkind get real marketing, are on the top of their game with the cover, blurb, etc. Solid numbers for each book help but only so much. The only real thing an author can do is to write the best book they can and pray for the best.

  11. Marilynn, you mentioned covers. Several years ago I heard Harlan Coben give a hilarious presentation about book covers using his own early novels as an example of what not to do. He nailed at, as do you. Thanks!

    • My publishers were all small, independent publishers. Most had a good eye for quality writing, but knew spit little about marketing and markets. I have so many horror stories about covers. The funniest is the infamous “Galactic Grope” for STAR-CROSSED. I was fortunate enough to convince the publisher to change it, but the cover comparisons always get a bawdy chuckle. For anyone who is interested, here’s the two covers.

  12. Hi, Joe. Happy Halloween. I’m so glad I and my children lived through normal Halloweens. I remember I was a gypsy the first time and kept tripping over my skirt. I sewed costumes for my children for some years. It was my son’s favorite night. You really get “A” for effort with the work you put into the candy part. No one I know does trick or treating here in India, especially this year. One year when my son was a baby we lived in an apartment complex and ran out of candy so I gave pennies. One little girl saw the pennies, turned around, and tried a second time. All the best. 😀 — Suzanne

    • Suzanne, Happy Halloween to you! My children loved it as well. My younger daughter was particularly fond of it. She had such a year-round fondness for the macabre that I nicknamed her “Stephanie King” because she had “The Nightmare Before Christmas” on continuous play for years. I love the story about the little girl coming back for seconds on the pennies. I hope that she married well. Thanks for sharing.

      • Thanks, Joe. There were two sisters and they had their hair cut in bobs and bangs. Their father was a professor at Kent State University and we lived in an apartment complex right behind it. The parents must have been from one of the far eastern countries, possibly Korea, Taiwan, etc. I don’t remember their last name. They were darling children. The older girl looked at Jay, our son, and said, “What a cute baby!” It was 1976 and the college was considering placing a building on the ground where students were shot by guardsmen. A couple of men came to our apartment. They looked like the FBI or some other branch of the law. They had trench coats and hats. I guessed someone who had been involved with some suspicious group at the time of the shooting had lived in our apartment. When they found we were new tenants, they left. —- Suzanne

        • Whoa. That’s quite a story Suzanne. It seemed strange to me that the gentlemen who visited you would have thought that the tenants who were there in 1970 would still be there six years later, until I remembered that back then folks sometimes stayed in the same place longer than they seemed to do now. Thanks for sharing your story.

  13. Happy Halloween, Joe. Here at Casa Smith we’re planning on screening the new SF Sketchfest “riffing” (by a number of comedians) of Ed Wood’s schlocktastic Z-Grade opus, “Plan Nine From Outer Space,” followed by “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

    I love your reverse trick-or-treating. That’s great foresight and great market research 🙂

    Other than that, I’m working on finishing prep on my latest book, since I’ll be drafting it starting tomorrow when National Novel Writing Month begins. I’ve spent the last couple of months doing research of my own for it. I have to remind myself nothing is set in stone, and that first drafts are just that.

    Thanks for another great post!

  14. Thanks so much, Dale. Happy Halloween to you. That sounds like a great way to spend the evening. “Plan 9” is noteworthy for the appearance of Bela Lugosi, whose tragic career is a cautionary tale on several levels.

    Good luck with that new book!

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