The Importance of Conditioning
This isn’t a term that gets bandied about as much as some of the others out there, so I think it’s worth starting this blog off with a definition of what I’m talking about when I say “conditioning”. To condition an audience is simply to build some manner of expectation of what they should expect from you. There are a lot of types of conditioning out there, but genre is the one people deal with most often. For example, even if you know nothing else about a novel, if I told you Stephen King wrote it then you would be reasonably sure that it was horror-themed. Why? Because that’s what he has written almost exclusively through his career, so he’s conditioned us to expect that from him. Same with Christopher Moore and comedy, or Dr. Seuss and kids’ books. Remember when people were shocked that JK Rowling wrote a crime novel? There’s really no reason that should be shocking, she’s an accomplished author, except that we’ve all been conditioned to only expect YA wizard novels from her.
In many ways, conditioning is a lot like branding, except that it can apply to a greater spectrum of possibilities. Conditioning itself is actually a good thing overall, it’s the process by which you create audience expectations. However, it is also important to be aware of exactly what you’re conditioning them to expect, because that will have long-term impacts for years to come. As usual in these, I’ll use myself as an example, simply because I can point out my own mistakes and lessons easily. I made them, after all. So what do I mean by being aware of what conditioning you are doing?
Let’s take a look at the Spells, Swords, & Stealth series as an example. The first book, NPCs, came out in spring of 2014. It did better than I expected, so I was a little slower in getting a sequel out, meaning Split the Party didn’t arrive until fall of 2015. After that, I had Going Rogue release in fall, again, for 2016. Now at this point, the books were really beginning to swell in size. Going Rogue was almost double the size of NPCs, and they were getting so big that I no longer felt I could commit to writing one every year while still keeping up with my other releases. Since I knew SP: Year 4 was going to eat a lot of 2017, I made the choice to not try and tackle another one this year. And for the past few months, I have gotten more tweets, emails, and in-person questions about the next SS&S book than anything else. Even after making public announcements several times, people keep reaching out, asking where the book is.
And you know what? That’s largely on me. Look at the release schedule again. Every year for three years, I put out a book in that series, with the last two coming out in the same season, maybe even the same month if I remember right. I’m the one who conditioned people to believe that was a series I could produce every year, and while it was true when they were smaller, I probably should have planned for them to grow past it after the wordcount jump of Split the Party. If I’d been a little more aware, thinking ahead of what was to come; I at least could have broken up the release schedule a bit, made it less predictable so people wouldn’t think of them as an annual entry. It’s no wonder people are surprised there’s no SS&S book this year, I’m the one who conditioned them to expect those entries regularly.
It’s the same with a lot of aspects of the business. I frequently see authors who write one genre/series for a long time, then try to break into something new only to hit pushback from an audience who are conditioned to expect only one flavor from them. Although I certainly didn’t plan it at the time, I was lucky that I launched multiple series in multiple genres early on, because that conditioned my audience to expect variety, meaning I don’t hit the same walls when I branch off into new, sometimes weirder, stuff.
So what does all this talk mean, on a practical level? Well, it means that you’ll be doing yourself a big favor if you take some time to sit down and look at where you want your career to be in a few years. Not the amount of sales/success, we’re all crossing our fingers for golden helicopters and yachts big enough to house smaller yachts. Think more in terms of what you want to be doing. Are you hoping to write multiple series, or commit hard to one all the way through? Are you trying to release several books a year? What genre(s)? How long are they? How frequently do they come out? Really drill down on the kind of schedule and year you think you’ll want to have. Once that’s done, take a step back and compare that plan to where you are now and ask yourself this question: is that the sort of output you’re conditioning your audience to expect?
If it is, great! Carry on, you fictional bastard. For the rest of us who have to learn and flop about as we go, there are usually changes to make on what we’re doing now to make people happy with what we expect to do down the line. Planning multiple genres? Maybe pop out a few standalones or short stories, making it clear that you have ideas for more than your current medium. Whatever schedule you’ve got planned for the future, how close to it are you now? The sooner you can get on/near it; the sooner readers will know to start looking for new releases around those times of the year. If you’re launching a new series, how often will you put out entries? Even if you’re already ahead on the sequel, it might be a good idea to give the original breathing room so you don’t make people think you’ll be able to churn out every sequel that quickly.
At its core, conditioning should be the process by which you set expectations for the readers. Things they can rely on you to provide, be it entries in a specific genre or timetables when new content will arrive. Being aware of that and laying the groundwork for it means getting to come through on those expectations, giving the readers what you’ve shown them you’ll deliver and creating a sense of consistency.