Give Customers What They Want?

Lessons from Steve Jobs, part 2

Give Customers What They Want?As I wrote in Monday’s post, I found Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs to be full of insights about life and business — not all of them revolutionary, but presented in such a way as to have maximum impact. I found myself asking how or if each of Jobs’s philosophies could be applied to publishing.

One of my favorite quotes from Jobs is this:

“Some people say, give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.”

I think Apple has been terrific at living out this philosophy. None of us knew we wanted an iPod or an iPad before they existed. We wouldn’t have known to ask for them!

I think a logical corollary would be: You can’t keep giving customers what you gave them in the past.

And this is the secret to keeping books and reading alive in the 21st century. Don’t be afraid to offer something new!

While it’s easy to criticize the industry for continually offering “more of the same,” it’s not the whole truth. There will always be a glut of the same-old-same-old, but at the same time, we’re always seeing something new. Somebody had to be the first to write a big, contemporary romantic vampire series. Somebody had to imagine Hogwart’s. Somebody had to envision the entire book of Revelation (from the Bible) as a multi-episode thriller series.

And readers weren’t clamoring for these books—until the books were put in front of them.

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” ~Steve Jobs

It’s something for each of us to keep in mind, whether you are a publisher, an agent, or a writer. Rather than try to find out what people think they want, come up with something new to give them. Something so great, they can’t help but want it.

Writers always ask me: What’s trending now? Is there a certain genre I should write for a better chance of selling? I don’t enjoy that question because I’d rather see writers dig deep inside themselves, find something unique and truly theirs, and then offer it up.

Let’s not always try to give our readers what they want. Let’s create new things, and give people an opportunity to want something they’ve never even thought of before.

Do you think it’s realistic to think this way in today’s publishing environment? Which is better—the safe route of giving people what they already want, or stepping out to create something new and hope they’ll want it?



“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” True in publishing? Click to Tweet.

You can’t keep giving customers what you gave them in the past- or can you? Click to Tweet.

Rather than try to find what people want, come up with something new. Click to Tweet.


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Michael leng on October 25, 2013 at 10:26 AM

    Good for bring out the great state from the great person by sharing like it here.

  2. Alicia on August 26, 2013 at 11:05 PM

    I love this quote! Do you happen to know what page it was on in the book?

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  6. Denise Hisey on April 5, 2013 at 4:13 PM

    It seems like a combination of building on what we know people already like, and adding something new to it.
    (this, of course, is not my forte. I remember saying in college “Who’s gonna use this email thing, anyhow?” Ha!

  7. Daphnée Kwong Waye on April 5, 2013 at 3:13 PM

    I love that quote from Steve Jobs. I don’t like to follow trends and prefer to create my own style… in any domain of my life and not only in writing. And I’ve noticed that this is actually what people like. Uniqueness. Originality. Something they’ve never seen/read that will make them go: OMG! Awesome! Epic!

  8. Peter DeHaan on April 4, 2013 at 8:00 PM

    Based only on what I’ve picked up at writers conferences and industry blogs, I’ve concluded the odds of being published tip in favor of the writer who does what has already been done instead of being innovative. In general, people are risk adverse so they find it easy to say “No” to something that is different.

  9. Natasha Crain on April 3, 2013 at 8:37 PM

    My professional background is in marketing and market research, and this is a notorious problem whenever you are trying to conduct research for a new product. I think a key distinction is what people want vs what they need. To your point, people don’t necessarily know what they want, but if their underlying felt needs can be uncovered, the sky is the limit on how a marketer (or in this case, a writer) can fulfill that need. The “want” is a person’s self-identified solution to the underlying need. If we can bypass the want to get to the need, it can open many doors for new ideas!

  10. Stacy on April 3, 2013 at 5:38 PM

    Hey! I’m a customer too. So when it comes to writing, I give myself what I want first and hope that others enjoy it too.

  11. Chris Schumerth on April 3, 2013 at 5:24 PM

    Good book and great reminder! I made some of the exact same observations a while back:

  12. Jarm Del Boccio on April 3, 2013 at 3:29 PM

    I’ve been wanting to read Steve’s bio, but haven’t had the time. Thanks for sharing tidbits with us!


  13. Sue Harrison on April 3, 2013 at 3:29 PM

    Your series based on Steve Job’s wisdom is so inspiring, Rachelle. Thank you! I’m thinking, thinking, thinking…

  14. Piper on April 3, 2013 at 3:25 PM


    I appreciate this perspective, Rachelle. I was in a pitch opportunity like J.M. referred to, and I did get a request, but for the most part, it seems a lot of agents have been afraid of my “next big thing” work.

    I’ve had better responses from editors, so it may be that my agent opportunity may come the other way around, but it has been frustrating to be “radical” and write a different type of inspirational historical romance in a different time period. Until a get some encouragement, I will keep querying….

    Thanks for the post,


  15. Jan Thompson on April 3, 2013 at 1:51 PM

    Very true, Rachelle. Good post.

    I think that if we writers write only what is projected to “sell” in the current market, then when the market shifts, we’re left behind. This can happen because it takes a long time to pen, produce, and publish books, and by the time the writer is done with her masterpiece, the circus has left town.

    I write what I want to read, and let the chips fall as they may.

  16. Jeanne Takenaka on April 3, 2013 at 1:44 PM

    I love these blogs about what you’re learning from Steve Jobs. He was an innovative thinker, and the way you’re figuring how to apply his thoughts to writers and publishing is refreshing.

    It seems like today’s publishers are still trying to walk that line between “What sells” (safe mode) and “What could sell” (adventure mode). I say this as a relative newcomer into the writing world. I see them staying closer to the safe side.

    I’ve heard we shouldn’t write what’s trending now, because by the time it’s written, trends will have changed. It makes sense to me to write the story on my heart to the best of my ability. I like the idea of stepping out and creating something new. Either way a writer chooses will require taking a risk. I’d rather write something fresh and from my heart than try to write to the trend or to stay in “safe mode.”

  17. H.G. Ferguson on April 3, 2013 at 1:29 PM

    Bravo, Rachelle. Your question is a voice of compelling reason in the sea of genre conformity that is the CBA. Christian publishing is not going to survive in today’s market unless and until the powers that be realize there is a vast untapped world of readers to be reached beyond what used to be the Christian bookstore. Part of the figuring out what readers want before they want it must include this truth — this fact. There must be room for all kinds of stories, all genres, under the umbrella, if you will, of “Christian” publishing. People are perishing. We need to reach them. We need to go where they are, write what they read and want, not stay where it is safe and comfortable and secure. Thank you for thinking forward, like Steve Jobs. I hope people are listening!

  18. Melinda Viergever Inman on April 3, 2013 at 1:27 PM

    This is so true, but a hard lesson to learn. When I first started writing fiction, my heart was drawn to supernatural/speculative/biblical fiction. “Speculative” fiction wasn’t even a category then, or if it was, it wasn’t popular enough to merit a choice in fiction contests. Coming hard after the Left Behind series, no one was interested in biblical fiction. Nevertheless, I wrote my way through three novels, finding no doors opened.

    An older experienced person in the industry suggested I write a historical or an Amish tale. I listened.

    Setting aside my passion, I wrote a historical novel, spending two years on it, the editing, a year-long crawl through an agency, and finally a heartbreaking rejection. Last year, I got the urge to work again on the supernatural/speculative/biblical series.

    I just sold the first one on my own. It will be published this year. Hopefully, the rest will follow.

    It’s tempting to feel frustrated about this, but I chalk it up as a lesson learned. It wasn’t a waste of time, because in the process I learned a LOT that improved my writing. I’m a much stronger writer than I was three years ago. Therefore, when I dug out those manuscripts, I did a massive amount of editing. But, it did teach me a lesson about pursuing my passion and staying true to myself.

    When I wrote these stories, I did not know the future. I didn’t know that a slew of biblical Old Testament movies would be released next year, including movies about my characters. I didn’t know speculative fiction would surge into popularity. Just as my novel heads toward print, God opened the door for the genre. From now on I will stay true to my passion, trusting God to work it out in his time.

  19. J.M. Bray on April 3, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    Email your tech sheet to Robert!!

    I couldn’t agree more Rachelle. We can’t preach to the choir. However, the difficulty, as I see it, is the hierarchy.

    For example, what I read is that YA has peaked and agents and publishers are actively looking for other age groups. The “word on the street” is the NA is on the upswing. However, when I enter pitch contests, repeatedly 85%+ of the pitches chosen are YA or MG. I’m not complaining, though mine is neither I did receive several requests, but the numbers show that what they “say they want” is not what they are choosing.

    In my mind, the key to finding “the next big thing” is this: The story has to go beyond a “target audience.” What will do that? Since, as exampled above the MG and YA audiences are flooded with material, it needs to be a story that spans other important reader groups:

    College who grew up with Mr. Potter and are looking for more.

    Thirty something’s who would love a story without vampires or werewolves.

    And 40+ folks who are just sending their kids off to college and remember their own time away at school in a golden glow. Span that, and you just might have something.

    What’s this? **looks at desk** My goodness…a novel, shined and ready, that does that very thing 😉

    • J.M. Bray on April 3, 2013 at 1:00 PM

      Erm…ahhh…ignore that first sentence. It was a note to myself that snuck it’s way in. (Man I love being human…)

      • Angie Dicken on April 3, 2013 at 1:13 PM

        Too funny, J.M. I’ve done similar things before.

  20. Les Edgerton on April 3, 2013 at 12:36 PM

    Rachelle, have you read the recent news articles on Apple stock? Remarkably prescient topic on your part!

    You said:

    One of my favorite quotes from Jobs is this:

    “Some people say, give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.”

    I think Apple has been terrific at living out this philosophy. None of us knew we wanted an iPod or an iPad before they existed. We wouldn’t have known to ask for them!

    I think a logical corollary would be: You can’t keep giving customers what you gave them in the past.

    And the Associated Press said:

    AP-NEW YORK – Goldman Sachs dropped Apple off its list of most highly recommended stocks Tuesday as it joined other analysts in reducing expectations for a company that hasn’t had a revolutionary new product since the iPad in 2010.

    After a heady decade, Apple’s sales growth is slowing down. In recent years, Apple has tinkered with existing products rather than come out with groundbreaking new ones. Even so, the company warned this fall that a wave of improvements meant higher production costs, at least initially. For the quarter that just ended, analysts polled by FactSet expect an 18 percent decrease in earnings compared with the previous year. It would be the first time in many years that Apple sees an earnings decline of that magnitude.

    I wonder if publishers have read these reports and applied the info to their own products…

  21. Crystal Walton on April 3, 2013 at 12:27 PM

    This is such an intriguing question, especially related to the querying process. It seems quite standard for an agent or editor to ask a new author to associate her work with that of an established author. I understand representing a new author can be a gamble; and, consequently, linking her style & genre to a successful author may lessen the risk. But I’d like to think it might be to an author’s advantage to be a bit unique.

  22. Corinda Marsh on April 3, 2013 at 12:14 PM

    When I try to create a “product” for sale, the writing is never worth reading. Only when I write my heart is it worth reading. If it sell, it sells; if not, I’ll try again. Contrived words never taste like dessert. But just maybe my heart holds the next “trend.” It can’t be that different from other hearts.

  23. Jon on April 3, 2013 at 5:22 AM

    Totally true – by the time you produce the Next Big Thing, someone else will have got there first and it’ll be old hat. Always look to the Next Next Big Thing.

  24. Sheena-kay Graham on April 3, 2013 at 4:34 AM

    Markets will always claim to know what people want. It’s up to the innovators to decide to create what they believe customers will want instead of the same old and the obvious. Steve Jobs was a great man. He’s to technology what Walt Disney was to animation and movies.

  25. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on April 3, 2013 at 3:26 AM

    True, but trying to ‘set the curve’ runs the risk of chasing novelty for its own sake – pursuing what art critic Robert Hughes called “the shock of the new”. It was a process that led modern art from visceral rebellion to mannered manipulation in less than a generation.

    I doubt that any writer can have the degree of prescience that would predict a breakout success – Rowling wrote about a world she loved, and wrote it in a way that made us love it, too.

    And that is probably the best approach. Write what you love. It’s the only thing that makes this soul-searing profession remotely worthwhile.

  26. Patricia Smith Wood on April 3, 2013 at 2:29 AM

    What a great post, Rachelle! I hadn’t thought of using Steve Job’s amazing approach in writing, but it makes so much sense. As a mystery writer, I’ve tried to find new ways to have my protagonist get involved in investigating a murder. It can be quite a stretch having two editors cast themselves as sleuths, but it’s a fun challenge. I love reading your blog because it always gives me new ideas and encouragement.

  27. P. J. Casselman on April 3, 2013 at 2:21 AM

    So either promote historical women’s fiction as usual or try for the fantasy/sci-fi in the Christian market? I’ll go off the board and say as a consumer, I am BEGGING for folks to go off the board and create Christian steampunk. Will it get published in today’s market? Hmmm.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on April 3, 2013 at 3:28 AM

      It’ll be published if the hook and story are something an editor can’t put down.

    • Jeanne on April 3, 2013 at 1:26 PM

      Jim, I hope it will be published.
      There is so much possibility with that. 🙂

  28. Angie Dicken on April 3, 2013 at 1:22 AM

    This is refreshing to hear, Rachelle, however, I have struggled so much with this after some sobering reality. When I first began writing, and gaining small successes from it, I wrote very new and different things. But now, after learning more about the craft and getting a lot “this is too unique, not the right era for Christian Historicals, not the right pov for this genre, it won’t sell”, I have become hesitant. Perhaps I need to get more experience under my belt before I start hoping people will want my kind of different? I once sat in an ACFW session and listened to Jeff Gerke talk about brainstorming unique ideas…can’t wait to get to the point where the sky’s the limit to publish these type of ideas! Thanks for the post.