It’s hard to imagine the author of “The Great Gatsby” being so poor in 1919, Zelda, his prospective bride, thought of marrying someone else. Then imagine him — like his stories — turning the whole plot around, earning a whopping $17,687 the following year (putting him in the top two percent tax bracket).

In fact, in 1920, F. Scott Fitzgeral sold 11 short stories to magazines for $3,975, four short stories to the movies for $7,425 and $6,200 in royalties for This Side of Paradise. From then on, including his time in Hollywood, Scott averaged $24,000 a year (still more than I make now, but I digress).

So what caused this dramatic improvement? A change in writing style? A new audience? He dumped Zelda?

Actually, none of the above

If Fitzgerald had this same good fortune today, we’d probably go straight to the analytics, calculating the market penetration, demographics, and response rates. Then we’d write a blog titled “10 Ways to Increase Your Book Sales,” concluding that Fitzgerald figured out his audience leading to his success.

Unfortunately — or fortunately — Fitzgerald didn’t have the benefit of analytics. Nobody did back then. If you mentioned market penetration, you’d likely get slapped silly by Gertrude Stein or followed home by Anais Nin.

(Anais Nin, by the way, did well in the erotica market before there even was one. She and her friend, Henry Miller, found their own niche which, unfortunately, also had them banned in many countries — including the U.S.)

Fitzgerald wasn’t a “stats” kind of guy. Neither was Steve Jobs

I know analytics have turned us all into “stats fans.” Once we’ve got the numbers, we become experts. Or we think we are (note sarcasm).

As one writer said in a post “There’s nothing wrong with writing to an audience. That’s what writers are supposed to do. And analytics help us know what our audience wants.”

Well, maybe they do, but as Steve Jobs once said, “Audiences don’t know what they want until you show them.” I tend to agree with him. It’s one thing to say, for instance, women love romance novels. Trouble is, only 40 self-published authors (that’s where most romance novels go, folks) are successful, compared to hundreds of thousands who aren’t.

Why We Should Treat Audiences Like Cats

Here’s something I’ve noticed. The minute you show cats attention, they walk away. It isn’t until you start doing something else that cats suddenly crawl all over you. It’s the same with audiences. We’re all curious, and contrary to what we’ve been told, curiosity didn’t kill the cat.

That still doesn’t explain how EL James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, has sold millions of copies, while Anne Enright, (The Green Road) who’s won two Man Booker awards, has only sold 9,000 copies in the U.K.

Maybe that’s why I ignore cats

So if audiences are like cats, what is it that attracts their attention? Essentially, it’s personality — or lack of neediness. As soon as they see you’re not needy, that’s when cats — and audiences — can’t get enough of you.

I ignore cats entirely, and they love me to death. My first published short story (Rosebud Magazine, 2001) was written with a cat on my lap — which explains the hair on the final draft.

What exactly do audiences need then?

As Steve Jobs pointed out, audiences — and cats — don’t know what they want. Need is entirely different. What cats and people need is consistency, meaning your personality doesn’t deviate from what they expect.

Take Fitzgerald. Like all the writers at Scribner’s at the time, they didn’t come to Max Perkins (chief editor) with novels. They came to him with consistent themes. They created genres and stuck to them.

Fitzgerald, for instance, wrote about wealth, attaining it, losing it and all the nuttiness in between. Hemingway wrote about being a man. Erskine Caldwell wrote about the poor south.

A clear understanding of one thing

If you read the biography of Maxwell Perkins, he wasn’t interested in who the novels reached. He was far more interested in who the author was. As he explained, “It’s not so much the construction as its intention.”

By intent, he meant you must have a distinct voice, a clear understanding of one thing (I’m sure it amazes people that Hemingway only had one theme). Once audiences see you’re your own man — or woman — they’re interested. They want to know more about you. Again, personality.

Swinging the catnip ball around

If you’re serious about writing, then you have to be serious about your intent. To say “Well, I’m writing to my audience,” that isn’t a goal. It’s a dream. Besides, you can’t pander and expect anyone to see you as anything but a panderer.

Think of writing as being one of many people in a room with a cat. If everyone starts shaking catnip balls, who does the cat go to? It doesn’t. They’d rather take a nap. Audiences are the same. Sales of what we call “popular categories” look like too many catnip balls.

In other words, stop being the same as everybody else just because it sells. Find your own intent, your own theme, and let the cats come to you.

Final clue: Writing isn’t a science

As much as we can define the problem, writing itself isn’t so easy. You’re never actually sure you’re on the right track until you’re there on the shelves or the internet. Meaning sales. But that’s after the fact.

All we really have to go on is instinct.

Let’s go back to Fitzgerald for a minute. Off the top, I quoted him saying, “A decent career isn’t founded on the public.” In other words, even if he didn’t know a thing about analytics, he knew it wasn’t formula. Nothing dies faster than formula. We grow tired of copycats.

Which brings us back to catnip balls again. And cats. They see the same catnip balls going up and down, and it’s one big yawn. Unless they think you’re having more fun doing something else. Then they’re interested.

Audiences are the same way. Show them you’re having fun, and they’ll crawl all over you. Essentially, that’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald did.

Not that I’m any kind of authority.

If I knew all the answers, I’d be rich.

Which I’m not.

But cats like me.

So I must be right about cats.

Robert Cormack is a satirist, blogger and author of “You Can Lead A Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive).” You can join him every day by subscribing to