"I love reading your tweets and blog posts, they aid my indie publishing journey! I want to write a compelling, hip sci-fi thriller in a futuristic European Union, which I know very well (I'm from Germany), but I don't know if Americans, my main target audience, would even read about that 'exotic' place, since most English works play in the US. Old gossip says Americans generally don't read about stories in other places than their home. I'm curious, since you're originally from Russia. Do you place the majority of your books in the US now, or do you still have stories told in Russia, and if yes, do you think it deters readers?"
Thank you, Mars Dorian. I'm so happy my rantings are helping you, and I'm honored that you would ask me these questions as though I know the answers. I don't. I have feelings about these things, but I've only been self-publishing for 3 years, and there is much for me to learn. However, guided by what I feel and believe in, let me dispel your doubts one by one and show you that you don't need to worry about anything of the above because 1) the only audience you need is you, and 2) gossip and preconceptions don't mean shit.
Let's start in order of your questions.
Why do you want to write something compelling?
Ask yourself, what does compelling mean to you? What do you want to get out of writing this book? If your only motivation is to compel people to read it, quit writing now. With the goal to please readers comprising a certain market segment you're shooting yourself in the head. Your writing won't be geared toward what you feel, instead you'll try to please those who you think love thrillers, and that's a big mistake. You don't know those people. You don't know what their interests are. You're not producing a new type of car based on a 10-year-long research that has evaluated the needs and wants of millions of people. No. You're writing a book.
A book is the most egotistical act you can do, really. Here you are putting yourself on a bunch of paper, and then asking people to partake in your nonsense? Why would they do that? They have their own lives to live. Why would they care?
HINT: they will care if you're authentically sharing yourself, because we're all only human and we want to relate to each other, to know we're not alone. But if you're setting up writing something "compelling," you're not sharing yourself, you're targeting a potential audience, and that's not what good writing is about. So get this "compelling" idea out of your head and write for yourself. I know you can do it.
Why do you want to write a hip sci-fi thriller?
Genres are byproducts of the publishing industry as coined by some smart marketing genius who started categorizing books for readers so they wouldn't drown in the sea of books when entering a bookstore. Before J. R. R. Tolkien fantasy genre didn't exist. Did that stop him from writing it? Nope. The market accommodated him by creating a new genre.
Forget about anything you've ever read anywhere about thrillers. The words hip sci-fi thriller may end up your shackles. Why limit yourself? Just write. Whatever comes out, comes out. Life is too short to play to the interests of other people. You don't know when you'll die. Would you be happier on your death bed if you did what you really wanted to do, or if you did what you thought other people wanted you to do? Yes, I knew it. Then do it. You live only once. The genres will adjust.
Pick whatever setting you want for your book. IT'S YOUR BOOK.
Don't even think about whether or not your setting is "exotic" or "not exotic." Who cares? You do. You're the one who cares for your book. Then write what you think is right. Write what you think you know. Share that. It doesn't matter where your story is happening. If your story is shit, no one will read it. If your story is awesome, everyone will read it. Whether or not it's based on the Moon or in the slums of rural Russia, people won't care. They will read it for the story, not for the setting.
Now, your setting can be vital to your story, yes, but again, we care for people. If you can't make me care for your characters, no brilliant setting will make me read your book. So create great characters first. The setting will adjust to it as it needs to.
Why are you selecting Americans as your target audience?
Again, ask yourself the question of why you need any audience at all. The answer is, you don't. You're all the audience you need.
What Americans read, or what Russians read, or Germans, none of us know.
I'm not American enough to answer you for all Americans, and I'm not Russian anymore to answer you as a Russian. Whatever gossip you heard is based on lack of knowledge and willingness to appear erudite. In short, whoever spreads gossip like that is an asshole. That's a pretty sad picture that "old gossip" painted of Americans, isn't it? I remember those days in Russia when vilifying Americans and calling them stupid was fashionable. Why? Same reason why bullies bully people. Because they don't understand, and that drives them mad, and they feel helpless, and they hate feeling helpless and take it out by defaming those who bewilder them.
As a human being, I'll tell you this. We all have a tendency to produce generalized statements about a particular group of people (based on their nationality, race, religion, whatever) that are derived from what we heard somewhere, which is usually the media, which means that it's bullshit. Unless you ask every single American what they like to read, you can't make a conclusion on American reading interests. And if you read any type of survey or research paper, most of them are still very white and very male, without any consideration as to what the rest of the population reads, like women or Russians or Mexicans or African Americans or teens or retired veterans. The list goes on and on. And then we scratch our heads at the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. How did that come about? Well, it came about by a lot of people wanting to read that kind of book, that's all. It shattered our preconceptions of what people read and it showed us that we don't know shit and that we thought wrong.
So cast that "old gossip" aside (wherever did you hear it?) and don't even bother worrying about what Americans will read or not. That's not why you want to write your book, is it?
I write whatever I want. I write for me.
It never crossed my mind to think about someone else while I was writing my first book or to place it in a particular setting for a particular reason. I started writing for therapy, and my first trilogy is very personal. I wrote it to pull myself out of the suicidal swamp (and it's based in Seattle simply because I fell in love with Seattle's rain). I wrote it as a letter to my father in a way that you write letters to someone who you know will never read them.
You write to get your pain out, and once it's out, you feel better. That's why I made it free. That's why I was astounded that people wanted to read it. Why would they? I couldn't understand. I thought I should be a proper writer with a proper degree from a proper university having studied and acquired proper market knowledge—just like what you're grappling with—to produce anything of interest. I didn't need any of it. That taught me a great deal about writing and about why we write and why we read. I suggest you do the same. Get your pain out on paper, whatever it is. Worry about your story being good enough for you. The rest doesn't matter.
The only thing that deters readers is bad writing.
No matter what way you twist it or look at it or try to convince yourself to perceive it in a certain fashion or chalk it up to difficulties or to negative external factors like wrong publishing time or wrong book price or wrong book cover or wrong genre, it comes down to writing. Is your writing any good? If it is, people will want to share it. Is it not good? Then nothing will save it.
Clever marketing and packaging might fool you into thinking that the book is good, but it won't make you read it. Don't judge yourself by what you see around you. The success of those books or authors whom you're looking up to often sits on years of hard work and luck. There is simply that unpredictable factor of luck involved that helps a book see the eyes of thousands. How does it happen? Usually someone with a large audience stumbles upon it and shares it. How does he/she stumble upon it? A friend usually recommends it. Why would a friend recommend it?
BECAUSE IT'S BLOODY GOOD.
So focus on writing a good story, the rest will happen on its own.
One more thing.
I want to caution you about everything you've read above. Please remember that this is only my personal opinion, and that's all it is. An opinion. I invite you to brave the waters of self-publishing yourself and form your own opinion. Maybe it will be different, maybe it will be the same. Who knows? What I said here might work for you, or it might not. Every writer is different, and every writer's journey is different. Don't look at what I suggested as an answer to your question. Look at it as an attempt to help you focus on writing instead of on your worries.
That is one thing I know and am certain about. We all worry sick about our writing. Despite writing for ourselves, the pleasure of being read, of being recognized, of being validated is trampled only by the pleasure of orgasm. If at all. We fool ourselves that we don't care. That's hogwash. We do care. Oh, we care very much. But we care after we're done writing, not while we're in it. While we write, we're swept away by the story, and we don't care about anything else. That's why we write.