I sat one night and listened to a Detroit classic rock radio station. A rocker was being interviewed by a DJ who kept talking about dinosaur rock and why the music business struggles in the face of downloads, etc, etc, and blah blah. But one thing that fascinated me was the rocker, who specifically discussed deliberately recording on mediocre equipment and listening to it on equally mediocre sound systems.
"I don't want to know how we'll sound on high end stuff. Everybody sounds great on high end. I want to know how we'll sound on some piece of crap somebody buys at the department store or at a local drug store."
When I first heard that, I thought it to be rather profound, for about ten seconds. Still, like most things I encounter, I tried to apply it to writing. Of course, I immediately considered the analogy of writing for the mass market v. writing for my own artistic integrity. I know they can work together, but I started asking myself, "what would be the equivalent of testing the product in a literary setting?" I'm not a marketing expert and I don't have the resources to have someone test my material for me with a prospective sampling of fans.
There's no single answer to this. I suppose one can join a writing group of peers, trying to find people who are close to the market you are trying to reach. One can put samples of writing on the net or on the blog and see what the response might be. There are countless forums and message boards around, but again, I'm not sure of the integrity of those responses, especially if the responses come from other writers who are looking at your work as competition, and with a jaundiced, critical eye.
I suppose there is no substitute to reading a niche as a reader and knowing what that reader wants. If you're going to write a zombie novel, you should know what's working in horror and what's not. You should also have some sense of what elements of a zombie novel are popular with readers. What made Romero's film work as opposed to some of the other low budget pieces that crumble from within. One can argue there is no commonality between film and writing, but both rely on character, timing, and theme to help suck a reader in and deliver a promising work.
Just thinking out loud...hoping to pacify the voices in my head telling me to do something horrible with peanut butter and under-arm deodorant (if you know what I mean).