Define your readership with thought

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

As I’m reading proposals, so often I see really great writing, but the project has little hope of publication because the audience is so small. Here are some things to keep in mind when you create your proposal:

You can significantly limit your audience through centering a novel around too culturally-specific an area of the country. If your main plot takes place with a Piggly-Wiggly storeowner in the heart of Oklahoma, you need to watch out. Same thing with writing about an executive at a large company in New York. Both plots can be done successfully, but you need to ask yourself: What in my plot is going to draw average readers to my characters and story? No matter where your story is set, be sure to focus on universal ideas that will appeal to everyone.

You can limit your audience through specifying a church denomination in your book or by going into detail about “rituals” and events that are denomination specific. It’s best to remain vague when it comes to denominations and things like baptism and communion unless you’re writing for a denominational press. In fiction, characters’ behaviors can also be offensive to certain denominations–drinking wine, for example, is unacceptable in some churches. You can limit your audience through including an alcoholic beverage.

Writing a crossover book can take away the possibility of an audience because the project could straddle audiences. It is hard to find a publisher in either the Christian market or the general market that will publish a “crossover” story because the straddling means it might appeal to neither the Christian audience nor the general audience. General-audience publishers seldom want a story with a lot of overt Christianity; meanwhile, Christian publishers don’t want stories with compromised morals or that aren’t in agreement with their publishing house’s statement of believe–which all of them have. Memoir is one genre where the crossover style is more acceptable because reality usually is a natural mix of the world and religion.

Choice of protagonist can also limit the audience, especially the age and gender of your protagonist. A twentysomething reader will rarely choose to read a book that is about middle-aged women. A 19-year-old doesn’t want to read a book about a 12-year-old. Men are less likely to read a book about a woman than women are to read a book about a man. Look at Harry Potter and Twilight. The Harry Potter series was appealing to both boys and girls, with Harry as the main character; whereas Twilight, told in Bella’s voice, is considered a book for teen girls.

In nonfiction, your chosen topic can usually be expanded pretty easily if it is too narrow. You want to select your target audience before you even start to write. Target your writing to appeal to a broad but defined audience. If you write for mothers, write for mothers of elementary-school children instead of a book for mothers of kindergartners or write for mothers of teens instead of writing a book for moms who have new teens. If you’re going to write an encouraging book full of essays about owning animals, try My Pet Is My Friend instead of Chinese-Crested Dogs Bring Comfort.

I know many best-selling exceptions exist for each of these precepts, but remembering your audience as you write and trying to appeal to a large yet defined group of people is the best way to approach your book idea.


Who is your audience?

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  1. Carol Ashby says:

    Rachel, what size audience would be considered too small? I know it’s partly a function of publisher size, but is it fewer than 20,000? 10,000? 5,000?
    *Another thing to consider: Once a book is an e-book at Amazon, it’s in the international market. My own experience is that at least 10% of my sales are international. Do publishers consider that potential audience for fiction, where e-books are a major part of the market? Maybe a novel set in 1880’sTexas wouldn’t have strong European appeal (although it might!), but an Edwardian or Regency could.

    • The international ebook market–interesting, Carol. I have blog readers in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. Would they buy my book? How would I market my book to reach them? Hmmm . . .

      • Carol Ashby says:

        Yes, they will. They already know and like your writing through your blog. I know I’m selling in those markets because they pay 35% royalty instead of 70% on my kindle sales.
        * I’ve had international buyers come from both the Roman and blog websites. You just have to have info about your books and obvious links to take therm to your Amazon sales page. That’s equally true for traditional and indie. I’ve sold into Africa from the Roman site and China from the blog. I can tell from watching my WordPress site stats.

      • One thing I’ve found is how Instagram opens doors for overseas connections. It’s a sweet thing. I think it’s somewhat about relationships. 🙂

      • Carol Ashby says:

        It’s amazing how connections get formed through the internet! A Nigerian lady who writes for a missionary magazine there came to the Roman site because she was interested in a Roman topic, saw I wrote Christian books, and thought it might be interesting to interview me. My very first magazine interview will be published in Africa! I had a wonderful time working with Boma. She asked some very deep questions.

      • That’s awesome, Carol. Love that.

    • Rachel Kent says:

      I think 20,000 would be considered too small. Hundreds of thousands is what you want to aim for–unless it’s a very small press with a focus.

    • Rachel Kent says:

      Oh, and you could mention the 10% foreign sales in a proposal for sure! That’s actually quite impressive!

  2. Rachel, I love the things you share, and I understand the principles behind what is above, yet in truth, this post produced a great deal of angst within me. I do have my audience defined, and I am told consistently of the need to define my audience, yet I am getting a fair amount of push-back from my critique group because my audience is not “broad enough.” What then is the point of defining one’s audience. A work that is for everyone, is really for no one. You even hinted at the need for a broader audience when you said, “No matter where your story is set, be sure to focus on universal ideas that will appeal to everyone.”

    Now, in my case, it is not the ideas that are the problem, but rather my writing style. I am rather formal, and I strive to present academic ideas in a way that do not employ the dry, fatigue-inducing approach of the majority of scholarly works. I want to take that realm and make it accessible to an audience that would otherwise never wrestle with those ideas.

    • Rachel Kent says:

      So sorry to cause angst! It is important to have an audience in mind so that you are making sure you are writing for that readership. You don’t want to take it so far that your book wouldn’t appeal to more people though.

      Don’t stress over it too much, but think about it some. There are no hard, fast rules in publishing anyway. As I said in the post there’s always an exception out there.

  3. Just right the story you need to read, even if it’s about hippies in the Haight. Write you tie-dyed heart out
    – If you don’t love what you write, how can anyone else?
    – If you aren’t true to your convictions, how can a reader trust you with her heart?
    – Every book read, it’s a dialogue. It’s about you listening to the reader’s single unasked question – “Who am I?” – and providing an answer that nurtures the seedling of hope.
    * Make the heart of your writing steel, tempered and quenched in your own tears, and then hone it with every writing and marketing tool you can wield, cause there ain’t no way you’re ever going to put an edge on papier-mache.

  4. Katie Powner says:

    I agree with Andrew. At the end of the day, you have to write what demands to be written. If it is well-written, has universal application, and comes from the heart, I’m not sure what more you could hope for.

    At the same time, Rachel makes some good points. If certain elements limit your audience but are not crucial to your story, why keep them? For example, does it really matter if your MC is Episcopalian? Maybe it does, in which case, go for it. But if it doesn’t, then bringing it up is self limiting.

  5. I’m just starting to get this. With one manuscript set in Ancient Assyria and another set on a mission trip to Mexico it seems like the audience might be small. How many people are interested in Ancient Assyria, how many have gone on a short term mission or been on a reality TV show? But when I look at the larger appeal and themes of the story, then I discover my audience. Not only have many people read the story of Jonah (which happens in Ancient Assyria) but how many of us have let our culture sweep us away into ideas and beliefs that are contrary to what God wants. This is the problem facing my Assyrian protagonist. And how many of us have had a crisis of authenticity. Am I really what I say I am or is it all a nice show. This is what my teen on the Mexico team is facing. I think that fascinating and specific settings delight readers, but only if our themes are far reaching and can make that unique place relevant to us all.

  6. A nice example of a setting-specific novel with universal appeal is Robert Ruark’s “Something Of Value”.
    * Set in Kenya during the Mau Mau terrorism in the early 1950s, it’s probably a bit hard for most readers to find any points of contact with the ambience. The world of the white settlers is distinctly foreign, and that of the tribal elements even more so.
    * But at the story’s heart is a young man’s coming of age, seeing the secure world he knew crumble. He becomes the darkness he has to fight, sees everything that gave him comfort and the sense of a future ruined, and is ultimately faced with a choice for mercy that can become the defining first steps of a decent man into a harshly-changed world.
    * I think that if you can define a protagonist’s arc without any reference to cultural or setting specifics, you’ve come a long way toward creating broad appeal.

  7. I love this. I suppose my audience is for those who might want to help make the world a better place. When I write articles, I’m told to write in such a way that the reader will think–I can do this, too. Encouragement. So I hope to carry that over in to my novels.

  8. David Todd says:

    I agree with Andrew and Katie: I am my audience. I have to write what I would like to read, and hope there are a few million others out there who like to read the same thing, and that 0.1% of them will find and buy what I publish.

  9. I hope it’s OK that I offer a plug for a couple of people in this community – Carol Ashby and Jennifer Major.
    * Carol writes historicals set in the Roman Empire, but her characters are people to whom anyone can relate. There’s not feeling of being dated – the times she writes are both then and NOW.
    * I’ve had the privilege of reading some of Jennifer’s work, and the same thing applies. Her characters, and the issues they face, are universal. I never felt that I was a fly on the wall looking at weird people from the dusty past; her characters could have been my friends.