How to Know Your Book’s Audience

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Sometimes a book idea is born out of awareness of your reader’s need that you can meet. The audience is probably a lot like you, or your platform is developed around these folks.

But often, when I look at wannabe clients’ proposals, the writer can’t describe the intended audience. Or sees the audience as so broad as to be indescribable. Every writer needs to envision who the reader is to know how to connect the book to the reader in the most effective way.

That thought was brought home to me this week, as I was listening to a classical music station, and the radio host was reading from Mozart’s journal about the day Mozart attended a concert in the local park. It being a lovely spring day, he couldn’t resist enjoying some great music–especially since he was the composer of the symphony being performed.

I perked up my ears when Mozart recounted the experience of listening to the performance. He had predicted to himself the movement in the piece that would so sweep the listeners away into rapture that they would burst into spontaneous applause. That applause erupted at just the moment he thought it would.

What struck me about the journal entry was how well Mozart knew his audience. He could predict their emotional peak. That set my imagination reeling through  visions of Mozart writing the symphony; when he jotted down those notes, I suspect he envisioned the response they would elicit.

Then my mind turned to writers. I wondered which ones are so attune to their readers that, as the writer taps out words, a smile comes to his or her lips as a segment of the book with emotional strength unfurls.

I’m talking about both fiction and nonfiction here because I believe, if a writer can emotionally connect with readers, that writer will be successful.

Even if you’re unpublished, you still need to have a reader in mind: a child curled up in a parent’s lap while the parent reads your picture book; a teen boy lounging on his bedroom floor as he enters into the adventure you’ve created for  him; the man who longs to be freed from porn but can’t find his way out of that prison until he reads your book.

Sometimes we write our books not so much for the reader as for ourselves. A fiction idea occurs to you that makes you want to find out what happens next. Or you have a need yourself so you start to write a nonfiction book to discover the answer. Or you experience a heart-rending event and find God in the eye of the hurricane. Now you want to tell others about your story.

So who is your audience?

If you don’t really know, or if you think you know, but you aren’t sure, here are some ways you can find out:

1. Use SurveyMonkey to put together a questionnaire in which you ask subscribers to your enewsletter or your blog: their age, their sex, how they found out about you (or your books), what they enjoy reading, how often they read books, what they enjoy about your blog or newsletter, what they like best about the material you provide, how they would describe you or your writing (which helps you to understand your brand and whether your readers agree with you about what your brand is). If you’re writing in more than one category and think you need to choose between them, ask what your readers prefer. Whatever you wonder about your readers and how they perceive you or your writing, put it in the survey. Offer a little gift for one or a few winners to receive, if they fill out the survey. (A Starbuck’s card or a free book.)

2. Take an informal survey on the social media outlet you have the most connections to readers, such as Facebook or Twitter. With Twitter, create a link to the survey. On Facebook, you could ask one survey question every other day;you will have to skip such questions as age, sex, etc., but you certainly can ask what they like to read, how often they read a book, if they like your historical novels or your nonfiction. Getting a conversation going on Facebook can bring in more responses than asking people to fill out an entire survey, but you’re likely to gather less data.

3. Don’t assume you know. Let your readers tell you who they are. Keep an open mind; they might surprise you.

What methods have you used to get to know your audience? In what ways have you asked them how they perceive your brand? Do you really know your audience, or do you assume you know them?

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45 Comments

  • Great advice, Janet. One place I’ve enjoyed hearing from readers is in the “Shared Notes and Highlights” section from the ebook. It’s interesting to see the passages that get highlighted. Gives me some insight on what parts of the book readers find compelling. Surprisingly enough, it seems to be the spiritual content of my historical romances that gets marked. I wouldn’t have predicted that.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I wouldn’t have thought about that section of the ebook to gain insight. Of course, for a novel, readers are unlikely to highlight the first kiss…then, again, maybe they would.

  • Thank you, Janet. When I’m writing, if a word comes into my head that brings tears to my eyes, I feel like it will touch the reader, as well. With my nonfiction … I had to find a different way to view hardships … a way to cope … and always believed if “I” needed it, others might, too. In my new work, for middle grade … I only know my audience through my girls. But I need to find a way to branch out there, too.

    Are you wearing green today?! Grin. Or Pinch!
    Blessed by you,
    shelli

    • Wow, completely forgot about St. Patty’s Day this year! I guess that comes from being a stay-at-home mom for the first time ever. :) Thanks for the reminder!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, I’m wearin’ the green today. And assuming you are too. At Zumba this morning, Michelle informed me my green T-shirt was so neon, she could count its glow as wearing green for her too.
      Writers often judge how their work with affect others by the author’s response to it. Certainly there’s validity to that, but actually asking Beta readers for their responses is a great way to go. Especially for your middle grade work.

      • There is a lady I work with at church that does Zumba … you are making me want to check into it. Wonder if I can buy a video so the girls and I can have fun with that at home?! I need exercise!!

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        shelli, I would think you can find Zumba videos. It’s really fun to make Latin dance moves as a way to exercise.

  • This is good, Janet. I know the audience I THINK I’m targeting. But I’ve wondered if that’s the audience I’m actually reaching. :) I really like the idea of doing a survey. I’ve never thought to do that. I’ll probably start this on Facebook, and eventually do this on my blog.

    And, similar to what Shelli said, if I shed tears while writing, I’m hoping that scene will also touch readers similarly. Thanks for sharing these insights!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jeanne, I’m glad the idea of doing a survey, even an informal one intrigues you. Even if it confirms your audience is whom you thought, you’ll know them better for having done the survey. And it might be info you can use on your proposal.

  • Thanks for your ideas, Janet. Some of your ideas in the comments have been helpful, too. I’ve also found that if I find myself in tears while writing a passage, there are usually others who react the same way.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      If you cry each time you read the passage, that’s a very good sign indeed.

      • Maybe, but it’s a better sign of you cry a year later, on reading the same passage.

        It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of writing a scene, and to have a mental and emotional setting that are parts of your experience as reader/writer, but which are inaccessible to the ‘ordinary’ reader.

        If you can achieve the same emotion at the remove of time, you’ve really got something.

        (This came from my mentor, the late Marvin Mudrick)

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Hmmm…when I imagine my audience I picture my AWANA girls or some of our girl counselors (we live and work at a Bible camp) or I try to picture what my oldest son will be like when he is 14 and imagine how he would react to a passage. I write YA so I have a little time, but I love to hope that I’ll be published by the time my boys grow up into the age group I write for. Good dreams and actually a good exercise because I read with the boys so much I know their likes and dislikes…just have to grow them up a bit in my head. Only time will tell how their reading habits change.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Asking the local school if you can teach a writing course and then read portions of your YA is a great way to gauge response.

      • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

        That is a good idea. They asked me to do a few creative writing sessions with the 1st graders and that was really fun, perhaps a chance with the older kids will come up.

  • Angela Mills says:

    I’m not published yet, so my fiction audience is imaginary. I kind of have a certain woman in mind that represents future readers. Not an actual person, but a composite I’ve imagined up. If my imagined reader is someone I actually know, then I start tripping up, worried about what they’ll read into things. So I’ve made one up :)

    Maybe I should start thinking more broadly! I have an age range in mind, but I haven’t done any research. I’ll check out Good reads and see who is reading books similar to mine, and check out the blogs of writers that write books like mine, and see what kind of readers they have. I could survey my blog readers, since I hope lots of them will be fiction readers as well. Any more ideas, anyone?

    Thanks for this post!

  • I use movies – I try to fit what I write into a particular demographic, which is more easily identifiable by film preferences, and then try to incorporate elements that strike a similar emotional resonance. It’s easier than it sounds.

    Surveys don’t interest me too much, since the results are really subjective – it depends so much on the use of social media and the willingness to even answer a survey that they can’t give more than an indication.

    It’s so important to remain aware of the needs of the core readers group – two authors who didn’t do this come to mind: Marjorie Rawlings and Tom Clancy.

    Rawlings was beloved for her portrayal of Florida crackers, in a time when the South was ‘cool’ because of GWTW. When she switched to Michigan’s rural poor, her readers didn’t follow.

    Tom Clancy’s early books were (relatively) fast-paced stories of action, with enough technical detail and jargon thrown in to make the reader feel like an insider. Later he turned to more cerebral, political stories, and the readers were shut out…and a lot of them left.

    • Jenny Leo says:

      Wow, I never knew that about Rawlings, and I’d never thought of Southern settings as moving in and out of fashion. It makes sense that a blockbuster like GWTW would have had a ripple effect. Interesting!

      Praying that 1920s Chicago settings come into fashion, and soon! :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, yeah, I’m not tracking with you on the movie demographic. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work, it’s just that I’m so eclectic in what films I watch, that I can’t imagine my choices would be informative for a writer. My viewing spectrum swings all the way from action/adventure to romantic comedy to more cerebral-arty films.
      But I certainly agree you have to understand your core reader. If the writer doesn’t, it’s tempting, after completing so many books, to write something different. Readers so aren’t looking for different; they’re expecting more of the same from you.

  • Christine Dorman says:

    Great blog (as usual), Janet. I found it challenging in a good way. I always preach Know Thy Audience to my writing students and to the members of my critique group, but your question, “Do you really know your audience, or do you assume you know them” made me sit up. I have to say honestly that I assume I know them. That means, I need to find out if I’m right or wrong. I believe I’m writing for older YA readers, but I need to get Beta readers from that group. I read YA fiction (particularly fantasy) and I have read and read and read, as well as taken workshops, on writing for a YA audience. Recently, I had my plot and characters critiqued by an agent who represents YA fantasy and she I had a winning storyline as well as a good protagonist. That was encouraging, but the bottomline is that the only people who’ve read my WIP have been adults. One member of my critique group has offered to have her teenage son read the book, but I feel it is really targeted for a female audience. I asked my critique partner if she would ask her son to get some female friends to read it as well. I’m waiting to hear back about that. I think that’s going to be the litmus test.

    I loved the Mozart example, especially since he’s my second-favorite composer (Bach is number one). How fascinating to hear excerpts from Mozart’s diary! Is it available as a book?

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!

  • Jenny Leo says:

    Thanks for these ideas! I love the Mozart story. When I wrote plays, I’d wait eagerly for the audience to laugh in the right places. When they did, it was very gratifying. When they didn’t, I knew there was still more work to be done, either in the writing or the delivery.

    I’m reminded of the movie “Funny Farm,” where the main character moves to the country to write his novel. He asks his wife to read the manuscript, then pulls his chair up close to scrutinize her every facial expression as she reads. Funny!

  • Janet, I just took some time this weekend to complete a survey for an unpublished author who I found through her blog. Her nonfiction book is complete and, out of all the editors who have seen it, only one “got” her idea. I was more than happy to answer her questions because I am desperate for her book! Her questions were quite detailed and well thought-out. Even the way she worded them demonstrated her intimate knowledge of her audience. She has an agent (I don’t know who), but I don’t know if the agent would have brainstormed the questions with her. I’m guessing so? She also is giving away a certain number of gift cards to those who participate. As I concluded the survey, I thought it a brilliant way to convey to readers how much she values them. My opinion matters to her.

    I haven’t done a survey that detailed, just random questions on Facebook about reading preferences. (And I write fiction, so that seems to make a difference.) But it was an excellent example and got my wheels a-turning.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Meghan, how serendipitous that you should have taken a reader survey this weekend. Thanks for sharing what the experience was like from the other side. It’s especially interesting that you found the questions so engaging.

  • I sent my MS to my crit partner and was pleasantly surprised when she said a certain sent gave her the chills. I was aiming for a “whoa…” moment, but the chills? Yeah.Baby.

    I aim my work at the reader who wants to get more out of a book than tea and giggles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not my goal.

    I need to find my readers, focus in on them, and say hello.

    Thank you for this, Janet.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jennifer,how gratifying to give a reader chills. You’re onto something! But, yes, you do need to find your readers (on Goodreads?) and connect with them.

      • Goodreads is a great space to interact with readers. They’re opinionated, which is very beneficial. I’ve received detailed feedback from individuals when I’ve asked about their ratings or reviews. Joining genre groups that jive with what I write helps too.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Jenni, thanks for letting us know that the opinionated Goodreads readers like to interact about what they like/don’t like. That’s helpful to know. Genre groups make all kinds of sense for writers.

  • Caveat: I write general market romance.

    My target readers are readers like me, hungry for his POV in a romance and heroes who are noble and will fight for her. We’re everywhere, but nobody seems to believe we exist in sufficient numbers to try and grab. Though it is much easier to pull this off in the general market than CBA, thanks to paranormal romance.

    Enter digital small presses! They see this market, and they’re fighting to reach it. The explosion of m/m romance in digital small press is, I believe, a backlash against the heroine-centric romance where he’s an afterthought.

  • I’m late to the party today, but I am so glad I came. Wow! This post really got me thinking. It’s not that I don’t consider my audience when I write; it’s that maybe I surround myself with too many kids who enjoy my writing because I am someone’s mom or a person from their church. There are only so many people you can attract that way.

    I love the survey idea. The gears are moving right now on how I can use it.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, you’re so right that the people who are in our lives think it’s utterly amazing we can string words together into a recognizable fabric…even if our writing might not be that astounding. Finding people who can view our work more objectively is really important.

  • Janet, I think I had a breakthrough last week. Since I’m writing a memoir now, I decided to change up my blog postings to more of a life story format. I gained quite a few followers, especially men. I have been mystified as to why more men like and follow my blog than women. Well, last week, one of my LinkedIn connections,a pleasant pastor, emailed to say he enjoyed my post. He said that working in ministry can be tough sometimes and we all need to encourage and support one another. Bless him! The light bulb came on. I checked and, sure enough, many of my male followers are pastors or servant leaders in some capacity in ministry. Then, I realized the women who follow and like my writing are also serving in ministry. Duh! What have I been doing for the last 17 years? Ministry leadership. I know what I need to do next. Find out where ministers hang out, stand in front of them and encourage them. So, I’m psyched and I’m on it.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    When someone reads my work out loud at our critique meetings, the biggest laughs seldom occur when I expect them: people don’t laugh at my best lines and do laugh at things I think are only somewhat humorous.

    Fortunately, I usually do click with them on most of my serious parts. So I guess I know my audience best when it comes to somber but not silly. (Or it means my sense of humor is a bit skewed!)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Peter, humor is such a quirky thing. What strikes one person as funny another person doesn’t get. It’s good your critique group is in agreement about the serious parts of your writing, though, or you should worry!

  • Hi everyone-
    While I am newer to the writing scene, I do have an independently-hosted blog (i.e., a website as opposed to a WordPress or other site). For those who are not yet publishing on a regular basis, I highly recommend creating your own webpage. I have been amazed at the audience information that Google Analytics gathers for me from visitors, and surprised to find that I had more male readers than female! (Hmmm…! :-) As Wendy’s blog post here mentioned this week, setting up yout own blog or author page is a good pre-pub, downtime activity, and even while it’s still being perfected, as mine is, you are receiving valuable demographic info about your readers. It’s a lot of work, but makes discerning your audience a little easier in the end.

  • Thank you. Good advice. I like the idea of actually picturing my readers slouched around with my book. Why didn’t I think of that? LOL

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