Be sure to think about your audience

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.

6 Responses

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  1. I’ve given this lots of thought, Rachel. I have an imaginary audience of real people, people I know.
    *This group includes a young man damaged by childhood abuse, a bitter woman who sees God in the image of her incestuous father, an elderly gentleman who maintains a strictly rational relationship with the Almighty, a coworker who sees all religions as equal paths to peace, a friend who dismisses any Scripture that doesn’t fit her worldview. I write to people whose souls long to touch the Divine, whose minds keep him at arm’s length.

  2. Interesting and very useful post here, Rachel. Thank you for this!
    * It does beg the question – to what degree are the publishers’ demographic algorithms creating a feedback loop, rather than identifying an audience? In other words, is there a will to over-specifying that makes them look harder at their own row of pigeonholes rather than at understanding how an audience is created? If you present a set of laboratory subjects (we don’t call people ‘specimens’) with two choices, the only data you can get is about the reaction to the offerings. You’ve learned nothing about them other than that. You can infer all you want, but inference is a slippery slope to perdition.
    * Granted, it’s idle speculation, because it’s the world in which we live…this is what publishers DO, and success does not easily come to iconoclasts.
    * To my mind, such as it is, the key to making it through the door that leads to a larger audience is making the protagonists cultural archetypes. Harry Potter is really Everyman, unappreciated in his own ‘country’ but with a higher, glittering place awaiting the discovery of his hidden talents.
    * Likewise, the Amish stand for simplicity and a faith that pervades life. Beverly Lewis, who if she didn’t invent the genre certainly brought it to mainstream CBA and beyond, understood this, and realized that while very few readers could really identify with the Amish, very many people WANT to.

    • A further thought on archetypes, if I may…some of them go WAY back.
      * Both Harry Potter and Desmond Doss, in the stellar film “Hacksaw Ridge”, can be said to be the stone the builders rejected having become the cornerstone.

  3. Carol Ashby says:

    I know what you are telling us is excellent advice if we want to sell the 20K or more books that a trad publisher wants. But to me, it just seems so constraining into a cookie-cutter kind of world. Sure, the frosting on the cookie may be different, but it’s still just a sugar cookie underneath.

    *There’s probably no publisher for a story like mine about unbridled greed and spiritual hunger, love, hatred, friendship, and forgiveness where the main characters are Messianic Jews and Roman soldiers set in AD 122. Only a well-established author with a devoted fan base could expect to sell tens of thousands of a book like that. (Francine Rivers sold a couple million, but she’s a very special case.)

    *But I’m fine with that. I went indie to keep the rights for mission work, but it would have been a good choice for my stories, anyway. I’d have a snowball’s chance at a Fourth of July picnic of getting a traditional publisher with my settings.

    *Your comment on the small-town supermarket did make me think of “Because of Winn Dixie.” I may have to watch the movie again.

  4. Ooops, I have a baptism/murder attempt that takes place in a jungle cenote on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. That’s kinda specific … I could work on this in my next story, that one’s almost done! Thanks, Rachel, good advice, I’ll have to figure out exactly how to use it though. I seem to be a very specific kind of writer.