Several years ago, I taught a workshop on the importance of knowing your reader. The attendees were multi-book published authors. So I posed this question to a few, random writers in the audience to answer aloud: Who is your reader?
A novelist was clearly stymied not only by the question but also why I was asking it. Confusedly, he responded: “People who like my books?”
Um, that would be correct, if a bit vague.
If you, like that novelist can’t fathom why the question was posed, read on.
Knowing your reader helps you to know how to write your book.
Earlier this week, one of my clients was struggling with whom to make the hero in her next novel. She had introduced a significant number of characters in previous books in the series but felt conflicted. As she explained her thinking to me, she remarked, “I’ve received more comments about Character A and Character B from readers, but a person on the marketing team thinks Character C is more interesting. I don’t even really like Character C. Character D, to me, has lots of potential.”
As we discussed the pros and cons of each choice, I ended up telling her to write about Character A or B. She liked both of them; so, in my opinion, the decision came down to choosing what her readers were longing for. Because she was all about knowing her reader, she knew which ones they would prefer.
Many years ago, one of my clients had dangled a fetching love interest for her heroine before the readers’ eyes over several books in the series. She thought it would be a good idea to surprise everyone when the heroine married a secondary character. But she changed her mind when a friend, who didn’t know of this plan, said to her, “If you don’t have your heroine end up with the perfect match for her, your readers will rebel.” Well, no author wants a rebellion on her hands, so she made the obvious choice, which proved to delight and satisfy her readers.
So rule #1: By knowing your reader, you’re able to listen to what she tells you she wants.
Knowing your reader informs your marketing strategy
A marketing director at Penguin Random House, Andrea DeWerd, was interviewed for a Publishers Weekly article. One comment she made especially stood out to me:
Thinking that a book is for everybody is not a marketing strategy. What is a strategy is asking, Who is the best audience for the book, and how are we going to reach them?”
Let’s unpack that two-prong question.
Knowing your reader tells you who the best audience is for your book
For nonfiction, you want to know what level of knowledge on the subject of your book will readers bring to the reading experience? If you’re writing a book on how to have a successful small group, you’re speaking to individuals who know they lack knowledge and experience and view you as an authority. If, instead, you’re writing an academic book on studying leadership models found in Scripture, your reader expects you to elevate her knowledge of the subject and to give greater clarity to thoughts she already has developed. You are viewed more as her peer than an authority–or as an authority with higher ranking.
For fiction, you have a sense of what kind of expectations readers have for the type of book you write. An adventure story with a male protagonist will appeal to mostly men, but a significant secondary audience is women. A romance–or a book with strong romantic elements–will appeal mostly to women.
But those reader descriptions are just the first brush stroke of who your reader is. You also probably have an idea of your average reader’s age and perhaps even education level as well as other details.
How are you going to reach your readers?
Knowing what interests your readers have helps you to know where to find them. If they’re younger, they’re probably engaged with Instagram and Pinterest. If they’re older, then Facebook is their happy place.
Who are other authors your readers likely read? If you write Christian romantic suspense, then your readers probably read the best-selling authors in your genre. It’s easy to check out where those authors are investing most of their time and energies online. Go and do likewise.
Where are your readers looking to meet their need? If they realize their marriage is on the brink, will they attend a marriage conference with their spouse? Seek counseling? Ask friends for help? Seek out books?
Of the possible sources to solve their problem, which ones do you have access to? Do you have the network to arrange to speak at a conference? Connect with marriage counselors? Make your book easy for friends to find? Offer marriage helps on your website? Establish a podcast that explores how to make marriage more fulfilling?
Knowing your reader before you write your proposal is paramount.
Please note that the questions I’m posing are ones you should know the answers to before you write your proposal. In the proposal you are given the opportunity to showcase how you’ve targeted your reader. Every publishing committee will take a long look at whom you’re writing to and how readily you can reach those people.
Not to mention the committee will weigh in what ways can they help you to reach that audience. For example, if you’ve written a children’s Bible storybook, and you are a speaker at several homeschooling conventions, you’re more likely to find a publisher than a writer who is unconnected to parents of young children.
Thinking that gums up the works.
Two faulty thinking patterns keep writers from effectively reaching their audience.
Wanting to reach a broader audience than is realistic.
I often hear from writers that, while their faith deeply informs their writing, they want to evangelistically reach general market readers. The funny thing is that plan seldom works out. That’s because you have bifurcated your definition of your reader. Because one segment of your readers want to see your faith in visible ways, their expectation of your writing is that clear expression of how your faith deals with the conflicts you’re portraying (in fiction or nonfiction). On the other hand, the general market reader isn’t picking up your book expecting to find faith elements in it. On discovering that you are presenting faith in either covert or obvious ways, the reader is not pleased. For proof of that, all you have to do is read Amazon reviews of faith-based books that a general reader accidentally found. And those reviews can pop up even when the back cover copy mentions faith–sometimes buyers miss that detail.
Another way in which authors over-reach for readers is by trying so hard to expand readership that they don’t pay attention to what the readers they already have want in the next book. Rule #2: Once you’ve collected a group of readers, they develop very specific expectations of you. Don’t disappoint them by ignoring the brand you’ve developed or watering it down.
Mixing the book’s approach to a subject.
Sometimes a writer wants to tell his story and to teach how to deal with an issue. The problem is, readers who want to find out about his story come to the book with that expectation. But readers who want help in solving their problem come to a book with a different expectation. These two readers’ paths do not cross.
Yet the writer is hoping to entertain with the narrative and then speak directly to the reader with solutions. As a matter of fact, I just rejected a project this week for this very problem.
The writer was gifted at expressing herself when she wrote about her story. Some of the phrases and eloquent word choices took my breath away. But then, when that scene ended, the writer spoke directly to the reader about insights she had gained after living through that moment.
Rule #3: While I appreciate that most writers want to tell their stories to help others, you need to choose which reader you want to write for and then choose a genre that meets the reader’s expectations.
What methods can you use to find out more about who your reader is? What expectations do you think your readers have of what you’ve written?
Why knowing your reader is paramount to being a successful writer. Click to tweet.
Do you think your book appeals to everybody? Read why that’s probably not true. Click to tweet.
Know thy reader very well,
know her through and through;
were war as vital as to sell,
t’would be a maxim of Sun-Tzu.
She’s not a foe to take to task,
nor an object of calumny;
yes, the question we must ask
is how to get her money?
I’d love to hand it out for free
but the wider world makes measure,
linking price to quality,
and worth to proffered treasure.
So place my conscience under lash
while I count my cold hard cash.
God keeps refining my view of my readers. I write to an imaginary audience of real people, all believers who don’t quite know how to manage the disciplines of prayer and Bible meditation–how to live in constant conversation with God. One man sees God as strictly rational, bypassing anything emotional or symbolic. Another was abused by her father and distrusts Father God. There’s the gal who thinks all religions lead to God and picks what she likes best from each. God’s recent addition to my crew includes an adult believer with a child’s reading skills. For those like him, I simplified my writing with short sentences, large print and lots of white space. After that, a home-schooling mom let me know she uses my short and simple blog posts for her children’s morning devotions.
Janet, this is an excellent article. You’ve helped me narrow that target point, I know what my readers expect from my books, but I used to think women of all ages would love them. Insert a loud HA! That’s not a bad thing, I’m realizing, because those women are of a huge reader demographic. THANK YOU!!
Wendy L Macdonald
Dear Janet, I couldn’t agree more with your words regarding not “mixing a book’s approach to a subject.”
A couple of years ago, I read a memoir that took me out of her story each time the author brought in Bible passages that related to it.
I wanted to read her story, not read a Bible study. Am I wrong to feel this way about an inspirational memoir?
I’m trying to learn and understand the genre of memoir as I edit my own. It’s challenging. My favorite aspects of a good memoir are unique voice and beautiful writing that evokes deep feelings and deep thoughts. Hmm, now that I think about it, those are my favorite qualities about good reads in general.
Thank you for faithfully teaching us.
Blessings ~ Wendy Mac
Kristen Joy Wilks
I hope that my readers want to pause a moment to laugh, because that is what they are going to get. Yes, a fun romance and a glimpse at the Lord at work … but a delightful romp through the ridiculousness that can pop up at any moment in this life is the main dish.
Morgan Tarpley Smith
Great post, Janet. Thanks for the insight!
I write split time fiction and a few months ago I started a Facebook group – A Split in Time Fiction Group – for lovers of clean reads in split time/time-slip fiction. There wasn’t any when I looked so I just jumped in to fill this niche. I review a split time/time slip book each week and do other fun posts.
The response to it has been amazing!! There are almost 200 members (a mix of authors & readers) and we’re doing our first LIVE author chat soon with author Melanie Dobson. I wanted to do this group because I wanted to genuinely connect with other readers like me who love this style! And in a win-win situation I’m also able to connect with my specific readership too. I’m having a blast with it!
Janet, this post took me deeper into helping me understand who my readers are. I especially gleaned from the questions who are other authors my readers are reading and where are my readers looking to meet their needs.
You’ve got me thinking about those who read my blog, as well as where I am intersecting (or not) with potential readers online.
I truly appreciate your insight!