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Surprising Perks to Defining a Book’s Audiences

If you’re like me, spending time figuring out your book’s audience sounds about as fun as, well, a root canal. You know who you’re writing for, right? Defining a book’s audience is more subtle than you might think, though—and much more useful in the long term. It comes naturally to switch the way you talk when chatting with one of your parents versus a work colleague, for example. But that’s because you’ve had previous experiences with them and have seen how they reacted to what you’ve shared. You have to build this understanding about who your audience is since there’s no give and take to guide you; but the good news is, diving in to this research can leap frog your work into a much healthier direction.


Why Bother with Audience Details?

To start with, I’ll cover the “ice cream treat” of it all: how the process can improve your book. Although I’ll include links on fiction resources, the advice is focused on non-fiction authors.


Quality Content

The more, and earlier, you get into the nitty gritty of who your primary audience is, the better you can make wise choices on everything from the book’s title to which content to ditch (which saves time), to the words to best craft individual lines. Say, for instance, you want to develop a book on swimming. You could write for readers who already understand the basics, and want to compete in races. You'd likely use a complete-the-race, goal-oriented focus with lots of action verbs, while covering topics such as specific training protocols for different types of races, how to be psyched up on race day, the best ways to avoid injuries and such. If you were writing for swimming newbies instead, there might be more emphasis on the broader process: how swimming makes someone feel, its huge aerobic benefits and such, what the different types of strokes are, and which are easiest to begin with.


These topics do overlap. For instance, authors of both might cover safety, emotional rewards of swimming, and the best equipment to use. But how they get covered will differ big time. For the beginner’s book might cover best sunscreen and swim suit brands, whereas the competition-focused book might home in on nutritional supplements, as well as flippers and other tools that increase a swimmer’s agility and power.


Buzzworthy Potential

Knowing your specific audience not only helps during the writing phase; it is the essential ingredient for drumming up interest in the final product. In particular, it will help you clarify the niche audience’s emotional needs, which marketers will tell you is key to getting your book picked over the million other books that literally come out every year. Knowing your niche and how to meet this audience’s need (what the work’s value proposition is, in marketing speak) gets you better prepared for how to spread the word about your baby and more.


Man aims a bow while standing near reflective pond, and below heavy clouds with peaks of sunlight, credit Zoltan Tosi
Audience targeting only seems mysterious (credit, Zoltan Tosi)

Cracking Open Your Audience

Now that I’ve covered the value proposition of audience refinement (sneaky, huh?), here are some basic steps to this research. You don’t have to do these in the order shown, as they feed off of each other:


Help Your Primary Reader Gain Footing

It’s fine if your book has more than one audience; in fact, we’ll get into that soon. But if you want to hit the bullseye with meeting reader expectations, figuring out your primary audience is step one. These folks are your main target content- and marketing-wise, the readers who’ll click the best with what you’ve put together. Not only that, but if you plan to sell your books on websites like Smashwords and Lulu Publishing, they and other outlets like bookstores will immediately ask you to define your audience to help them market you.


In addition to asking yourself what stage your readers are at regarding knowledge of the topic you’ll cover, consider the question of who your readers are, such as age, gender, income level and marital status. But then dig deeper than that demographic data. For instance, will your book appeal to independent types, or people that want their hands held throughout the process, to city folks or suburban or rural ones? Try to envision what your primary readers do in their spare time, and where they live, work and love, which is called building an audience profile. Some companies will even come up with a name and visual for their ideal client and a summary “bio” as part of this process.


Whether you take that great approach or not, be sure to ask yourself, particularly from an emotional standpoint, what challenge your book will help the core audience overcome. Do they want more money or productivity? Or is it peace of mind, or more free time? What keeps your reader up at night, if your book is designed to overcome a challenge or to fill an information hole. What do they value? And if there’s a How To element to your work, what would your ideal reader gain from accomplishing the approach you share.


Looking at books that have a similar or identical focus to yours will help in refining a primary audience, which I’ll cover in a bit. Note as well that, for memoirists, the primary reader question gets tricky, which Jane Friedman covers well at the end of this audience-defining piece.


Peg Your Book’s Genre

Like parsing a book’s audience, this can seem to be a no-brainer. There are subgenres within genres though, and you’ll want to know which one your work falls into. Part of this need stems from the fact that readers can have certain expectations about what they will “get” from reading a certain genre–bits of humor mixed in with great stories from a comedian’s book on life, more knowledge and a feeling of being better prepared from reading a DIY book about kitchen repair, or feeling more grounded from reading an inspirational memoir about someone using meditation to move beyond a tragedy.


Author and @StoryGrid developer Shawn Coyne breaks the main types of non-fiction into four categories: academic, how to, narrative non-fiction, and big ideas. Yet the subtlety of sub-genres means that Jacob Bobby, who writes about self-development on @Quora, has categorized How To books alone into three subtypes: self-help books with practical information and personal stories that focus on a specific problem (such as overcoming anxiety); self-improvement books that dig deeply into conquering a particular skill; and personal development books that help readers broadly change their habits (such as a book on mindfulness).


Before delving into such subtleties, here is a more in-depth list of 24 non-fiction genres that helps explain their distinctions. Keep in mind that you still need to take into account the emotional expectations a reader has for any particular genre. For fiction authors, this article breaks its genres down based on content length, structure, and three other factors. Or if you’re a novelist, here’s a good summary that covers how genre expectations can be bent; this is an important consideration regardless of your book’s niche.


Comparison Shop to Refine Content, Audience

Once you have a general idea of your main audience and genre, you can check out how other authors approach their word choices and more. You’ll need to come up with comparable books to share in a book proposal anyway if you'll develop one, so this will help with that process. Among the things that reveal the intended book audience is: a book’s jacket (if well done, the colors, choice of font size and style, etc., are geared toward their audience, emotionally and otherwise); marketing language an author uses when wooing readers, such as their web summary of the book; the social media tools an author uses to drum up sales is helpful too (newsletters, use of LinkedIn vs. Facebook, etc.). Also look into online communities, popular bloggers, and other outlets that can help reveal what topics your preferred readers are interested in and more.


Friedman points out that you may also be able to learn about your potential readers by reviewing what they say about themselves in book reviews, say, on Goodreads. And pay attention to what types of magazines, websites and audio outlets have covered a comparable book as indicators of media you could market your own work to.

A crowd with several blurred people in movement in the domed center of an elegant transportation station, by Takahiro Taguchi, from unsplash.com
Defining secondary audiences matters too (credit Takahiro Taguchi)

Lastly, be sure to list out audiences whose interests overlap with your primary audience. For a book proposal I reviewed about Black women and entrepreneurship, for instance, I recommended thinking about how to appeal to Afro-Caribbean and other minority women as well. And for the sample book idea above about swimming for first-time competitors, swim instructors and triathletes could be among potential secondary audiences. These overlapping readers may face the same challenge your book covers in different ways (say, time management as a classroom teacher versus a CEO), or they may come at the same topic from different angles, as the swim book’s secondary audience examples do.


Bring Your Research Home

Before wrapping up the research, it also may be good to gut check whether you’re a good fit for developing a book that you realize could benefit from extended research on a chapter or two that you wouldn’t enjoy doing. Or the approach that seems best to meet an audience’s needs may not seem fun overall (such as covering a topic from an overview perspective that would bore you as an expert). If you have the funds when the book tweak isn’t global, consider hiring someone to do something like the nitty gritty research for a chapter. But regardless, keep in mind that the content won’t flow unless you’re happy in the writing kitchen. So, keep your passions top of mind as the audience- and content-refining process unfolds.


Barbra A. Rodriguez

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