Every writer hopes to captivate an audience. But who are you writing to?

When you write a letter, you address your reader directly. When you write a speech, you anticipate a particular group of listeners. If you write a news article, you have a strong sense of who the readers will be, and your writing reflects your grasp of how best to address their subscribers. Even on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram you are conscious of who sees what you write. We adjust what words we use and how we use them depending on our intended audience.

When you write a book to be published, it is critical to identify your readers early on. Knowing who you are addressing will help you as a writer. I often work with authors who have finished a first full draft of a manuscript which requires translation from a story that satisfies one reader (the writer) to one that serves many readers. But if the author doesn’t know who the readers for their work might be, then are they writing to be read, or still working through the story in their own head?

Back in the day when teaching radio journalism involved reel-to-reel tapes and a grease pencil to edit, I advised reporters to visualize the listener as someone specific. We’ve all heard the sing-song-y recitations of local radio news reporters. Students worked hard going out into the field, taping interviews and natural sounds, and writing their news scripts. But when they delivered a story without considering their audience, I would suggest they start over and deliver a story they would tell their roommate’s father, a favorite aunt, or the friend who works at the bakery or in the bike shop. When you have somepne specific in mind when you tell a story, it shapes the way you tell it.

The kiss of death to a manuscript is when an author has tried to address an audience known as “the general public.” There is no such thing. There is not a single book in human history which everyone has wanted to read. A few religious historical texts have come close, but as of yet, there is no universal audience. Yet, many writers think they have to make things as generic as possible and use broad sweeping generalizations to serve diverse audiences. Nothing makes writing more boring to read. The more you know your audience, the better you can address them and serve their needs and interests as a writer.

If you are writing fiction, you may have a difficult time imagining who your specific readers might be. Study the genre and subgenre you write and look at the audiences for the books on your list of comparable titles. Look at who reads and reviews books like your book. You likely know your readers better than you give yourself credit for.

If you are writing nonfiction, then the subject matter itself helps you identify your readers. Who cares about this topic and why? What needs do your readers have for your title? Your audience shares a common interest in the topic, but there may be multiple audiences, including secondary markets for a work like yours. Envision the setting and circumstances in which a reader will find your book helpful.

If you are writing memoir, then both the genre and subject matter will influence the kinds of readers your book will interest.

For children’s and YA, fiction and nonfiction, the market in publishing is highly segmented by age range, grade and reading level, genre and subgenre. Identification of the readers is paramount for publishing but also essential to writing so that the work will be read.

If you’re still writing and trying to figure out who your audience is, then here are some questions to consider.

  1. Who will be interested in your book and why?
  2. What demographics describe these readers?
  3. What are the qualities and characteristics of this audience?
  4. What expectations do they bring to books like this?
  5. Why do they need your book?

Audience identification is a key component in preparing a book proposal. Proposals which fail to effectively describe readers typically fail to win publishing contracts. One, it is difficult to sell anything to everyone. Nothing is all things to all people. And two, the writing often reflects the lack of understanding of the specific target audience and their expectations and needs.

To get answers to the question of “who are my readers,” I recommend you do some participant-observation research in two locations.

Go to your local bookstore and ask the bookseller for your book. Describe the kind of book you are looking for—the one you are writing—and see where they direct you to the shelves. Then take a seat and watch who comes to that section of the new nonfiction titles and stops at the shelf where yours might fit if it were for sale. Take notes. Describe these people in demographic detail. Interview the bookseller about the kinds of people she meets who are avid readers of this kind of material.

Ask the local librarian who specializes in adult nonfiction for an interview and pick their brain about what readers like in current titles on this subject. Ask about adult programs around nonfiction and memoir books. See what authors and titles they feature and to whom they appeal. Or if you are writing a children’s book or adult fiction, seek out the appropriate librarian.

You can also go online to do more audience research. Goodreads is a social media site where readers leave reviews, and using it as a search tool, you can learn a good deal about readers who review the same kind of book you are writing.

Attending author events and bookstore and library programs gives you a sense of the literary community of readers and who might be captivated by YOUR new book.

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