The secret to selling a book is understanding its readers and how to deliver on their expectations. Though knowledge of readers is most often discussed in relation to nonfiction work, it also affects writers of literary fiction, even if they say they write for no one but themselves: in those cases, the artist becomes a readership of one, with expectations and aspirations for the art they produce. How the story is told, how challenging it will be, and what traditions it will draw upon—all these imply a particular readership who will evaluate the work accordingly.
So if you’re an author, your voice, approach, and attitude toward the writing are hard to separate from your expectations of the reader and the reader’s expectations of you or the text. It’s problematic if your idea of the reader changes as you write or changes once you decide to pitch and market the work—especially if it changes because you hope for a larger readership.
I find this last problem exceedingly common among authors. They want to reach enthusiasts or insiders in their community and they want a general readership, all with the same book. Or authors may want to prove themselves among peers while also hoping for a New York Times bestseller. There’s nothing wrong with having a dream, but I encourage nonfiction authors to, at the very least, make the tough decision: are you primarily writing for those inside your community or those on the outside? If the answer is both, that confuses matters—not just when it comes time to market the book but also in the writing process itself and the search for a publisher. It takes honesty with yourself to avoid Panglossian goals that subvert the writing and positioning of your work.
Some authors who are confused about their readership ask: Who do you think my readers are or should be? Where do I have the best chance? That’s like asking someone else to set your career goals for you. However, if you want an easier path to success, then write for the readers you know best or the readers who know you. That way, whatever platform you have can play a meaningful role in the book’s marketing and promotion.
When authors receive such advice, I find that their true desires quickly come to the surface. Many aren’t content simply with the readers they know or have: they want the readers they don’t have. They want growth.
The bigger and broader the readership you want, the bigger and more impressive platform you need. Celebrity and bestselling authors have such platforms—and, in some ways, they get to write whatever they want, even if it doesn’t fit commercial standards, because their readership is so large. Or their brand is enough to sell the book. If you’re an average noncelebrity author, it’s much better to focus on the readers you know you can reach, or can reasonably stretch to reach.
Confusion over readership also arises when authors want to tell their own story and teach at the same time. This is difficult because readers of stories tend to be different from readers of prescriptive (lesson-teaching) work. Some people pick up a book to solve a problem or improve their lives, and their primary concern is efficiency—the book is merely a tool. Their goals are rather different from the person who reads for personal enrichment or to experience another’s life or find beauty and comfort in a story similar to their own.
If you struggle with the readership question, here are a few questions to consider:
● Who or what are the media or pop culture touchstones for your ideal readers? To whom do they listen already? Whom do they follow? Who are their heroes? By evaluating the media that your readership consumes, you can get a better idea of how to speak to them and position yourself in relation to what they already know and have experienced.
● What types of events would your ideal readers get excited about or attend? E.g., would they be more likely to attend a 24-hour nonstop reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses—or would you find them at a nearby comic con? Where would you go to meet your most enthusiastic readers? The atmosphere of events and community spaces can help you learn about your readers and produce a work that speaks to them.
● For nonfiction: What is the education level of your readers? Are they deep into your subject and likely to know as much as you, or do they need hand-holding? Do you aim to speak to readers who are already at your level, or to make what you know accessible and useful to a broad audience of nonexperts? You want to know how to speak your readers’ language.
Trying to serve two distinct readerships at the same time means shortchanging your readers and yourself. It’s far better to focus your efforts on writing the best work possible for the readers you know best, which will lend confidence and authenticity when it comes time for you to sell and market the work.
Jane Friedman teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia and is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest.