Beginning in the 1990s, two essential questions became central in public school writing curricula. All over the country, young writers were asked to consider them with every piece of writing they generated:
What’s your purpose?
Who’s your audience?
These are fundamental questions for every writer—so fundamental that they tend to be overlooked by those of us who write professionally. Somehow, we think success should be more complicated. But ask any agent, editor, or publisher. Though they may use different language when they speak of these factors, they evaluate and market projects according to audience and purpose.
There are nuanced ways to answer the question of purpose, but there’s one overarching purpose that agents, editors, publishers, and readers seek—they want authors who write the best book they can possibly write. Yes, reading is a matter of taste, but within various categories of taste (we call them genres), readers recognize best books—those that stand out from the rest.
Writing your best book is so important that I’ve written a whole book about it. Claim it as your overriding purpose and you won’t go wrong.
Let’s consider the question of audience. You’re writing because there’s joy in the journey (no matter how crazy), because you love the discovery, because you celebrate language and story. But you’re also writing to be read, and that means you need an audience.
When pressed, many authors will say their audience is everyone. It might sound smart to claim the broadest possible audience—everyone will buy this book! But that’s not how it works. When agents, editors, and publishers evaluate a book, they think exactly like everyone else in retail industries that can only sustain themselves when they connect consumers with products. They think in terms of target markets.
So the question boils down to this: Who exactly are your potential readers, and how can you best reach them?
When you don’t take the time to address this two-pronged question and build strategies around the answers, you’re going to waste a lot of time and energy on all sorts of wrong-headed marketing. So grab a pen and paper—right now—and take a few minutes to identify your potential readers—your audience strands—and the best ways to reach them.
By way of example, here are the results of the most recent audience strand analysis I did for myself and my books. Note that in addition to identifying each strand, I also consider the ways to most readily reach these readers. Note, too, the benefits of looking at the strands in reverse. Certain outreach activities may be targeting strands you don’t intend to reach—readers who’ll never buy your books:
Friends and fans: The easiest audience to reach, these are also likely to be the strongest and most consistent advocates for your work. They’re loyal, they love you, they love your work—as long as you’ve achieved your purpose of writing your best books. You cultivate personal connections with this audience—some are already within your circles of friends and family, and the rest come into the broader circle of fans as a result of meeting you at events, workshops, and conferences. But let’s be honest here: it’s not just about meeting you; it’s about genuine relationships and respect. To reach this audience, get out and about, but make sure your interactions are ones that allow people to get to know you and your work in meaningful ways. Simply pitching your books and passing out swag to every reader you can nab at an event isn’t target marketing—it’s human spamming.
Emerging writers: I blog about writing because I teach writers, I coach writers, and I write books for writers. But there are lots and lots (read tens of thousands) of writers who blog about writing because they heard somewhere that they should blog and they guess (hope) that maybe their readers will want to know how they do what they do. Truth is, it’s only when you’ve got a large fan base that you’ll have a subset of readers who care about how what you do what you do. And even then, most of them won’t be looking for how to become writers, so they won’t be interested in generic how-to posts on developing characters or adding tension to a plot. If writers aren’t your target audience, don’t waste your time marketing your work to them.
Frugal readers: E-book discounting has grown this subset of readers into a gigantic industry. Many are voracious readers, often of genre fiction, who don’t like paying full price for books because they read so many. Among frugal readers are also people who live for getting deals on anything and everything—for them, half the fun of shopping is getting a great deal, whether or not they’ll ever use (read) their purchase. By reaching frugal readers through well-orchestrated promotions of your discounted titles, you stand to gain social proof in the form of (temporarily) elevated sales rankings with online vendors. Thus, outreach to frugal readers may help you get noticed, however briefly. It might even build friends and fans base—but only if you’ve written a stand-out book. Self-published writers in particular make the mistake of pouring all of their energies into reaching this audience strand, which is a fickle submarket at best.
Regional readers: Lots of us like to read about the places where we live and the places we visit. Far and away, my bestselling titles are with a publisher that markets very, very effectively to this market. To expand this readership even more, I stay active in regional events and use regional hashtags in some of my social media posts.
Like-minded readers: Considering both the content and style of your best work, how would you describe your ideal readers? Mine are culturally and environmentally conscious. They’re concerned about what’s potentially lost if we don’t have the sense to preserve it, and conversely, they value the lessons we learn from history. They value love in all its complexities, compassion, joy, and nature. They embrace books that shine in terms of language, story, and concept. I connect with these readers primarily through organizations, associations, and publications that cater to these interests and encourage these sensibilities.