How to Define and Describe Your Readership: A Confusing Issue for Nonfiction Book Proposals

define and describe your readership
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If you’re pitching a nonfiction book, at some point, an editor or agent will expect you to describe the readership that your book is intended for. Or, if you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to define this for yourself to market the book properly.

Sometimes a book’s readership seems obvious from the title alone. For example, we can reasonably assume that Running Your First Marathon is for people who are training for their first marathon. Easy, right? Yet consider that such a book might be written for a more advanced or serious runner than, say, The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, which indicates a reader who has little or no history of running. The title tells part of the story—but not the whole story. 

Thus, even books that strongly indicate their readership in the title require useful elaboration from the author on who the book is meant for—or perhaps who it is not meant for.

For example, my latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, is primarily intended for students in the classroom, earning creative writing degrees. For a self-publishing author, it has less to offer. Even though both groups self-identify as “writers,” we’re talking about writers at very different stages of their careers, with different ideas about “business” and success.

By being disciplined about who your readership is, and defining this readership, you can avoid long-term strategic blunders that lead to everything from ineffective pitches and vague marketing copy to bad customer reviews. So where to start?

First, admit the hard part: Your audience is not everyone.

Some authors find this hard to accept, but it’s the first step to getting somewhere useful with your pitch. If your book is for everyone, it is for no one. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, your book may wander or have a voice that lacks distinction.

Consider how differently you speak to someone or tell a story based on what you know about their background. If you meet someone at a party, and you’re both from Indiana, you will tell a story from home in a very different way than you would if that person is from New York City and has never stepped foot in the Midwest. Being in lock-step with your audience is critical to knowing what to include and what not to include—as well as what language to use. It gives your approach definition.

A shortcut to understanding your readership: look at competitors

Let’s hope you’re not of the mistaken belief that your book has no competition. More than a million new books are published every year; there is something out there that is at least comparable and can be usefully studied.

When you look at comparable titles, carefully study the back cover copy (how the pitch is angled, the language used), who it appears to be appealing to, what the aesthetic is like. Then look at customer reviews: how do these readers describe themselves? What traits jump out? What language do they use?

What professional sources are reviewing or talking about the book? What does this indicate about the readership?

By being a thoughtful and studious book detective, you can put together a portrait of your reader. You might be going after a similar (or the exact same) audience as your comparable titles, or you might be going after a different one. Frankly, that part doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you’re able to express the differences in readership among titles because you have a strong understanding of the market.

Let’s say you’re writing a cookbook for people on gluten-free diets. That’s pretty specific, right? Isn’t it enough to say, “Anyone on a gluten-free diet will be interested in my book”? Not really. Consider these three gluten-free cookbook covers.

Do you think the same reader would buy or be interested in all three books? I don’t think so. Even if there is some weird person out there who would fit into the target demographic of each, these titles are also marketed in very different ways. They would be reviewed or featured by different types of websites/magazines, and they would be advertised in very different places.

Look at the digital breadcrumb trail of competing authors

From the competing titles, choose a few of the authors you would want to consider (one day) your peers or colleagues. Where do they focus their marketing and promotion time? Who do they seem to be appealing to? What brands or outlets do they affiliate themselves with? Who reviews them or talks about them? This is another path to understanding your readership.

Do a Google news search to deepen your understanding of the readership

Let’s say you’re writing a book on motherhood and it’s targeted toward millennial moms. That’s a good starting point for exploring your readership through a tool like Google. Go to Google and search for the phrase “millennial mothers” and see what turns up. While a general search may be sufficient, if you don’t get enough that’s relevant (i.e., if you turn up too many shopping or promotional links), then click the News tab.

You should find well-researched reports and trend articles about how society, companies and brands see this demographic, such as “5 Tips on How to Successfully Market to Millennial Moms” or “Secret Goes After Millennial Women By Aligning With Wage Inequality.” Voila—you have instant market research about your target audience that can be put into a book proposal or inspire ideas for your marketing strategy.

Mistakes to avoid in a book proposal when discussing your target reader

  • Don’t state the obvious. Let’s say your book is about how to start a small business. Don’t say your target readership includes “people interested in starting a small business.” That isn’t telling us anything useful, and not all people who want to start a small business are the same. Are they rural, suburban, or urban? Are we talking about twentysomethings out of college or retirees? People who will start an online-driven business or a bricks-and-mortar business? People with or without business experience? And so on.
  • Don’t say your readership is the US book-buying audience. Sometimes authors will intensively research the book publishing statistics in their category or the industry, then cite those in the proposal, e.g., “More than 10,000 titles are published each year on X,” or “More than 75% of women will buy a book this year.” Agents/editors already know all about the book-buying audience. The readers of your book will be a subset within the known book-buyer universe. So you don’t need to clarify who buys books.
  • Don’t refer to an entire generation as your audience. Stating that there are 76 million Baby Boomers is not a way to establish there’s an audience for your work. It’s rather another way of saying, “My readership is everyone.” And that’s precisely what we want to avoid.

Memoir: Defining readership is tough and (I think) nearly impossible

While everything I’ve discussed above could be helpful for a memoirist (especially the don’ts), ultimately, I find it nearly impossible to write a compelling target audience section for a memoir book proposal. It almost always ends up looking obvious, trite, or a terrible reach. E.g., when writing a memoir about adoption, authors inevitably end up discussing adoption statistics. Or if they have been abused, or have overcome cancer, or take care of aging parents, etc, then inevitably here come the statistics on people who are in the same boat.

I find this unhelpful for two reasons. First, just because there are lots of other people like you doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a market for your story. In fact, it could hurt your chances if there are hundreds or thousands of stories just like yours either already on the market or being shopped around. Second, the market of readers who avidly buy memoir aren’t necessarily buying them to read about people like themselves. They’re often reading to experience a life they will never lead, or to acquire a better understanding of people or voices they don’t typically hear from. 

Furthermore, memoir tends to sell because of a compelling premise, where tension keeps us turning pages, combined with an irresistible voice. If sensational stories (landing a plane in the Hudson) or celebrity stories readily sell because of the author’s notoriety or platform, then more “average” person memoirs sell because the lens or voice is spellbinding and absolutely captivating.

Thus, I find it utterly unconvincing for a memoirist to say that their story will sell because it’s “universal” or “unique.” Any story told by a human being will (I hope) have universal qualities whether you plant them there or not. And, on the flip side, “universal” isn’t necessarily a selling point if we’re reading to experience the unfamiliar.

As far as having a “unique” story, every single life is unique. No two lives progress in the same way, but more important, no two lives are understood and made meaning of in the same way. To showcase the exceptional nature of one’s life, one must show (let the details speak for themselves), and not tell to be convincing. (Better yet, memoirists should build a track record of publication—and a platform—to demonstrate that the lens they apply to life can find a home and a readership in the existing market.)

Consider for a moment one of the bestselling books of 2018, a memoir by Tara Westover: Educated. It is her first book. Here’s the premise, in a nutshell: Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was prevented from attending school until the age of seventeen. When one of her brothers got into college, she decided to try it herself—eventually attending Harvard and Cambridge. 

What if Westover tried to sell her book by arguing the following?

  • My book will appeal to others who were denied an education at a young age.
  • My book will appeal to people who believe in the importance of education.
  • My book will appeal to others who grew up with survivalist parents.
  • My book will appeal to others who took a great risk to attend school.
  • My book will appeal to others who grew up in Idaho.

None of those arguments make much sense; we want to read Westover’s book because of our fascination with her unusual upbringing. It raises all kinds of questions about how she was able to cope or assimilate once she entered the classroom—and how she was able to succeed. By reading her book, what we consider normal is rendered strange—her singular lens on the world promises to be compelling, and we expect it will bring us a new understanding of ourselves and the meaning of education. There’s no need to plead the story is unique, and there’s no need to plead that the story is universal. The premise speaks for itself—it raises questions that we’re driven to answer by reading the book.

When assisting memoirists with target market concerns, I suggest in most cases they rely on comparable titles and authors. (I rarely refer to them as “competitive” titles with memoir, as the existence of someone else’s life story rarely precludes interest in another—unless you somehow look entirely derivative, jumping on a trend.) This is the same strategy, of course, that novelists should use when pitching. Instead of trying to define or describe the market for your upmarket crime novel (which is well established and not in question), you instead point to the authors you would sit next to on the shelf and how you fit within the current milieu.

I believe, for memoir, the agent or editor will decide for themselves if your voice, style, and theme will appeal given current trends and what’s selling. No amount of editorializing in the query (“Readers will love my rollercoaster-loving outlook!”) is going to change the mind of a professional; the decision gets made based on the manuscript itself and the appeal of the premise.

For those agents who insist on it, I’d love to know what you think constitutes a helpful statement of the target audience for a memoir—please comment! 

For more guidance on book proposals, see How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal. I also have advice on nonfiction query letters.

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