Who’s Your Book For?

A critical part of writing a good book—and a good pitch or proposal for a book—is defining your book’s audience.

We all know, of course, that you shouldn’t try to write a book “for everyone.” But your book’s audience can be an elusive target. I suggest three distinct and mutually exclusive phases for the process, which apply primarily to nonfiction but could also be kept in mind for various forms of fiction.

Define your reader clearly, specifically, even singularly, as you write. When I was an editor of a teen magazine (back when teens were mostly concerned with fighting off dinosaurs and getting their own room in the family cave), I kept two school snapshots taped to either side of my computer monitor. Both were kids who had attended the church I had pastored before taking on the editorial position. One was a fifteen-year-old white, lower-middle-class girl, and the other was a sixteen-year-old African-American boy from an upper middle-class family. They were my audience. Everything in that magazine had to pass their test, so to speak.

Broaden your audience as you revise. Just as you shouldn’t write a book for “everyone,” however, you shouldn’t write only for “Josephine.” So, give thought, perhaps in the writing but also in the revision process, to the broader audience to which you hope your book will appeal. This is an art, not a science, as you want your target to be as specific and as broad as possible. Say what? I know, I know. That’s why I say it’s an art. So, for example, a target audience of “middle-aged Christian mothers of young children suffering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome” is pretty specific; but it doesn’t seem likely to sell a lot of books. On the other hand, a target audience of “people dealing with diseases” is too broad, too general. See what I mean? It might help in the rewriting and pitching process to identify a target audience of “parents of children with chronic health issues.” That may not be the best example, but it shows how the thought process should go.

Keep “gatekeepers” in mind when you pitch. These phases overlap, obviously, but part of the process that is often overlooked is the fact that your book’s reader isn’t always the person who buys the book. When I teach workshops on writing nonfiction books, one of the first exercises I assign is to identify the person or people who “pick up/buy/read” the envisioned book. Sometimes that’s three different people. For example, a youth pastor and his wife enter a Christian bookstore. He goes straight to the pastors section (because he plans to be a senior pastor soon), and she goes to the youth section. She sees my book on the shelf and picks it up. She takes it to her husband: “Snookums, what do you think about giving this to the youth group as Christmas presents?” He takes it to the register, asks for fifteen more copies, and pays for them. But the book isn’t written primarily for the youth pastor or his wife, of course, but for the teens who will unwrap it at the youth group Christmas party. So, one person picked it up, another bought it, and a third person read it. The first two were the “gatekeepers”; and someone who writes for audiences such as children, youth, and (to a lesser extent, or so we hope) Christian men, should keep in mind that the book’s premise and presentation must appeal not only to the reader but also to the picker-upper and buyer—the “gatekeeper.”

Not everyone calls a spouse “Snookums,” and most people should buy more than sixteen copies of my book, but you get the idea. Defining your book’s audience takes some thought, but is a necessary part of the writing, revising, and pitching process.


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What Caught My Eye

Last week we talked about the hook, the sound bite, or the ability to “say it in a sentence.” One reader asked for examples so I thought I’d give you a few.

Below are the short pitches of proposals that have caught my eye over the years from debut authors. Please realize that the sound bite is only one of many factors that goes into a great proposal. Ultimately it is the execution of the concept that makes for a great book. For example, The Help by Kathryn Stockett would not have succeeded as a word-of-mouth bestseller if the writing did not support the story. (No, we did not represent that title, I’m only trying to make a point. :-))

Your challenge will be to see if you can identify which books these sound bites are pitching. Each one has been published. One is obviously non-fiction, the other two are novels. The answers to each of these will be provided later this week in the comments section. along with a link to the title so you can see it in its final form.

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Write Like Paul

Somerset Maugham wrote, “There is an impression abroad that everyone has it in him to write one book; but if by this is implied a good book the impression is false” (The Summing Up). Far be it from me to add to Maugham’s words, but I’m going to. So I …

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Say It in a Sentence

Can you present your book idea in one sentence?

Can you present that idea in such a way that the reader is compelled to buy your book?

What motivates someone to spend money on a book? It is the promise that there is something of benefit to me, the reader.

Books are generally purchased for one of three reasons:

Entertainment Information Inspiration

If your book idea can make me want to read it, whether it is for entertainment, information, or inspiration, then you are well on your way to making a sale.

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First Lines in Fiction

The opening words of your novel may be all a prospective buyer will read before making their purchasing decision. Are yours an opening salvo; an opening punch; or an opening sigh, easily dismissed? They will also be the first words an agent or an editor reads when they see the …

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The Biggest Waste of Your Time

Recently, my assistant has been besieged with submissions that wasted everyone’s time. We’re not sure what triggered this barrage; but if these words save anyone a few moments, they’re worth posting. Don’t submit works that agents aren’t seeking. Please. I realize that perhaps you think it’s worth taking a chance. …

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Would You Buy Your Own Book?

When I ask a room of writers if they would buy their own book if they saw it on the shelf at a major bookstore I am met with a variety of reactions. Laughter. Pensiveness. Surprise. And even a few scowls. How would you answer that question?

But the question is meant to ask if your book idea is unique. Whether it will stand out among the noise of the competition.

It is not a question of whether your book is important or valuable or even well written. It is ultimately a question of commercial viability.

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