We Need More Reader Segments

In the bookselling world, books are categorized with a coding system developed by a collaborative industry organization called the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). They own and manage the BISAC codes, an acronym for “Book Industry Standards and Communications.”

No matter how you are published, you will be required to categorize your book in one of the fifty-two primary categories, then by second and often third tier groupings.

There are a surprising number of combinations.  Thousands.

And to make it more complicated, you need to choose three different codes for each book so an online search can more easily find you. For instance, your novel might be:



FICTION/Historical/20th Century

There are over 160 different codes for classifying fiction, three-dozen classifications for poetry and nine different types of “Needlework” books under Crafts & Hobbies. (I would have guessed only one!) BISG makes changes regularly, with five hundred changes between 2016 and 2017 alone.

But while there are thousands of book classifications, there are relatively few methods of categorizing readers.

Whenever I see a book described for “teens,” I cringe.

Really? Thirteen year olds and nineteen year olds might enjoy it?

And don’t get me started on the “Adults age 55+” classification. A person, now seventy years old who rocked along with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969 should not be in the same audience classification as their 95-year-old parents who were disgusted by the entire unsavory event. It’s just wrong.

Granted, age and gender distinctions between book audiences are the simplest and fastest way to aim a book, but simple and fast are often not very effective.

You want to know why Amazon does so well selling books?

Among other things, they recommend books to people in a customized manner, not simply because you are a woman, man, teen or senior citizen. To them, you are as complicated as the BISAC coding system used to identify books accurately. Amazon looks at your searches and purchases to recommend titles.

When Amazon bought GoodReads in March 2013, publishing insiders nodded their heads and smiled. It was about as logical a business move as anyone could imagine. At GoodReads, you are like no one else.

In 2014 Apple purchased a company called Booklamp, which was described as “Pandora for books.”  We have yet to see where it leads for iBooks. They might just take the software engine and weave it into their iBooks store.

Books are personal, not one size fitting all.

I will cover this more next week, but books are not mass media, they are “niche” media and no one should be afraid to embrace the niche.

For example, if you are aiming a book at adult men, you are aiming at a caricature of a man, not a real person. You are aiming at what you think all or most men are like and craft a message, which will miss most of them, because readers are diverse and complicated, just like the book you hope they read.

Some men love football, Bible studies, gardening and don’t mind changing diapers. How does this fit the target caricature?

Similarly, if you aim a book at women or teens or Eskimos, you are aiming at a caricature, not a real person.

Married, single, divorced, widowed, parent, grandparent, no children, physically challenged, caretaker, PhD, GED, white collar, blue collar, hobbyist, no hobbies, Democrat, Republican, Baptist, Methodist, atheist, athlete and thousands more combinations comprise what might be termed “Human BISAC codes.” Age and gender are not nearly as important as the combinations of personal characteristics.

With all this complexity, the only recourse for an author is to pay no attention to it.

When you write, think of one person and only one person. Books are personal letters many people read. Don’t worry about aiming too small.

 Sure, a publisher will aim the book at a group containing millions and millions of caricatures, but in reality, the book will have a life of it’s own and will go where it goes. Rarely will a book remain within its predetermined borders.

And you wondered why book publishing is more art than science?

18 Responses to We Need More Reader Segments

  1. Brennan McPherson August 22, 2017 at 4:20 am #

    Identifying target demographics has always felt tricky to me, partially because the purpose of identifying a target demographic is to more easily hit the bullseye with your marketing and PR efforts. But in the book industry, it is nearly impossible to actually TARGET many niche audiences, such as twenty-something males interested in antediluvian fiction with lyrical prose and a dark fantasy twist. (Other than through highly targeted FB advertising to a small audience)

    Good post. I appreciate you saying not to be afraid to embrace the niche. I’ve felt odd working on book proposals and narrowing it down too much. I’m assuming you’d say the narrower the better in a book proposal? For the primary target market, I mean. I’d also include a secondary and tertiary audience.

    • Dan Balow August 22, 2017 at 5:55 am #

      You can still use the big “caricature” markets in your proposal, but when writing a book, don’t worry about trying to hit everyone in that target. You can say the book is for men, but everyone knows it is not for every man.

      Publishers (and agents) would decline quick if they felt like the target was too specific.

      Confused? Rightly so. It’s a semantics game.

      When you write, you should see only the face of a person who might read it. You never see a “sea of faces” clearly. You succeed in communicating when you write to a specific audience.

    • Damon J. Gray August 22, 2017 at 6:07 am #

      Brennan, for me it is a conflicting message, and I find it exceedingly frustrating. In some instances, I am told that my target is too narrow, while in other instances, I am told it is too broad. Here Dan is saying “an audience of one” is what we want. So, is that what I write in my proposal? Seriously? No way that would fly, and you and I both know it. So there is a conflicting message.

      I was recently told that I need to develop “audience avatars” for my targets. For instance, I create Heather Homemaker and Barney Businessman. These are my targets. Now, describe EVERY aspect of their lives and personalities I can come up with. Now, develop my message for them.

      This sounds a lot closer to what Dan is describing above, and I still maintain that it would contribute to a proposal being round-filed.

  2. Melissa Henderson August 22, 2017 at 5:12 am #

    Wow, what great information! Thank you.

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 22, 2017 at 7:04 am #

    Great article, Dan.

    I guess I went about this a little backwards. I wrote for an audience of one – me. If I didn’t enjoy putting the story together and spending time with the characters, who would? If I couldn’t read (and re-read) the story when it was done with genuine enjoyment, who would enjoy it on a first read?

    But An Audience Of Me doth not a readership make, so the next step was comps…who do I sound like in voice and message, and who’s buying their books?

    The answer for me was that I read a lot like a mid-career Richard Bach (Illusions and The Bridge Across Forever), and also like Nevil Shute. Yes, we’re looking back decades, but people are still buying their books, and who might these people BE????

    So I come up with a primary audience of college-educated suburban women with a deep spiritual sense who enjoy PBS and the arts, but also partake of the outdoors. They are generally 35-65, follow a centerist political path, and have traveled abroad.

    And this, in turn, allowed the development of current comps.

    I don’t know if it’s a sound methodology or not, but its value may be that it involved building on what I knew to learn that which needed to be discovered.

  4. JPC Allen August 22, 2017 at 7:24 am #

    Writers are told to know your audience. But how can I know reading preferences of thousands of people? It helped me to let people read my book and get feedback from them. When I make changes, I don’t feel like I am doing it for thousands. I am taking into consideration the opinions of James or Joy or Sam or Sarah. Thinking of my audience in terms of real people makes writing my best easier.

  5. Carol Ashby August 22, 2017 at 7:56 am #

    Good points, Dan. As an indie obsessed with data (credit my science background), I’ve seen some interesting patterns in the readership of my Roman-era historical novels that interweave the spiritual transformation of a major character with both a romance and important relationships with people not involved in the romance. Amazon categorizes them as historical romance, which suggests a female target audience. However, the two I’ve released are both getting 5 stars and gratifying written reviews from men. My personal marketing is targeting a mostly female demographic, so I think the men must have started finding the books through the Roman history website or the keywords I used. Similarly, I’m actively targeting domestic, but they’re also selling international. The take-away: there may be many more people who will love your book than the audience you think it will attract, so don’t deliberately limit it.

    A comment on grade level: I’m not sure what grade level I write at, but it’s probably high school reading skill. Yet some of the loveliest reviews were written with grammar that isn’t what I’d expect at that level. Maybe they are international ESL readers or maybe they didn’t learn to write well in US schools. Either way, I don’t think we should assume that someone might not love a particular book because they aren’t very skilled at writing English. If I assume that an 8th-grade-level reader wouldn’t enjoy something beyond that, am I thinking of them as less capable than they actually are?

  6. Karen Saari August 22, 2017 at 8:42 am #

    Very interesting! I’ve had a hard time choosing categories for my books which are Contemporary Christian Women’s Fiction but they are about a group of women all in the same quilting group. Now, quilters love to read stories that have quilting in them.

    (Only one category in Needlework? Really?) ahem … Sewing, weaving, embroidery (and several sub-genres of embroidery), needlepoint, knitting, crocheting, (and several sub-genres in both knitting/crocheting), spinning … well, I digress.

    All that to say, it wasn’t that easy putting my books on Amazon with only three categories to choose from. I’ve received your advice from more than one person – write a book to one person.

    One more thing that really screwed up my demographics is when my husband read them and loved them. :/

    • Carol Ashby August 22, 2017 at 10:14 am #

      Karen, I think lots more than quilters could love a story with quilt motifs treading through it. Add in the problem that the Amazon categories and the BISAC categories used industry wide aren’t the same and the difficulty of selecting the right keywords to span your demographics. How best to target your multiple audiences gets confusing.

      FYI: Barnes & Noble asks authors to enter keywords, but their search engine TOTALLY ignores anything you enter. “Biblical fiction” brings up more than 25,000 hits at Amazon, but only 28 come up at Barnes & Noble. Those 28 don’t include Francine Rivers, Tracy Higley, Lynn Austin, Mesu Andrews,or Angela Hunt (or me). If someone doesn’t search on the author’s name at B&N, I’m not sure how a reader would ever find our books there. Nook isn’t even 2% of my sales.

      • Kristi Woods August 22, 2017 at 11:40 am #

        Interesting ditty about B&N, Carol. Hmmm.

  7. Kristi Woods August 22, 2017 at 11:38 am #

    Makes sense, Dan. When all three of my children hit the tween mark, they held completely different genre preferences. Finding those genres felt like digging for buried treasure. We came up empty often, but we eventually brought home the gold. Today, the oldest reads hunting, fishing, and outdsoorman material, another digs into sports stories, and the rose between the thorns grabs a good teen romance that somehow leans toward sci fi. I wouldn’t place all my children in the same “reader” basket. They hold unique preferences. Now, to champion myself to write to that unique reader in my book’s genre…
    Helpful insight and encouragement, Dan. Thanks!

  8. Lois Kennis August 22, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

    Great article, Dan. It makes sense that when you write to one person your tone will take on an intimacy that draws readers in.

  9. Ann Gaylia O'Barr August 22, 2017 at 12:41 pm #

    The Christian/international label has been hard for me to come to grips with. Editors have told me that American readers of what is called Christian fiction are not interested in stories set in other countries, except possibly Britain.

    Certainly, we don’t see many stories with Christian characters in a contemporary international setting, again, except possibly Britain and possibly excepting fiction about missionary families.

    Does an international label turn off American Christians?

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 22, 2017 at 1:15 pm #

      Ann, I’d be interested in hearing this addressed as well.

      There are times that I have the feeling that CBA publishers underestimate the Christian reader. Certainly they draw from experience – books that don’t sell – but I wonder if they are fully taking into account the resilience and dynamism of the Christian community.

    • Carol Ashby August 22, 2017 at 2:25 pm #

      It certainly doesn’t turn me off, Ann.

      Historicals are a successful CBA genre, and they are in settings quite different from contemporary America. That suggests to me that CBA readers like spending time in a fictional world unlike their own. Why wouldn’t an international setting satisfy some of that same curiosity about other places and times?

      But convincing an editor at a publishing house who is risk-adverse might be more of a challenge than I think it should be.

      • Carol August 22, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

        Risk-averse, not risk-adverse. My typo, not the spell checker this time.

  10. Linda Riggs Mayfield August 23, 2017 at 9:53 pm #

    This was very timely for me. I’ve been talking with an agent about one of my books. It’s Christian, historical, fiction, and I thought (silly me!) that there’s definitely some “romance,” because the major conflict is whether newlyweds who married in haste and hardly know each other can do what is required to still have a successful marriage when confronted with tremendous social and family pressures. I learned that the “Christian romance” genre tag is reserved for UN-married protagonists. Hmm. Do I rewrite the whole book and have all the exciting drama impact whether they actually get married at all or not? Do I keep the present premise and go clueless to the next agent about the correct category for the book? Do I shelve it and write about something that more neatly fits the categories? Who knows? I sure don’t!

    • Linda Riggs Mayfield August 23, 2017 at 9:57 pm #

      PS The gracious agent agreed to “take a quick look” at my proposal, in spite of the foggy categorization, so maybe she’ll be able to give me some guidance on where it belongs, or if I must rewrite it before it belongs anywhere.

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