Who do you write for?
You can find all sorts of inspirational blog posts on the internet about “writing what you want to read” and “writing for yourself”. I even agree with them, sometimes. The idea is that it doesn’t matter what others think of your writing, it matters what you think.
To an extent, that is true.
When you’re just… writing, it’s true as saying “the sky is blue and grass is green because of the way light interacts with them”. However, it changes the moment you want to try and publish your writing.
Turns out, when you want others to read what you’ve written, it does matter what others think. It matters a lot. What your publisher thinks matters, what your agent thinks matters, what the editors and proofreaders and copyeditors and marketing team and the distributor and so forth.
What they think matters.
Oh, and what your readers think matters, too.
When you write, then, you need to know who you’re writing for. If you try to send a manuscript to the wrong people, they won’t publish it. If you give your book to the wrong reader, they won’t like it. They don’t like dystopian thrillers, they like Victorian romance novels. That reader doesn’t like fiction at all, they prefer non-fiction. And that reader… that reader reads everything but Twilight and anything that can be compared to it.
Which reader are you writing for, then?
“Oh, but my book will appeal to all audiences!”
No it won’t.
The Truth About Audiences
People are fickle.
We like things and we dislike things for many reasons. Sometimes, we feel one way or another about something for no tangible reason at all. I can’t tell you why I dislike the taste of coffee, I just… don’t. But I can tell you that I dislike pure romance novels because I’m not a romantic in that way. I dislike many of the plot scenarios and the themes often seem… artificial, to me. It takes a lifetime to love someone like that, not a brief glimpse in a coffee shop and a hundred pages of pining.
Not all romance novels are like that, and I’m not saying that romance novels aren’t good. I’ve read a few good romance novels in my time. They do exist. It’s my personal preference to not read them, not a universal rule.
What do you write? Science fiction? Fantasy? Supernatural slice-of-life meets psychological horror? Romance novels?
What your write will be read by different people.
Some people will dislike it when they read it, some will refuse to read it at all. Does that mean your story is bad? Absolutely not. It means those people didn’t like it. Big deal, you probably didn’t need them to like your book anyway. Even if they were your mom.
Yeah… turns out, your mom might not like what you write. If I had to break it to you… sorry, not sorry. Moms have their preferences, too, and your supernatural slice-of-life might not be her proverbial cup of tea.
Why don’t readers like your book? Because they’re fickle and have preferences. They’re human.
Choosing an Audience
“But I want all people to like my book!”
Yes, so I do. Turns out, the world isn’t fair and doesn’t work that way. You need to choose an audience. I’m not saying this is the final say in who will read your book. If you choose “14-year-old girls who enjoy doing their hair and dreaming of adventures”, that doesn’t mean only that type of person will pick up your book. The 15-year-old girls will still read it, the 20-year-old girls might indulge themselves, the 10-year-olds will feel so old and mature and special getting to read a book for “older girls” and you might even get a random guy to pick it up.
Picking an audience doesn’t exclude people. Instead, it hones your focus and allows your publisher to decide how to market, how to design the interior and exterior, how to edit, and even whether they want your book at all. The people out in the real world won’t care to much about your target audience so much as they will care about the genre, the cover design, the synopsis, and the first few pages.
How do you choose? And how specific do you have to be?
A great way to start is to look at your protagonist. Who are they? List their age, gender, race, and hobbies.
These things don’t necessarily define your audience, but they can help. Your audience will easily identify with someone who matches them in several of these categories.
Again, this is the final say. Male readers will read female protagonists (myself, I enjoy them almost equally, if I don’t like reading from a female POV more), and older readers won’t put a book down because the main character is ten years their junior.
But these four areas are a start.
As we go, I’ll use my current WIP, Agram Awakens, as an example:
- The six main character have ages that range from 15-42. The two foremost characters, however, are ~27, so we’ll say my target age is 25. (Which falls under Adult fiction, I believe.)
- Of these six character, four are male, two are female. While my target audience is fairly gender neutral, I want to be specific, so I will say my target gender is male.
- I can’t pinpoint a race based on my protagonists, since half of them aren’t even human and the other three are either Caucasian or Arabic (based on this world’s defining of skin color). This category is less necessary to define well as the others.
- With six characters, you end up with eighteen or more hobbies to dig through. However, I know what my audience will enjoy, so I’ll say my target audience’s hobbies include: reading, watching sci-fi/fantasy movies, cosplaying (optional), and being proud nerds. (So… basically me.)
Is this my target audience? Perhaps.
Let’s look at a few other things. One of the fastest ways to rule out a target audience is to look at the major themes in your book. Not just the premise style themes like “little guys can do big things, too” or “courage overcomes cowardice” that represent the ideals, but the bigger, vaguer ideas you tackle.
For instance, most kids age eight-twelve aren’t ready to deal with a harsh and realistic look at themes like racism. They might understand them, but not fully, not yet. I wouldn’t suggest that a nine-year-old read Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Not because it’s a bad book (it’s actually really good), but because it takes a certain level of maturity to be able to deal with that sort of thing (I read it when I was fifteen, and it was hard because of how ugly the themes were).
On the opposite side, not all older readers are interested in reading “fluff”, as they’d term it. Some older readers (especially in their late twenties) prefer grittier stuff. They want to have to wrestle with what they read. I’m that way. So a book about achieving peace through spreading joy and happiness and making enemies love each other won’t fit up their alley in the way of themes, unless you somehow twist it into something a lot less rainbow and unicorn that what it sounds like. Those can still be good stories, but not necessarily for that reader.
So what are your themes?
Let’s look at Agram Awakens again, to find a few examples:
- Racism isn’t a strong theme yet, but it’s being set up for book two. I’d say most readers could handle it at this point in this book, and so can’t help me define it.
- Violence (including the argument for pacifism) is a very strong theme throughout. I’m not talking about content, just yet, but the idea of it. Some younger readers might find this disturbing (I’d say… under twelve).
- Religion/Belief/Faith also has strong undercurrents. Several of my characters struggle with their beliefs in one god or another, and there are instances of persecution/hate of people simply for their religion. I don’t necessarily get philosophical with it, but it is there. Younger readers might miss these ideas completely, or be confused by them, and I might make a few older readers disgruntled.
You’ll notice that these three (there are more, I just pulled out the first three I thought of) themes seem to point toward the same target audience that my protagonists point toward. Themes often produce vaguer target audiences (like mine seem to give the age range of 13-50), but they are a good starting point when your protagonist doesn’t seem to fit the mold of the audience you want.
The last thing I’ll highlight is the idea of looking at books like yours. Go out, find your genre, and look at books similar to yours. Books that have protagonists of similar ages and genders, books of approximately the same length (you’d be surprised how length can affect someone’s willingness to read), books with similar covers (if you have a vision for what the cover could be), and so forth.
What is their audience?
Agram Awakens is similar to several books, including:
- The Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson
- The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
- Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay
- The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
(As a quick side-note before we continue, I would like to caution against comparing your book to Tolkien as if it will somehow… help you. When I see a book compared to Tolkien in any reviews, the bar I set is so high they can never attain it. The only reason I compare Agram Awakens with Tolkien is because they’re similar in size and genre and target audience. I wouldn’t dare to put myself on the same level as Tolkien, not yet… I’m not experience enough to be that good. Actually… I’m not good enough to seriously compare the quality of my writing to any of those authors, yet. Anyway…)
What is the target audience of those books?
Turns out, they’re all very similar to the target audience of Agram Awakens (hence why I chose them… I’m so clever).
Other ways you can look to narrow down your audience are out there, such as look at potentially objectionable content (young readers don’t like violence, per se, some ages/people groups won’t like language or alcohol content, others won’t read books with sexual content, etc.), to look at your own hobbies and favorite books (you tend to write your own likes and dislikes into your writing), to ask others what they think your target audience is, and so forth.
The Purpose of a Target
So. We’ve chosen a target audience for our books. Mine appears to be “adult males who enjoy fantasy/sci-fi and long books)”, yours may be different (it’s probably different).
Obviously, this audience won’t be the only people who read your book. As proof of this fact, Agram Awakens currently has five beta readers. Of those five… one of them is male. It’s mostly coincidence, because those five just happened to be people I knew who were interested and had time to read and give me advice they’re thoughts.
At the same time, however, it goes to show that your target audience doesn’t constrain your readers, it does something else.
It focuses you. If you know you’re not writing to eight-year-olds, you don’t have to worry about the depth of heavy, mature themes quite so much. If you’re writing a romance novel, you know you have permission to have characters fall in love (duh). If you know you want to write to the inner city kids, you know you need to write a protagonist who is like them.
In addition, your target audience helps your potential publisher. I’ve already mentioned this, but your publisher wants to be able to sell your novel. To do that, they need to know who to sell it to. They can’t do that without a target. It’d be like entering an archery contest that has no bullseye for you to aim at. You’re shooting wildly, hoping you hit the spot the judges wanted you to. Some publishers will reject your manuscript simply because they can’t publish to a certain group, because they don’t have the time and resources. That’s okay: someone out there does.
Your target audience does not constrain you. I hope I got that across and said it enough times. People outside your target will still read your book. The specific target audience you pick is kind of like the center of a bullseye target. It’s what you’re aiming at. Some arrows will hit the rings around it, some will hit dead center. Others might bury themselves into the ground around the target.
The bullseye is what you’re shooting for, but the rest of the target is still fair game.
Focus is the point. Knowing who you’re telling the story for and writing for them is the point. Writing for you is always good, but knowing what others want is what helps you succeed in writing well.