When you’re trying to sell your first novel, one of the questions that agents and editors will almost inevitably ask is “Who do you see as your target reader?”
Writers frequently punt with a vague answer, something along the lines of “Anyone who enjoys a good story” or “This theme is universal.” They’re probably trying to imply that their book has equal appeal for men and women, young and old, cuts that it across all racial and national lines and thus has the potential to be a best seller. Hmmm…yeah.
The reality is, agents and publishers are rarely impressed by such claims. If they ask a specific question, they expect a specific answer. Give them generalities and you may as well be wearing a T-shirt that reads “I haven’t thought about this AT ALL.”
Who Is Your Target Reader?
Some authors write every sentence with a specific person in mind, almost as if the book is a letter, but if you don’t work like that you’ll have to think a little harder to describe your target reader. Probably the best way to zone in on the idea is to think back to what motivated you to write the book in the first place.
Let’s say you have an 11-year-old niece and you’ve watched with alarm over the past year as she and her friends have become increasingly obsessed with their appearance, their clothes, and a disturbingly premature sort of sexuality. Perhaps, not completely by coincidence, your next YA book features a plucky, tomboyish heroine and is in part a message to your niece that there’s more to life than being popular and cool. So when your agent says “Who’s your target reader?” you can say not just “10-12 year old girls” but respond with the story of your niece and her friends.
Or maybe you’re writing nonfiction and through the years you’ve become painfully aware that you and your weekend warrior athlete buddies are getting hurt more easily and staying hurt longer. This observation has resulted in “The Aging Jock,” an exercise and fitness book designed to help boomer athletes keep hitting the bike trails or ball court hard without sustaining so many injuries. So when the “Who’s your reader?” question comes up, you not only can say “50 year old men,” you can respond with the story of the sunny Sunday when a routine tackle took your buddy Dave out of the game for months.
This question is an enormous opportunity. When an editor or agent asks it, they aren’t just looking for a demographic – they’re looking for your motivation. Ideally you answer not just the surface question “Who’s the target reader?” but also the implied question behind it, which is “And why are you the right writer to tell this story?”
The smartest responses are anecdotal, showing that you have a particular passion for your subject matter, that you didn’t just dream up this book at random but that it resonates within in you. See this question as an opportunity to show both the businesslike and passionate sides of yourself – i.e., why this is a marketable book and why you alone of all the souls on earth were born to write it.
So the right answer to “Who’s your target reader?” is something along the lines of “9-13 year old girls. It really bothers me how they’re pressured to grow up too fast. Last Christmas I was talking to my niece and it hit me that her childhood is so different from mine, that….” Editors and agents may or may not relate to the story about your niece, but it’s a far better shot than responding with a big fake smile and a big fake answer like “Everyone!”
Let them get to know you. Explain where your ideas come from and how they develop over time. It will not only make you more likely to be published – they’re looking for writers, not robots – but it’s good practice for what lies ahead.
You're an author on a tight budget. Or, maybe you've got some money, but you're tired of wasting it on marketing that didn't work. You've poured everything into writing your book hoping to move thousands of readers with your words. You've dreamed, hoped, maybe even prayed, that your book sales would take off. But, that reality has yet to come true. It doesn't seem fair for your dream to die just because you don't have thousands of dollars to spend on marketing. Is selling a lot of books only reserved for the elite authors with big budgets? No.