For about two years before I became an editor, I was an English composition instructor for first-year college students. (I was not good at it.) During that time, one of the most important things I tried to drive home to the students was: Know your audience. Whenever, wherever, and whatever you are writing, knowing who your audience actually is vs. who you want it to be is crucial.
And that means, unfortunately, your book is not for everyone. But instead of fixating on that disappointing fact, let’s focus on identifying your audience and what that means as you write your nonfiction book and the corresponding book proposal. (Meta lesson one: By saying “your nonfiction book,” I’m identifying part of my audience as people writing nonfiction.)
Before You Start Writing
It might seem odd to think about identifying your book’s audience before you start writing it, but this can save you a lot of time and energy in the long run. If you have a seemingly brilliant idea for a book, knowing that there is an audience for it and who that audience is can not only provide motivation for you to continue writing, but it can also help you organize your book.
When writing a nonfiction book, it’s common to write it because you think you have something to share—information to impart, stories to tell. And that’s true—you should have something unique to say or a unique way of saying it. But, you aren’t the most important part of your book; the reader is. Your reader needs to know why and how your book will help them solve a problem or enrich their lives. It’s what keeps them interested and invested in your book. And that means you aren’t writing for yourself, even if that’s a lovely motivating sentiment we like to tell ourselves to keep our inner critic at bay. (Meta lesson two: Here I’m making the assumption that my readers are folks who want to sell their books. If you don’t want to sell your book, you wouldn’t need to read further or put together a book proposal.)
Knowing what your reader wants from your book will help you determine what information they need, when in the book they need it (i.e. what background information they might need first and therefore, an organizational strategy for your chapters), and most importantly, what you need to leave out.
If you know your target audience, you are more likely to know if, generally speaking, they have some existing knowledge about the topic or not. If they do have some background, you can more likely use industry terms without defining them or skip over certain basic information. Or, if you’re writing to beginners, including a glossary or the nitty-gritty basics can be crucial. This can help you and your future publisher identify gaps in your table of contents.
Identifying what you need to leave out can be one of the most difficult parts of writing a book for another, more personal reason as well. Some of the authors I worked with struggled with this: coming to terms with the idea that a story or experience that was meaningful to them might not have relevance to their readers. They would spend time trying to rework the material to get it in and many, but not all, would eventually realize it’s not meant for this book. Cliché as it is, it’s called “killing your darlings” for a reason.
But don’t throw those darlings away just yet! Save them all and you may just discover you’ve got another book in you for a different audience. Many of my authors did.
For Your Nonfiction Book Proposal
As you put together your nonfiction book proposal, you’ll want to get as specific as possible about your target audience. This will help your potential agent or editor make a compelling case for publication. But what kind of specifics should you include?
First, try to identify three sizeable, yet legitimate groups of people who might benefit from reading your book. Think about professional organizations, hobby groups, disciplines, age or other demographic groups, social media groups, etc. This might even include groups that you’ve created. For example, if you’re thinking about writing an event planning book, don’t just say “event planners” would be interested. Instead, identify specific event planning organizations and associations to which event planners might belong.
Once you’ve identified groups, try to find reputable sources for potential sizes of those groups. Sometimes, it’ll be easy and the membership size will be listed on an organization’s website. Other times, you might have to dig into newspaper articles or industry studies. Include a note if the group has seen sizeable growth in recent weeks/months/years because that can indicate momentum for a topic.
This is the New Perspectives issue, so I’ll encourage you to get creative as you think about who might be interested in your book. Start with the low-hanging fruit (like in the example above) but then think about adjacent audiences. When Fight Write author Carla Hoch and I were working on that book’s proposal, we identified mystery/thriller writers as a large target audience for that book. But we also listed writers of other genres like romance and YA because lovers quarrel and teenagers have schoolyard fights. Those scenes need to be just as realistic as the heroine’s escape from her captor in a crime novel.
Secondly, include information about how you are connected to these audiences. Are you part of a specific demographic included in your target audience? Are you a dues-paying member of a local or national chapter of a professional organization? Are you a leader, speaker, or instructor for one of these organizations? Do you have connections to leaders or others who can help spread the word about your book? You can probably guess that knowing who your target audience is begins the process of creating a marketing plan to sell your book.
Finally, identify why these people would want to read your book. This is what we call “evidence of need.” What information are you going to provide that people know they want or need? Consider the following questions.
Is the information you aim to provide only available in disparate places online, making it hard to find something comprehensive?
Are most other books on the topic directed toward a different piece of the audience?
Does your book present a new way of thinking for this group?
How does your book fill a gap or solve a problem for this group?
All of this information is very practical and pragmatic sounding. But keep in mind how your genre will influence what you provide to readers. Nonfiction encompasses inspiration and humor and essay collections and more. So maybe what you’re going to provide readers is something they didn’t know they needed, like new ways to laugh about cats.
If you’ve been reading this column for a while, some of this talk about “filling a gap” or “solving a problem” might sound reminiscent of our conversations about comp titles (April and May/June). You’re not wrong. Choosing comp titles and identifying your audience work together to provide a complete picture of the potential market for the book.
Just like any part of writing a book, identifying the potential audience can be a time-intensive task. And in some cases, it might yield disappointing results. But when you do find that sweet spot of a great idea and a captive audience, that’s a book worth writing.