Chances are, you’ve heard it before: if you want to sell, know your market. For some, that’s a no-brainer. Those who write romances, for example, can usually name an audience. But what if you haven’t yet settled into a niche or write across genres? If finding your target audience is a sticking point for you, believe me, I understand.
My debut novel, DawnSinger, first in the Tales of Faeraven series (releasing in 2012 from Harbourlight Books) is considered epic fantasy. Although with strong elements of romance, suspense, history and adventure, it really combines genres. Some people will tell you to avoid breaking into publishing with an unusual project like mine. Listen carefully when they speak. Not that I’d have done things any differently. You see, this story breathed into my soul years ago and wouldn’t let me go, even when I quit writing. Ah, but that’s another tale. Unless you can cite a similar one, you’re better off writing something more conventional.
I confess: at first I wrote DawnSinger for its story without giving much thought to its readers. This showed in my inability to articulate who they might be. In my biased opinion, my novel’s target audience incorporated everyone. I soon discovered editors’ opinions of such a grandiose claim, especially from an emerging author. It’s not really true anyway. No book in existence appeals to all readers. I asked myself some hard questions and, in the editing process, adapted DawnSinger for a readership I identified. Most of my life I’ve done things backwards, and developing my story for its audience was no exception.
My experience begs a question. Should you write for others or yourself? Is it better to plan with an audience in mind or oppose this mindset? If you write “from the heart” won’t readers find you anyway? In other words, should you pursue readers or draw them?
Neither. And both. I’ll explain.
If you only focus on ensnaring an audience without regard for your calling as a literary artist you risk writing soulless drivel. Readers know instinctively whether you have a deep feeling for your subject or not. Don’t even try to pretend with them. For this reason, It’s best not to write to trends for which you have no passion. When you consider the opportunity cost, it’s not worth it. What is an opportunity cost? The price you pay in lost time because you’re not writing something that suits you better. If you’re anything like me, you can come up with more ideas than you’ll ever write in a lifetime. When deciding whether to chase a trend, bear that in mind.
That’s not to say you should let your inner artist run amok with total disregard for marketability (assuming you want a readership). Don’t let the proverbial pendulum swing too far the other direction. Why not? Because writing to publish isn’t just about art. It’s also about business. You want to identify your target audience for the same reason an acquisition editor searches for certain types of manuscripts. Each publishing house caters to the tastes of a specific readership, and so should you.
To avoid frustration as a communicator, you should have both a.) something to say and b.) someone willing to hear it. Identifying A will help you find B. Name the fire that burns within you and you’ll identify those whose lives will ignite from a spark you light. Reach deep to tap your passions. That’s where you’ll find your readers.
34 Replies to “How to Find an Audience for Your Novel”
Great points, Janalyn. I agree– you have to write the story on your heart. Fine tuning for the market can come during the editing process.
Great post, Janalyn. I can identify with the feeling of slipping marketing elements into art. But you make a great point about focusing on what we have to communicate and finding those with whom our words will resonate. I’d been networking and blogging pretty much at random until recently. It took publishing a novella – getting my work actually out of the writer/friends circle and into the public eye – to give me an idea of what resonates and with whom. Now I need to keep speaking to those souls, continue looking for ways to connect with them. I’ve begun a new blog with a definite focus where I pursue topics that complement the themes in my novels and other works. It takes a while to build word of mouth blog readership, I think, so I will keep looking for ways to increase my reach. Good word!
Camille, you found your readership in a positive way that shows your resourcefulness. Building a blog readership interested in the topics dear to your heart is a great way to connect with readers. It does take a while, but promoting your blog will help you find your novels’ readers. Best wishes.
Thanks for commenting Jordyn. It’s important to write from the heart but with an eye on the market. Defining an audience can come while editing, but when possible it’s less time-consuming to do it the other way around. Balance seems to be the key to so many things in life.
I appreciate your wise words, Janalyn. And I’m so happy for you and proud that your debut novel comes out this year!!!
Hi Julie. You’re welcome. Thanks for the compliment and for rejoicing with me!
I celebrate your success~
Thanks, Meredith. You’re a dear friend.
Excellent advice, Janalyn. Whether I’m writing or making a hoopdance tutorial video, I tend to have my potential audience in mind. When I lose mental sight of that audience, I also lose my focus and meander. Meandering is okay for a walk in the woods, but for a product meant for public consumption, it can be the kiss of death. Thanks for the reminder.
Traci, isn’t it great that we need one another, especially in our art forms?
“Who is my market?” is one of the toughest things I struggle with because I don’t write typical fiction. In the CBA market (maybe general market too) historical fiction equals romance fiction. That is not my passion, and not my focus in my books, and I’m usually writing a male POV. My books are not just “western” either because they take place all over the country and are not limited to ranchers and gunslingers. They explore love (but not in the romantic sense–it’s usually about a family crisis or explores other relationships like friendship and comradery, brothers in arms) and lean more toward the action/adventure side, and I like to examine as broad a picture as I can given the plot of the story.
But when I try to evaluate where my fiction fits in, go to a bookstore, for example, and see lots of historical covers plastered with women in dresses, I know that’s not the market for me. So ultimately I will have to evaluate–is my fiction too manly for women readers and too girly for male readers? I won’t know until my test-readers give me their feedback.
It’s a very perplexing issue. But I definitely can’t change my passion to suit the market.
BK, I understand what it means to write something “different.” I can’t remember who said this first, but the classics weren’t written to a template. You’re wise to seek test-reader feedback. If you haven’t already done this, it might help you to look at reader stats. Also, if you feel your novel lies outside a CBA publisher’s interest, you could investigate ABA publishers or self-publish. Before you do, though, you’ll want to resolve your questions through adequate research.
Having said that, I should add that adapting a novel for a specific audience, when done well, can enhance rather than steal its art.
Can you explain what you mean by “reader stats”? Thanks.
For me, identifying my intended audience is key to defining my message and refining my communication.
Then again, I write non-fiction, so perhaps the need to identify the intended audience is clearer than it might be for a fiction writer.
You’re right, Joe. Most nonfiction writers have an easier time identifying an audience, but that’s not a “given.” You have a winning mindset.
Thanks! This encourages me. I feel different at times because the easiest thing for me to write is allegory. It’s like the world appears to me that way. I’ve always read anything allegorical, from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” to the Narnia series. I occassionally write something “normal” but in most part follow the heart and search for like minded readers…
Jennifer, we’re much alike. Allegory crops up in my writing on its own. I also have a worn copy of THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS and many fond memories of hours whiled away in Narnia. 🙂
Writing allegorically doesn’t disqualify you from genres outside the fantasy realm, however. I read and judge or review many novels each year, and I’ve noticed a great deal of allegory in genres where you might not expect to see it (like historical fiction). When it breathes into the story, it works. It can be badly done though. But that’s fodder for another post. My point here is that use of allegory is part of your writing voice, not a limitation to a specific genre.
This is a great post! Definitely good to read about how to find an audience for a book that doesn’t really fit into a specific genre.
Emma, finding an audience is the same process no matter what your genre.
Thanks for this Janalyn,
I write non-fiction but my editor told me to write my original content from my “white hot center.” I wondered about venting my own stuff and still making it personal for my reader. My editor’s advice was good. She says they will decide what is and isn’t helpful for my audience.
You’re welcome, Lucille. Your editor sounds like a good one.
One more thing….if you have a FB fan page, the demagraphics will tell you exactly who your audience is!
FB fan page demographics can offer valuable insights if your fans truly represent your target audience. I say this because we writers love to encourage one another, and while nice that can play havoc on demographics. 🙂
Great advice, Janalyn! As an agent, I need to know the audience for each genre and stay in touch with editors to find out what they’re buying. When I speak to a potential client, one of my questions is, “What do you read?” This last weekend I spoke to an author who had written a Y.A. book, but I could tell she didn’t have a passion for it. I asked about her reading habits and found that she loved historical romances and would love to write them. She even loved to research historical periods. She didn’t read YA books for entertainment. However, another author I spoke to had read every Newbery award-winning book ever written and had a passion to write for children. Normally, your reading habits will speak volumes about the books you should be writing.
I agree, Barbara. Reading is one of the best ways to identify your passions, and it enriches life in numerous ways. I’ve learned so much as a writer through reading.
Great reminders Janalyn. In this world it’s easy to get caught up in the “shoulds” to the detriment of our message. The call to speak what God infused into our soul before we were born. Once we identify our passion, the rest often falls in place, including the practical steps necessary to share our heart’s cry with those who want or need to hear it.
Identifying your passions should be the first step a writer takes before deciding what to write. Once on television I caught Martha Stewart talking about her father. His advice to her has stayed with me through the years: don’t begin a project you wouldn’t invest five years of your life in. Hopefully we won’t take five years to write, edit and produce a novel, but the point is sound. I would only want to give that much time to something I personally consider valuable.
Identifying your auidence can be difficult. I write about life strategies that can be applied to a wide range of individuals. But I have finally narrowed my audience down to adults, primarily women, within the range 40 – 60+. That may still seem like too broad a spectrum, but it enables me to touch on many topics that my training, life and career experiences have given me to draw from. These are topics I have worked with either in groups, individually or classrooms and include a wide variety of topics such as grief and loss, relationships, stress, developing character, goal setting, etc. But as with anything we do, we hone our skills and perfect our focus. My passion won’t allow me to do anything less.
Thanks for pointing out that focus is important, Marlene. We have only so many days to make a difference with our lives. I applaud you for living yours so faithfully and well.
Good points – maybe that’s what the first draft is for – writing for yourself, getting it on the paper, then you edit to make it more acceptable to readers – then you have the best of both worlds.
Hi Heather. Yes, sometimes it works that way. Each person functions differently, and each project is unique, so it’s hard to make a blanket statement about how to balance the artistic and commercial aspects of writing. Just like anything else in life, we learn by trial and error.
Janalyn I think you strike an excellent balance between creativity from the heart and commercial potential. I’m very new to this, I’m writing characters I’m interested in, based in a context I understand and have experience of – I’m sure I’ve read that this should work?! When I think about potential readers, I think about my women friends and how we share our books and the joy of being the person that finds the next novel everyone will love, I suppose real success for me would be writing one of those!
Like Camille (above) I’m also writing a blog now, the topics are a bit random but I am using it to establish some discipline around planning, writing, finishing and actually letting people read something I’ve written. I’m reassured by your blog post and by the comments here. Thank you
Mrs. T, blogging is a great way to develop your writing voice and the discipline it takes to succeed as a writer. It will also help you discover and refine an audience. The beginning stages of a blog sometimes feels like you’re posting in a vacuum, so if you haven’t already, consider installing Google Analytics on your blog: http://www.google.com/intl/en_uk/analytics/.
Thanks for letting me know how my own blogging encouraged you. :o)
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