How To Find Your Novel’s Target Audience

“I’m going to be an indie author!” Minnie thumped her hand flat on the table. “Just tell me what I need to do.”

We were in the coffee shop at my local Barnes & Noble, and dozens of aspiring writers were watching me coach Minnie through the process of getting her novel indie published.

“Who’s your target audience?” I asked. “You can’t do anything until you know who that is.”

Minnie’s forehead creased with a dozen wrinkles. “Dear boy, I hope everybody is going to want to read my book.”

I shook my head. This is the kind of notion that sinks writers. I held up my hands for silence and waited for the room to quiet. “Okay, I want everybody in this room to think for a few seconds and then name the best book ever written. When I count down to zero, everybody shout out the name of that book.”

I counted down slowly, holding up my fingers. “Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Say it!”

Lord of the Rings!”

Gone With The Wind!”

Ender’s Game!”

Pride & Prejudice!”

The Da Vinci Code!”

The Help!”

The room echoed with dozens of titles.

“Whoa, that’s enough,” I bellowed. “We seem to have a difference of opinion. I heard Lord of the Rings, and I’d have to say it’s a great book—”

“It’s boring,” said a kid holding a skateboard. “If I hear one more time about Tom Bombadil being a merry fellow, I’m gonna puke.”

“What book do you like best?” I said.

Ender’s Game, dude. It’s brilliant. See, there’s this Battle School—”

“I’ve read it. That’s definitely a brilliant book—”

“Well, I hate the author,” said a young woman with retro plastic glasses. “He’s a cave man in his politics. I think The Da Vinci Code was fantastic.”

Minnie shot up out of her chair. “That was a horrible, blasphemous book, and that Dan Brown boy needs to be taken over my knee and spanked.”

“Oh, Ma, lighten up,” said my plumber, Sam, who was standing with his arms crossed. “It was just a storybook with a lot of blah, blah, blah about math and history and conspirafication. Woulda been a whole lot better if there was more shooting and less quacking about that dumb Lisa woman.”

“What do you think is the best book ever written?” I asked Sam.

He grinned and rummaged around in his pockets. “Thought you wasn’t never going to ask. I just happen to have a copy here. The title is Joe Whacks Sam the Plumber, and it’s selling like ice cream. I noticed this here store is fresh out of copies.”

Silence filled the room. Dozens of pairs of eyes were giving Sam mystified looks.

I cleared my throat. “Sam, since you’re the author of this famous work of art, suppose you tell us what the target audience is for your novel.”

“Well, it’s folks that hate Joe Dunn,” Sam said. “You know—that feller that charges low rates, does a good job, and works fast.”

“Your target audience is people who hate a plumber named Joe Dunn?”

Sam nodded. “I figger that’s just about everybody.”

“Let’s take a vote,” I said. “Who hates Joe Dunn, the plumber?”

Nobody moved. As far as I could see, nobody had even heard of Joe Dunn.

“He … sounds pretty good to me,” said the woman with the plastic glasses. “Does he fix leaks in irrigation systems?”

Sam’s face turned purple. “Sure does, and he’s cheap too. Tracks down the leak with some fancy smoke gizmo in no time and gets it fixed faster than you can say Joe Dunn done it. That ain’t no way to run a business. If you folks want to leave a angry message on his voicemail, his number is 555-DUNN.”

I noticed several people scribbling notes on paper.

Sam grinned triumphantly and sat down.

“The point here is that different people like different things,” I said. “Some people are going to love your book. Some are going to hate it. So what’s the lesson to learn from that?”

Minnie shrugged. “Dear me, I suppose it means that you have to try to make everybody happy and don’t offend anyone.”

“Right, take out Tom Bombadil,” said the skateboard kid.

“But I love Tom Bombadil!” protested the woman in glasses. “If you really want to make Lord of the Rings better, take out those horrible ents who take forever to say anything.”

“Ents!” roared a middle-aged man in the back. “Treebeard is brilliant!”

In seconds, the entire room dissolved into chaos.

I rapped loudly on the table. “People! They’re going to throw us out if we can’t keep the noise down a little.”

It took a minute, but slowly the room quieted.

“You can’t make everybody happy with your book,” I said. “So you choose one group of people you’re going to make happy. That group is called your target audience. If everybody else hates your book, that’s okay. Make your target audience happy. That’s your whole goal as a novelist.”

Sam coughed. “What about putting yer competitor outta business? Shouldn’t ya care about that?”

I shook my head. “Sam, this may come as a surprise to you, but the more you talk somebody else down, the more people are going to learn about him and discover that they’re in his target audience.”

Sam gave a skeptical laugh. “Yer telling me that when I tell folks about what a rotten feller Joe Dunn is, he gets more business?”

“Amazing as that may seem, yes.”

Heads were nodding all around the room.

“That’s true.”

“He’s right.”

“I never thought of that.”

“So the point,” I said, “is that you don’t need to worry about people who hate you. If they go making a big fuss about how bad your books are, that only brings you to the attention of more people who are in your target audience. So if you write a book to give those people a great read, then you’ll do fine as an author.”

“But … how do I figure out who all those people are?” asked Minnie. “I can’t afford to take a poll.”

I sat down across the table from her. “You start with yourself. What do you like in a novel?”

“I like dragons!” Minnie said. “And sword fights. And beautiful princesses. And some romance. And a big battle scene. And some sort of evil villain.”

I was taking notes furiously as she talked. “Anything else?”

She thought for a moment. “I think that’s every—”

“She likes naughty scenes,” Sam put in helpfully.

“Sammy, hush!” Minnie’s face turned bright red. She covered her face with her hands. “Whatever will these people think of me if they know I write … kissing scenes?”

The young woman with the plastic glasses leaned forward. “Ma’am, I think all that sounds wonderful. Can I read your book?”

Minnie peeked out from between stubby fingers. “You’re not just saying that?”

“O course she’s just saying that,” Sam said.

Minnie burst into tears.

“Sam, out!” I hissed.

Sam scowled and slouched toward the door.

I turned back to Minnie. “So here’s the thing. Your target audience is the set of people who like dragons and sword fights and princesses and romance and big battle scenes and villains.”

“And naughty scenes with kissing,” said the woman in the glasses. “Lots of kissing.”

Minnie sniffed loudly. “And so … what do I do, now that I know that? It doesn’t seem like that’s very helpful.”

“It’s extremely helpful,” I said. “Write down that list and tape it above your computer. Look at it every day. Before you write a scene, remind yourself who you intend to make happy. Before you edit your scene, remind yourself who you intend to make happy. Before you build your web site, or start a blog, or get on Facebook or Twitter or whatever else you do, remind yourself who you intend to make happy.”

“But … that’s only a few people,” Minnie said. “In all this big room, there’s only this one dear girl in my target audience.”

“Yes, but in the whole world, there are many people in your target audience. And this one woman…” I pointed to her. “I’ll bet she has a few friends.”

The young woman hung her head. “I’m just a boring librarian.”

“And I’ll bet you talk about books all day long to people who like books.”

Her eyes brightened. “That’s my job, and it’s the best job in the whole world.”

“So Minnie, this young woman, if she likes your book, will tell hundreds or thousands of people about it. IF you write it with her in mind. IF you focus on making her as happy as possible with your book.”

Minnie’s eyes pooled with tears. “But … Sammy’s going to just go around running me down and telling people I write … naughty scenes.”

“And did you notice what happened when he did that?” I said. “That’s how this young woman discovered you. Because Sam was bad-mouthing you.”

“Dude, I get it now!” said the kid with the skateboard. “What you want are fans AND haters, because those are the only people who talk about you! The fans talk you up. The haters talk you down. Either way, people are talking!”

“Exactly,” I said. “The worst thing you can do is write something that tries to make everybody somewhat happy without ever offending anybody. That just turns out lukewarm. Nobody much likes it, nobody much hates it, so nobody talks about it.”

“So … what do we do?” said the middle-aged man. “How do we find our target audience?”

“Everybody take out a piece of paper, leave a couple of blank lines at the top of the page, and write down the things you love best in a novel.”

Pens scratched furiously for two minutes.

When I saw that everyone was finished, I said, “Now write at the very top of the page, ‘My Target Audience Is All The People in The World Who Like These Things:’”

More scratching on paper.

“And that’s all there is to it,” I said. “A target audience isn’t complicated. But if you want to be successful, you need to figure out your target audience first, before you do anything else.”

Minnie stood up and hugged the young woman in glasses and then beamed at me. “This is so exciting, dear boy! I’ve got my first fan and I’m on my way. What’s next?”

 

TO BE CONTINUED …

Randy sez: This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on self-publishing novels. Some of what we say will be useful to non-fiction writers too, but our target audience for this series is composed of novelists who want to indie publish their work.

Minnie now knows who’s in the target audience for her novels. What’s her next step? We’ll find out in the next episode.

If you’ve got friends who might be interested in the process, feel free to let them know about this Indie Author Guidebook series.

See you next week!

23 Comments

  1. Conor July 9, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    Thanks for the post, Randy!

    Basically, write what you like. There’s always people out there that will like the same things!

    • Randy Ingermanson July 12, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

      Hi Conor: If I might add one thing to what you say, it’s not just to write what you like, it’s also to remember that you only have to please your target audience and you will do best by trying your hardest to please them.

      It’s a mistake to try to please everybody. You can’t do it, and trying just takes the edge off. So write what you love. There will always be 1-star reviews from people who just aren’t in your target audience. Those are valid–they help people who are NOT in your target audience to steer clear, but they also help people who ARE in your target audience.

  2. Stephen July 10, 2013 at 4:37 am #

    Randy,

    I’ve been following you for years. Bought your ‘Fiction for Dummies’ and ‘Snowflake’ software. Love your advanced fiction ezine.

    Maybe it’s just me but I hate the new format of passing on your pearls of wisdom through fictional dialogue! So irritating!

    Sorry.

    • Wilmar July 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

      But I love Randy Bombadil’s blog posts in dialogue!

      (See what I did there?) 🙂

    • Randy Ingermanson July 12, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

      Hi Stephen: Thanks for your comment. It’s perfectly OK to not like the format I’m using here. You are not in the target audience for this particular set of posts. As you noted, I have plenty of other material in different formats that work well for you.

  3. Josh July 11, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    Hey, Randy! I just wanted to say I think you’ve done a wonderful job highlighting the pros and cons of self publishing and traditional publishing. I can’t wait to read the next episode! I suspect it will be about marketing, at least somewhat, and I could really use some help with that. Like Minnie, I’m a new indie author with no idea how to market and no platform. While I wait on your next episode, do you have any reccomendations on where I could go to learn more on getting started? Most of what I’ve read so far has been targeted to people with connections or a pre-existing platform of blogging or speaking and I have neither of those.

    Thanks again for the great content!

    • Wilmar July 12, 2013 at 8:21 am #

      Hey Josh,

      I’m not sure what Randy will say about the marketing, or if he’ll make a post about it at all, but I can provide some beginner tips for you.

      Marketing contrary to popular belief is not about buying advertising in the most overt fashion possible. Marketing, especially in the form of books, is the process of building a fan base over a period of time.

      If you’re starting from a completely blank slate, there’s a lot of work you need to do.

      1.) Create a website about either you or your book. For me, The Silver Ninja is my book name and is the name of my website. I wanted to establish that as the “brand” rather than go with Wilmar Luna. The reason I chose to do this is because I don’t know if I will write books of other genres, and The Silver Ninja is something that I want to grow and build.

      So based on what you’re going to be writing about will determine the name of your website.

      2.) Create a blog and start updating it with you discussing content related to your book or words of advice. Share your experiences and continually update it on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. This is not to say that you’re going to get a lot of fans, but rather it will help your google SEO ranking. That way when they google you or your book, your blog will shoot to the top.

      3.) Join communities related to books and participate in forum discussions. Sometimes, just having a signature say “Author of [title] link to website” is all you need to get new visitors to pop by your website.

      4.) I know it sucks, but you need a social media presence. Twitter, Facebook, anything that people can get their hands on. If you take the top spot on Reddit, wow, congratulations to you. But most will be struggling to get any attention to their books.

      I have more information on this stuff at my website, feel free to stop by and check out the “blog” section.

      • Josh July 15, 2013 at 10:58 am #

        Thanks, Wilmar! I think the community involvement is probably the biggest thing I need to work on.

        I’ve actually got the website and I tried blogging, but I’m ashamed to admit I did a sorry job of the blogging. (You can see the website by clicking my name, if you want) I said I have no pre-existing blogging platform because my blog has no subscribers. :/ It would have been more accurate to say I have no audience. Sorry about the poor phrasing. (Also, it didn’t pull in enough traffic or sales for what it’s costing me. I think this year I’ll switch over to free hosting, as bad as that is for google ranking)

        I plan to take your advice and try to get a bit more involved online in communities and with my blogging. Hopefully that will turn things around for me somewhat. 🙂 Thanks again!

    • Randy Ingermanson July 12, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

      Hi Josh: Marketing is a HUGE topic, and I won’t be picking that up yet.

      First, we need to get Minnie’s book ready for publication. She needs a cover for her book. It needs editing and proofreading. It needs to be converted into all the standard e-book formats. And she needs to decide which online retailers she’ll be using.

      Then she can worry about marketing. I am developing some new thoughts on marketing, and will be teaching those at a conference in August. Then we’ll see what’s the best way to teach those. I may continue on with a second blog series on marketing, or I may try something else.

      Ultimately, I want to create a tool that helps writers with their marketing, because that’s so important. Wimar has some good thoughts on how to get started, but let’s face it–marketing is an enormous topic and it’s constantly changing.

      • Josh July 15, 2013 at 11:03 am #

        Of course! I can’t believe I forgot all of that stuff! It would be pretty hard to sell a book without a cover or a retailer. 🙂 I’ll be looking forward to it!

  4. Gracie ONeil July 11, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Randy, this is truly brilliant. I love the story format. Thank you so much.

    • Randy Ingermanson July 12, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

      Thanks, Gracie. I’m having fun and hope I can maintain momentum for the rest of the summer. Sam is a little tricky to write. He’s lovable one minute and a pain in the kiester the next. Not that I would know anybody like that.

  5. D J Mills July 11, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    I loved the dialogue to show who the target audience is! Thank you!

    I have heard about “target people” a lot, but more along the lines of over 30 (or some age), into certain genre, education level, etc, which of course did not make sense to me. Now i can just list the elements of my stories and see who likes it. Sound advice.

    • Randy Ingermanson July 12, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

      Hi D.J.: I always hated it when my marketing director would ask me to give the demographic info on my target audience. Like age, gender, or ethnicity is what matters.

      I really like what John Locke had to say about target audiences in his book on marketing. His target audience is men who would like to BE Donovan Creed, and woman who would like to DATE Donovan. Locke really had a finger on the pulse of these readers.

  6. Penny July 11, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    I think this is far too simplistic.

    You seem to be saying just write the sort of book you want to read because there are others like you out there.

    Yes you do have to do that, not just for that reason, but also because you won’t be able sustain the effort unless you are really enthusiastic about your book.

    But you do need to do much more than that.

    Within the genres and sub-genres that you enjoy, some books are very popular and others are read by very few. Authors to have an understanding of what makes a book successful (or increases the likelihood of it being successful) within their favourite genre.

    People will only start talking about your book once it has achieved a certain level of popularity/notoriety. Too many people just write to please themselves, self-publish the result and watch it sink like a stone into oblivion….

    PS I also not keen on your fictional dialogue approach. It may have worked for Socrates, but things have moved on since then.

    • Randy Ingermanson July 12, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

      Hi Penny: If I might make one observation, there is a difference between knowing what your target audience WANTS and being able to actually execute it.

      In this episode, I’ve covered what the target audience wants. In fact, our friend Minnie executes pretty well, but she needs to take the next step and hire an editor. That’s what professional writers do. I’ve never met a writer who could do a good job editing their own work. The small stuff, yes, but the big story questions, no. We’re all too close to our own work to do that.

  7. Guestblo July 12, 2013 at 7:01 am #

    Hey Randy,

    Well, this was a treat to read these set of conversations. I think the way you have put it is quite right that first of all it is important to figure out your target audience to be successful in your business, be it writing a book or be it cooking some dishes! And then comes the second important thing that you can’t make happy everybody under the sun and hence it is wiser to do work on groups.

  8. Siobhan July 13, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    Just to be difficult I’d like to say I enjoy the format-and I also enjoy the other formats you employ. This is helpful for people like me who listen to theoretical advice, abstract advice and nod their heads-understanding completely until they sit down and try to duplicate it. Alone. Does this format teach EVERYTHING? No- It’s start for Pete’s sake.
    Or Sam’s. 🙂
    Or twelve thousand writers who aren’t ready for anything more esoteric.
    Some people need to get a grip……

  9. Joe August 22, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    Great post, I totally agree that you can not make everyone happy instead focus on things that will make certain people happy.

  10. michael.forrest@snhu.edu November 20, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

    Hello,

    I have just recently begun reading your blog posts, and I find them very helpful. I have noticed that you answer almost every question I can come up with. I enjoy the dialogue style posting, and seem to understand it better than a lecture style. I do, however, have a question regarding the target audience. I feel like it would look rather amatuer to write in a proposal, “My target audience is everyone who likes these things.” How do you explain the target audience in a manner that is appropriate for third-party viewers?

    Thank you,
    Michael

  11. Scotie August 13, 2015 at 10:47 pm #

    What if you don’t care who reads it and just want to write a book?

  12. Morgan January 21, 2016 at 12:16 pm #

    Thanks for the help. I would never have known that cause for a while now I have been trying to impress all audiences and it never works. Someone always doesn’t like something. So thank you! I really want to get your software too.

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