“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!”
“Pride & Prejudice!”
“The Da Vinci Code!”
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.
“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!