“Finding an Audience” by Priscilla McGeehon (December 14, 2014)
Priscilla McGeehon is publisher of Fairchild Books, Bloomsbury USA. Her blog, Prêt-à-Priscilla, provides “ready made advice for editors” and the following entry contains invaluable suggestions for not only authors but for product/industrial designers too.
After finding a subject to write about, the most important decision an author makes is who her target audience is. Prospective authors often pitch book ideas to me — both on the job and in social situations — and the first question I ask is: Who are the readers for your book? If all the potential readers represent a single pie, which is your pie-piece?
Not surprisingly, authors often have misinformed or uninformed ideas about their potential readership, and their proposals reflect this. Below are three common mistakes authors make when targeting an audience:
1) Too broad. Since authors are enamored of their subject to such a degree that they’re willing to devote months or years to writing about it, it’s hard for them to imagine that a vast swath of the general public won’t be equally enthralled. In essence, they want to go after the whole pie — but the whole pie is an unattainable goal. As editors, we strike a delicate balance between encouraging authors to write books with identifiable and easily-reachable groups of readers, and giving them a realistic picture about the potential for sales. A viable readership must be easily defined and have established promotional channels. In technical or textbook subjects, authors want to believe their books will appeal to BOTH students AND practitioners, or BOTH graduates AND undergraduates — “anyone who’s interested in X will want to buy this book.” Even if true, there are practical obstacles. Different types of books sell to different bookstores at different price points and with different discount policies. Marketing and promotional campaigns are designed to reach particular audiences. Even the content itself — written for a novice, or an experienced veteran in the field — is different depending on who the reader is. In short, a book that tries to appeal too broadly risks falling between two stools instead of becoming a well-focused book that meets the needs of an well-targeted readership.
2) Too narrow. An author who overspecializes her topic risks slicing her piece of the pie too thin. I recently read a book proposal that was immediately appealing — aimed at a well-defined group of readers, in an area where we had a related book that sold well. Its appeal lasted only until I read the subtitle, however. In contrast to the title, it narrowed the audience with so many qualifiers that the number of potential readers dwindled with each additional word or phrase.
It was if I were reading a reality TV pitch for a show called “DIY Cookoff!” — fun, right? — which went on to say it would focus only on chefs who only prepare raw food and take public transportation to work. The author made the mistaken assumption that including hot topics like raw food and public transportation, her book would get more attention from each of those constituencies. That was probably true — except that a Venn diagram showing the number of DIY chefs who only prepare raw food and take public transportation would probably reveal a total of one interested reader: the author herself. Our advice to this author: step back from your own narrowly-focused interest and consider your readership. What are their interests, how do they overlap with yours, and how can you develop your proposal to meet their needs?
3) A fantasy audience. Often authors exhibit an “if you build it, they will come” attitude toward their work. “Right now, no one knows anything about my subject — but once they see my book, they will buy it in droves.” “Everyone should read this book — and will want to.” This pie simply doesn’t exist. As too many authors and publishers can attest, a fantasy audience rarely materializes. When it does, both the subject and the writing must have extraordinary appeal. Who would have thought a book about a 1938 racehorse (Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit) or the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago (Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City) would capture the imagination of millions of readers — until they saw those two books? Unfortunately, these chance-in-million out-of-nowhere hits are as predictable as lightning strikes.
As editors, our best advice to authors is to know your readership and have realistic expectations about your target audience. We can add value to our projects by helping authors hone their proposals to find an audience, and craft their manuscripts to appeal to those readers.
Learn more about Priscilla McGeehon on her blog, Prêt-à-Priscilla,