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Who Are Your Readers?

Warning: this is a mild rant. A rantlet, if you prefer.

I’m speaking as a fiction writer here. I know the situation is different for nonfiction. And yes, I have opined on this topic before. I just checked.

But I’m going to revisit it anyway. Here goes–

Writers are constantly advised to identify their reader demographic so they can direct their promotional efforts accurately.

What is a demographic, anyway? It’s a group defined by factors such as age, sex, ethnicity, education, geographic location, and interests.

For a writer, it’s the people who have bought your books and enjoyed them, with the assumption that they have other characteristics (age, sex, etc.) in common. But can you find out enough about the individuals who have ordered your book online or bought it in a bookstore to discern a demographic? Some (but not all) readers may leave a positive review at a site where you can track them down and find those details. Stalking, anyone?

Even an author who sells books in person at an event (not likely now!) can form only a limited idea of their “market.” Age and sex, that’s about all you can discern visually. And what if your buyers are both old and young, men and women? Is an author supposed to interview them as part of the sales transaction, to winkle out their occupations and interests? Salespeople in bookstores certainly never do that.

Or maybe you write books specifically intended to be bought, read, and enjoyed by a defined group — men aged between 30 and 59 who like golf, for example. How do you know if you succeed? What if people outside that group like your books more than the ones inside it? That golf-loving dude may be the ideal reader you imagined while writing, but what if young women who hate golf like your book? Is that failure on your part? Should you tailor your next book for the golf-hating young woman market?

Even if you manage to collect demographic information about some of your readers, I’m certain you won’t have complete details about every one of them. How does incomplete or inaccurate information help your marketing efforts?

I have to admit, this piece of advice, which I see often, mystifies and annoys me. The only way I know a specific person has bought, read, and liked one of my books is if they tell me, either in person, in a comment on my blog, or in a review. Even then, it’s not always possible to discern an individual behind an avatar or internet persona. Rightly or wrongly, I have only the vaguest idea of my reader demographic. (Hey — some of you folks reading this post are part of it!)

Yes, I know social media is somehow supposed to be the answer. But I just read a piece of advice saying authors should direct their social media efforts to their target market, which assumes we already know what it is.

At that point, I sat down and wrote this rant.

Maybe I’m missing something obvious. Has anyone identified their reader demographic in a useful way? Does anyone have a target market, apart from “children,” “teens,” or “adults?” How do you obtain the necessary data about your readers?

If you want to join my reader demographic, you may be interested in my latest book. It’s available at the pre-order price for only a few more days. And it’s now also available as a paperback.

Cover image for Tales from the Annexe

Available at a special pre-order price of $0.99 USD (or equivalent) from these Amazon outlets
US UK CA AU DE

Featured image by Kranich17 from Pixabay

44 comments

  1. Hi Audrey, I understand your frustrations. I suppose I’m different, not actually selling books, so it’s more of a theoretical concept to me. I suppose I write the sort of book I’d like to read, me being therefore a demographic of one, and perhaps not much of a market.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. I have a woman in my read and critique group who writes historical romances. She claims she writes the type of romances that she likes to read. She only sells her titles online and at various Romance Writers activities. (She is very active in those groups.) She also teaches, judges Romance Writer contests, and offers workshops. So she is probably out there more than many indie authors.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Mark Coker at Smashwords has said that romance writers are marketing powerhouses and excellent businesswomen. That may be true; the romance reader market appears to be insatiable and thus easier to target. (Of course, you do have to be willing and able to write romance.)

        Liked by 3 people

          1. As I understand it, romance with a capital R has unbreakable conventions for length, trajectory and ending (it must be HEA, as they say). Knowing my attitude toward writing rules, I’d fail to adhere to them. Many great books contain elements of romance, of course, but don’t fit in that genre.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. Haha! I think there are a lot of us “demographics of one” out there. I suspect much of the advice I see on blogs is directed to the entrepreneurial indie author. Many of us don’t fall in that category, but reading such advice repeatedly produces anxiety and confusion. Many writers who choose to publish their own writings have no intention of turning that into a business, and it’s unfortunate that some may consider themselves failures for that reason. Thanks for your comment, Michael.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Marketing is a total enigma for me, Audrey. I find it difficult to get my children’s book in front of a child audience as even before Covid-19, I didn’t have much time for author events and there aren’t that many in South African any way. I just aim an arrow in the middle and hope for the best.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Writers who publish their own works are taking on a whole bunch of tasks that are carried out by a team in traditional publishing. We can’t expect to do all that really well; it’s the downside of self-publishing. And yes, books are products, I suppose, but not like identical widgets. Thanks for your comment, Neil!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I love your rantlet, Audrey. Even with something a mundane as a blog, I see some of the people who follow my blog and wonder why–either because of the country they are from or the age they appear to be. Why does anyone like or dislike anything? If we could predict that through demographics, being able to identify best sellers whether books, movies, or songs would be much easier.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Good point, Pat! When someone follows my blog, I often visit theirs and do wonder why they made that decision. Often, it’s a mystery. Figuring out why people choose certain books is one of those art plus science plus lots of money things, and I don’t think indie authors should expect themselves to do it.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I always enjoy a good rant! I know nothing about marketing and promoting my book. I’m aware that thousands of Indie Authors know how to do this. I can’t compete but that’s ok. I’m just glad to have my book and my characters out there.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think the same way as you. I wrote my books because I felt they needed to be written. Technology allowed me to publish them, and I’m grateful for that. I’m happy when someone buys one of my books and delighted when someone reviews one (well, usually). 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that if you want to know your audience, you need to work from the other end. First, identify a popular sub-genre, then read everything that audience is reading. After that, write a carbon copy of every book in that sub-genre. Slap on a cover indistinguishable from every other one. And then tie your advertising to the sub-genre’s best sellers. You may still not know who they are, but at least you’d know what they’re spending their book money on. Or maybe just sell your soul to the devil. That would be less of a hassle.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Haha! I wonder what kinds of books the devil reads. Most likely he writes too…
      I think many of us write the books we need to, not what any market demands. I don’t think we should let advice meant for entrepreneurial authors make us feel inept and incompetent. The process of writing and publishing is a complex one, as is the writer-reader relationship. I’m just grateful that technology allows us to make our works available.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, technology makes it all possible. I had collected a number of rejection slips for stories in my 20’s, and wrote this and that between then and my 50’s. But it was the computer, and then self publishing ebooks that made completing a story to the very end of the process — publishing it — worth the effort. I look at those typewritten ms and marvel at my persistence.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. On the other hand, I’ve wondered if the sheer brute labour required to prepare a manuscript to send around to publishers didn’t limit the numbers who did that enough that the publishers weren’t quite so apt to reject. Oh well, now we get silent rejections from readers who decide not to buy our books. I prefer that to standing submissively outside the gates of the powerful, though.

          Like

  6. Interesting timing for your “rantlet,” Audrey. I’m working to self-publish a book of tanka (God help me), and I just signed up for Reedsy “courses” that are supposed to help a writer identify her ideal reader (among other marketing essentials). From what I gather so far, it involves a lot of data-mining on social media, Amazon, and Goodreads, which would take me the same amount of time as the day job I actually get paid good money for. Slogging on . . .

    Liked by 6 people

    1. The market research might use up time and energy you need for writing, too. Some people might have an inclination for such tactics, as well as for creative writing, but I suspect they’re rare birds. That’s where traditional publishing makes sense; the marketing can be done by those who are good at it (at least in theory). Please do share any valuable insights on your blog, and good luck with your tanka project. Thanks for your thoughts, Liz.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you, Audrey. You’re absolutely right about the market research. Just the little that I’ve been trying to do makes me miserable as it eats into my precious writing time. If I have any insights, I will share them, but I think insight is going to be a long time coming.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I know what my target audience is!!! People who read books. Sorry to be somewhat snarky, but this is another one of these “rules” that drives me crazy. It’s too limiting. Yes, if you tend to write in a specific genre, you can try to target readers who enjoy that genre, but seriously, what’s wrong with targeting anybody who reads. While there are plenty of readers who tend to stick with certain genres, there are also plenty of readers who will pick up any piece of fiction and give it a try … those readers are who I target. But you’re right — how to target them? Who the heck knows.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. This might be some hold-over from an archaic time. No doubt the Five Gnomes of Publishing Zurich think that demographics must be known and targeted. But on the internet? Only facebook might have the power to control which demo-group sees your ads or posts or pictures of your pooch. We, the masses, have no control over such things.

    However, I take this so called advice as meaning: stay true to your authorial voice.

    Imagine if Stephen King were to start blending sappy love stories into his tales of horror? Or have Daniel Steele start injecting savage dismemberment and bestiality into her romance novels?

    Of course, this comes with a caveat… For a certain genre, I’d want to remain author-true. But if I were to start writing horror or romance, I’d assume a different voice and expect that any of my readers (you three know who you are), would acknowledge and adjust to the change in voice.

    I love reading good epidemiological white papers and non-fiction (Freakonomics!). But for us plebeian authors, hell, knowing much less targeting one’s demographic is ludicrous.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I like your rant. You have a great website and your books are out there. I hope all your hard work and excellent writing is paying off in sales.
    Identifying the ‘target audience’ might work – if one has infinite time, money and enlists the help of professional marketing team to conduct surveys, focus groups and purchase choice media advertising spots. Even then, I’d be skeptical that it would work for genres like thrillers, crime fiction, sci-fi, horror and such. Readers are a very diverse group. I write because I like to write. Yes, I’d love to be an ‘A’ list writer with a huge following, but if that was my goal in writing I’d be sorely disappointed.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Well said, John! Readers and writers are both diverse groups, and overlap in all kinds of ways. I’m happy that I can write and publish books that are comparable in quality to traditionally published ones, and if someone buys one every few weeks, I’m happy. Of course, I’m an abject failure if measured by any kind of conventional yardstick, but I don’t care.
      I hope you’re enjoying life despite the strange time we live in, John. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Like

  10. Loved your rant! You can do that one again any time. When I was reading “how-to” pieces on writing and marketing, the rule that always made me want to scream was, “Know your target audience!” I mean, how would I know that? How COULD I know that? After a while, I simply decided to write what I wanted to write, what I needed to write. If people wanted to read what I wrote, great! If not, (and it turned out mostly ‘not’), it wouldn’t make any difference to what I wrote. We each have a unique voice, a unique point of view and I see no value in trying to sound like other people. Long, LONG ago, a romance writer friend suggested that I write romances because it paid well. So I did everything right, starting with reading 200 romance novels (I’d never read any before.) And I wrote a novel. Harlequin promptly sent it back, saying “You write extremely well, but there’s no romance in this novel.” I blinked once and then burst out laughing. Because, in spite of my studying, I never (and still don’t) “get” romance stories. Well, there went that demographic!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That’s funny, Lea! Yes, romance a la Harlequin has definite conventions that must be adhered to. I read a few of those books when I was around 20 (they were cheap and plentiful in used bookstores), but they didn’t make much of an impression on me. It’s much more satisfying, I think, to incorporate romance into a piece of fiction without making it the point of the thing. And I’m pleased to see I’m not alone in finding advice about target market to be mystifying. Thanks for contributing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I have the same problem. I use to say I write for teens. It is what I loved reading at their age. But I find out that I am read more by women (and some men, but mostly women) aged 25-65, who want to escape for some hours in another time and place, and who long for their teen years, when they used to read similar books.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. This is an interesting topic. My books are written for children ages 7 to 12. You would think that is my demographic. But, it’s the adults that buy books for this age group. So do I target tweens or parents/grandparents/aunts and uncles of tweens? or teachers and librarians? Confusing to say the least. I have a small, independant traditional publisher and I do much of my own marketing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point, Darlene. In effect, you have quite a broad market, given that the actual purchasers of books for young children are mainly adults, including teachers and librarians. There’s nothing quite like school visits for writers of adult books, is there? Maybe writers’ festivals and such like (which of course aren’t happening now).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. School and library visits are great! I love them and they are so much fun. Mixing directly with my demographics. Here in Spain, I visit international schools and they encourage students to bring money to buy books. I sold 52 books the last time I did this. Hopefully, we can do this again soon.

        Liked by 2 people

  13. I think getting the main genre is more important than trying to find the person/people likely to read your story. If they read a genre, that’s where they’ll be looking.
    There are tricks to getting lots of subgenres onto your title, but the main one is the most important and then one, two, or three subgenres to ensure the story gets in front of the people most likely to take a second look at this specific story.
    Romance is so broad that a book would get lost immediately. There are thousands published each day. Romance/Suspense/Paranormal would get you to the readers who’d find this more intriguing than a standard romance in a contemporary setting.
    I’m still working it out and have a schedule to try to work it into a situation to become more visible as I get more titles out.
    Generic is bad, specific is good. Find the main, and two or three subgenres — there is your audience, this is where they gather to feed their mind.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good points, assuming one can define one’s genre(s) in a way that readers relate to. My books are kind of a mishmash, genre-wise. Having done that, the author must find places online (blogs, social media) where readers gather to exchange views on books they’ve read. Of course, one mustn’t blatantly promote one’s books, but contribute to discussions in an interesting way. I have certainly noticed that writers’ blogs are mostly followed by other writers. Most book bloggers and reviewers are no longer accepting new books for review. The trick is to find readers and book lovers who don’t systematically review. (Have I done this stuff? Not systematically.)

      Liked by 1 person

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