So many writers and creators I speak with feel that if they could just find their audience, then the path forward would be obvious. For some, they want to find a readership for books they are launching or have already published. For others, they are pre-publication, so they are developing their author platform to find their audience so their book launch will be successful when the time comes. All of this applies to any creative endeavor: someone sharing their illustrations, their art, and so much else. For everything below, I’ll use the example of a reader as that ideal audience member.
Today I want to talk about a concept for how to find your ideal audience, and invite you to a work session next week where I answer your questions and show examples of the practice in action.
What is an Ideal Reader, Anyway?
An ideal reader is the person that you feel would most appreciate what you create. They are someone who you feel would love to read what you write. They already know of and read books that would be shelved next to yours in a bookstore. You would love to schedule an event during your next book launch, and have this person show up in the audience. You can imagine them coming up to you after you speak, ask for you to sign their copy of the book, and tell you why your words resonated with them. Of course, these are also the people you hope sign up for anything you share online, whether that is a newsletter, social media, or anything else.
This is not just the person that you hope spends $15 on your book and maybe never reader it. It is someone you hope deeply resonates with what you write. You imagine they may choose your book as a selection for their book club. Or that they will gush to their friends about your book. And even further: that they may simply enjoy supporting your career and what you write.
When we talk about ideal readers, we stop simplifying success as a writer to numeric milestones of sales, reviews, bestseller lists, awards, media hits, and the like. Although, in doing this work full-time for 12 years, I have found that when you focus on your ideal readers, then you are increasing the likelihood of more sales, reviews, publicity, and marketing.
I want to encourage you to be able to talk about your ideal reader as if they are a real human being. You should be able to describe what resonates with them about books like yours, and how that fits into who they are as a person.
Why Do Many Writers Have No Idea Who Their Ideal Readers Are?
Too often, writers simplify the description of who their ideal audience is. They hide behind vague categories, demographics, and terms. Here is an example:
“My ideal reader is anyone who likes science fiction, fantasy, or horror books.”
With that description, the writer has just described three sections of a bookstore that contain hundreds of books, many of which have a different set of themes, writing style, tone, and other aspects. Of course, if you go online, you will find thousands upon thousands of books in each category. If that author bought a table to display their books at a sci-fi/fantasy/horror convention, they would find themselves lost amidst a sea of tables, unable to know what attracts their ideal readers.
Another example I often hear:
“My books are for someone who just wants to be entertained, they want an escape from their otherwise stressful life.”
If I replied to that author, saying that this could be anyone, that author may get excited and say: “Exactly!” Their enthusiasm is because they hope that their book reaches the widest possible audience, so keeping the description of their reader as broad and vague seems to serve that purpose. But here is the problem: how can this writer find these ideal readers? When the description of your writing is: “Oh, it can be for anyone,” that means you have nowhere to start to find the people most likely to love your writing. To tell friends about it. It means you have no idea what podcasts you should be a guest on. What to write in your email newsletter. What to talk about at a literary festival. What to share on social media. So you are left repeating the same vague phrases again and again, hoping that your ideal readers do all the work to find you. Instead, I want you to have total clarity of who your idea reader is so that you can find them!
This could challenge your assumptions about how you hope publishing works. Sometimes we keep things vague because we simply hope that “the industry” will figure it out. That by using a genre label to describe our audience will someone just make readers find your books. Or if you find exactly the right hashtag on social media, readers will buy your books in droves. Or if we can find just the right category to describe our work — especially a hot and trendy category — that “the industry” will notice.
But this doesn’t happen often. Luckily, there is another way…
The Whole Reader Framework
I want to encourage you to see the reader as a whole person.
Understand who they are as a human being, and what drives them in three ways:
I had some fun with craft supplies to illustrate this:
Let’s look at each:
The head represents logic, and how people think the are motivated. It is a thought process rooted in how they view their identity, their hopes, their fears, and their life experience. For instance, someone who says they are “bargain shopper” who only buys things that are on sale. Or someone who says “Oh, I have an elevated sense of literary taste, I won’t waste my time on anything that isn’t layered and nuanced.”
Inside your ideal reader, the head represents preferences they have to:
- Discover books through certain channels, such as recommendations in certain magazines, podcasts, from specific people on social media, etc.
- Look for certain phrases to signify a book is for them.
- Be motivated to check out a book based on certain requirements (eg: a great blurb, a beautiful cover, a bestseller, a certain publisher, or it has to remind them of another author they read already, etc.)
- Feel a clear sense of what they like and don’t like.
Oftentimes, inside our head we are 100% convinced that we know what we like and why. It is based on a clear logic and set of values.
People don’t’ always act in clear and rational ways based on logic. I mean, does anyone else out there have a stack of books that were purchased with the best of intentions, yet sit on the table, unread after months… years even? I sure do.
When we consider how you can understand your ideal readers to make them aware of what you write, to consider purchasing your books or subscribing to your newsletter or following you on social media or spreading the word about what you create, we have to consider more than just the head.
Which leads us to…
The heart represents how emotion can drive our sense of self, our place in the world, how the world works, interactions with others, what we are attracted to, and how we can feel connected with someone or something. For a reader, this can include:
- What grabs their attention.
- What fills them with a positive emotion.
- What gives them a negative emotion.
- What they don’t know (or think) they want, but always react to.
- Deeper motivations that lie beneath the surface of their thought processes.
- How their entire life experience plays into who they feel they are and how they engage with the world.
What does all of this have to do with what books they buy? Well, everything. We each read for many purposes. When you consider how complex each of us are inside, and how complex the world we interact with is, appealing to someone’s heart is a way to cut through the noise.
This can apply to how you describe what you create, how someone discovers your work, and even things that may feel counterintuitive. For instance, many writers have told me over the years that they wished they could just write books and not have to ever worry about marketing. But what if your ideal reader wants to feel a sense of connection with like-minded readers? Could what you share on social media or in a newsletter not only attract a reader, but give them a sense of deeper connection that includes your books, but also extends beyond it?
Knowing how the heart determines your ideal reader’s place in the world and how they connect will also help you understand what attracts them to a certain book — yours.
Action represents the ways the head and the heart turn into the reality of what we do in our lives. What gets someone to click the buy button before they can even think or justify it? On social media, what do they click “like” on without even a thought? What gets them to gush about a book again and again and again, even if they start by saying, “This is not the kind of book I would normally read or recommend, but I just have to tell you about it.”
Our actions are often driven by a complex set of psychological and emotional cues. Combined, this becomes our everyday reality. Even if someone says, “Oh, I only make careful decisions after a deep analysis. I will never be pressured by marketing trickery,” that doesn’t mean this person won’t make an impulse purchase when they see a sale. Or buy something that they don’t have time to read.
With action, we can move much more deeply into the psychology behind marketing and sales. The actions of your ideal readers represent:
- What gets them to take a clear action, such as buying a book, leaving a review, subscribing to a newsletter, and so much else.
- How their preferences (positive or negative) can be turned into a behavior.
- A multi-faceted process of requirements which turn logic or emotion into an action you hope they take.
- Not only what gets them to move towards something, but what repels them away from something.
- Using sales language, what what gets them to “convert” from someone who is considering something, to someone who buys.
Combined, the head, heart and action can explain the complex narratives in a reader’s head. What they are drawn to, and how it connects to their identity. Their hopes for when they buy a book. What turns them on to it, and away from it. And what gets them to take actions that are meaningful to you as a writer: how to get them to pay attention to your work, buy your book, sign up for your newsletter, and how to get them to spread the word through word-of-mouth marketing.
An Example of The Whole Reader Framework:
Let’s take a simple example to illustrate how the head, heart, and action work together. Let’s talk about… Batman. Why does someone decide they are going to become a fan of Batman movies and comics? Perhaps it could be:
Head: What they say they want, such as:
- A complex plot, with multiple storylines and characters.
- A mystery that keeps them guessing until the end.
- Suspenseful action where the stakes feel high.
- A special effects masterpiece or compelling illustrations.
Heart: What draws them to these stories, and what keeps them engaged long after watching a movie or reading a comic:
- Living with a clear set of values. (Batman is generally known as the superhero who refuses to use guns or kill others.)
- Appreciating the underdog (Batman has no special powers, yet he is often battling quasi-magical beings.)
- Living up to a deeper motivation: (Batman chooses to make the world a better place after witnessing the murder of his parents.)
Action: What gets the reader/fan to buy or act:
- Limited showing. For instance, a new movie that is in theaters or only available streaming online for a limited time.
- A shared experience. They want to be among the first group to experience the movie or comic, post on social media they are there, talk about it online, maybe read through comments from others in the weeks before/after the event online, attend a special preview panel at a convention, etc.
- Reinforce their identity. This could be as simple as posting a photo on social media that they went to the midnight showing of the movie — illustrating they are a real fan, or even getting a tattoo of the Batman logo.
- Showcasing their own expertise or devotion by defending the movie online, or panning it. There is a thriving community of movie reviewers on YouTube, many of whom share a “hot take” on a popular movie that they feel may be controversial. This helps share their own identity and they may love the reactions they get.
Why Use The Whole Reader Framework?
This entire process is meant to help you make decisions about where to find your ideal audience, discover what resonates with them, and help you build excitement around what you share online and your next big book launch. There are so many practical things that this leads to. Every day I work with writers and creators on this to help them determine:
- What to share that will get attention.
- What channels they should use, and how.
- How to understand the marketplace around books like theirs.
- Where to find their ideal readers.
- How to get more followers or subscribers.
- What leads to sales, book reviews, and other marketing actions.
- And so much else!
But even more than that, it is meant to help you create meaningful experiences with others around your creative work. To have a platform as a writer that feels authentic to who you are, and filled with conversations that matter to you.