Updated: Jul 28, 2022
There is an instinct for authors to reply to the question “who do you write for?” with the answer “everyone.” You want to find your audience and connect with as many people as possible. But writing for everyone, unfortunately, is very close to writing for no one.
Readers, as individuals, will have preferences in content, tone, tropes, themes, and so much more. More so, you will want to be selective about which of these readers you target. No one wants to see a one-star review that says, “Not enough snakes and/or planes in the book.” Or, more likely, a review that says, “This didn’t have enough jokes in it,” which would feel hurtful if you never meant for the book to be funny.
A journey of a thousand steps starts with just one, and the first step for finding your audience is being able to envision a single ideal reader. (Hint: Our Ideal Reader Profile workbook helps!)
Write for someone, not everyone.
Successful authors discover ways to write for their audience and write what appeals to them personally.
Let’s consider how imagining your ideal reader can change the writing process from drafting your book to selling it. Here are some examples for how content can change depending on your audience.
Middle grade book (readers age 8–12)
Length: 20–50k words; longer for fantasy
Scope: a child main character; often features more whimsy and jokes; may tackle some serious topics but no graphic aspects
Language: plain language; no flooding the text with advanced words, swear words, or excessive cultural references
Expectations: not set in adult-specific spaces (such as an office); no intense romantic relationships; explore different developmental stages, such as how you fit in the world, navigate friendships, and share space
History book for casual readers
Length: over 100k words with lots of footnotes if for historians or advanced readers; 60–80k words if for casual readers
Scope: will present facts, how we know these facts, events, and what they mean; the narrative thread will rarely include the author talking about themselves
Language: generally use detached descriptions and formal, technical language; the level of specialized terminology will depend on the target audience
Expectations: a thoroughly fact-checked book drawing from verified primary sources; an emphasis on establishing credibility and showing your research; expected to have a “so what” narrative that gives the events meaning and expands the reader’s understanding of the world
Contemporary adult romance book
Length: 70k–90k words
Scope: will likely feature mundane life and navigating the modern world; all romances focus on a relationship and interpersonal connections of all kinds
Language: prose can range from decadent to very simple language, depending on the author, but will center on swoony emotions and drama
Expectations: happy ending for the main characters; it will follow a storyline where they meet, are kept apart, finally get together, and ends with a Happily Ever After
Traditional publishing agents will expect you to tell them who your intended audience is. If you say, “I write for everyone, a general audience from the age of 17 to death," they will think you haven’t done your research. They have to sell your book to publishers and won't take you seriously if you have no clear idea of who you are writing for. They want you to be specific.
Consider these examples:
My book is for middle-grade girls from the big city who keep [insert book title here] in their backpack and daydream about life on a horse ranch out West, far away from the nearest streetlamp.
My book is for CEOs of technology startups who want to learn how to get venture capital funding. They read [insert title here] on their iPad as they take a Lyft to work.
As an indie author, you are the marketing and sales team. You will need to know your audience to determine where and how to market and sell your book.
For example, BookTok is huge right now. If you’re writing YA or romance, you want to be making TikTok videos about your book. If you’re writing a gritty western, and your target audience is men in their fifties through seventies, then TikTok is not the place to market. If you are writing a book about tech startups, you may want to get interviews on relevant blogs and magazines or get on the speaker circuit in that field.
You’ll want to publish your book on as many digital platforms as possible if you are writing for young, on-the-go professionals who almost exclusively read on their tablets or phones. A highly busy entrepreneur may prefer audiobooks, so that would mean investing in a quality audio version of your book. Conversely, if your audience is moms who frequent libraries with their kids, you’ll want to invest in getting your book in libraries.
Who is your ideal reader?
When picturing your ideal reader, you may begin by thinking of a close friend, family member, or younger version of yourself. You can expand to people you’ve met casually or in book clubs. More than anything, you’ll want to know why they read and how your book fits into their lifestyle and interests.
Ask yourself why this one person would want to read your book and what they'll love about it. You can phrase it as: “Sheila is going to love that my MC is super smart and knows how to build her own ray gun in a pinch. Maybe I’ll make an Instagram post about that…”
Here are some useful categories to consider to help you invent who has the qualities you want/expect from your readers.
Name: You want to be on a first-name basis with your new friend, naturally.
Age: Different age groups have different interests. For example, children are often concerned with friendships. Teens are very interested in topics around identity—finding an identity or breaking out of one. And many of the oldest readers are drawn to nostalgic or historical books.
Job: A person's job and income level will often determine how they get their books (library versus grocery store versus book-delivery service). Jobs can sometimes influence or reflect their tastes, too, as people in the tech industry often enjoy science-fiction and people in the cooking industry read plenty of cookbooks.
Family description: A mom with six kids at home will have different reading priorities compared to empty nesters or single people with no kids.
Why they read: They may read to primarily gain knowledge or appreciate the art of language or to escape said six kids when they lock the bathroom door and sink into a nice, hot bath.
Finding your readership will take time. It's often a long-term search that requires stamina. For this final step, one of the keys is to not give in to doubt.
As an author coach, I have met so many writers with tons of potential, but too often they are stopped in their tracks by doubt. They doubt their stories can find any readers. They doubt they have something to say. They doubt their projects are worth fighting for.
I'm here to say: Your readers are out there. I've worked with hundreds of writers in my fourteen years in publishing, and I've never met anyone whose words haven't meant something, and I've never seen a project that didn't take work. Your projects are worth putting the work in for! Your readers are out there—and they’re probably waiting for you too.