Reader Targeting is yet another concept we have to juggle. It’s no wonder many writers take to the drink, or otherwise lose the run of themselves. Or can be a little… kooky. We have to wrestle with a number of contradictory notions all the time — it’s enough to make anyone batty.
The most obvious is with the writing itself: we need at least some level of ego to push something out into the world and ask money for it. But we also must have the requisite critical faculties to see what’s wrong with it and to motivate ourselves to fix it, and to otherwise work on our craft until the things we make are as good as we need them to be.
(As a famous editor once put it — Nan Talese maybe? — those first few years, when our taste is much more developed than our skills, are tough.)
The experienced author isn’t done with these trying dichotomies though; one in particular that we all continue to struggle with is between our artistic natures, and our commercial sensibilities. It’s not so much about what to write or how to write it — most pros can navigate that part. The battlegrounds are elsewhere, things like cover design, series titles, descriptions, branding.
And one more surprising, perhaps: reader targeting.
It’s not just with packaging that our Inner Artist can lead us astray, trying to convince us to be unique instead of realizing that a cover’s job is to communicate genre very clearly and get readers, the right readers, to click.
That Inner Artist is often what drives us to create, but she can mislead us with marketing, trying to push us to broader audience. That feeling of wanting to share it with the world is great and beautiful and powers us through some tough moments in the process of creation but can actually harm our book’s chances of connecting with its core readership.
And it’s not just those indulging their Inner Artist at the wrong moment who can fall into this trap. I also see very hard-nosed commercially minded writers seeking to “break out” of a niche they haven’t dominated yet, which is a little backwards.
The core principle of reader targeting is this: aim your book exclusively at true fans of that genre.
That might seem uncontroversial, but it’s harder to adhere to than you might think. Your Inner Artist is quite the Wormtongue. You can be building an Amazon Ads campaign and wondering whether you should include Conn Iggulden as a comp author. Your commercial instincts will be telling you that you don’t really have enough audience crossover with this author as your books don’t have quite as much action, but your Inner Artist will seductively whisper, “tryyyyy it.”
BookBub might knock you back for the Historical Fiction list and offer you Action/Adventure instead, which isn’t really a good fit, but your Inner Artist can convince you to make a bad decision. These adjacent audiences are a killer and where we waste most of our money.
But it’s not just wasted money that is the danger here. In fact, with really adjacent audiences you can actually make the sale to that reader who isn’t quite in your target audience. As you should all know by now, this can scramble your Also Boughts, something I have spoken about a lot.
Dangers of Also Bought pollution aside, these are the readers that may be less than happy with your story, and can leave you a bad review. Only a small percentage of readers bother doing that though, the more insidious cost — Also Boughts aside — is the slow corrosion of DNFs and weak-ass sellthrough and strangely low sign-ups to our mailing list and muted page reads after a push of some kind.
The way to combat this is to enshrine that core principle of reader targeting in absolutely everything you do. It’s not just about pointing your ads at the right people, that philosophy has to influence the entire chain. This means your description, your cover, the categories and keywords you choose, the story itself, of course, the way your write your end matter, the manner in which you speak to readers during your onboarding process for your newsletter — all this stuff should be appealing explicitly and exclusively to your target audience.
I think people mostly get the “explicitly” part but often struggle with the “exclusively” part. A simple example: a lot of people fall into the trap of posting things like cat pictures and memes to their Facebook Pages, because these tend to be very popular and generate a lot of engagement. But that popularity is a general one, it’s not unique to your target audience. It’s much better to focus on things that appeal exclusively to your target audience.
Your Inner Artist might be the kind of people pleaser that desperately wants everyone to Like that Facebook Page, but you have to remind yourself that it’s okay to turn people off. You want to repel the people who aren’t your core audience. (This is really important, in fact.)
To ground this more explicitly in the world of books, a snarky first-person blurb might be the perfect way to sell a snarky first-person contemporary romance or urban fantasy, and an excellent way to speak to those particular readers as they join your mailing list, but will be incredibly jarring for third-person epic fantasy or science fiction.
Those readers might mock such blurbs when they see them, or make snide comments about a man-titty cover in romance or a glowy hands cover in urban fantasy but their opinion is irrelevant because it’s not for them — and you certainly don’t want to fall into the trap of sanding down all those distinctive edges in an attempt to appeal to everyone, as you’ll usually end up being so bland that you appeal to no one. Really, those knots and grains in the wood are what make up your voice anyway, the unique fingerprint that makes a book uniquely yours.
It’s not an easy mindset to adopt. There’s barely enough room in our heads as it is between our Inner Artist and Inner Businessperson and all those characters screaming to get out too. Which is why I developed the concept of the Ideal Reader. Or, in true hack style, stole it from Stephen King.
Most of us are familiar with King’s concept of the Ideal Reader — the person you are writing for. It can be someone you actually know (for him, it’s his wife), but more often it’s an idealized person, representative of your target audience.
My “twist” was to take that concept from the artistic part of the process to the commercial side. If you have read my book Strangers to Superfans, you will know that I talk about how to develop this concept of your Ideal Reader and why that’s important. Because once you can put yourself in the shoes of your Ideal Reader, you look at your entire marketing and publishing process with new eyes.
It’s a POV shift, and all writers will know how that can totally change the perception of a scene. And once you look at that journey your Ideal Reader takes, from being completely unaware of you and your work, to being the kind of raving fan that does the selling for you, you will start to identify a number of roadblocks. Failure points, I think I called them in the book, which is such a neat phrase I must have stolen it from someone else. (Chris Fox maybe? Sorry Chris!)
This is all a very diplomatic way of saying that we screw it up all the time.
An interesting contrast is to look at the really huge bestsellers. Often we talk about a kind of “X factor” that these books seem to have, and what I think that truly involves is every single element being in perfect harmony: the product, the presentation, and the promotion. All of it is appealing explicitly and exclusively to the Ideal Reader of that book.
What this means for you on a practical level is that you might not have a clear idea of your Ideal Reader, but even if you do, you might not be aware of the roadblocks that are in place, preventing more of those people you are pointing ads towards becoming true fans of your work. You might be — unwittingly — chaining together a series of those failure points and losing a lot of people along the way.
The good news is that all this can be reversed. And when you flip those failure points into conversion factors, when you optimize each stage of The Reader Journey, the cumulative effect can be incredible.
If you are interested in getting into all that topic a little deeper, check out my book Strangers to Superfans — that link will take you to a page here on this site where you can choose your preferred retailer, and you should find it everywhere for around $4.99, give or take a few pennies where taxes and currencies are involved. It’s also available in paperback, if that’s how you roll.
The key point, though, is this: reader targeting isn’t just something you do with ads. It should be baked in to everything.
The above post was written for my mailing list last summer, but the topic was on my mind recently as I spent a lot of time discussing this with the guys at The Bestseller Experiment podcast, where we got deep into how Amazon works, how important Also Boughts are in the recommendation engine, and why you need to look at reader targeting holistically, so it doesn’t just inform your ads, but the cover and blurb too, as well as the tropes baked into the story itself.
If that last point above intrigues you, check out Chapter 15 of Superfans where I talk to Kit Rocha about how she views branding as an extension of worldbuilding.
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