by Kathleen Baldwin
How well do you know your readers? If you’re not published, how well do you know your potential readers?
It always surprises me when I ask that question and get blank stares from the writers in my classes. This is a vitally important question. You may think you are writing for whoever will read your books, or readers who like such and such genre—but it is more than that. So much more!
Some writers boldly protest that they are not writing for anyone else—only to please themselves. Cool. If you don’t mind having an audience of one, that’s the way to go. Most of us hope for more than that after having invested six months of our lives writing the book. Not only that, but many of us need to make a living doing this writing thing. Hence, sales are kind of important.
I’m going to lay some equations on you. I love applying math to esoteric concepts. So, hang on to your calculators. Here goes…
Knowing Your Readers = Increased Sales
Knowing + Marketing to Your Readers = 10 x Increased Sales
And here’s a shocker. No, not really. Here’s a reality that authors and writers try to pretend is not true.
Readers are changing. Yep. That’s right, we’re not writing novels for your grandmama’s reader, assuming the dear lady was also an author. (She was in my case. Even my great-grandmother was a writer. Which is why I swore I was going to be a doctor. Look where that landed me. Ha! Right back on the ole writing homestead.)
Big news! Even the grandmas of the world have changed. Readers are motile evolving entities. And wow! They have made some massive changes in the last decade. So even if you think you know who your readers are—they may have changed!
Until 2019 readership was declining, especially among younger readers. From 2005 to 2019, America saw a 26% decrease in reading. Eeeeek! That upsetting data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Fear not, my pen-worthy pals. I have great news—during Covid, reading increased 21% and the big demographic to improve was 15 - 44-year-olds. Hooray! (That cheery nugget is from Publisher’s Weekly) I could fling more stats at you, but I’m not going to because readership levels aren’t the important thing here. Finding YOUR readers, despite whatever changes come our way, is the key to writerly contentment.
There are a whopping 1.769 BILLION readers out there in the huge world-wide market. I’m willing to bet the farm that they aren’t all reading your books. I know they all aren’t reading mine. Yet, I’m still very happy with my cherished and devoted readers. It is unreasonable to expect that you will sell to every reader. So, I’ll rephrase my axiom: Finding YOUR readers is the path to contentment and success as a writer.
Let us indulge in more math…
Mystery/Suspense/Thriller readers constitute one of the bigger fiction genres. How many of those readers are there? An estimated 583.7 million. Whoa! Nice.
Let’s dig in. How many of those readers like cozy mystery? About 190 million. And of that subcategory, how many like books with clever cats padding through the crime scene? Close to 30 million. If you sold 30 million books, I think you’d be pretty happy, right? Now speculate on how many of those readers crave recipes served up with their mystery?
I am not saying you should write recipes, or cats, or anything in any of these categories.
I AM saying that if you write cozy mysteries with animals, you ought to find out if your readers love dogs in their novels or cats. Unless you only want to write about cats. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
There are ways to find out…
First, though, do you enjoy writing about metaphorical cats, or do you prefer allegorical dogs? Maybe you prefer penning cleverly cooked up crime.
Here’s the thing, whether you like writing about robots fighting zombie invasions on Mars or empathic witches flying rocket ships back in time to the Victorian era, the key is making a marriage between you and your readers.
Marry what you love to write with readers who love to read what you write.
Except it isn’t simple. Not simple at all. Authors face the same problem anyone does when trying to find a mate. How and where do you run into each other? Bookstores, Book fairs, online dating? Blind dates. How?
Apart from judiciously asking questions of fans who email you (while being careful to respect their privacy), one of the easiest ways to evaluate your readership is on Goodreads. I know, I know, lots of authors shy away from Goodreads because the reviewers there are brutal. Except don't look at Goodreads like a popularity contest. Ergh! No, think of it as a free marketing tool. Huzzah! We love free stuff.
Goodreads is the perfect place to study the readers who follow you and have read your books. There are several methods for doing this.
Examine the followers on your author page. I’ll show you how to find them using my author page as an example. Your followers’ list is available here:
Click on one of your books and study the positive reviews. Investigate what the readers who love your stories are saying. Note any repeated terms. Find a common thread. You can learn what type of stories these same readers love by looking at the other books that those same readers have liked and reviewed. Watch for repeated books among your reviewers—you're searching for commonality.
If you are not yet published, study readers of books that closely resemble what you write. Assess their readers’ likes and dislikes by their reviews. Are there prevalent favored themes? Heavily admired character types? What other similarities can you find? Be sure to look at a large enough sample of readers so your data will be a reliable interest gauge. 25 to 50 readers should give you a fairly reliable idea of preferences.
If you find true commonality with some of these other authors, you will want to cross-pollinate with them. Perhaps you know this author and can ask her for a blurb, or offer to do a newsletter swap when your book comes out. Recommend her books on Goodreads and Bookbub, or post/blog about her books, and you may attract like-minded readers.
Another great way to learn what makes your reader tick is to examine your Amazon reviews. Here again, focus on positive reviewers, hunt for what YOUR readers like. Search for repeated terms. As mentioned previously, if you’re not yet published, study reviews of authors whose work is similar to yours. Study what those readers say they love, and you might want to look at what they dislike as well.
PLEASE NOTE: I caution you against looking at your book's negative reviews because most authors cannot handle the level of meanness and pettiness some readers dish out on Goodreads and Amazon. It can easily discourage you. Sometimes it can take hours, days, weeks, or even months to get over a particularly foul review. You need to develop a thick skin in this business, but at the same time, don’t walk in front of the firing squad and expect you won't get wounded.
You have to deal with enough unavoidable criticism without allowing yourself get punched by what I call the 3% bitter petty meanies.
Check it out; look up one of your favorite books. There will be 2-3% haters on almost every book. Even Harry Potter has 2% 1 Star reviews and 1% 2 stars = 3% haters. The popular Bridgerton series hit #3 on the Amazon bestseller lists during its recent streaming video fame, yet it had 2% 1 star and 2% 2 Stars ratings = 4% haters. Tom Sawyer has 5% haters, depending upon which version.
Go ahead, check your favorite book’s ratings. (Not your own) You'll see what I mean.
BookBub is another excellent place to learn about your readers. BookBub offers reviewers the option to select predetermined story aspects that have made them happy. For instance, I noted that while most of my reviewers were pleased with the romance, there were numerous terms relating to funniness, such as the ones I underlined below. Witty. Laughed-out-loud. There were so many humor-related comments that I loosened up when writing the next book in that series and allowed my humorous side free reign. Before this discovery, I’d tried to keep my cheekiness in check. I’d held back.
I will use my own small experiment as an example
The upshot is this: IT PAYS TO KNOW YOUR READER. (Did I repeat that enough times?
Stay true to the promise of your brand. Knowing what your readers want allows you to make minor adjustments toward trends as long they are changes that are true to you as a writer and that you genuinely enjoy writing. Do that, and YOUR readers will gobble up your work.
I hope what you’ve garnered from this article is not to write what you think some unknown reader out there wants, but instead to find out what YOUR readers love that you already do and do more of that. This is a super positive thing. It means: be more you!
What is it your readers love about what you write? Do you keep them on the edge of their seat, biting their nails down to a nubbin? Do you challenge their thinking with philosophical metaphors? Are your characters so magical we can’t wait to see what they do next? Tell me. I want to know.
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Kathleen Baldwin is an award-winning author with more than 600,000 copies of her books in the hands of readers around the globe. Her books have been translated into several languages, and a Japanese publisher even made Lady Fiasco into a manga. Stranje House, her alternate history series for teens was licensed by Scholastic for school book fairs and optioned for film by Ian Bryce, producer of Spiderman, Transformers, Saving Private Ryan, and other blockbuster films.
Kathleen will be discussing more about finding your reader in her upcoming is workshop, The Future of Storytelling, at Margie Lawson Writer’s Academy
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