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.
* * * * * *
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
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Excellent piece! Thank you, Kathleen.
Thank you C.S.! BTW I love your website. Very on trend and visually clear about what you write. Kudos!!
Good morning. How do you find YOUR readers?
I have to admit that most of the time, I'm still looking for mine!
LOL, as are we all, Deleyna.
I love my readers but I'd always like to meet more.
I just ran into a few more this week by offering a temporarily free book. Which is another way to meet like-minded readers. It's like a dutch blind date. Not every reader will fall in love with the type of book I write. Some will.
Finding each other is exhilerating.
I agree! Each time you meet a true fan, it is delightful as you get to share your creations with others who love them!
I use a fair amount of humor in my writing. It's nearly a compulsion with me and readers enjoy it.
Regarding bad reviews. I've found it helpful to read the reviewer's comments on other writer's work. There are some folks out there that say bad things about most writers. Something to keep in mind.
Wonderful post. Thank you!
So true, Ellen. Great advice. That 3% are usually negative in most of their reviews.
I love humor in my fiction. I’m sure your readers do too.
Thank you for this. It was invaluable. I know I write for a niche, but I've struggled to pin it down and, more importantly, its readers. I'm ever closer, but this will help a lot. I know that it's other world historical fantasy and is, I believe, unique. At least, I seem to exist in a void between sub genres (hopefully, void isn't the right word). It's past time for me to investigate this since my series (among other books) is drafted. Thank you again!
I’m so glad it was helpful, Christina. And having a niche like yours puts you in a good marketing position. It is a unique theme that you can clearly state for prospective readers.
Enjoy the investigation. It will be helpful. And maybe even surprising and freeing. It was for me.
Great way to figure out some simple analytics.
I have never thought of approaching readership this way. THIS IS AWESOME. 🙂
Thank Jenny! I'm so happy you like the concept.
It's a game-changer for me. Getting to know what facets of the story my readers fell in love with in my work was eye-opening and freeing. It became a "do-more-of-that scenario."
Learning who I am really writing to, and the elements they love most, also helped me let go of readers who didn't love what I'm doing. They aren't my audience.
Here's another great benefit. In most cases, there is a huge audience for very specific nuances within genres. How cool is that? Connecting with more of those readers became my new goal which changed my marketing significantly.
Good tips all. I thought I was doing everything possible on GR, but I hadn't checked out what MY followers and reviewers there also read - because I thought I knew the majority of them.
I will remedy that. Thanks.
On GoodReads I visit the reviews for a group of standard classics that seem to be a part of the background of potential readers. For example, I look for readers who give Jane Eyre 5* - and also read some classic SF (Dune or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). If there is enough overlap, I'll craft an individual letter using those books and their reviews. After I follow their reviews for a while, if they are both consistent and write well, I may decide to ask if they would like an electronic ARC.
People with a solid classics background usually are flexible and looking for carefully crafted novels to sink their eye-teeth in.
It takes a lot of work, but has a 30-50% success rate. For me, writing mainstream as an indie, standard indie marketing techniques haven't resulted in many sales, but when I can persuade someone to read, the results have been very good long reviews. Those I've asked have always allowed me to use their lovely words for marketing.
Fascinating approach Alicia!
Thank you for contributing it. Mainstream is tough to break into. Kudos to you for developing a creative approach for reaching potential readers.
Intriguing niche readership group you're looking for; Dune enthusiasts and Jane Eyre lovers. Quite the extreme crossover. But I'm sure they're out there. May the force be with you on finding them.
Yes, Goodreads, Bookbub, & Amazon will definitely help you identify some of those unique crossover readers. And finding out who else they read will broaden your reach. You'll especially want to note any repetition as you compare their reading lists.
I'd love to hear how your investigation turns out. Email me if you wouldn't mind sharing your results.
I find my best readers among the omnivores who read the good stuff in every genre that interests them - and it usually includes a lot of reading as a child. They're not unique - they are just not as common as the readers who prefer a huge volume in a couple of genres, such as SFF or Romance.
Most writers get their best readers from people who like how they write - and that often comes from a common childhood reading background. So I'm looking for people like me - they're out there, but they don't usually search on Amazon.
Dune is amazingly well written; GWTW pulls me in every time I get too close to it; Colleen McCullough's fans like big books - which is what I write. Those readers may like what I do. They're also extremely skittish about new material, because they've been burned too many times (as I have).
I'll email you.
I am right there with you about Dune. It is one of my all time favorites.
Yours is an intriguing approach, searching for people who like what you read as a child. I've been primarily focusing in on readers who like what I write and learning what in particular they like, and then trying to appeal to readers of a like mind.
Big categories like Romance may sound simple, and certainly they are easier to dissect than mainstream which is extremely broad. That said, even Romance has hundreds of fine-tuning aspects. For instance, sweet versus steamy, historical vs contemporary, historical funny vs historical deadly-serious, or alternate history with a touch of fantasy, or... well the list is miles long. Same with SFF. Do they love shape-shifting animals or shape-shifting aliens or maybe shape-shifting alien vampires who can roam the streets in the day time? Do they prefer humorous alien or super dark horror-like aliens?
Understanding these seemingly lower order nuances helps a writer hone in on their readers' preferences and then market to other readers who share that preference.
Sometimes it seems that readers who are that definite about what they want to read are limiting themselves, but we're in the middle of a pandemic, and this really counts a comfort reading: no shocks, no surprises, nothing which makes the reader unhappy. It makes a lot of sense - and we're soon to be heading into a third year.
I've built in something different: as my beta reader will tell you, you get another level each time you read Purgatory, and I'm building that same degree of complexity into Netherworld. It's an incredible amount of work, especially for someone like me, but it is a commitment I've undertaken that gets around writing I can't do - fast and voluminous.
Now that Netherworld is coming, I expect a fair number of previous readers to do exactly that - re-read Purgatory first, and add to their interior world.
I'm at abehrhardt at gmail. A quick search didn't turn up your email address - would you please send it?
Alicia, you are so amazing. I would NEVER have thought of doing this, and your success rate is massive. Keep doing what you're doing, girl. You have stories to tell!
If you knew how much effort ONE approach takes, you'd be less impressed: remember all this work may get me ONE reader, and a possible review. And a new friend. Check out David Rose's review on PURGATORY, and you'll see what I mean. He recommended me to two friends, one of whom read and reviewed. He's allowed me to use his wonderful words.
That's okay! One reader can turn into ten if she tells her like-minded friends about your books (Sorry to post this twice.I meant to reply to Alicia.)
I haven't snowballed yet. It may be partly because reading Purgatory is a many-hour commitment, and people hesitate to recommend very long books. Dunno.
Just found Rose's review. Wow--this is fabulous. Kudos. And he knew exactly who to recommend your book to, based on what it offers the reader. Excellent example. Great review!
It is - I am blown away by his kindness AND his reviewing. It takes real time and effort to produce a review like that.
Another one I'm very fond of is Jennifer Jackson's Indies Today review - amazing level of depth.
It is almost scary when reviewers do that.
So much useful information packed into this post. Thank you so much for sharing your heard-earned knowledge with us. And thanks to those who made further helpful comments.
Thanks Julia! It's been great hearing some of these other approaches.
That's okay! One reader can turn into ten if she tells her like-minded friends about your books.
Thanks for this post. It came at a great time when my focus is marketing the books I have published and successful targeting is the only way to make it in this business. I admit not drilling down and researching my Bookbub and Goodreads followers. A goldmine of info—thanks for reminding me. Great blog.
BTW your website looks fun. Lovely covers. Have fun drilling down. It is an eye-opener and helps soooo much with marketing effectively.
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