Janey Burton


Editor & Contracts Negotiator

‘Who’s the audience for this book?’ One of the most important questions a publisher asks when considering whether to publish a book is about its intended audience. Who is it for? Which people will need, or at least want, this book?

The answer helps a publisher see where the book fits into the wider publishing landscape. Where will it get shelved in a bookshop? Which groups of people will the marketing team need to target, and how? How will the publisher get attention for this book, among the hundreds of thousands of others published this year? [1]

When they’re trying to get a book published and are asked about their book’s audience, there can be a tendency among authors to assume the best thing they could do would be to target as wide a section of the population as possible. And so when asked, ‘Who’s the audience for your book?’ they reply ‘Everyone!’ [2]

No book’s audience is ‘Everyone!’

Saying their book’s audience is ‘Everyone!’ makes sense to the author because, of course, they don’t want to miss out on a sale from a person they haven’t targeted, and those books that are a big success appeal to a wide range of people – it can often seem like everyone is reading and talking about the same book at the same time.

But this is a mistake, and I’ll explain why.

Firstly, there just aren’t any books that ‘everyone’ has read, so there are no existing examples of a book that is for ‘everyone’.

Think about it. What’s a book that ‘everyone’ would read?

Maybe a GCSE or other text for schoolchildren? We all went to school, didn’t we, so that seems like a safe bet. But there’s a selection of books the teachers can choose, so not all students are reading the same books, even in the same year.

The Da Vinci Code? It sold 80 million copies worldwide, which is more than the total population of the UK (66 million). So lots and lots of people have read it, certainly, but still nothing close to everyone – I’m sure you know at least one person who hasn’t and, furthermore, flatly refuses to.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? A better guess, at 120 million copies.

Let’s widen the search to include anything by a bestselling author. Perhaps something by Agatha Christie, Queen of Crime? She’s the bestselling novelist of all time! Surely everyone has read one, just one, of Agatha Christie’s eighty-five books? But no.

Some people don’t read fiction, of course, and Harry Potter books are aimed at younger people, and murder mysteries aren’t for everyone … maybe these aren’t the right examples.

OK then – how about The Bible, isn’t that the bestselling book of all time? True, and it’s sold around 5 billion copies, so that’s a majority of the (currently living) population of the world! Still, the billions of people of other faiths, or no faith, are unlikely to read it. Its audience is still not wide enough for it to be something that ‘everyone’ reads.

Do you see the problem? Each of these books or authors appeals to millions of people, but the fact remains that (of the people who can and do read books) they don’t all read the same books.

A book’s audience is specific

Instead, these books appeal to different groups of people. Christians are likely to have a Bible in the house. Schoolchildren may own (and possibly even read) a copy of a play by Shakespeare. Small business owners might read marketing books. Men might read military history and horror novels. Women prefer fiction, especially crime and romance.

That’s not just conjecture, either. I’m not relying on a few stereotypes to describe people’s reading habits. These questions have been researched, and an aspiring author can find out the answers.

Women read more than men – on average, fourteen books a year to men’s nine – and buy more novels in all categories except science fiction, fantasy and horror. Men prefer non-fiction: biography, history, memoir. Men strongly prefer male authors, while women prefer their own gender but will also read books by men.

These are really broad ways of segmenting the potential audience for a book, but already we can see that aiming a book at ‘everyone’ is just not realistic.

In fact, it’s worse than that. If you try to pitch your book to ‘everyone’, you’re really pitching to no one.

A pitch that tries to capture everyone’s attention is going to be vague and diffuse, where what’s wanted is precise and concentrated. Such a pitch won’t appeal to anyone’s intellect, let alone their emotions (and that’s where the real buying decisions are made).

‘Everyone’ is nobody in particular.

You’re much better off appealing to groups of people, audiences, in particular.

Addressing the book’s audience in your submission

When putting together your submission materials, whether it be a pitch letter for your novel, or a proposal for a non-fiction title, be explicit about the book’s intended audience.

The agent or publisher will ask: ‘Who is the audience for this book?’ You need to answer that question as precisely as possible.

Consider and research the type of person who will be interested in your book. Their age and gender will be relevant, but you can go further. Their location might be relevant. What are their related interests? Their level of education or socioeconomic status?

And, of course, which books does that kind of person read? If they enjoyed that, will they enjoy this? A really precise comparable title is a great way to outline your book’s audience immediately. It tells the agent or publisher exactly where your book belongs.

It’s especially vital for self-publishing authors to align their book with its audience and make their book discoverable by them. When it’s time to list your book’s categories and keywords on retail platforms, you need to pick the ones that are relevant, have traffic, and aren’t too competitive – it’s not an easy mix to create.

Going too broad (or too narrow) won’t help your sales. You need to pick the categories and keywords your audience is searching for and will buy from.

Before you start sending off your pitch letter or proposal, or upload your self-published book, you might want a mini consultation with me to make sure you’re doing the best possible job of answering the question: ‘Who is your book’s audience?’

[1] 188,000 books are published in the UK each year. That’s a lot of competition.

[2] Some authors are writing primarily for themselves and can get a little haughty when asked about their book’s audience – their motivation is not commercial success, but artistic expression, and so they’re keen to let me know that they’re going to do this their own way and not pander to the vulgarities of the market. But I am not suggesting here that anyone should write with a purely commercial attitude or focus on the audience to the exclusion of their own interests. On the other hand, writing without reference to your audience by no means guarantees that others will be interested in what you’ve produced. The author who writes only for themselves and disregards the reader may find far fewer people are willing to indulge them.

This article was first posted on 1st August 2021.