A few weeks ago I saw a new post on one of the Writing Forums I follow. It was a new author asking for advice on how to help boost sales on a book he recently published. A very honest question that all writers often scratch their brains over.
A few of us flocked over to this post, honestly wanting to help. But in order to give the best advice, we had to know one key thing:
"Who is your audience?"
The author promptly replied, "I don't have one."
I could feel us all letting out a light-hearted chuckle from over the keyboard. "Allow me to rephrase. Who is your INTENDED audience?"
Author: "I don't know."
Now I could feel the icy cold grip of horror grab onto all of us from across the screen...
It's one thing to start writing for yourself, not even thinking about the potential of anyone reading it. We get our rawest ideas out that way. The very emotional power of a journal, the heart of a song, the impact of a poem. All of these are very good things, and they are good things because they already cater to the question above: "Who is your audience?" You are!
When you take that leap into expecting people to give you money for what you've created, whether that's in writing or in any other industry, you have to realize that most people only want to part with their money if something enhances their life in some way. I don't mean profoundly life changing; we buy a chocolate bar because it brings us momentary pleasure, not because it keeps helps us live longer. An emotional or intellectual connection to something is something that people crave; it gives us a little spark in our day. To follow the metaphor, there are a LOT of kinds of chocolate bars out there; people do not have to just buy the first one that they see on the shelf (though some might). You are trying to sell a brand new chocolate bar in a world full of already established and much-loved chocolate bars. Just because you enjoy chocolate and peanut butter covered dill pickles does not mean that the world will see the appeal and shove their money at you for gifting them this wonderful, much-needed invention. If you want to sell such an item, you have to know who will buy it.
To return to the story, many tried to lead this author to tell us something about this work he published. What genre is it? ("I don't know. It isn't really a genre."). What age group is it for? ("My age, I guess. But anyone really.") What already existing work is it similar to? ("Nothing I know of.")
So here was the predicament. How do you get people to want something that was never meant for them in the first place?
The answer is: Not easily.
While you might be able to win over a few new consumers who are up for a gamble or who are feeling charitable, you certainly won't be in the position to quit your day job.
So what went wrong?
Writing is for the self. Selling is for the consumer.
Whether you are writing for your job, for your essay assignment, or for that next book deal, your revision stage is where you put your audience glasses on.
1) Who is this product going to appeal to most?
2) What do these people already know?
3) How is my work going to expand upon something they already enjoy?
If you are marketing your chocolate and peanut butter covered dill pickle because you believe the world would be better for it, you aren't going to start with the peanut-free crowd. You are going to find out where the pickle-lovers are, how to reach them, and how to get your product into their hands.
When it comes to promotion, there is not one right answer. The older crowd probably isn't going to stumble upon your Twitter ads. The younger crowd probably isn't going to see your spotlight on the Shopping Channel. Sure you could book a promotional table at the local vegan cafe, but if your book is "10 Ways To Skin a Rabbit", you probably aren't in the right place at the right time to make a sale.
Keep narrowing down what you know about your audience:
- What is the age range?
- What is the education level?
- What is the shared experience?
- What are their common beliefs?
I was asked to critique a Christian novel once - trust me, I asked very clearly if she was 100% certain that she wanted me to read it, and that she specifically wanted me to read it for the Christian content of it. "Well, okay, Lady. If you're sure." So I did.
I cannot criticize this writer one ounce. She wrote her first draft for her and then sought input from others for her revisions. She needed to branch out from her perspectives and into the mindset of her potential readers. She knew one thing about her audience: they didn't have to be Christian when they started the book. That's why she asked me to read it. She did not have a large circle of non church going people in her life and she needed to see it from that side.
I read it and gave her my report. It was a very Christian book, but it did not serve either of her audiences well. It was trying to convert Christians to Christianity. There was not enough substance of non-believer for the miraculous understanding of God's love to be profound. For a Christian it was obvious, there was no other way for events to turn out: they will see it was God's plan all along.
Could she have moved forward with her novel as is? Sure. Why not.
Could she have put this book in every home with it as is? Doubtful.
She could have an audience without revising her book. Herself and people like herself who are happy to have literature that just reaffirms what they already believe. And that's fine. Harlequin makes a lot of money re-telling the same story. So does R.L. Stein. But they know how to appeal to the audience they want. This author wanted a broader audience.
Your business proposal has to appeal to the stakeholders you want to do business with. Your essay has to appeal to the sensibilities of your instructor. Your novel has to be of interest to the people you are asking to invest in it.
Why should they buy this product from me?
If your answer is "because I need money," then you need to go back to the drawing board, badly.
If you want a generic best-seller, sell a copy of something that people already love. But if you believe in that chocolate covered peanut butter dill pickle bar, you need to find out who, aside from yourself, enjoys them, and then you go to where they are! You might not make a killing at the local gas station, but you might sell a few cases outside of the maternity clinic!