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VII. How to Define Your Audience

Oct 24, 2013 by Amy Benson Brown

Who is the primary audience for your book? Obviously, identifying this audience will be essential to marketing the book effectively. But it can also help you move past thorny questions that often stall authors in the process of developing their manuscripts.

Understanding your audience is a kind of “X” factor that can enhance your ability to resolve many of the challenges this blog has explored—from articulating your project’s “rationale” and why it matters, to finding appropriate presses and effectively organizing the contents to maximize your book’s coherence Being able to imagine your audience’s level of familiarity with your topic and the likely assumptions or biases of this audience can help you make critical decisions about what evidence you must include and how to present it in compelling ways for your readership.

Being realistic, though, about who is most likely to read your book is critical. Because authors are often passionate about their work, it may be tempting to imagine that it will appeal both to specialists and a more general audience of well-educated readers. A book that tries to please everyone often truly succeeds with no one, however. It may help you to realize that your book is not necessarily the only book you will ever write. If this project succeeds, it can in fact build a stronger platform for your credibility, which may open doors to other projects and additional audiences.

To help you think in realistic and concrete terms of who might be likely readers for your book, try some of the following exercises:

  • Make up a list of professional societies whose members’ interests intersect with your book’s topic.
  • Make a list of undergraduate or graduate courses for which your book may be appropriate.
  • Browse reviews of recent books in your field. Pay attention to how reviewers describe the usefulness of each of these books to particular sub-fields or groups of practicing professionals.
  • Check out the book-jacket copy of books you consider to be models for your project. Pay special attention to any mention of readers who would benefit from each of these books. Then, imagine how you might write your own book-jacket copy.

Being realistic about your primary audience often requires considering two additional issues.

  • Does your concept of your audience align well with your larger career goals? In other words, what do you want this book to do for you in terms of your career? Many universities, for instance, tend to discount books written for broad or nonacademic audiences when it comes to tenure and promotion.
  • Some of the most interesting scholarship today is interdisciplinary in nature. Because publishers, like universities, retain some of the traditional divisions among fields in the ways they categorize projects, interdisciplinary books sometimes still face special hurdles. If you face this challenge, look for rhetorical strategies as you develop your manuscript to help you speak effectively across the disciplines that constitute your audience.

Answers to these questions about audience, of course, must be tailored to your individual project and career goals. I encourage authors to actively seek out conversations to help them discern the most reasonable primary and secondary audiences for their projects. Consider discussing these questions with academic mentors and colleagues who have recently published similar books. You might also explore these questions with coaches who specialize in academic writing and editorial contacts at scholarly presses.

Finally, if you believe your book may be best suited for a broader audience—readers beyond, as well as within, the academy—you may want to consult a professional literary agent. The concluding blog in this series takes up the subject of books that cross over to that fabled land of “general readers.” Stay tuned for some tips to help you decide it that’s really the right avenue for you.
 

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