Who's your Ideal Reader
The next fundamental issue that we wanna think about is who is your ideal reader? Who is this book for? So this is a question, again, a lot of writers never take the time to ask. There's something in the world of writing and publishing that makes it somehow forbidden to think about the marketplace. We have this myth that writing is supposed to happen in an attic room with beautiful windows and the lone genius churning out this beautiful work and then somehow the world magically discovers it and we all come to love it. That's the myth of how publishing is supposed to work. I call it the touched by the hand of god myth or the lighting strike from the sky myth or the Mozart myth really. This idea that genius just happens. And in writing is a particularly entrenched viewpoint that it's somehow not okay to think about who's gonna read this book? Who's gonna buy this book? And I stand in firm opposition to that myth, because writers want to be read. We deeply want to be read. And it doesn't ...
work without a reader. The novelist John Cheever said, I can't write without a reader. It's precisely like a kiss, you can't do it alone. And I think realizing that, that anybody who's called to write wants to be read. And having a reader closes the loop. It allows us to end the process and have resolution to the thing you do. And I know from my own writing career, there is nothing, nothing like impacting a particular reader. Not hundreds of thousands of readers, none of my books got anywhere close to that, but single readers whose lives you impact. Maybe back to that beach read idea, maybe just for a few hours, maybe on an airplane ride. Or maybe in a deeply profound, life-changing way. But what we want is to impact readers, that's the whole gig. So it makes no sense to not think about who that reader is. So in this exercise we wanna really stop and think, okay, who is this person? And the way that I like to ask it is about what that ideal reader wants on a really deep level. What they want out of your story. That's what the ideal reader is. I don't really care how old they are, I don't care where they live, I don't care what hair color they have. None of those things are what we're after here. We're after what do they want? What are they looking for when they find your book, when they come to your book? Readers, I mean, we've all been where this child is, I think she's maybe in the library, looks like a library. Who doesn't love a library? But we've all needed a book in a certain time in our lives and we maybe didn't even know we needed it. But have you had that experience where a book almost falls into your hands or you almost accidentally come across it and it turns out to be exactly the book you need? It's that type of experience that it's very singular. So we wanna really hone in on who is this person and what they're looking for. As I talked before, people come to books for so many reasons. So they wanna be educated, they wanna be entertained, they want solace, they want comfort, they want escape. There's so many different reasons that people come to books. And I want you to know why would somebody come to yours. So the way we get at this is I have in the workbook this kind of mad lib about your ideal reader. And it does start out with those basic things, like how old are they? Is it a man, a woman, a boy or a girl? Where do they live? And this is just for you, for you to start actually envisioning a particular person. And some people in this exercise actually do imagine Aunt Sally or I often have middle grade or YA writers think about a kid who lives on their street or who they know, a friend of a friend. Sometimes I think it's Savannah, where's Savannah? Savannah, in your workbook that I saw you wrote something that I just loved, which was you made your own self the ideal reader, your own younger self your ideal reader. And I just loved that impulse and I think a lot of writers have that impulse of this a book I would've loved when I was 12. This is a book I would've loved when I was 15, when I was 20, when I was 20 whatever. I think that's a great impulse. But the key thing we really wanna get at here is sometimes my ideal reader stays up at night thinking about something. What is obsessing them? What are they worried about? What keeps them up? What do they dream about? That's the key thing we want, because then we know what they're coming to your story for. So if they're up at night worrying about, I mean, there's so many things to worry about in our world right now. And so what do they want? Do they wanna forget about all that for a little while? Do they wanna solve a thing? Do they wanna understand the way somebody else solved it in history? What is that thing that they want? That's the really core piece of it. And then this line, more than anything in the world, my reader wants what, that's the thing. So they're up at night worrying about something and more than anything they want some sort of resolution or comfort or something. And then my book will help my reader get it because. So you wanna know what is my book gonna give them. So this is the most basic version of market research that a writer could do. And it actually tends to make people really nervous, because they think, well wait a second, I. Well, like we talked before with Katy, I've never written anything, I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know if I should be thinking about an ideal reader, because what if I can't write a book. What if it's not good enough, what if it never gets that far. Maybe I shouldn't do that, because that can come later. And I would suggest it's gotta come now, because if you don't think about this ideal reader odds are really good you're gonna write something that doesn't satisfy anybody and that doesn't have the intention that you want it to have. So if you're feeling uncomfortable about this idea of market research that's good, that's what I want. So I have some ways of, oh, this is the ideal reader exercise filled in by one of my clients. And what she said was she had an ideal reader Nicole who's 37 years old, a woman who lives in Brooklyn. She likes to go to the Botanic Gardens. In general she's a confident, upbeat person, but sometimes she stays up at night thinking about whether her life is heading where she wants, whether her family will be safe. That's a pretty big thing to be up at night worrying about. And more than anything in this world she wants to be immersed in a story that gives her hope and strength. And my book will help her get it, because it shows a woman who becomes stronger and wiser despite failing in public and losing what's left of her family of origin. So it is very simple. If you notice it's a cause and effect, it's a question and an answer, it's an open and a close, it's a problem and a resolution. It's built into that, so that you know what you're trying to give your reader. So I wanna just talk a little bit about how you do this if you have no idea. And I have some thoughts about that. Sorry, I'm just gonna go back here, because I was expecting, oh, yes, so let me start again. The second piece of the ideal reader exercise is knowing what else your reader is reading. So that's a really key piece of market research. Readers do not read in isolation. They read a lot of books all at one time. And we wanna get a sense of what she's reading, that woman we just talked about, Nicole. What else is she reading? What's her favorite book? Why does she love that book? What does it mean to her? And what does my book add to that conversation? I like to think about books as, on the shelf, as having a conversation with each other. They're talking to each other. They might be friends, they might be enemies, they might be in debate with each other, but books with these ideas and these arguments are going to have a kind of an energy and a push and pull. So you wanna know. I mean, here's a classic one. Librarians forever are having to answer the question what should my kid read after they read Harry Potter? So that's a perfect example of a conversation, is okay, Harry Potter starts the conversation, what could your book add to that conversation next? That type of thing. Or we're gonna look at a book in a minute that's popular right now, a book about Greek mythology called Circe. What if you stumble upon that book and read it and love it and now you wanna learn more about Greek history or Greek and Roman times or ancient philosophers, where do you go next? So that's what I mean by a conversation and that's what we really wanna get at. And then the last piece of this is what would my ideal reader say after finishing my book? And you want to really try to be specific here. Not just, oh my gosh, it was so great. I mean, that's good. But what would, books are sold by word of mouth. It is still a very old fashioned business. You can't look at an ad for a book most of the time, unless it's a famous author, and feel something for it. Usually you buy books or you read books because somebody tells you it was great. And they usually tell you it was great in a very specific way. I pay attention to this in my own life, because I'm fascinated by this reality about books, I pay attention to why I buy certain books. And for a while I kept a list. Why did I buy that book? Why did I buy the other book? And it was just fascinating, because there was no book on the list that somebody I trusted didn't tell me about. It had to, that was the bottom line. Somebody I trust had to have told me about a book for me to spend my time and I'm a buyer of actual books, so it's like $25 for a hardback book. So if I'm gonna spend $25 and that much time I want some assurance that I'm gonna love it, so it has to be someone I trust. And usually then there was one other trigger, maybe a review I read, maybe something on NPR, maybe something in a magazine, maybe something in a newsletter, but those two elements were always present. And that's what we're trying to get at here. What would your ideal reader say after finishing your book? What would they actually say to their friend to get them to read this book? So that's the second piece of the ideal reader exercise. So now I'm gonna talk about how do you figure out who this ideal reader is and all the books she's reading? She's surrounded by all the books, where does your book fit into that? How do you figure this out? So here's how we explore it. It's gonna be a deep dive into the internet. And the internet is just an amazing tool for a writer. All these databases and tools out there are instantly available to us. We can be so smart. And that's what we're going to talk about. I'm gonna show you how to figure out your ideal reader and what they're reading and what they want. So we start by looking at other books that are doing really well in this category. And we'll take in a little, a few lessons later about genre categories, but I'm gonna pretend for now that you know what your genre is. And you want to go and look at the books that are doing really well. What I've got outlined here is 1,857 customer reviews is a lot. I don't know, when's the last time anyone in this room left an Amazon review? Any hands? So oh you, (laughs) a couple hands, okay. Out of this whole room of people just a couple people have recently left an Amazon review. I don't believe I have ever left an Amazon review, so the fact that that many people actually went and did it means a lot. And you can begin to pay attention to things like that to see what books are doing well. This function or feature of frequently bought together is just a goldmine. Because now you've got a universe, who else buys this book? They buy this, they buy these other ones. That goes to that discussion we were just having about the librarian. What do I read after I read this book? And that's what the answer is. So you're beginning to build a universe where your book is part of. Then you wanna dig even further down into, I crossed this out, because there's a sponsored items on Amazon now, we don't want that. We want customers who bought this item also bought, that's what we wanna really dig down into and start looking at what's on that list. And when you, I think of it as, some people call it a rabbit hole, because you fall down a rabbit hole and three hours later you realize, oh, I've just been playing around on the internet for the whole afternoon. But it's market research, so if anybody comes in and says, what are you doing? That's what you can say, I'm doing market research. So we're gonna drill down into these books. And what you can do if you don't even know where to begin. So I happen to know in this YA category right now that this book, The Hate U Give, is very popular. If you don't know, Barnes & Noble has a fantastic resource, it's just their Books tab, this is just their main tab. There's a Books tab. You can go to Barnes & Noble Teen Blog, you could go to the New York Times Bestsellers. There's all these genre categories. There's all kinds of top 100, books by authors, classics, you could spend days drilling down into your general area. So you just start in the universe and you start drilling down. So what I did here was I went to their Teen Blog. So what's on the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog on this particular day? And what's going on there? And you can start getting a sense of that universe and what's happening. And I just think even this headline is telling, teen readers share the last books they loved, Fandom, the Afterlife, and the Darkness Within. You start getting a sense of what teen readers are looking for in contemporary literature. That's how I got to even picking that book that I picked. And you can see then on the bestseller list here's that book that I picked to show you. You can see the other books that are in that universe that are selling well. And this is just a fantastic way to start understanding okay, what is my reader, my ideal reader reading? What are they looking for? What is happening out there in the universe of these books? And that gives you the power to fill in that last sheet we talked about. And this was mine client Kate, the one that who wrote about the woman up at night worrying about her family, the books that this writer chose as other ones in the universe that her ideal reader is reading. The Handmaid's Tale, The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer, The Color Purple. So you can just see from those three books where this book she's writing is gonna rest, where it's gonna fit, what it's gonna have a conversation with. I ask about which is the favorite and why does this reader love this book. And this is an opportunity to leverage those other books. You probably have read them or you will read them or you can spend time reading all the comments that people write about the book just to get a sense of why they love it. And you want to really just think about that. So what Kate says is that her ideal reader liked The Female Persuasion best of all, because it balances larger themes about justice and equality with one woman's struggle to find her voice. Also, it's the one most recently published, so it's fresh in her mind. So this doesn't have to be rocket science. It's just an idea. What's her favorite book in this world? And then what is your book gonna add to the conversation? So Kate says, my book is about a woman, unlike these other books, my book is about a woman who opens the story with consideral power, rather than the struggle to gain it. So that's kind of an interesting twist. It's the story of privilege learning to let go of power long enough to listen. Similar to the other books, my book explores what makes a family and what makes families, and what families are worth keeping. So you can see, she's really starting to understand what she wants to do in her own book. And do you notice we haven't talked for one second about plot. We don't even know what this woman's book is about. We don't even know the idea of it. We're just trying to get a sense of what's her point? What does her reader need? What's the universe that this story exists in? And you can answer all those questions even if your idea is super fuzzy, but it helps you get so much clarity and grounding. So finally, what would my ideal reader say after finishing my book. In this case, she would say, I can change or even get rid of relationships that aren't working for me any longer. I have power. How am I using it? I wanna be brave like Tyler, that's her main character. She survived humiliation, so I could risk it too. You need to read this book, so we can talk about the choices we've made. What an amazing thing to say to a friend. You need to read this book, so we can talk about the choices we've made. That's what I mean about what would you say, what would somebody say about your book? Maybe we've sold ourselves short or some of what bugs us doesn't need to be part of our lives any longer. And I really need to tell you that this one big thing I told you isn't exactly true, but I can't talk about it until you finish the book. So that's an ideal reader who's saying I want you to read this book, because I need to have an important conversation with you and it's gonna be easier if we do it around this book than if I just have this conversation with you. That is profound to know before you even start to write. Can you begin to see what this book is gonna be? Like we have no idea, but you know it's gonna involve a woman who's got power, who's got privilege, she's gonna be questioning that, she's gonna have some secret revealed about her. You can begin to see the whole thing and we don't even know a thing about it. So that's why this is so important to do. So I want you to take about 30 minutes to do that internet research and I put that very short time limit on it, because as I said before, you can spend days doing this. I don't think there's anything wrong with spending days doing this, but just to give yourself a little test, a little test of the waters, we want you to just at least start. So are there any questions about this research or this idea of the ideal reader? Any questions about how that goes? You guys feel, yes?
I've read a lot of these things, not necessarily ideal reader, but in marketing and query letters they want you to say, compare your book to other books on the market. And the thing that drives me crazy is to see something like, well my book is like Catcher in the Rye meets Jane Eyre. And I don't get it. I see where you're coming from and that works for me, but trying to do that kind of thing does not work for me and I find it really disconcerting. Would you be able to address that?
Yeah, I think it's an excellent point. So what you're talking about is when we go to pitch a book to agents or editors that's what's called a query letter. The pitch is a query letter. And what you're talking about are called comp titles, meaning comparable titles. So one of the first things that an agent or an editor is going to do when they evaluate a book is to see what titles, comp titles like it, how they sold. They're gonna go, how many books did that sell? If they don't know or they're gonna remind themselves. So that's the purpose of the comp titles is to really place the book in a particular marketplace. And I know exactly what you're talking about, that sort of mashup of titles that people do in query letters and it's a very popular thing to do to discuss the comp titles. I agree with you, I sometimes have a hard time picturing what the mashup is, especially if I don't know one of the books really well. The two that you just mentioned I do know well and for me I don't have an immediate picture. So I understand some people don't kind of think in that way, which is fine. What you would wanna just do instead is say something like my book, or readers of this book would enjoy my book. That kind of conversation idea. Somebody who likes this book would like my book. Or after they read this series they might take mine. So saying the comp titles in a slightly simpler way, not the mashup way, is another way to do this. But that's part of the exact same work that we're doing here. It's market research. You wanna know what's out there, you wanna know what else your book is like. Oftentimes I have writers balk at doing this at all and they say things like no one has ever written a book like mine. And they say, my book is so complex and it's so intricate and it's just so uniquely mine that there is nothing that has ever been like it. That's actually not a good thing to say in the pitch process, because it makes people nervous. They want your book to be like other books, that's how they get comfort in the sales process. And usually you're wrong. Usually there are many books that are like yours, but yours is unique in all the ways that each one of us are unique. So I hope that answers your question a little bit. One thing that I could say is that there's so many rules in publishing, there's these like myths and ideas and rules, and one other thing I'm trying to do is break down, some of them are true, but really it's just you have to do the work, that's really all it comes down to. There's no mysteries or rules that you can't, that anybody can't actually meet, it's totally a doable thing. I help people every day sell their books, get agents, get book deals. It's completely possible. And it's not like you have to know someone, it's not like you have to, people get really caught up in oh, can my query letter be 251 words or does it have to be 250 words. They get caught up in these minutia rules and there are guidelines to any industry of course and you wanna be professional, but it's, the first thing is to write a good story. (laughs) So that's what we're gonna still focus on.