The Marketing Paradox: Start Small to Get Big

Start small to get bigHave the following thoughts ever crossed your mind?

  • My book has a broad audience and could be enjoyed by anyone.
  • I don’t want to be pigeon holed—I want to attract all types of readers.
  • If my book could get promoted on [big-name TV show], everyone would see how widely appealing my work is.
  • When extra-terrestrials land, they’ll become a new audience for my book!

Okay, maybe not that last one. But new authors often believe their potential audience is very broad.

I don’t want to squelch anyone’s ambitions, but this attitude does not make for a workable marketing strategy.

You may have dreams of reaching millions, but to reach millions, you have to start with the people who are your target market or demographic. Or, you have to think like a marketer:

  1. Define your target market.
  2. Position your book for that market.
  3. Develop an appropriate marketing mix for that target market (marketing mix defines where you plan to be active in reaching your audience)

If you try to be everything to everyone, you end up being nothing at all.

Side note example: Professional marketers have long used the VALS psychographic segmentation to help them identify their target market and position their products. (Click here to take a survey and uncover how marketers stereotype you!) While I don’t think this is approach makes much sense for books and authors, seeing this tool should help get you in the right mindset to define your market. Plus, what I want you take away is this: Even mass-marketed brands and companies have a target market. They are trying to appeal to specific people with each campaign.

Some authors want to remain free of genre labels, or want to be open to many types of readers. That’s well and good—as well as a common and logical desire. But it’s also one that you have to fight against when it comes to marketing.

Paradoxically, a strong marketing strategy and communication, especially for new authors, is to target as narrowly as possible and establish that core readership. You want to talk to the MOST interested people first—your best prospects—to avoid wasting time and energy in the initial stages.

You gain a large audience by starting with a small core, then letting the ripples grow. Don’t try to go broad, then narrow. It usually works in reverse.

Photo credit: Flickr / Jackal of all trades


About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. This fall, she's proud to be offering two creative nonfiction courses from experienced university writing professorsFind out more.


  1. says

    Jane, thanks for another insightful post. First time authors must be strategic in targeting the right audience for their work, as you suggest. They should also value and maintain meaningful connections with writers and readers in their genre. It’s about giving as well as getting. As always I am grateful for your wisdom.

  2. says

    Thanks for the insight Jane. It’s definitely something I will remember to keep in mind as I go about my writing. It’s nice to have a larger audience, but you always hear about authors who start with a ‘cult’ (as they say) following, and go from there. Then again, they are often labelled as sell-outs by angsty fans.

    That VLS survey is also very cool. Innovator over here as well it seems!

  3. says

    Thanks for a timely post. Reminded me of a quote from the movie ‘The Patriot’, “Aim small, miss small”.

    It seems you’re saying that targeting the smallest audience of most interested/relevant readers may expand into a larger scope through word of mouth, blogs, reviews, etc., (if your books any good ;-), but you have to build up some hype first — and who better to start with than the people who can most relate.

    VALS: Innovator/Achiever

    • says


      Your comment opens the topic of how word of mouth really works. Yes, as Jane says, it starts with a core. Focusing on that core is smart.

      Word of mouth isn’t driven wholly by snowballing numbers of readers. It is, in a sense, but within that group are “loud mouth” fans who are the primary recruiters of others. There’re what in the web of six-degrees-of-connection are called nodes.

      Those nodes are who you want to reach first. They’re influential indie bookstore owners, die hard genre fans, and so on. You’ve met the type. They’re the passionate core readership who will spread the word.

      • says

        Donald, thanks for the insider perspective.
        Forgive me if I am getting off topic here and delving into a more general conversation – but perhaps that is the result of a good blog, not only to make a point, but to open up related venues of thought.
        Every book (the good ones anyway), regardless of genre, have something in them that can touch the hearts and minds of anyone who has ever breathed or thought. But that certainly does not mean a young man, for instance, who is a diehard Sci-Fi reader is going to pick up a novel about an elderly woman who has discovered the secret to producing a magnificent garden. Unless perhaps the magic ingredient of her garden is using the flesh of zombies as fertilizer. Even though that book will most likely contain some valuable life lessons and anecdotes this young man could apply to his own life, he is unlikely to pick it up off of a shelf. Now, to tie this back into the original topic (sort of ;-), if somebody this young man admired and respected were to give high praise of this novel, and recommend the boy read it, well then maybe he’d reconsider…
        Thanks again to Jane and the rest of you commenter’s for sprinkling a little fertilizer on my thoughts.

  4. says

    My instincts always told me I’d have to target market. I never held any illusions my work would have any kind of broad appeal. What I’m finding is I will need to target even more narrowly than I’d imagined–not just to scifi/fantasy readers, but to younger well-educated female epic historical fantasy readers who lean to alt-history and like an element of romance. Among that group I’m doing pretty well. ;-) Thanks for the lesson on focusing small to think big, Jane.

  5. says

    Great advice, Jane. I wonder, though, once you know what your niche market is, how you can best go about brainstorming and researching ways to target that group. Are there any general strategies, or is each case so unique that you have to be prepared to invent your own wheel?

    • says

      Great question. There’s not really a one-size-fits-all answer, since I believe much depends on the author’s own strengths/skill sets, the qualities of the work itself, and the target audience.

      However, a few ways to get started:

      1. Research authors who are very similar to you and would have similar demographics. What strategies did they use? How are they reaching their target? What marketing tools and communication do they emphasize? The danger here is me-too marketing, but at the very least it can provide a jumpstart and spark other ideas.

      2. Take advantage of the influencers you know, or the media people you might have connections to. Often word of mouth spreads by being very focused on the small circle of influencers who you yourself can reach, and giving them the tools to help you.

    • says

      Oh, and I forgot #3!

      3. Consider investing in a publicist/PR person over a 3-6 month period, who might be able to build connections and get stories where you can’t yourself. Sometimes just a few media hits can help get the ball rolling for you.

  6. says

    amen to that, Jane

    Find your followers and selling becomes much easier. In time, this following may grow. But if you set out from the start trying to reach the entire world, then you will probably drown. The earth is 70%+ water after all :)

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  7. says

    This is true, in all aspects of media, you need a target audience or demographic. If it’s too broad, there’s nothing for anyone to grab on to. Narrowing it down gives you the first foot-hole to gaining a wider audience. Thanks for this post :)

  8. says

    Great advice. I think we all get misled by major authors who have the luxury of saying things like “I don’t write for anyone in particular, I just write what I like and let the booksellers frame it.” That’s all nice and good, but we can’t all expect to get anywhere with such tips. This makes more sense.

  9. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Your advice on marketing to a target audience runs in correlation for me– to advice I’ve got pinned on my bulletin board about writing from Kurt Vonnegut:

    “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

  10. says

    Thanks Jane! Even with book number six coming out soon, I’m still wringing my hands, trying to figure out my marketing strategies. I get overwhelmed thinking of all the possibilities.

    Your advice to “target as narrowly as possible and start with a small core” is not only calming, it makes a lot of sense.

  11. says

    What you seem to be speaking about is niche marketing, for once a niche has been breached or captured it may be expanded to an ever widening circle. What I find intriguing is the voracious appetite of editors for books with the thrill of amusement parks feeding the frenzy of human sharks, so to speak. Who will deny the importance of the profit motive! Well, it will always lead to the question of whether humanity is progressing, regressing or possibly remaining stagnant.

  12. says

    Just wanted to say how scary accurate the VALS survey was–it even told me the make of car that I drive based on my answers. Great advice on niche marketing!

    • says

      Here are a few ways:

      1. Ask an author who used a publicist — and had a good experience — for a recommendation.

      2. Join and pay $20/month to search their database of members Reputable publicists have pages there.

      3. Check out comment threads like this one, and on other major blogs, where savvy publicists/PR folks might be commenting. (This happened this past week over at my blog,

      4. Use Google, find publicists, evaluate carefully, ask for references.

  13. says

    Well, I typed a long and profound comment but something went berserk in the execution of it.

    It was about delighting our audience. The people who are our target are the ones who feel delight about what we’re writing – this for fiction primarily.

    And because I am an Achiever/Innovator, I’m off to do something else rather than try to recreate the comment!

    Thanks for this post; useful as always!

  14. says

    Jane, I found John Locke’s “How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months” especially insightful about marketing. He helped me understand the idea of target audience more clearly. Your post continues beating out that simple message. Thanks for reiterating the significance of developing a core readership.–Tom

  15. says

    The number one thing that “sells” a book is word of mouth. The key question is how do you get word of mouth? Niche really is key. I think people who think the internet makes it easier to reach a broader audience are mistaken. Marketing on the internet you really need to know the target audience. This is hard with books because people in the same demographic will enjoy a wide range of books. Marketing Bob’s Civil War Novel was a little easier because there is a group of people who love Civil War books. Marketing a psychological thriller is a little harder because the demographic could be very wide.

    What Jane said about influencers is critical. Focus on a small segment and then grow. But the best promotion you can do is write a better book.

  16. says

    Innovator/Thinker here. Should we form a club? I used to own a Subaru….

    Anyway, this is great. It’s easy to forget that the target audience is the one to please and the others will find the book if the main group loves it.This is true for all marketing, from the little I have learned about it. Thanks, Jane

  17. says

    They said they’d get back to me …

    Oops, there it is, thinker/innovator. (No, Mom, snot-bucket is not a category.)

    Thanks for the tidbits Jane, I follow as many as I can.