I heard this from a writer in a class I am teaching: “I have been struggling with the “who is my audience piece.”

They hadn’t realized that before they figure out WHAT they want to say, they need to understand who their ideal audience really is.

I would like to say that this is the MOST common feedback I hear from writers, but often, it isn’t. I would like to think that writers are obsessing about who their audience is. But instead, the most common request I here is always:

“How do I grow my audience?”

But how can you grow your audience when you don’t know who they are?

When I ask them the next logical question: “tell me about the people who make up your ideal audience,” I often get some long pauses, some hemming and hawing, and half-hearted attempts at answers:

  • “Women over 40.”
  • “Anyone who loves a good story.”
  • “My story is universal.”

Now, I LOVE LOVE LOVE working with writers. So I will try to put this as delicately as possible:

No, your story is not universal.

Thinking it is doesn’t only devalue the complexity and range of human experience on this planet, but doesn’t serve you well to understand how to find more readers for your work. Maybe your book will be a breakout success, demolishing previously conceived lines of topic, genre and audience.

But…

Before you take a bet on that lottery ticket – that your book needs to find the success of Harry Potter, or no success at all – focus on establishing a small and engaged audience of people who truly love your work.

Today I want to talk about why it is important to understand who your audience is, and how critical this information can be if you actually want to GROW your audience.

Many writers don’t share their work before publication, and if they do, it is often only with other writers. They just don’t feel they have the time to consider their audience, they are barely keeping up with writing, the publishing process, and the rest of their life. So they lump anything having to do with their audience under the term “marketing,” and justify that you don’t do marketing until just before the book comes out. This allows them to keep a safe distance from their audience – and from determining who these people may actually be.

In reality, they are just hoping – perhaps even praying – that once their book comes out, their intended readers will do the hard work for them. That the audience will self-select, raise their hands, and go out of their way to find this book. The author envisions publication as a process of LEARNING who their audience is as a passive act. But finding readers is important if you actually want to get read.

Why do many writers think their book appeals to a wide audience? Because they simply haven’t done the work to realize who it WOULD appeal to, and who it WOULDN’T appeal to.

When posed with this scenario – the author who insists their book has a vague and broad audience – I sometimes ask writers who haven’t defined their audience this question:

“Let’s just say I will give you $50,000 if, in the next hour, you can find 5 people who would love your book.”

(Sometimes I change it to something like “find 5 people who would spend $3 to buy your book.” Or I change the amount of money in the bet, depending on how hypothetically generous I am feeling.)

Now, with $50,000 on the line for a mere hour’s worth of work, your mind begins racing. You get super specific. You think of the core themes or topics in your book; you think of competitive books who have an already established audience. Then you consider the exact physical places you can go to reach these readers; the ways these people are already organized – already self-selected and filtered based on previous behavior and interests; you think about who has access to these people; you consider where these people are online and off; you focus on actual names of people you can call at this very moment.

Fifty-thousand dollars in one hour does that to you.

Suddenly, identifying who your audience is and where you can find them seems relevant and even a priority. There is an urgency to it. Suddenly, it matters.

If You Can’t Build A Small Audience, How Can You Build A Large Audience?

Even if you truly do feel your book has a very broad potential audience, focus on building a core audience first. Yes, your sci-fi western romance thriller may take off like Harry Potter. But how can you ensure a small but engaged audience for that book first?

This process takes these vague and scary terms such as “audience” or “marketing” or dare I say “tribe” and gives them names and faces. And personalities, and quirks, and most importantly: CONTEXT.

This process teaches you not just about your audience, but about your writing and its perception and effect.

Art, music, and writing have two lives: INTENTION and EFFECT.

You plan for the intention based on the story you want to tell or the way you write about a topic. That is what comes from the soul of the writer, musician or artist.

But then you release it to the world, and the writing can take on a life of its own. My favorite singer, Glen Hansard, once described the lifecycle of his hit song “Falling Slowly,” like this: (and I am paraphrasing because he said it at a live show):

It’s like you are in the backyard with your friends kicking a soccer ball, and then in one instance, you kick this ball further than you ever have. It goes over the fence, over the neighbor’s yard, beyond the town limits, clear over the horizon out of sight. And part of you is staring in amazement at what has happened, how far that ball has gone. And part of you says to yourself: ‘I just want my f*cking ball back.’”

You can’t control what happens to the work once it is released, and it can do amazing things, profoundly affecting the lives of others in positive ways. But it can also change the nature of the relationship the creator has with their work.

Regardless of When Your Book Comes Out, Start Building Your Audience Now

Start building your audience now. You know how you are fearful of being pressured to use slimy sales and marketing tactics to publicize your book around the launch date? Well, the cure for that is to not set yourself up for it.

The best way to build an audience is to do so by establishing trusting relationships with those ideal readers and those in the community that connects them. Trust takes time. Building that network takes time. Understanding the nuances of how to talk with these people in a non-promotional way takes time. Start now.

Finding Your Audience Is About Listening, Not Talking

When people try to find their audience, too many start with talking, not listening. They figure if I just tell the world about my sci-fi western romance thriller, those who are interested in that burgeoning genre will pique up their ears and take action to learn more.

So they Tweet, post status updates, blog posts, print bookmarks, take out ads, and take on that promotional voice.

When instead, they should be listening.

Recently I spoke at Thrillerfest in New York City, and had the pleasure of meeting Joanna Penn in person for the first time after years of online interactions. Now, Joanna has established a sizable audience for herself with her blog TheCreativePenn.com, and she has sold more than 40,000 copies of her first two novels. A lot of people know who she is, and learn a lot from her.

But she made it clear to me by her words and actions, that she wasn’t attending Thrillerfest as “Joanna Penn of TheCreativePenn.com with nearly 30,000 Twitter followers.” She was there to listen. She was there to talk to the fellow thriller readers and writers to LEARN about them, their work, their interests, their goals. To focus on improving her craft and how to manage a successful career as a writer.

It was pretty much the opposite of how I see most people who are building an online brand attend a conference. Usually, folks often see it as a prime opportunity to spread the word about what they offer, grow their audience, and get more customers. But I didn’t see Joanna giving out bookmarks or trying to get people to sign up for her mailing list. I saw her taking notes and taking notes and taking notes. I loved seeing that. (I also had the pleasure of having drinks and dinner with her – so thank you for that Joanna!)

Research Is Often Missing From Most Writers’ Author Platform Process

Too many people assume. They are 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 years old, they know a thing or two, and they want to validate the value of their experience. I don’t begrudge them that. But too often, I see it close off their minds.

They insist they “know” who their audience is. They insist they “know” how to grow their audience.

But they problem is this… they don’t actually do it. They don’t actually connect with an audience. And when you ask them details, they come up short. They provide excuses – or examples they have read about from other people’s experiences – reasons they shouldn’t need to do this or that.

And really, I’m fine with that except for the fact that I know they aren’t reaching the goals they hope to achieve in their writing career. They aren’t having the effect they want.

The way I have come to describe it is this: the goal is not to get published, the goal is to get read. To have an impact on readers.

How can you start with the research process to identify your audience? Just a few ideas:

  • Determine your comps – books published in the past few years who are similar to yours.
  • Speak to other authors such as yourself, not as promotion, but as research. Learn from their wisdom. If you have to – interview them, promote them.
  • Create personas for your ideal audience.
  • Understand your ideal audience beyond just what they read.
  • Identify the narratives that readers look for everyday. EG: the underdog story, stories of healing, etc.

And of course: talk to readers. Learn about them.

Be Polarizing – Make Choices

Choosing who is in, and who is out is a good thing. Because it forces you to understand the reasons behind decisions and actions. Be polarizing, but not necessarily controversial. Who you DON’T align with is oftentimes as important as who you DO align with.

What a lot of marketers do is make alignment representative of deeper ideals. That they don’t “Like” your book, that they align to the ideals your book represents. This way it connects to things ALREADY in your audience’s head – things they already value. You see this all the time in politics, some aspects of some religions, and business marketing.

When I work with writers in my Build Your Author Platform course, this is how we spend the first HALF of the course: understanding your audience, and how your purpose/message/story/topic aligns with them.

Finding your audience is about building trusting relationships ONE PERSON at a time. We seem to know this in the real-world – the in-person world, the offline world – but we forget it online. We just want that little number counter to go up: more followers, more likes, more fans, more friends.

How did you make friends in grade school? In high school? In college? One person at a time. From trusted connection to trusted connection. You were truly a part of a network. Because this is the way humans interact. You don’t just walk into a room of 200 people and yell “you are all my friends now!” and then try to find another room of 200 people to yell at.

How have you found your audience? Did it happen naturally over time, or did you go through a research process? I would love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

About Dan Blank

Dan Blank is the founder of WeGrowMedia, where he helps writers share their stories and connect with readers. He has helped hundreds of authors via online courses, events, consulting, and workshops, and worked with amazing publishing houses and organizations who support writers such as Random House, Workman Publishing, Abrams Books, Writers House, The Kenyon Review, Writer’s Digest, Library Journal, and many others.