If you are someone with a message—whether for your business, nonprofit, ministry, agency, political candidate, speaker, journalist, etc.—something inside of you is probably telling you to write a book. And the truth of the matter is, writing a book is a powerful, often transformational process. As Seth Godin once described it:
Writing a book is a tremendous experience. It pays off intellectually. It clarifies your thinking. It builds credibility. It is a living engine of marketing and idea spreading, working every day to deliver your message with authority. You should write one.
But it’s also a big investment that doesn’t pay off for most authors. Bestselling author Dave Ramsey likens writing a book to a year of focused intensity, and according to industry experts, the average new book sells fewer than 250 copies in its first year and about 3,000 over its lifetime—and that was before the self-publishing and e-book craze. Now that there are several times more books “published” each year, the competition for new titles to get noticed has never been greater.
So books are a lot of work, and promise little financial reward—so why write one?
In my experience as an editor, ghostwriter, and book coach since the 1990s, I’ve found most books fail for a few very simple reasons—reasons the vast majority of new authors just don’t seem to realize. The greatest of these usually has to do with really figuring out who needs to read their book the most. Your audience is your target, and it’s hard to hit a target if you don’t aim at anything. Without knowing your audience, the tone and content of your book will be off—it’s like preparing a talk for post-graduate students and then giving to middle schoolers. You’ll be lucky if the’re still awake after the introduction.
When I talk with authors, I often say it this way:
“If the universe has put it into your heart to write a book, there is a reason—and usually multiple reasons. The first thing to do is to figure out who the book is really for—who are you writing to? Who needs to hear what you have to say?
“Every book has at least a couple levels of potential audiences, a lot like a target that has a bullseye and multiple rings around it. To hit all of the rings, you aim for the bullseye. When you aim correctly, you engage all of your audience. A lot of authors assume their books are for everyone, but there’s a saying in publishing, ‘A book written for everyone tends to reach no one.’ Specificity breeds generality; generality breeds boredom.”
Context is everything, after all. It’s the first key to writing so you’ll be read.
The first and most important audience for any book is actually you, the author. Most people assume that if their hearts are telling them they should write a book, it’s because they have a message the world needs to hear. While that is often the case, at the heart of every great book is a mystery the author needs to solve for themself. There is something the author needs to discover, a message that needs to be fully articulated, hidden treasure the author needs to dig deep within themself to find—and that is true whether the book is totally make-believe or ten steps to lose ten pounds in ten days. The first and most important audience for any book is the author.
As political-thriller bestseller Tom Clancy advised:
Write the kind of book you want to read, and would pay money for. Your first audience, and your best critic, is yourself . . . if you’re honest.
When asked what the biggest mistake most authors make on New Hampshire Public Radio’s “10-minute Writer’s Workshop, ” Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff responded:
Hmm, that’s a good question. I guess . . . probably . . . writing something that you think someone else wants to read. . . . In other words, trying to please the outside critic as opposed to writing what’s honest to you.
By transforming what is in their minds into a written, book-sized thought, authors find keys to their own success, discover afresh what their business or cause is really about, articulate traumatic experiences so they can heal, or discover some understanding of reality or relationships of which they would never have scratch beyond the surface if they hadn’t written a book. To put it into a nutshell, I believe the universe plants the desire to write a book into our hearts because it has something to teach us through the process—and it is only in learning that lesson that we create a book that will help others.
If you are playing darts, you will see there are a central bullseye and a ring immediately around it. The center is counted as a “double bullseye,” while the ring around it is the regular bullseye. To borrow that analogy, the double bullseye for any books is the author, and the regular bullseye is the demographic you feel would most benefit from your book. In marketing campaigns, many companies walk you through the creation of a customer avatar—a detailed description, sometimes even with a picture and a name, of the exact type of person who would most benefit from hearing what you have to say.
I suggest picturing your book as a conversation in a coffee shop. Who is the perfect person to be sitting on the other side of that table as you pour out your heart on a snowy afternoon? Who’s the person that’s going to be enthralled with what you have to tell them? Are you giving a young person advice for their the future? Are you spinning a tale to a mom stuck in the house with three children under the age of ten? Are you unpacking an experience you learned at work to a close friend? Are you opening up a conversation with colleagues you’re hoping will change your industry?
How do you hope they react to what you are communicating? Are you inspiring someone to act in a certain way, learn a set of principles, or understand something new about themselves? Should they be thinking quietly about what you are saying? Should they be laughing? Crying? Sharing their experiences as well? Slowly boiling in anger? Should they be ready to storm the halls of government with you? Or should they be furiously taking notes, setting goals, and planning what changes they are going to make when they get back to their home or workplace?
Keeping this person in the forefront of your mind as you write is incredibly important to how you craft what you are saying. It will give your writing focus, purpose, and clarity. You will know what they should already understand and what is going to be new to them. It will help you figure out how much you have to explain, the language you will use doing it, and how much you can rely on what your reader already knows.
When you do it right, your reader is going to be able to picture you there on the other side of the table telling them exactly what they’ve needed to hear for a long, long time—something that tells them they are not alone in the world, makes them feel alive, and inspires them to grab ahold of their dreams afresh and chase the life they’ve always wanted.
Recognizing the Hero of Your Story
Once you have this avatar or perfect person to tell your book to across that coffeeshop table, you also have another valuable piece of information: you can now picture the hero of your story.
This is another major mistake authors make concerning their audiences: they think their book (I’m talking mostly nonfiction here) is for telling the person sitting across the table about who the author is, sharing their wisdom, and wowing them with what they know. The vast majority of books do this, and I believe it is the reason the vast majority of books fail. Sure, some authors can get away with this, but that is usually when they tell a good story or we specifically pick up the book because we want to learn about them (a celebrity memoir, for example, or a biography). For nonfiction books aimed at changing someone’s paradigm and how they behave, however, when the author needs to be the center of attention, readers quickly lose interest.
Why? Because people come to books with specific questions they want answers to (even if they can’t quite articulate what those questions are when they pick up the book). How you changed your life is only interesting to them if it helps them change theirs. They are not there to applaud you, they want to learn from you. They want to be guided by you. They want your help changing their lives. They want connection, inspiration, and insight, not a new person to admire. (Of course, if you do it well, they will look up to you—but if you chase admiration, that’s the last thing you’re likely to get. It’s one of the weird ironies of writing.)
So who should the hero of your story be? The person sitting across the table from you. Follow what Donald Miller outlines in his StoryBranding workshops. Your reader is a hero on an adventure to solve a problem that they have—and you are the mentor they meet along the way. They are Luke, you are Obi-Wan; they are Katniss, you are Haymitch; they are Harry, Hermione, and Ron, you are Dumbledore. Sure, there’re valuable things they can learn from your story, but they’ll only really listen if it helps them succeed on their own.
Starting on the right foot will save you a lot of rewriting
While there are lots of things to remember as you write, getting your audience right—picturing your ideal reader and identifying the question(s) they have that you can answer—is one of the most important if you want your book to succeed.
I don’t say that lightly.
Knowing your audience guides how you frame what you say and the voice in which you say it; it also helps you determine what you need to leave out of your book. Picturing the right audience helps you create a guided path through your book rather than leaving them scratching their heads—or worse, dumping you as a guide partway through.
Great writing is one thing—and something authors should certainly strive for—but people are more interested in being touched and transformed. They want to know you understand them. If your book accomplishes those things, then you just have to get it in front of enough of the right people for it to take off. Great marketing can only take a book so far, it’s how you touch their lives between the front cover and the back that convinces them they need to tell all of their friends to read it too—and that’s the best way to make it a bestseller.