How to Find Out What Readers Want

by Joel Friedlander on August 31, 2012 · 24 comments

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One of the big challenges of publishing your own books is making sure you know who you’re writing for and what they want to read. No matter how much you enjoy writing itself, as authors we have to acknowledge that the whole process works better and is far more enjoyable if we have more readers.

But which readers? This is a lot easier for nonfiction authors to address because there are natural constituencies for their work within the interest area or niche they are publishing in.

For fiction writers it’s much more difficult to answer these kinds of questions except by referring to other, similar writers. That’s the origin of all the fiction marketing that relies on statements like, “If you enjoyed [Book A], then you’re going to love [Book B]!”

To Know Your Readers, Ask Them

Getting to know your readers is one of the best reasons to run a blog that attracts people in your target market. Blogs are great for engaging directly with readers, for getting ideas from them, and for asking them questions.

You don’t necessarily need a lot of readers, either. I would guess that only one in 50 readers will comment on a blog post. That means you can look at each comment as representing a bunch of readers.

Just talking to readers who are interested in your topic will provide you with lots of information about the obstacles they are running into trying to learn your field, and where they’re getting stuck. If you’re writing fiction, you can pose questions about the direction of the story or popular books on the market to get a feel for their individual tastes in a particular genre.

If you don’t have a blog or enough readers to get a conversation going, you can engage with readers in other locations. Here are a few ideas:

  • Popular blogs in your field or genre – Taking part in discussions and reading through the comments on popular blogs will give you a lot of information.
  • Discussion forums – There are specialty forums for almost all interests, and the questions people are asking in forums are a great source of valuable data.
  • LinkedIn groups – This social networking site for businesspeople gets more popular every year. Find and join groups that are talking about your field and you’ll have another great listening post.

Simple Surveys

You can go beyond asking questions on your blog or taking part in discussions. One way is to use a simple survey tool like SurveyMonkey.com. You can open a free account and use its tools to construct a survey.

You can then either send people to the survey at SurveyMonkey or host it on your own blog or website. This is a terrific way to get people’s thoughts on lots of things, and you can even ask what kinds of books they would buy, where their price sensitivity comes into play, what kinds of stories they prefer, etc.

The recent survey about webinar topics is a perfect example of getting direct, quantifiable information from readers that has helped shape the subjects I’ll be offering.

Here are some tips for survey-taking:

  • Keep it short and to the point and more people will complete your survey.
  • Include at least one open-ended question where people can write what they like.
  • Don’t forget to thank people for taking their time to answer the survey.
  • Think about offering a free download like a useful PDF as an added benefit of completing the survey.

Going Offline for Research

You don’t have to be limited to online methods to try to get inside the minds of your readers.

A classic way of finding out your target audience is through niche publications like magazines and newsletters. Many of these have “letters to the editor” or advice columns for newbies, and those are both prime candidates for your research.

Clubs and professional groups are also outstanding places to meet and interact with people in your industry. A lot of the people who go to these meetings are new and looking for help and advice, making them great candidates for finding out what your audience is thinking about.

Although writing and publishing can seem like they take place in a vacuum at times, the more you connect with people in your area of interest—whatever it is—the more likely you are to create books that touch on the exact things people want to know and read.

And that’s the way to successful publishing.

Originally published by CreateSpace as Authors: Are You Giving Readers What They Want? Photo by dno1967b

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    { 21 comments… read them below or add one }

    Vishal May 7, 2013 at 1:31 am

    Hi Joel,
    Thank you for this wonderful post.I am a regular reader of your blog, and it amazes me with the quality post you come with every other post.
    For any writer to be successful its important to come up with the right book for your readers. One source which is missing from your list is, emails whcih authors receives from their writers. Collecting data and reviews from your readers is another valuable source of information.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 7, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks, Vishal, that’s an excellent suggestion to add to the others here.

    Reply

    Denise September 1, 2012 at 8:49 am

    As a nonfiction writer, I find discussion forums to be a wonderful resource (polls and surveys less so, because their scope is limited). Not only do I find out what people in my niche are interested in, but I get several points of view on a topic, which deepens and enriches my writing. And I get immediate response to my posts, feedback on how well my words have communicated my thoughts. Invaluable!

    Fiction writers are in a different boat, I know (I have three of them at home), but interaction with potential readers can still be extremely valuable. For instance, don’t most fiction writers have way more story ideas than they can pursue? I know my girls do, and reading forums or watching trends (or at least discussing things with their friends) may help them decide which idea to play with next, or think of new ways to combine ideas into cross-genre stories.

    For instance, I just bought the third book in Patricia Wrede’s Frontier Magic series. Love those stories! Did the ideas come to her as inspiration from the blue, or did she read somewhere that historical fiction and frontier stories were popular with readers and that sparked her series? Ideas often grow better when they are cross-bred with other ideas and then fertilized by a variety of input.

    Reply

    Shirley Long August 31, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Joel I want to Thank You for being so kind and generous
    to give all this valuable information about books, fiction,
    publishing, etc to anyone who is in need of it. Well I am
    one in need of it, your site is excellent, you are a man of
    great wisdom and it can’t be denied. Some people just have
    the gift and talent to do certain things but you have the
    gift to write, publish and do it well. Your blog has enlightend
    me dearly and given me more insight and wisdom about how
    to write my ebook. I am planning on writing one but need more
    guidance and help, I found it today with your website. Thanks again,
    Continue to do what you do best that is to write and teach.

    Reply

    bowerbird August 31, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    it’s easy to tell people what they want to hear.

    but an artist tells ‘em what they need to hear.

    -bowerbird

    Reply

    Linton Robinson August 31, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    Thank you

    A LOT of people would be uncomfortable with this whole kind of thinking, letting your perception of the market tell you what novel to write.
    Funny, because a lot of the same people who think it’s a good idea to modify the creative to fit the promo would quickly speak out against the whole “focus group” “formula” kind of approach to films and TV.
    Marketing serves the product, not the other way around. Not in fiction.

    It’s only a step from this to all those “How To Make Money Selling eBooks Without Even Having to Write Them” books. Go see what’s selling, figure out how to knock it off, hire somebody off fiverr to write the book.

    And that’s just talking about the fast-track world of indie publishing. If you’re trying to sell a book to a publisher, this whole idea of brown-nosing trends is a recipe for always swinging a year behind the ball.

    Reply

    J S September 1, 2012 at 5:53 am

    If you are a hard core literary writer stringing words together for fun or with hopes to be famous after you’re dead like a lot of painters then writing what you love or might impress other literary writers is perfectly fine. But many writers want commercial success – it’s kind of heady to be the next JK Rowling or S King or J Locke while you can appreciate the sales numbers – and that takes figuring out the market. Generating enough sales to keep you out of some other day job can be important and dictating to readers what is good for them is risky. They want what they want.

    Traditional Publishing companies are even more market sensitive than authors. They are in the business of selecting novels that get big sales. They have capital investments in presses and fixed costs in marketing teams and back office middle managers that have salaries and pensions to cover. Their choices must pay out in the current fiscal year not after the Publisher’s death. They might like to dictate to readers what they should read but ultimately they are forced to pick what is popular or what they think will be popular by the time their machinery gets in place.

    And it is that machinery that ultimately creates the Traditional Publisher’s vulnerability. When it takes them eighteen months to ship product they have to have a very strong crystal ball to see the trend two years in advance. Independent authors can hop on trends as fast as their little fingers can produce the book, their editor can read and finesse it, and their art specialist can create an engaging cover.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 31, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Commenters are correct that this type of reader research is far more straightforward for nonfiction authors. On the other hand, I think you can gain a lot of insight into your fiction readers by taking some of these same actions, and that can’t be a bad thing for any author.

    Reply

    RD Meyer September 1, 2012 at 12:40 am

    Joel, the issue I have with the premise is that it seems to be writing by poll. Knowing what the market is in the need of is great, but I think this removes a lot of the creative process and turns the writer into a mere transcriber of notes.

    Just my two cents.

    Reply

    J S September 1, 2012 at 6:06 am

    Google Trends can be a useful tool.

    While there is a lot of attention on the fifty shades erotica controversies at the moment, this look shows the traditional monster genres are still kind of popular. A writer must be clever with search terms to uncover ‘what’s next’.

    http://www.google.com/trends/?q=vampire,+zombie,+romance,+erotica&ctab=0&geo=all&date=all&sort=0

    Reply

    Linton Robinson September 1, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Sorry, but nobody is that clever.
    There is absolutely no search to find out “what’s next”.
    Or potion, magic rock, soothsayer, oracle, or aching bunion.
    Sorry.

    Think that over a little. If that was possible, wouldn’t Hollywood avoid multi-million dollar flops? Would the majority of trad published books fail to earn out?

    This whole line of goods spawns a lot of myths. We have to keep a perspective.
    And by the way, Rowling isn’t much of an example of somebody who wrote their book as a marketing content. Quite the contrary. 50 Shades, either. Almost none of the big-selling writers did that.

    A very useful concept on the whole “call the future” thing is “the black swan”. It’s a good concept to look up and check out.

    Basically says that hits appear at random, like black swans in the gene pool. People spend a lot of worry and a lot of money to try to predict hits, but it is completely ineffective.

    Reply

    Will Gibson August 31, 2012 at 10:39 am

    I agree with Katie. I anticipate Joel’s postings more than others because of the content. It always seems to present ‘old information’ in a new light.

    I write fiction. I do it to tell a story that, hopefully, will convey a meaningful message. That message will not be heard unless I can achieve readers.

    With that in mind, I wrote a book about saving the environment for our children. And maybe I will sell a few copies to environmentalists and parents.

    Reply

    Tracy R. Atkins August 31, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Will,

    I have found that when I start to dig into the “trenches” of the readers I write fiction for, I find MY perceptions of them have changed. I thought I had everything figured out, how I should present my book, market it, etc. Turns out, my approach needed a modification. I guess that can happen with discovery. In many ways, I have evolved in how I think about building my platform and even my motives have changes somewhat.

    In my case, I realized that reader’s standards of excellence are quite high and there are gaps in the niche that I can fill. Finding gaps in a niche and filling it is the hallmark of providing value to other people, readers especially. If you have only a cursory knowledge of the people you are trying to appeal to, you run the risk of lampooning or stereotyping them. And that is something no one wants to do.

    Your example of the book about the environment is great. There are a lot of really smart people in that field that may love a book like yours, endorse it or even evangelize it for you. However, not all environmentalists are the same and there may be a subset of people that will disagree with it. So finding out who they are and what the expectations are, is critical.

    Sorry.. didn’t mean to write a book here. :)

    Reply

    Linton Robinson August 31, 2012 at 10:20 am

    This whole concept rather puzzles me. In fact, it seems sort of reverse or cart before horse.
    Especially, as noted in the previous comment, applied to fiction.

    Let me put it this way, you already know what your readers want. If they didn’t want what you are writing, they wouldn’t be your readers.

    Reply

    Tracy R. Atkins August 31, 2012 at 11:50 am

    I can see where fiction can presents a conundrum. However, I think there are two sides to writing as a profession. You want to write original stories that are from the heart. You also want to write marketable work for which the public has a hunger.

    For example, there are hundreds of vampire romance novels out over the last few years. Only a few vampire novels were developed independently, without social recognition of a market. The market created inspiration for writers who wanted to be marketable.

    So perhaps, an author who is looking for an idea, might see that “vampire novels will be hot this year” and use that sledgehammer-level of market pulse to get inspired.

    If you are pre-disposed to a certain fiction genre, having your finger on the pulse of that audience is valuable. Ideas shift, winds blow in different directions, and tastes in fiction and sub-genre change.

    A little “recon” never hurt.

    Reply

    Ilana Waters August 31, 2012 at 8:17 am

    Although I think this advice is certainly sound, it may apply slightly more to non-fiction than fiction. It may sound corny, but with fiction, you need to write what’s in your heart–as well as “what readers want.” If it doesn’t resonate with you, it won’t resonate with them.

    Reply

    Tracy R. Atkins August 31, 2012 at 5:03 am

    The process of gathering information, surveying people and putting yourself out there has an added benefit for authors. You gain a lot of exposure with your intended audience in a positive way. Simply showing up one day on a “crime novel” website to spam your latest book can have negative consequences. Going to that same website with an open mind and genuine desire to hear your audience’s input, leaves them with a positive impression of you. In a best case scenario, people will even seek out your work in the off-chance hope that you included some of their input. At the very least, they may recognize your name on the cover and give you fifteen seconds of time to consider your book, and that is so very valuable.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 31, 2012 at 11:19 am

    Good point, Tracy, thanks for that.

    Reply

    Katie McAleece August 31, 2012 at 3:52 am

    So helpful! As always! I am amazed and grateful that every time I visit this site, you have fresh insight for us. I have no idea how you find the time to constantly write new articles, but I feel very lucky that you do. All this free wisdom. Thank you, thank you!

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus August 31, 2012 at 3:08 am

    With nonfiction, once you know what you want to write about, the Internet will make it much easier to do market research than before the world was online.

    With a little bit of typing, clicking and reading you can find out what potential readers are interested in, and you can construct your book to address their concerns.

    Use search engines to find terms like those I’ve listed below. Simply replace “golden retriever” with “super hero” or “Argentina” or whatever you want to write about.

    “golden retriever forum”
    “golden retriever message board”
    “golden retriever bulletin board”
    “golden retriever club”
    “golden retriever association”
    “golden retriever community”
    “golden retriever organization”
    “golden retriever news”
    “golden retriever newsgroup”

    After your book is published, go back to visit the groups. Answer the questions you can answer, and tell people that more information is in your book, the name of your book, and where they can buy it.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.bookmakingblog.blogspot.com
    http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com
    http://www.BookFur.com
    http://www.Facebook.com/SilverSandsBooks

    Reply

    Peter Noah Thomas August 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    Very helpful article. I am especially interested in the simple survey. I am going to check out Survey Monkey. I hadn’t heard of them.

    Reply

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