Nonfiction Authors: How to Find Your Ideal Reader

by | Feb 6, 2015

By Cathy Yardley (@CathyYardley)

It can be a challenge for self-published authors to determine who will read their books. Today, editor and author Cathy Yardley shares her tips for finding readers for your nonfiction book. I think you’ll find this helpful.

The most important factor in creating an effective marketing plan for your book is to identify your ideal reader, and target them specifically. The more broad your target, the more diffuse your message will be… and ultimately, the less impact it will have.

But How Do You Figure Out Who Your “Ideal” Reader Is?

The process varies, depending on whether or not you write non-fiction or fiction. In this part, we’re going to detail how to identify your ideal non-fiction reader, step by step.

  1. Identify your topic.
    Ideally, you’re building your audience around a set of linked topics. It’s unlikely that you’re going to write about raising cockatiels in one book, and repairing your 1970 Nissan pickup truck axle in another. (If you are, then you’ll obviously have two very diverse audiences – or one very small, oddly specific overlapping niche!) Topic is the first defining step. You’re looking for people interested in your topic.
  2. What topic-related problem is addressed in your book?
    Non-fiction has a purpose: to inform. Your book has information that will help readers solve specific problems, even if that problem is “I don’t know enough about cockatiels.”

    Generally speaking, if your audience is searching for something, there is a pain point. They need an answer, badly enough to actively hunt for it.

    Your book should serve as a solution. For example, “The Care of Cockatiels” would help someone whose bird is sick. “The Breeding of Cockatiels”, on the other hand, would help someone who wants more birds. While they may also want to keep said birds healthy, the more pressing problem is getting those eggs produced. Two different, if potentially overlapping, audiences.

  3. What is the outcome behind the need?
    Non-fiction books, like any “product”, don’t sell features – they sell outcomes. If a reader picks up “The Breeding of Cockatiels” book, they want to breed their birds, naturally enough. But there’s a big difference between someone who is trying to perpetuate a species of cockatiels, someone who is such an avid bird lover that he wants to fill his house with birds, and someone who simply wants to raise cockatiels for profit.

    Not to say that a simple “breeding tips for cockatiels” book wouldn’t address all three. But your book probably fits one better than another. The reader who wants to perpetuate a species, or perhaps create cockatiel hybrids, will need more specific information.

    The reader who wants to raise cockatiels for profit might want to know more about:

    • how to increase odds
    • how long between breeding cycles
    • how many birds they can produce
    • how quickly, and when birds can be separated from their families

    The person who wants to fill his house might just want the basics:

    • how to build a breeding enclosure that fits well in the home, or
    • how to prevent overpopulation if necessary

    Look at your book again. Who would most need the information in your book, and why?

  4. What is book’s tone and personality?
    Is your book academic? Is it irreverent? There’s a big difference in tone between “A Guide to the Propagation of Cockatiel Hybrids” and “Cockatiel Speed Dating for Fun and Profit”. What sort of tone does your book project – and consequently, what audience would most appreciate it?

Next Step: Firsthand Research

Once you’ve answered these questions, identifying:

  • topic
  • problem
  • outcome, and
  • tone

you’ll have a character sketch of who your ideal reader is, and what they want. Now, you need to see how these readers actually behave.

Ask yourself: if I had the problem that my ideal reader has, and I wanted the outcome they want, and I had this specific personality, where would I look for my solution?

From there, you can Google for solutions, to find blogs and user forums that discuss the problem. Look at your competition, the other books that propose solutions. Then see what the range of outcomes addressed are, and the types of personalities represented.

Hang out with end users: the people with the problems. Most of all, check out what they’re saying about where they go, what they’ve tried, what frustrates them, and what they really need.

If you’re our cockatiel author, odds are good you’re already hanging out with other cockatiel owners and aficionados. That should help you find out where they go when they’re stumped. It might mean speaking with veterinarians, or pet store owners, as well as reading competing books.

Right now, you’re just asking around for what people do when they’re in the position your ideal reader is in. (Hopefully you’ve already qualified that there’s a desire and need for what you’re writing, but if you haven’t, now is a good time.)

Final Step: Create a Targeted Marketing Plan

You’ve identified your ideal reader. You’ve tracked him down to where he hangs out and where he goes when he’s looking for books like yours.

Now, you just have to introduce him to your book, specifically.

Your marketing plan will walk him step by step through the process of solving his problem. You now know where he turns when he’s looking for answers. You’ll provide answers there, too.

  • If he Googles, you’ll go for SEO, since you now know what keywords he’ll probably use to find his solution.
  • If he looks on blogs, you’ll be guest posting about the basics of the topic he’s interested in, offering some genuinely helpful tips that aren’t being covered elsewhere.
  • Or, he’ll find out about you through word of mouth and reviews from people who he trusts, because you’ve provided those people with free review copies of your book, and they’ve found it helpful.

Look at What You Have to Identify Your Audience

Finding your ideal reader isn’t easy, but it is straight-forward. Best of all, the answer is right in front of you – in your own book.

Next Week: Fiction Authors: How To Find Your Ideal Reader

Yardleyphoto2Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen traditionally published romance, women’s fiction, and urban fantasy novels. She’s also a developmental editor and writing coach at Sign up for her free e-course Jumpstart Your Writing Career, and receive helpful hints on pinpointing where you might be stuck – and how to get back on track for a successful fiction writing career.


tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Pre written Essays

    One more amazing article on this blog. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Helen Sedwick

    Cathy, I also recommend that writers research existing books that cover their topic and find a way to distinguish their books from the competition, or even better, complement the books already on the market. Do they approach the problem differently, offer new research, challenge old assumptions, teach a new set of skills? In short, writers should:
    • choose a topic where they have something unique to contribute,
    • research the competition to identify an empty niche, and
    • write a book that is useful and informative.

    • Cathy Yardley

      That’s a great point, Helen. I like the “empty niche” angle especially — what is your ideal reader trying to learn that isn’t currently being addressed by your competition?

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Alison Gillespie

    This is good food for thought for the “HOW TO” writer. But like so much that has been written about publishing nonfiction, it totally ignores the growing sector of narrative nonfiction. That is, stories told about current events that follow a story arc, and include research, interviews, and information relating to current events. (Best example of this kind of book from last year was The End of Night by Paul Bogard. No one really “needs” to read that book to learn how to sleep, or learn how to look for stars and constellations. But oh, how that book inspires and informs!)

    Some of your advice would fit. But not all of it. Many of us are writing nonfiction aimed at a more general readership. I think in many ways the conventional publishing world does not do a good job of promoting the narrative nonfiction books. I predict more and more who write this kind of book will migrate over to self-publishing. You wouldn’t be as forced to include a lot of extraneous stuff to make the book fit a certain publishing length, for one thing. And honestly a lot of narrative nonfiction is better when it is somewhat shorter than the average printed book.

    Those writing narrative nonfiction and creative nonfiction aren’t out to solve anyone’s problems. We want to give voice to stories that aren’t being told, describe situations that aren’t being addressed. You can find niche audiences and lots of dedicated readers for this kind of book. The harder part is first getting publicity types to give your work a chance, because the best way to reach a wide audience is by getting high profile media coverage. Sadly, a lot of book editors at newspapers and magazines are still pretty prejudiced against self publishing these days even though readers don’t really care anymore as long as the writing is tight and well-edited.

    So I guess what I’d like to see is more freelance publicists who can break through the wall. I think they would find a rich market in nonfiction writers.

    • Cathy Yardley


      You do have a good point. The steps I’ve outlined do work well when you’re dealing with “how to” non-fiction. But the approach — topic, problem, outcome, tone — is still valid. Let’s take The End of Night as an example.

      The book is about light pollution (the topic.) The “problem” that needs to be solved — people who want to learn more about light pollution, or to broaden the scope, people who are concerned with environmental issues and want to learn more about them. Information is still a valid need, even if it isn’t as laser-focused as “how to train your dog.”

      From there, you look at outcome. People reading the book aren’t, as you say, looking for something specific… the market for “how can I stop light pollution with action steps” isn’t necessarily going to be as interested. This is a cerebral work, not a “ten things you can do to save the world” piece. Consequently, this is for people who want to both educate themselves and have a good deal of grist for their mental mills. So the outcome is “to have a better overall understanding of light pollution, in a variety of contexts.”

      The tone is literary, intellectual, thought-provoking. It’s not one scientist’s personal experience — nor is it the observations from someone who has lived in the wilderness for years. It’s targeting people who appreciate the quality of prose as much as the content, who recognize Thoreau and Henry Beston, who are both concerned with environmental issues as well as the direction of society at large, with all its far-flung implications. That is a very specific niche.

      If you look at his publicity, you’ll see he’s pulled off some placements that are enviable — glowing Kirkus review, which will get him some traction with libraries, one of his best bets I’d imagine. He’s got reviews and exposure from environmental magazines like Orion, and tech magazines like Gizmodo. He’s reviewed on smaller environmental blogs, and some “big thinking”/radical social observation sites. That’s his niche.

      Again — this approach is not simply for how-to. In my opinion, the term “general readership” is a misnomer at best… a pitfall at worst. Always target your readership.

  4. Ernie Zelinski

    Great article (I wish I could write as elegantly as you can).

    You say, “Look at your book again. Who would most need the information in your book, and why?”

    In the same vein, John Kremer, author of “1001 Way to Market Your Books”, in his book more bluntly advises:

    “Authors — When conceiving and writing your books, you , too, should ask the question, ‘Who will buy my book — and why?’ And you had better have a good answer.”

    Unfortunately, from my experience anyway, most authors don’t ask that question. And if they do, they don’t necessarily have a good answer.

    You also say:

    “If he Googles, you’ll go for SEO, since you now know what keywords he’ll probably use to find his solution.”

    Here again, most writers don’t go for SEO. I have an interesting story about how a woman who wrote a retirement book contacted me, wanting me to review the manuscript and give her a testimonial. Instead of reviewing the manuscript, I gave her at least $10,000 of consulting for free about why she should change the title and subtitle. She went back to her small British publisher and they decided to change the title. They did not change the subtitle, however, which can hurt sales big time over the long run. It all related to SEO. I will share this story in more detail one of these days on this blog. And Joel, if you read this, remind me to share this with you earlier at the San Francisco’s Writer’s Conference on either February 13th or 14th. I notice that you are one of the participants, so hopefully I will get a chance to have a few words with you. I may even hire you for book cover design project.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Cathy Yardley


      You’re right — most authors don’t ask the question, and that is where their marketing jumps the tracks, which is a pity! Just identifying your target audience, and continually testing your choices, can make the difference between obscurity and success when it comes to marketing.

      I think most writers don’t go for SEO because it sounds technical and very intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. I was lucky enough to get SEO School from Naomi Dunford of Ittybiz… I don’t think she’s still got it for sale. But it made the whole thing so much clearer and more approachable. SEO can be a bit tricky, especially now that Google is shifting its algorithm to reflect “local” search as being more relevant, depending on your IP geographics. Still, for non-fiction authors, I think it’s definitely worth investigating.

      Thanks for your comment!



  1. Nonfiction Authors: How to Find Your Ideal Reader by Cathy Yardley – Authorship - […] For the full interview click here […]
  2. Top Picks Thursday 02-12-2015 | The Author Chronicles - […] Ramsay explains why we should keep our Facebook author pages, in spite of their lack of organic reach. Jason…
  3. 3 Ways an Ideal Reader Can Boost Your Writing Success - […] I refer you to Kathy Yardley’s posts on the Book Designer – how to find your idea (fiction) reader /…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *