How to Write a Book Proposal: Part II: Who Is This Book For?

Apologies to all of you who have been waiting with bated breath for this post as I know it’s taken me a while to write it. You can exhale now! Phew. I’ll pause for a moment to let your brain adjust to the new intake of oxygen. That’s better.

Now, onward. In my last post I told you how to write—or, really, how not to write—a comps section for your book proposal. I hope it was useful. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section and I’ll address them as best I can.

I started this How to Write a Book Proposal series by tackling the comps section because it really is so easy to screw it up—and bad ones are frighteningly common. In this post, I want to cover another tricky element of the book proposal—the Target Audience section, otherwise known as the Who Is This Book For section.

Like the comps section, the Who Is This Book For section is easy to grasp conceptually. It’s a relatively short section (usually no more than a page long) of any proposal in which the author is charged with describing the target audience for his or her book. It is a good, ahem, complement to the comps section because it, too, helps the editor understand the market for the book and helps us understand your vision for it. It’s obviously impossible to know how many copies will sell before the book goes on sale, but if you can make a case that the potential audience is large, the more likely it is that a publisher will be willing to shell out big bucks for the book. At the same time, if the potential audience is relatively small, the advance may not be as high or the publisher might determine that they could not sell enough copies of the book to make it worth their while to publish it. (If you don’t know what an advance is, I encourage you to do some research into the book acquisition and auction process before you continue. The goal of this series is not to teach you how to write a proposal from scratch but to address some of the common mistakes authors make; You should have a good knowledge of the entire process for any of what I’m about to share to be useful.)

Like the comps section, the Who Is This Book For section helps “position” your book. “Positioning” is short-hand for describing your book in a way that helps put it into a context within the larger market. An easy way to do this is to compare your book to others as a reference point. For example, when Knopf published Cheryl Strayed’s (excellent) memoir Wild, they (and others) repeatedly described it as “Eat, Pray, Love but on the Pacific Crest Trail.” This was great because people immediately understood that it was a memoir about a women who undergoes a personal transformation while traveling (like Eat, Pray, Love) but also made it sound different (unlike Eat, Pray, Love, which took place in three different countries, Wild took place on the West Coast). Any time you compare your book to something else, place it in a category, or describe your target reader, you are positioning your book.

Which brings us to the topic at hand: Who is your book for? The biggest mistake authors make—and the reason I thought it important to address this issue—is when they answer this question with “Everyone!” No. Stop it. How many books over the course of human history have been read by everyone? Zero.

Saying this is no different from listing only bestsellers in your comps section except it’s worse because it suggests you’re not only delusional but have no clue who your audience is. “But true artists don’t create for others!” you say. “They create for themselves, for the sake of their art.” Okay, you sound pretentious now, but I take your point. However, I’m not saying you should write in order to please a particular audience or compromise your book in order to make it more commercial. All I’m saying is that you need to understand who will want to buy your book and why. When you do this well, you signal to the publisher that you’ve given this book a lot of thought, that you’ve done your homework, read the work of similar authors, and are able to talk about your book in a way that will pique the interest of potential readers.

I imagine the reason most authors like to say theirs is a book for everyone is not, actually, because they believe it is but because they’re afraid of underselling themselves. You worry that by saying “mine is a book for mothers who like to knit” you’re really saying “no one except mothers who like to knit will be interested in this book.” But that’s not what you’re saying; you’re saying “I know that there are people out there who would like my book and I know who they are and where to find them.” You’re not selling yourself short; you’re being realistic and, in the process, helping your would-be publisher understand how to position your book. We like that.

Publishers often like to say that a book for everyone is a book for no one. Yes, there are books out there that have been read and loved by millions of people, but even these books have natural limits on their audience. And even those books started off with a specific audience and grew from there. One tremendously successful book of the past few years is Just Kids by Patti Smith. Patti Smith was a famous musician long before she wrote a book, so she had a built-in audience of people who were automatically interested in what she had to say. However, many people—I’d be willing to bet most people—who bought, read, and loved that book were not huge fans of Patti Smith’s music. I am one of those people. I read the book because other people read it and loved it and the story (her memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives in New York City in the 70s before they became famous) sounded interesting. I can’t speak to how that book was positioned or published since I didn’t work on it, but I’d be willing to bet the publisher started by targeting people who liked Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, books on 70s-era New York, and music from that era. It was only after the book gained popularity within that core fan base that it was able to spread to a more general audience.  

You see this a lot with genre-specific fiction like fantasy or YA—they become popular with a certain audience and then spill over into the general public. Maybe your book has the potential to reach a wide audience—and that’s great. But when writing your proposal, you need to think in terms of your target audience—the people who are most likely to enjoy your book—and let the publisher extrapolate from there.

As I’ve already said, the biggest mistake authors make is when they believe their book is for everyone. This becomes evident in the Who Is This Book For section when it is vague and unspecific and describes too many—sometimes polar opposite—target audiences. Sure, there is always potential for crossover and overlap, but books require an investment of time and money and there are millions of other books out there competing for a reader’s attention at any given time. You cannot count on a casual or accidental interest in order to sell your book.

To illustrate, let’s pretend we’re writing a proposal for a book about harmful ingredients in popular American foods. The author (that would be us) is a journalist who has conducted original interviews with current and former employees of some of the biggest food companies in America. We have found that many of these companies knowingly put harmful ingredients in their products in order to make their foods more addictive. They can get away with this because of powerful lobbyists who have campaigned for relaxed regulations in their sector.

This is news-breaking stuff that affects pretty much every American alive. Therefore, you might be tempted to say that your book is for “Americans ages 18-80 who consume commercially produced foods.”

Of course many Americans will be interested to know what goes into the foods they love, but not all of them will care. And even those who do care—those who may hear about your book as part of a news segment, for instance—might not care enough to shell out money to buy and read an entire book on the subject. Who are the people who will make that investment of time and money? Well, for starters, they are the people who have previously shelled out money for books about food and food production. They’re also people who are conscious about the food they buy—those who buy organic or locally produced food. Another potential target audience would be parents as people generally care more about the health of their children than they do their own. Maybe there’s some particular information in our book about additives in baby food. Yikes! With that in mind, here’s a better Who Is This Book For section for a book like this:

Readers of Michael Pollan and Michael Moss: The popularity of books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss shows that there is a large potential readership for books on American food production and an increasing interest in learning about commercially produced food [Note: you might say this is repetitive from the comps section, but, remember, you want to be careful about listing very popular books in the comps section. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a runaway bestseller and therefore you might not want to list it as a comp, but you can list it here because its popularity indicates a potentially large audience for your book.]

Organic food advocates: Approximately 10 million people shop at Whole Foods and other organic grocery stores in America every month, and according to a recent Cornell University study, 10% of Americans say they try to buy organic when possible. In addition, 2 million Americans belong to a CSA (community-supported agriculture), up from 500,000 just a decade ago. The rise in this sort of conscious and sustainable food consumption indicates that Americans are increasingly aware of the benefit of eating whole, organic food as opposed to processed foods.

Parents: Many of the foods I discuss in my book are marketed directly to children in an effort to get them hooked on processed foods at an early age. No doubt parents who read this book will think twice before letting their kids consume these products once they read my book. I could see the book being popular with readers of parenting blogs.

A few things to note: first, the numbers in the second bullet are completely made up. I added them because the more specific you can be about the size of the potential audience, the better because it shows you’ve done your research. For the record, no publisher will think “Oh! 10 million people shop at Whole Foods and therefore we can expect to sell 10 million copies of the book!” The numbers are simply useful for context. You don’t want to laden your proposal with facts and figures, but a few carefully chosen data points can serve you well.

Perhaps I could have communicated all of the above in far fewer words than I’ve used here. But I wanted to take time on this subject because you’d really be surprised at how many people fail to describe their target audience. In sum: be specific and realize you can’t be all things to all people. If you know what your book is, and if your book is truly original and worth publishing, this should be an easy task. The right publisher will believe in your book and see its potential clearly. Trust in that and you’ll be fine.

Good luck!