As an experienced business-person, you understand the importance of knowing your customer. Your customer strategy allows you to tailor your branding, products, marketing, all your communications, in ways that feel personally relevant to the people you’re serving. As an author, your customer is your reader, and so it's just as important to have a reader strategy if you hope to write a book that delivers true value to your readers.
Note: this article is the second one in a series on Nonfiction Book Strategy - while not critical, you can find the first in the series here on the topic of Business Strategy for your Nonfiction Book.
Clarifying up-front who you’re writing for lets you make good decisions about your book topic, which subtopics you’ll cover and in how much detail, the language you’ll use, and which examples and other content you’ll include in your chapters.
Just as choosing a target customer influences more than just the design of your product or service, identifying your reading audience also impacts elements well beyond your book content. Choices like your cover design and book title, publication formats, distribution channels, and marketing tactics all become easier when you have a reader strategy that provides a clear vision of who your ideal reader is.
Defining your reader strategy is not just about making decisions easier though. If you’re not writing to a specific person, your book may feel too general to appeal to anyone, leaving everyone unsatisfied. Your book can also feel disjointed and inconsistent as you try to include content and examples that apply to too many target reader groups.
Target Reader Groups
With an established business or body of work in your industry, you may feel that it’s obvious who your readers will be. After all, you’re immersed in your business every day and have an excellent sense of the trends and topics that are relevant to readers on your topic.
While that’s true, when thinking about your potential readers, consider all the different stakeholders of your business: customers, prospects, vendors or partners, the media, employees, the public in general. You could write a book with any of these groups in mind.
While actual readers can and will come from many (possibly all) of these groups, it’s vitally important that you choose ONE audience, and write to (and ONLY to) it. That said, there is value in acknowledging all of those you can think of. Authors often find they're more able to commit to a more narrow target reader if they're first allowed to list out and recognize all the varied groups who will get value from their book.
In an upcoming article on Content Strategy, we'll think more deeply about what you want to achieve with your book, but you probably have at least a directional sense of why you want to publish a book, and who you want to speak to already.
For most entrepreneurs, their book will be written with customers and potential customers in mind, so that’s the audience that we’ll use for most examples that follow. Whichever group you write to, you still need to get more specific in understanding and describing them.
Ideal Reader Profile (IRP)
The Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) or Buyer Persona is a tool often used in marketing to define a target customer. We’ll borrow that concept for defining your target reader using an Ideal Reader Profile (IRP).
The goal with an IRP is to get very specific in describing a semi-fictional person who represents the type of reader you’re writing for. It allows you to go from a general understanding of a large group of people to a very detailed vision of a real, flesh-and-blood individual that you can write to specifically. It’s the difference between a vaguely worded “Dear Sir or Madam” letter and a personal and heart-felt one to “My Dearest Alisia”.
It starts with your customer
When launching a new business or a new product, businesses spend considerable time and money on market research to develop personas. An advantage you have is that you already have customers. Even if you’re just starting out, you’ve likely already spent time considering who your customer is, and you can use what you know about them here.
If you haven’t explicitly defined a target customer for your business, defining your ideal book reader can help significantly in focusing your broader business activities too. See my previous article on the Business Strategy phase of Book Strategy for some help on that.
To create your IRP, consider the person that best represents who you intend to write for. This should be specific. Don’t think in terms of age ranges, household income bands, or other buckets. Instead, get a picture in your mind of an individual. You might think about an existing client or someone specific who you’d love to have as a customer, who you know you could serve exceptionally well, and describe them.
With a real or imagined reader in mind, it becomes quite easy to answer the kinds of questions needed to build your IRP.
Goals, needs, and desires
Fears, problems, or pains
Relationship to your area of expertise
Don’t limit yourself to only these questions, and don’t feel you have to cover each one if some aren’t relevant to understanding your reader. For example, if you’re an Executive Coach, the question about whether your reader has an assistant is quite relevant. It’s not at all important if you’re a guitar teacher for teens, in which case you may want to include questions about music preferences, musical influences, and the like.
Bring your ideal reader to life
There are two additional elements that are important in making your IRP feel like a real person:
- Give this person a name — yes, an actual, first and last name.
- Then, search your favourite royalty-free image site for a clear, close-up photo of someone who you think looks like this person.
With all your answers crafted, aim to fit this information on a single page so that it’s easy to keep in front of you when you’re writing. You can either list the details in bullet form or write it up as though you were describing this person to a friend.
IMPORTANT: Don’t waste all this good work by stashing the persona on your hard drive. Print it out and keep it visible where you do your writing. Re-read your IRP each time you sit down to work on any aspect of your book to re-familiarize yourself with who you’re writing for. That will keep your ideal reader fresh in your mind, and keep your work aligned and consistent.
Intended Reader Journey
When you think of taking your reader on a journey, fiction likely comes to mind. Perhaps your mind wanders to Lord of the Rings where J.R.R. Tolkien takes the young hobbit, Frodo, on an epic journey to Middle-earth in search of Mordor. Or perhaps you think of how Dan Brown sends Robert Langdon on globetrotting adventures to decode cryptic puzzles, to save priests from assassination, or to prevent the spread of an engineered, population-culling, killer-virus.
I bet your first thought does not jump to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People. But both nonfiction classics take readers on epic journeys in their own right. The difference is that nonfiction doesn’t just let the reader in on the hero's journey. In nonfiction, the reader is the hero, the journey is theirs, and they are the one transformed as they learn to overcome their own challenges.
The nonfiction reader's journey
Your job, as a nonfiction author, is to understand deeply where your ideal reader is today in their life as it relates to your topic (Point A), understand deeply where they truly want to be instead (Point B), and take them on a journey through your book to get them from Point A to Point B.
Now, Tolkien doesn’t just have Frodo walk out of the Shire and grab the next flight to Mordor. He adds other characters, twists and turns, and obstacles that keep our interest as Frodo proceeds along his journey.
In this way too, you need to make the journey interesting if you’re going to keep your reader engaged long enough to bring them to their destination. That's the art of writing and we’ll get to that another time. For now, let’s focus on Point A and Point B.
Describe your reader’s current situation (Point A)
To fully understand where your ideal reader is at today, think about the reasons why they are likely to pick up and read your book. What problem are they experiencing in their life that they desperately need a solution for? Think too about what the underlying reasons are for being in that situation and the mistakes they might have made that created the problem. These are important clues about what you need to address throughout your reader’s journey.
Describe the reader’s future situation (Point B)
Next, think about your reader’s future situation. How would they describe their life if their current problem were addressed? This is the destination you need to take them to. Write out a one-sentence statement that summarizes it, and then take it a step further by answering the following three questions:
- After reading your book, what do you want your reader to KNOW?
- What do you want your reader to FEEL after reading your book?
- What do you want your reader to DO next?
Know. Feel. Do.
KNOW will give you the basis of the information you need to teach your readers. It will form the logical part of your promise to them. It's that part of the promise that gives them the confidence that your book will deliver value so they can justify spending the time to read it, front to back.
FEEL will give you the basis of the emotional promise you will make. Logic doesn’t engage, emotion does. You need to paint the picture of how your reader’s emotional state will change for the better. This is what inspires your reader and makes them want to believe the logical promises you’re making in answering the KNOW question.
DO describes the next steps you want them to take. It should connect the contents of your book to your business objectives in a meaningful way. Perhaps you want to introduce them to your online course, one-on-one coaching, or consulting services. Or maybe you want them to take their new-found knowledge and passion for your topic and go out into the world and create some kind of change. While your specific call to action may be more subtle and nuanced, at this point you should make it explicit as this will act as your guide as you plan and write your book.
Customers buy products to meet a specific need. Likewise, people read nonfiction books looking for specific outcomes. Know your reader by using a reader strategy, and you can write a book that addresses those needs better than any other one could. Meet your readers’ needs, and you will increase your credibility with them as an expert in your niche, building your authority and growing your business.