Know Your Readers

I write commercial crime fiction and as an author the most important piece of information I need is who my readers are and what they want to read. Even if their preferences surprise me and differ frommy own, I’ll only attract readers by offering what they want. So how do I work that out?

If you want to attract readers, you need to know what readers want. If you don’t find out what they want, you will keep trying different kinds of honey, and you’ll wonder why no one wants to read your books.

How do you find your readers? More importantly, how do you determine what your readers want? Here are a few tips to allow you to do this.

Become a Reader Yourself

The more you read, the more you will develop your reading palette, and the better your tastes will become.

How can you tell if a bowl of borscht is any good if you have never eaten borscht? How could you hope to cook it if you don’t even know what it should taste like? What’s true for food is also true for books.

To become a reader, you need to spend less time binging Netflix and more time binging your genre.

I have been in this industry for almost a decade and I know that whether they were writing fiction or nonfiction, publishing traditionally or independently, every single successful author was already a reader of the kind of books they wrote. Contrary to popular belief, reading books in your genre will not make your books sound derivative. In fact, knowing what is already available is the only way to make your book unique. If you aren’t well-read in your genre, you will blindly stumble into common cliches. Therefore, as you read popular books in your genre, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What do I like about this book?

2. Why was this book successful in connecting with readers?

3. What do readers like about this book?

Please note, none of these are negative, critical questions. You must resist the temptation to sit in a place of judgment over these popular books. Any fool can scoff at success. But the wise embrace humility and learn from the successes of others. Your goal in reading books in your genre is to learn, not to make yourself feel better.

It is important to learn what kinds of people enjoy reading the books you write, in order to target not only your writing, but also your reading.

Read in Community

Developing good taste in books requires more than just reading. It’s also beneficial to read in community. Discussing a book out loud helps you organize your thoughts and forces you to interact with other readers’ ideas and opinions. Listen to the views and interests of other members of the group. This will give you insight into who your readers are and what they enjoy reading.

Create a reading group of a few friends, and start reading in your genre. Discuss what you like and don’t like about the books you are reading. These friends don’t need to be writers. They need to be readers.

The lockdown disrupted our social rhythms, and many of us lost touch with our friends. Now is the time to rebuild those friendships and form new ones. Starting a reading group is a great way to begin to reconnect.

Something magical happens when a small group of readers carries the same book into a coffee shop. Complete strangers will ask what you are reading, and they may even want to join your group. To start a reading group, you only need a book, a time, and a place for the meeting.

You can also read with online reading groups. is a great place to connect with other readers.

Write for Yourself

You can’t steer a parked car. Before you can get on the highway of success, you may have to drive in the wrong direction on the side streets. And before you can drive on the side streets, you must learn to drive a car in the first place.

When you are learning the craft of writing, it’s fine to write the kind of books you like to read. Writing for yourself will help you learn to craft good sentences, compelling stories, or convincing nonfiction. You can start by writing the kind of book you want to read, but don’t finish there. You are not a representative sample of your readers, and not everyone will like what you like.

Everyone is born bad at writing. You may not want to hear this, but your first efforts at writing won’t be much better than your first efforts at singing. Maybe you’ve been singing all your life, but there is a huge difference between performing an aria for an audience and singing the ABC song with your kids.

At first, the only person you will be able to convince to read your writing will be yourself. And that’s OK. Writing for yourself is a safe way to practice and improve. Keep reading books and keep writing short stories or blog posts. You’ll only get better if you practice.

If you diligently read in your genre, you will develop a refined taste for story elements and sentence structure. As your literary taste improves, you’ll see ways to strengthen your writing and improve your craft. If you have a community in which to discuss your book, you’ll improve even faster.

Writing for yourself is a good starting point, but it’s only a start. It’s like using honey to catch flies. You won’t catch many because flies don’t prefer honey. Likewise, your tastes probably differ from your readers’ tastes. You like honey, but your potential readers want vinegar. You need to know in order to be able to create characters and stories that intrigue your readers.

To write what readers want to read, you need to write what readers already want to read. That means, you need to find beta readers and learn what they like. You’re not looking for a crowd. You are looking for a few critical, representative readers who will help you write what your readers want to read.

Val Penny

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