Identifying your market is critical to the development and potential sale of your manuscript.
An infinite number of variables shape a reader’s likes and dislikes. In order to maximise your appeal you must know who you are writing for, and how to catch their eye.
By understanding your market you can target specific readers by approaching drafts, edits and book marketing strategically. While it’s better to be on top of your market from the outset, even if you’re already in the final stages of the creative process, you can still use market knowledge to emphasise strengths and minimise weaknesses through an edit or two.
If you charge ahead without considering your market, you could end up with a narrative that only engages a very small percentage of your potential readers. Or worse, one that agitates, alienates and appeals to no one.
So, if you’ve started already, stop. If you haven’t begun yet, wait.
Before you do anything else, read on for advice on how to pinpoint your market and ensure your work fits.
Table Of Contents
- What is a ‘Market’?
- 1. What Genre/s Does Your Work Fall Into?
- 2. How Old Are Your Ideal Readers?
- 3. Does Your Work Appeal to a Specific Gender?
- 4. Do Economy and Education Affect Your Market?
- 5. Does Geographical Location Impact Your Market?
- 6. What Are Your Readers’ Lifestyles and Interests?
- How to Make Sure Your Work Will Appeal to Your Market
What is a ‘Market’?
As implied above, the ‘market’ is your book’s potential reader, or collection of readers (hopefully).
A market is not a one-size-fits-all.
Your market is the ideal readership for your work. You may share it with other works, or overlap at the corners, but ultimately your market is your own; it is a unique community that will invest in your characters, surrender to your narrative and enjoy the ride all the way to the end, so much so they are prepared to pay money for it.
Your market should be your target from the moment you begin a project. It should influence your creative process from beginning to end, forever in the back of your mind as you approach every draft.
In order to target your market successfully, you first must identify its parameters. What exactly have you created, or planned to create? Who is the ideal reader and why are they perfect for your work?
Ask yourself the following six questions:
1. What Genre/s Does Your Work Fall Into?
Knowing the genres, as well as any sub-genres, that your work ties into is vital in the identification of your market. Genre holds an extraordinary power among readers and is forever unifying and dividing markets.
A piece of writing can easily, and often does, fall within multiple genres, and you should take full advantage of any and all crossovers that occur.
A romance is one thing, but a science fiction romance with hints of horror, cyberpunk and time travel will open up a much bigger market. You may lose some die-hard romance fans, but you’ll gain a collection of new readers you might not have realised were available.
The list of genres and sub-genres seems to be constantly evolving. It can be intimidating and overwhelming, but remember not to lose sight of the goal: determining your readers. What are the readers who will gain the most from your work? Are they the kind of readers who’ll be into The Notebook or Game of Thrones?
If you’re still uncertain, find a comparable novel online or in a bookstore. Take note of the novel’s position in the store and what it’s marketed as. Use this information as a starting point and go from there.
Let’s take a look at an overview of some of the most popular genres to help you get your footing.
Fiction about crime, catching criminals and the consequences of crimes. Includes sub-genres such as detective and hard-boiled, but there are countless more. Crime can work well in conjunction with most other genres, and is especially effective alongside mystery.
Examples of crime novels include Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, Post-Mortem by Patricia Cornwell, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Literary fiction usually features social or political commentary, or examines the human condition. It places the emphasis on characters, relationships and character development throughout the narrative, rather than plot.
Literary fiction can and often does cross over with other genres that create circumstances which test elements of the human psyche, such as dystopian or romance.
Some well known literary fiction includes The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey and The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
Fantasy fiction features magic and/or supernatural elements. Many fantasy narratives take place within a completely imagined setting, though they can also play out in a version of the known world with fantastical tweaks. There are countless sub-genres of fantasy, such as urban fantasy, high fantasy and fairy tales.
Some popular fantasy fiction includes The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.
Science fiction deals with imagined concepts based around science and the speculation of the ramifications of scientific advances and/or innovations. Science fiction often covers topics such as technology, space and time travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life.
Science fiction differs from fantasy in that any seemingly unnatural or paranormal elements in science fiction are intended to appear scientifically based or plausible (given the perfect extenuating circumstances).
In fact, some early 1900s science fiction has been eerily accurate in its ‘fictional’ predictions. H.G. Wells, an early 20th century science fiction author, predicted several advances in technology including a precursor to the tank and the use of nuclear power. He’s even credited for inspiring the invention of the atomic bomb.
Famous science fiction works include 1984 by George Orwell, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and Dune by Frank Herbert.
Historical fiction is as the title sounds: fiction based in history. It involves stories set in the past (more than 25 years ago) with as much accuracy regarding events, timelines, personalities, cultural and social environments as possible. Extensive research is often required when writing in this genre.
There are countless sub-genres of historical fiction, such as medieval, colonial, pirate, etc. One of the most popular amalgamations is historical romance.
Some historical novels include Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel.
Horror is intended to frighten, startle, unsettle or disgust its readers, or to instil a sense of horror or terror. Horror can feature paranormal events or imagined monsters but doesn’t have to. Horror is often melded with other genres, such as fantasy or romance, and can range in explicitness.
Famous horror works include Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Shining by Stephen King, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.
One the most popular genres, romance is all about love: the pursuit of love, the loss of love, unrequited love or destructive love. This genre is focused on the romantic relationship between two people, usually with an optimistic ending.
Romance is often crossed with other genres, particularly historical and all the sub-genres that entails. Sexual explicitness can range and is by no means mandatory.
Popular romance stories include Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and The Duke and I by Julia Quinn.
2. How Old Are Your Ideal Readers?
The age of your reader is hugely relevant when defining your target market.
Age impacts everything, from characters and content to vocabulary and plot, especially when it comes to writing for children and young adults.
Generally, children’s fiction features shorter sentences and simpler story structures, while teen works are more complex yet tend to avoid too much overtly explicit content (such as drug use or sex). That being said, there are novels targeted at the older end of the teen market that contradict this and don’t hold back when dealing with the gritty stuff.
Age is still relevant when dealing with adults, but there is more flexibility. For starters, an adult doesn’t have their mother reviewing every novel prior to purchase to ensure appropriate language is used throughout!
See the following list for age brackets when defining markets:
- Newborn-3 (board books)
- 3-5 years (picture books)
- 5-8 years (picture books and early readers)
- 9-12 years (chapter books)
- 10-14 years (chapter books that cover more mature subjects)
- 12-17 years (chapter books)
- 14-17 years (chapter books with more ‘adult’ or controversial content)
- 18-25 years
- 26 years and up (age brackets within this window are ultimately shaped by the author’s intent – i.e. 25-35s, or 55-70s)
These brackets are not definitive, and usually differ a few years here and there, depending on who you talk to. Each publishing house will have its own version of this list, created by their marketing and research teams and streamlined to suit their business models.
The most important element here is clarifying exactly what ages will appreciate your work the most.
If you’re unsure, have at look at other works that fall within the age groups you’re considering. You’ll quickly see whether or not you’re on the right track.
3. Does Your Work Appeal to a Specific Gender?
While the time of strictly pretty girls in pink and tough Tonka-truck boys in blue is behind us (almost), gender lingers as an influence on the marketplace.
Understanding which gender may be more favourable to your work is good, but this information should not be used to define your market.
Too much emphasis on gender leaves yourself open to a whole world of miscommunication, misinterpretations and misunderstandings.
In addition, conforming to these stereotypes will ostracise the readers who don’t fall within your gender boundaries. Gender is a fluid concept and constructing your market based on what you think girls and boys like won’t do you or your work any favours.
Particularly when dealing with children, gendered marketing tends to enforce tired social stigmas. The ‘Let Books be Books‘ parent-led campaign is working on removing just that from the children’s publishing industry via petitions. So far they’ve succeeded in getting 10 publishing houses, including Usborne and Scholastic, to remove gendered marketing from their publications.
Times are a-changing. So beware of specifying genders, especially in pitches and publications. Readers are real people, and real people don’t always fit the mould you want or expect.
4. Do Economy and Education Affect Your Market?
In the same vein as gender are the economical and educational statuses of readerships. Again, there is a world of stereotypes available here, but in our contemporary, information-dense society, these are regularly proven wrong.
Sure, a tertiary-educated reader might pick up Shakespeare before an early school-leaver, but that same tertiary-educated reader might put it back down in favour of something light and fluffy.
Meanwhile, the early school-leaver might be a self-taught classics enthusiast and run an online forum dedicated to discussions and dissections of the early texts.
Self-help books are read by housewives and millionaires. Spooky horrors tickle the interests of anyone with a love of scary stories. The epic 500+ page A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin reached everyone, everywhere, thanks to a highly successful television adaptation.
It’s important to remember this before telling the world only the highly educated, upper-middle-class gent could possibly grasp the complexity of your debut novel.
Tread carefully or skip entirely.
5. Does Geographical Location Impact Your Market?
In the time of the internet and an ever-shrinking globe, geographical location is not as crucial as it once was. Apart from the obvious Eastern and Western differences, language barriers and third-world versus first-world lifestyle discrepancies, readers are increasingly able to access works internationally.
That being said, location can play a small role in reader preferences: people like to read about what they know.
The same way a nineteen-year-old reader will relate to a late-teens protagonist, an Australian reader will always get more from an Australian story than someone who has never visited.
A reader in London might struggle to connect with an Australian narrative. Location-specific slang and alternate spelling of common words might also make it hard to engage an international reader.
But then again, that London reader might love the escapism and revel in the perceived obscurity of Australian references and terms. Unfamiliarity might be exactly what they’re looking for. In a lot of cases, it is.
If you’re writing in a created world, one constructed solely from your imagination, then geographical location has even less relevance, and should be overlooked entirely.
Readers are complex and geographical location, like gender, economical and educational status, is a tired market evaluation tool that is better off disregarded in favour of a greater focus on the categories that matter.
6. What Are Your Readers’ Lifestyles and Interests?
The lifestyle and personal interests of a reader can heavily influence their reading habits, especially when it comes to non-fiction.
Sports players tend to, among other preferences, look favourably upon a book centred on their sport, or a book which features sports in general. A horror set in a restaurant might thrill a chef. An amateur trekker will love works set in the great outdoors, thick with survival and the unforgiving wilderness. A doctor might not enjoy a medical drama, but fans of Grey’s Anatomy will.
Consider your work’s more notable elements: plot, character, setting, themes. What about them can capture the interests of a readership, or multiple readerships?
For example, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown captured the attention of a wide variety of readers from around the world. The bestseller featured murder and mystery, secrets and conspiracies, religion, history (though the accuracy has been questioned), a European setting with an American protagonist, art and puzzles.
From this, Brown reached readers interested in history, readers who enjoy riddles, American and European readers, readers with an interest in art and its place in history, and readers who enjoy stories that challenge social and religious constructs.
Recognising the lifestyles and interests your work appeals to is integral in knowing your market. So break your narrative down to the bones and work out the kind of readers you could connect with.
You might be surprised at how many there are.
How to Make Sure Your Work Will Appeal to Your Market
Once you have a clear idea of the market you’re aiming for, you can edit your work to fit.
Don’t panic; you don’t need to start anything from scratch.
Even if you’re the third draft in, anything that doesn’t fit can be edited so it does. And if you haven’t started yet, great! You’ll be able to begin this project with a clear mind and a firm grasp of what your ideal readers need from your work.
There are six main markers that impact your suitability to your intended market. When writing and/or editing, make sure you take each into account to ensure consistency throughout your project.
1. Is Your Vocabulary Appropriate?
The vocabulary you employ in your work can be the difference between comprehension or confusion. The biggest issue with vocabulary relates to the age of your intended reader.
Writing for adults affords a great deal of flexibility in vocabulary, though there still needs to be some level of caution. Is it necessary, for example, for your novel to be written entirely in a late 1800s academic vernacular?
If an exhaustively complex vocabulary isn’t desperately important to your characters or plot, perhaps you should reconsider. Most modern readers won’t put up with a book that’s difficult for the sake of being difficult. Even if you’re trying to recreate the feel of those Victorian classics, try to do so with simpler words.
As for writing for children, comprehension is key here. They may be able to sound out a word, look up what it means and learn from the experience, but a book filled with word after word that flies over their head is never going to go get far.
Children require simpler sentences, shorter paragraphs, clean descriptions and confident, clear metaphors.
Particular attention must be paid to the age bracket you’re working in. Children vary greatly over just a few short years. The younger they are, the simpler the vocabulary should be. At age five, children are challenged by a sentence of four or five words, and those words are almost always mono-syllables.
Children should be challenged and entertained, not struggling to finish the first page. If you’re not sure you’ve got a handle on writing for children, check out your local library. Borrow some popular books from the age group you’re working towards and compare it with your own.
In addition to age, vocabulary can be a vital element to some genres. While they don’t have to, fantasy, crime, noir, romance and literary fiction can all have very specific vocabularies. For example, a high fantasy will often play to language that harks back to a different time (for example, medieval).
Alternately, crime tends to be written with a short, sharp vocabulary filled with jargon to maintain momentum and reflect the grittiness of said crime. The same goes for sports-centred or profession-focused works: heavy industry terminology is not uncommon.
Mastering market-appropriate vocabulary is essential.
2. Are Your Characters Relatable?
The role of characters as markers is predominantly due to their age.
To put it simply, kids want to read about other kids. That includes teenagers. While some might enjoy an adult protagonist, most will invest more into a character that they can relate to, one going through the same physical, emotional and mental trials as they are.
Adults are not as finicky. Generally, as long as you have crafted believable characters with an authentic level of complexity, most adult readers are willing to give it a go.
There are some who prefer adult-only casts, or casts that feature both adults and children to balance the perspectives, but there are novels focused on a clutch of characters under the age of 12 that have gone on to make an impact in the adult marketplace.
Again, take Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling for example. Or Coraline by Neil Gaiman, a terrifying ‘children’s’ story that has unsettled more than its fair share of grown-ups.
Consider your characters with respect to your market. Will your target readers be able to relate? Will they connect and care what happens to your protagonist?
Would your middle-grade fantasy be better off with a 10-year-old or a 15-year-old as the protagonist? Some children like to read about older peers, but will there be enough for the 10-year-old to relate to?
Will 12-year-olds want to read about a six-year-old? Reading younger is not as common. Is there a reason the protagonist is so young? Can their age be increased to fit your ideal readers? Or will you create enough for the 12-year-old to relate to?
Will adults be satisfied with a young teenager’s perspective? This is possible, even likely, as long as there is enough complexity and character development.
Your characters should speak to your market and if they don’t, you need to review.
3. Is Your Work Too Simple/Complex For Your Market?
A massive indicator of suitability is the simplicity of your narrative. A young reader may struggle with a complex plot or layered timeline, but an older reader will enjoy the tangles of multiple points of view.
At the same time, an older reader will lose interest in a narrative if it lacks in depth. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, a classic picture book with stunning illustrations, is fine for five-year-olds, but for anyone older than 10 it’s little more than a few pages of pretty pictures.
The level of complexity must reflect the age and anticipated comprehension of your market. Complexity should also be considered alongside your genres. Literary fiction, for example, is inclined to be more complicated than ‘chick-lit’ and lighter reads.
The lifestyles and interests of your market are relevant as well, but usually only in the case of a narrative employing a lot of industry-specific or technical language or jargon.
Patricia Cornwell’s crime novels are notorious for their level of detailed technical language. She increases the complexity of her entire novel through terminology and clinical references. Some of her scenes are dense with scientific jargon and can prove challenging if not entirely off-putting to a casual crime reader.
Patricia’s works cater to a specific crime fan: those invested in the science behind the profession, the details that make up the sub-genre of ‘forensic thriller’.
Ask yourself if your work has enough depth, or too much. Will your market appreciate the details or will they be bamboozled by the excess of information? Do you need to add more to your characters and plot to maintain reader interest, or tone it back?
If you’re unsure, ask someone from your ideal market to read your draft. You’ll quickly find out whether you’re on the right track or if you’ve wandered off into the bush.
4. Will Your Style Appeal to Your Market?
While every writer should be true to themselves, style can be a dividing factor in readerships.
Your unique writing style is your author’s voice, your presence in the narrative, the way you put together your sentences, the adjectives you choose, the particular lilt to your prose. It’s important to maintain this authenticity when approaching your market, but too much of a good thing could be bad.
For instance, if your work has a dark, melancholy feel reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, you need to ask yourself: will the readers respond the way you want? Is this perhaps a little too much ‘nevermore’ and not enough sunshine between the clouds? Consider the market you have in mind, especially with regards to age.
Are you going to give a 10-year-old nightmares? Is that your goal? If so, you should rethink your aim in terms of sales, appropriateness and those who decide on purchases for minors. If you don’t want to give up the creep factor, then perhaps you’re better off targeting young adult readers instead.
Does your narrative move too quickly? Or too slowly? Does your intended market have the attention span needed to get through 43 heavy-duty chapters, or are they more of a two-page and comic strip sort of group?
Is your style too much or not enough? Subtlety has its place, but perhaps not in middle-grade adventures.
If your style isn’t working and you can’t figure out how to get it right, don’t abandon ship. Compare your work to that of other established authors within your market with similar styles. Take note of how they approach violence and conflict, fear, relationships, vocabulary, mood, pace and setting.
Every author has their own style, their own flavour and flair when stringing words together. This should always be embraced. You can be appropriate for your market and true to yourself at the same time.
5. Does Your Content Suit Your Market?
Adjacent to the simplicity/complexity of your work is the content itself – more specifically, the appropriateness of the content.
Does your ‘middle primary’ adventure feature excessive gore and explicit love scenes? Might want to revisit that. Otherwise, you need to reconsider whether you’re really writing for middle primary at all.
Content, especially for young readers, is a huge deal. Are there controversial elements? Is it gratuitous? Does the language fit? Is it inappropriate? Does it have to be?
The under-12 marketplace is generally free from swearing, sex, excessive or overly descriptive violence, and drug use. Young adult novels might feature a little of one or all of these, but not blatantly. Older young adult works (14 years and up) may be more open to these topics, but usually only in works aimed towards the older end of the age bracket.
New adult and adult fiction is a bit freer, but excessive sex, gore and swearing can still cut your work off from a large portion of readers. If a scene of graphic romping followed by a sailor swear-off doesn’t serve the plot or move the narrative forward, then you might be better off editing it out (unless your genre is erotica, in which case go for it).
At the other end of the scale, content for an adult must have some depth to it, something relatable and realistic. An adult might be able to force their attention longer, but there’s only so far you can go in an adult market with a PG story about a lost baby rabbit.
Sex is normal. Swearing is fine. A balance can be achieved.
If it’s integral to character development or credibility, or is a vital point in the plot, then that’s fine. Even if you just want to write a novel with dirty words and sex scenes, that’s okay too.
Ultimately, you can do what you want with your own work. Just remember, the way you shape your content will affect your market. If you can live with that, then don’t change a damn thing.
Whether approaching a new project, or re-drafting a current or old one, the market should be as prominent in your mind as the continuity of plot, believability of characters and clarity of imagery.
The market is a, if not the, deciding factor in the success of a professional writer. The market is the gathering of opinions of strangers to which the writer must, to an extent, cater their work in order to achieve the broadest appeal.
In an ideal creative world, a writer could write with the confidence that no matter what they produced, there would be a mass of readers out there ready to devour it.
Unfortunately this world does not exist, and there are no such guarantees in the one that does. So embrace your market and everything that comes with it. Tweak your work and tickle their fancy.
After all, without the reader, who are you writing for?