I’ve been reading a lot more on how to become a better writer and blogger, and one of the things that keeps popping up is the concept of needing to know who your “ideal reader” is. It’s a common business practice as well, and it makes perfect sense on the surface. How are you going to reach your audience and make an impact on them if you don’t know who your audience is?
While this strategy might work well for some people, I keep running into two main problems with this tactic.
Problem 1: It’s Too Literal
The very notion of having an ideal reader is flawed because no one is ideal to begin with. We have flaws. We have different tastes. Just like you can’t find the perfect romantic match on Internet dating websites, you can’t create the perfect reader and find them in the world.
When asked to come up with an “ideal reader,” I’m told to try and flesh them out with as many details as possible. I’m asked to try and figure out their name, age, income, ethnic background, political ideology, marital status, etc.
For example, if I’m writing a self-help book on how to start a business as a single mom, I’m going to want to get that into the hands of every single mother out there who wants to start a business, right?
Hold on, though. What age range are we talking? What is their ethnic background? What level of education do they have? Do they practice a religion or are a part of a group that goes against your political/moral beliefs?
Think about it, thought. Let’s say that in addition to selling a self-help book on how to start a business as a single mom, I support initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases and reverse climate change. Hypothetically speaking, if I met a single mother at a book signing and found out that she wanted to start a business that promoted climate change as a hoax, what would I do? Would I try to talk her out of her beliefs and potentially dissuade her from buying my book, or would I keep my mouth shut and let her buy the book, no matter what business she created?
I know it’s a very chance-y hypothetical, but that kind of scenario is something you have to consider as an author/entrepeneur. Whose doors are you wiling to knock? Who are you willing to shut the door on?
Trying to find who would read my stuff by way of narrowing them down to their age, ethnic background, and whatever else just wasn’t useful for me. And it’s what made me want to make my ideal reader myself.
But that lead to another problem.
Problem 2: Can’t Be With It, Can’t Live Without It
If I’m the ideal reader of my blog or my books, great. I can write whatever I want, say whatever I want, and do whatever I want.
The only problem with that is that blogging and writing for myself isn’t likely to pay the bills. It might, but it likely won’t gain traction.
Instead of a self-help book about entrepreneurial mothers, let’s say I wanted to write a fantasy novel with a giant squid because I wanted a giant squid somewhere. It has no plot relevance. It has no character relevance. I just put it in there because I wanted it to be in there. I also don’t give any attention to the development of the characters or the plot. The whole novel is as flat and dull as cardboard.
What do you think is going to happen when people read it?
I’ll tell you: They will likely leave 1-star reviews, saying that I wasted their time.
And I wasted their time because I didn’t fulfill their expectations. Fiction readers go in with the expectation that they will be entertained in some way., and I know this, because I am a fiction reader Instead of giving them the cheeseburger with fries and a large drink they ordered, I gave them an old shoe with a giant squid.
That’s not going to cut it.
So… what happens now?
The Two-Fold Solution
In order to be a successful blogger, writer, or content creator of any kind, I believe you have to know two core principles:
1. It’s impossible to please everyone, but you shouldn’t rule everyone out.
I’ve noticed that most successful businesses don’t attract just one type of person.
Google and YouTube aren’t doing well because it serves the whims of Becky, age 13, African American, middle-class income, likely voting-Democrat when she turns 18. YouTube is doing well because it appeals to cat video viewers, children, teens, adults, artists, musicians, journalists, news organizations, TV networks, and more.
Don’t get me wrong. Just because they’re appealing to wide bases doesn’t mean that they aren’t targeting specific niche groups. They are. But I don’t think they’re thinking about every individual person around the world when they seek to grow as a business.
So in that same vein, if you happen to write a YA paranormal romance novel, you’re going to alienate some readers simply because they’re not into YA paranormal romance. However, if your book is good enough, it might encourage someone who is generally into fantasy or romance to pick up your book and give it a shot. It might attract the attention of a father who knows his daughter/son likes paranormal romance, and wants to get them a birthday present.
Yes, it’s impossible to please every single person on the planet, but that shouldn’t stop you from maximizing the number of people you can potentially please.
2. You already know who is likely to read your book because you’re likely to read a certain author’s work yourself.
Are readers nouns? Are they tagged with descriptors like age, ethnic background, and political preference?
Are they more than just the sum of their parts? Are they also their actions? Their purchases?
Yes! Yes, by Jove, all the yes!
Do me a favor: Picture your favorite book right now. Now picture its author.
Now take in the following thought: You are probably not the ideal reader of whoever author you pictured.
Think about it: When you picture an author writing, do you think they’re picturing you? Down to each freckle on your face? Each scar on your body?
No! And how can they? Unless you’re a super-fan who has met them in person and you’re BFFs with them, they have no idea who you are.
But they do know one thing about you without ever having met you: That you’re a reader with specific tastes that happen to match their own.
You are the reader of the author that you pictured because you probably enjoyed something about them either as a person or an author. Maybe you enjoyed their literary style. Maybe you enjoyed their sense of humor. Maybe you enjoyed how they subverted the cliches of the genre they were writing in. Maybe you don’t mind them using a giant squid to explain their points (*wink, wink*).
And good authors know this as well. They want to be the author for their readers by being as authentic as possible while still meeting their readers’ needs for information or entertainment. They know they can’t fit every need, but they can, and should, aim for as many needs as they are able.
Ideal Readers and Mine
So, to put it all together, stop trying to find your “ideal”/perfect/angel reader. They don’t exist. You might find someone that loves everything you do and you can do no harm by them, but if you reject them simply because they don’t fit your nebulous “ideal” or don’t fit into a certain demographic you like, you are effectively stabbing yourself in the back. Don’t do it.
Instead, try to find people interested in things you enjoy. Study similar authors to you, and find out what other readers are saying about them. If you’re writing a book that features horseback riding, take a look at horseback riding blogs or forums. Hang out where people likely to be interested in your book hang out.
But most important of all, be yourself. Be the best you that you can be, and show everyone who that is.