Jan 182011

Talking about recipes at a local bookstore reading for Will Write For Food. Audience members included friends, colleagues, readers of my blog, neighbors, and members of my aerobics class and book group. (Photo by Owen Rubin.)

When you approach agents about your book idea, they might ask some version of, “Why this book now, why you, and who cares?”

A book proposal must answer those questions immediately. Last week I posted tips about defining your target audience for a blog. Now let’s look at the target audience for a book, which is not necessarily the same.

When it comes to writing a book, one of my agent’s favorite questions is, “Who is going to pay $25 for it?” That is different than reading a free blog. You need to identify that person in as much detail as possible, and make a cogent argument for why she (women buy the most books) would spend the money.

Some cookbooks, such as those for vegans and gluten-free cooks, have potential audiences that are easy to identify, compared with general cookbooks. Other books, particularly memoir, have elusive readerships. Still, identifying readership can have benefits far beyond completing that section of a book proposal. Knowing who will read your book gives you clues about how to focus it and what to include.

Here are 5 tips on establishing an audience for your book:

1. Your book is not for everyone. “Everyone” is not a market. It is too vague. When Craig and I wrote Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas, we wanted readers to become familiar with kind of equipment we used. We showed photos of kitchen tools, pans, and grills in a chapter at the front of the book. Because of that decision, Craig sold the most books at Williams-Sonoma stores, which displayed the book with grilling equipment and pizza tools. Our target reader shops there.

(Publishers always like to see creative ways to sell to your target audience. To do so you must know what would interest them.)

2.You might already have built-in ways to reach readers. If you teach, have a blog, write freelance articles or produce a newsletter on the subject of your book, you have an audience. The people within these list will give you lots of clues about who constitutes your most enthusiastic readers.

3. Build a list of characteristics. Think about the people you already reach and build a profile of a target reader. Include age, education, how often they’re in the kitchen, how often they go to restaurants, whether they’re interested in trendy foods, whether they travel, have kids, take classes, etc. Doing so will help you focus your book. If you’re just getting started and have no audience, try to find one by teaching, blogging, etc. on the subject of your book.

4. Think nationally. If you are known only to your community, a regional publisher will be the easiest sell. National publishers want a national audience. We considered geography and lifestyles in our book on grilled pizza. Our agent suggested we show people how to make a grilled pizza in a pan on the stove, not just outdoors, as a way of attracting those who lived in apartments.

5. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. If you’re writing to beginning cooks or those who like quick meals, don’t ask them to make a gastrique, debone a chicken, or soak beans overnight when you know they will open a can. It’s one thing to challenge your readers and other to make them turn the page. Knowing your audience — or making decisions about who they are — helps you write a book that’s appropriate and relevant.

If you are writing memoir, these tips might seem nebulous, but you still must complete a section on target audience in your book proposal. Look at other factors: have readers had a similar experience (growing up in a food-obsessed family) or do they fantasize about  doing something you did (ex. going to cooking school in Paris)? Figure out why they should care about your story.

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 Posted by on January 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm

  15 Responses to “5 Tips on Establishing An Audience for Your Book”

  1. Well swell, these tips have helped me to identify my audience as sex-starved individuals who like to lick gastrique off the fingers of their lovers during dinner and who wear stilettos while forming fortified alcohol into edible spheres. Do you think there is a big market for that, Dianne? :) ps- i think i spy Ben Rhau (youfedababychili) in that audience…

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Janice Semmel. Janice Semmel said: RT @diannej: 5 Tips on Establishing an Audience for Your Book. New post @ http://bit.ly/eycJ9x […]

  3. Thank you Dianne, as always your posts seem to reach deep into the heart of my present issues.
    After long debate on whether anyone cared for what I wrote in my manuscript, over 2 years of intense blogging, networking, promoting and–let’s not forget, cooking–I have narrowed down my audience. This has helped me gear the organization of the book, its chapters and tailor the front material with my potential readership as a guide.

    Now if only a publisher would reply to my book proposals!*
    *it’s a long story…


    • You are most welcome. Writing a book proposal can BE a long story, Eleonora. It only takes one publisher to reply, so don’t give up.

  4. Dianne,
    As usual, this is a really helpful and succinct post for aspiring cookbook writers. I’ve been hearing a lot about niche and “vertical markets” lately, and you clearly address that.I would guess it’s almost impossible to sell a general cookbook these days, so it keeps coming back to who am I? what do I want to contribute? who will care about it? and how does my idea offer something different? I love your tip: ‘your book is not for everyone.’ Important to know that, just as we also struggle to understand that not everyone will want to be our friend and that it is not such a bad thing after all! Thanks Dianne.

    • Yes, all questions to be answered in the proposal. It’s kind of existential, to figure this out. The problem with a general cookbook is that the recipes offered might all be available on the web. Publishers are looking for something different.

  5. Thanks, Dianne. Good timing for a very helpful checklist! I’m holding it up against both proposals.

  6. Really useful information.

    In a past life I was a book acquisitions editor (not cookbooks, but the editorial thought process is largely the same across all disciplines). If an author doesn’t know who is going to buy their book, I’ve found the author really doesn’t know what she’s writing.

    What I valued most, however, was an author’s discussion of the competition – specific books – and how her book was similar to and different from the completion. And why. Without a good answer to the why, there isn’t a good answer to why the book should exist and why someone wants to buy it.

    Published books are in a sense market research: they have actual sales numbers, so they’ve demonstrated something about the size of the market. So if a potential author is citing competition that has a good sales history, and the author is proposing something that is logically different from the competition, this may be attractive to an editor.

    As an example, suppose I’m bringing a proposal for a new book on fish cookery to the publication committee (the people that approve contract requests from an editor). I might say something like “Mark Bittman just published this general seafood book, the most successful new book since James Beard’s fish cookbook, and I estimate Bittman sold x the first year. Clearly there’s a market. My author’s book is also a general seafood book, but it differs from Bittman’s in that Bittman organized his book by specie, and then presented recipes that are ideal for each fish. My author’s book is organized more by technique and principles – poaching is poaching and although the details are different with different recipes and fish, the principles are still the same. Recipe count between the two books is similar. Oh, yeah, and my author is James Peterson (who was well known but yet not a superstar when his Fish & Shellfish book was published) so that should help with the marketing, too. A lot of people who bought Bittman will want Peterson because it covers the same ground from a different perspective. Those that didn’t buy Bittman because they thought it was too simple and wanted something with more depth will be attracted to Peterson because it’s a more detailed and intellectual discussion about the subject.”

    Now I’m quite sure that conversation never happened, but it is a pretty typical example of how a book proposal gets presented by an editor to a publishing committee.

    Anyway, I hope this didn’t derail the conversation, but I wanted to make the point that knowing the competition – and describing how and why your book competes with the competition – is a useful part of defining your audience.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment. The competition section is definitely core to the proposal and when I’m coaching, I find it often helps writers define or re-shape their books. We mere mortals don’t have access to real sales numbers through BookScan (like you did), but I always advise people to look at Amazon numbers as a starting point.

  7. Wow. That last comment just blew my mind. I never even thought of cookbooks in that way. Blogging/writing is so much more business than art.
    I’ve been considering making my blog more about Hawaii, food-wise, but I’m afraid of closing off too regionally. Right now the popular trends don’t seem to be pointing in that direction (not that it’s only good to be popular). But you’re right, the audience of “everyone” is too large.

    • I don’t think it’s too regional, Mariko. Hawaii has millions of visitors, and we folks on the mainland always dream of going back. Food blogs about Hawaii probably have readers from all over, not just locals.

  8. Not to sound completely ridiculous but finding your site about brought me to tears. I’m very excited to see each one of your posts. They are useful and not aggressive or elitist like most posts seem to be.

    I’ve been blogging for about one year now. Over the course of this past year I’ve been contacting literary agents and publishers. One rejection after another I’ve beaten myself up thinking that this little dream of mine may never happen. Ultimately I end up reminding myself that even Julia Child had to jump through flaming hoops to convince someone to publish her book.

    The only feedback I’ve gotten at this point is that if I were to publish a cookbook it would only be because somehow I managed to obtain 10,000+ visitors per month. The publishing world is much more cut-throat than I’d anticipated. Every rejection I receive I can not help but to think, would a publisher tell Hemingway that the sun does not rise unless he’s created a popular blog first? How did the publishing industry thrive before social media?

    I know I’ve got a long road ahead of me but I truly appreciate your insight. Your posts are wonderful.

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