Writers: 5 Tips on How to Identify Your Target Audience

target goal settingOne of the most difficult questions for an author is figuring out ‘who are your target audience?’

If you’ve tried to pitch an agent or publisher, you will have been asked about ‘comps’ or comparison authors which is just one part of it. Today, thriller author Colby Marshall outlines how you can find your target audience.

When we writers set out to promote a book, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing our book is “for everyone,” particularly since we can separate its components and find something in our book everyone could enjoy.  But to be promote successfully, we have to forget the notion that we’ve written a book everyone will love and instead, maximize our promotion toward those most likely to become our audience.

Here are a few tips to help you with identifying your target audience and with putting that knowledge to work:

1. Isolate what types and/or groups of people the content of the book would interest.

Example: If your book is about an archaeologist who uses Stone Henge to travel into the future, your book would probably interest history buffs as well as fans of speculative fiction/sci-fi.  If that hero happens to be a former Marine, your book might also interest military personnel and/or the families.

2. Identify other books that are comparable to your book and look at the profiles of those books’ main buyers/readers. 

While the Twilight saga might be plagued by jokes about Bella’s undying love (no pun intended) for a too-perfect vampire shinier than a package of Lisa Frank stickers, the series is the perfect example of a target market.  The target audience isn’t always who the book was written for, but rather, who it ends up appealing to.  Twilight draws in tween and teenage girls with its premise involving a normal, everyday girl falling into a romance with an young, attractive male (the bread and butter of many young girls’ dreams), but it’s appeal stretched to the cross-section of middle-age female readers who love romance and enjoyed Anne Rice in her heyday.

3. Pinpoint what is special about your book.

We all think highly of our own intricacies, but at the end of the day, when you tell someone what your book is about, what are the few magic words that boil it down to the main story? In other words, what is your hook?  If you tell someone you’re writing a book about a witch who uses her power of communing with animals to rescue a lost dog from an evil dog-napper, then A. Wow, you have an interesting imagination!  B. You may or may not have taken in 101 Dalmatians too much as a child and C. With such a premise, chances are, your story is more light-hearted than scary, so your target readers to which the mystery aspect of your story will entice are more cozy-type mystery consumers (i.e., they’re more Murder She Wrote than Silence of the Lambs), especially those that enjoy paranormal stories involving witches, ghosts, and their ilk. Your book might also appeal to animal lovers.

4. Determine some demographics.

 Let’s take the example right above of the witch hunting down a hound-heisting criminal.  In the previous model, we assumed this mystery was contemporary, but let’s take that same premise and make the main character an eleven-year-old girl who has to stop Cruella DeVille’s doppelganger while also keeping her little sister out of her room and making a good grade on her math test. In this scenario, the book is a Middle Grade novel, so instead of having a target audience of people who like amateur sleuth stories with a paranormal twist, this story is likely to appeal to kids ages 8-12. Since the book’s main character is an eleven-year-old amateur sleuth, it’s safe to say it will most appeal to kids who like mysteries, but it would also probably interest kids who like animals as well as kids intrigued by magical characters. And in this case, the parents of these kids are your targets, too!

5. Feed the previous four tips into each other to gain even more insight and narrow down who your target audience/s is/are.

(You can have multiple target audiences!)

Using our schnauzer-stealing villain to be found and thwarted by the elementary-age witch, we might realize based on our age demographic and the identification of similar titles (books, TV, and movies can help here!) that kids who like mysteries who also like watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch on Netflix would be the perfect type of reader for your book.  Might I suggest a Venn diagram? This way, you can see where the different groups of people who are potentially good fits for your book overlap, thus refining your targeted groups and finding your primary target audience.  Plus this way, you’ve finally had an excuse to make that Venn diagram you’ve had the urge to make lately.

How to use your target audience:

1. Identify where your target audience hangs out, then be there.

Look at the users of certain social media sites, the readership of publications in which you advertise, blogs on which you guest post, etc. Then, steer yourself in the direction of those with users compatible with your product.  If you write epic fantasy, guest posting on two hundred blogs popular with erotica readers won’t be effective unless your novel’s elves are too randy for the final battle and instead, get hot and heavy in the castle stronghold.

2. Concentrate on the buyers.

While readers are great, more readers beget more word of mouth, and anyone who shares your work is a great help to you, not every avenue of promotion is equal.  For example, while there are exceptions like the great Joanna Penn who gain a large following for their writing by building a writing-based blog, most often, other writers are not going to be an audience who becomes an avid fan base for your book (Let’s face it…writers are supportive of each other, but we’re busy focusing on our own books, too!).  If you have a limited time to promote, head for spots where your target audience is (refer to number 1).

[Note from Joanna: I would second this point! I also wanted to note that I started this blog back in 2008 when I was only writing non-fiction and just wanted to document my self-publishing process. It has morphed into a completely different business and later I started writing fiction, but my site for that is at www.JFPenn.com where I DON’T talk about writing!]

3. Work the connections you’ve found to popular books in the same vein as yours by appealing to those books’ readers.

Got a psychological thriller you think Dean Koontz fans might like? Check out his aesthetics and marketing techniques.  I’m not saying to tie up Koontz’ cover designer, throw him in your trunk, and take him home and force him to create your cover, too (This is my cover before!  Do you see?!  This is my cover changing.  Do you see?!). I’m for putting your own stamp on things and staying original.  All I’m saying here is that you can emulate certain style choices without Xeroxing Odd Thomas and pasting your head from last year’s Christmas card over Dean’s face on the back of the book.  Or if you’re convinced fans of Eragon would like your fantasy adventure story, make a note of where you can find droves of Christopher Paolini’s fans and head to Dragon Con.

4. Hone in on your target audience when you decide on branding such as cover design.

For example, if you write romantic suspense with a target audience of female consumers of books in the vein of Harlequin novels with a suspenseful twist, a cover design featuring romantic leads in an embrace amongst other elements might enhance your appeal.  However, if you’re writing a thriller that contains a love story but might also be heavy in action and adventure and so your target audience might also contain men who are fans of Clancy or Ludlum, a heavy romantic element in your branding may hinder more than help.

How have you worked out who your target market is? Who are your comparison authors? Please do leave a comment below.

colby marshallBIO:  Writer by day, ballroom dancer and choreographer by night, Colby has a tendency to turn every hobby she has into a job, thus ensuring that she is a perpetual workaholic.  In addition to her 9,502 regular jobs, she is also a contributing columnist for M Food and Culture magazine and is a proud member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime.  She is actively involved in local theatres as a choreographer as well as sometimes indulges her prima donna side by taking the chain of commandstage as an actress.  She lives in Georgia with her family, two mutts, and an array of cats that, if she were a bit older, would qualify her immediately for crazy cat lady status.
Colby’s debut thriller, Chain of Command, is about a reporter who discovers the simultaneous assassinations of the President and Vice President may have been a plot to rocket the very first woman—the Speaker of the House—into the presidency.  It is available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, iBooks, Kobo, other major e-readers, directly from the publisher at StairwayPress.com (free shipping), or in select independent bookstores.
The second installment in her McKenzie McClendon thriller series, THE TRADE, will be released June 11, 2013 by Stairway Press.
Watch the official book trailer for Chain of Command here: http://tinyurl.com/auye6bb.  You can learn more about Colby and her books at www.colbymarshall.com
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  1. says

    Wow! Super Helpful Colby! I am reworking my MS into a different style and voice, that matches the character and its made creating a target audience so much easier. But I love how you integrate other audiences.

  2. Kat Sheridan says

    OK, to be clear, I had NO idea Joanna Penn had a blog about writing. Because seriously? I just love her fiction. I also happen to love Colby’s work (a LOT!) My Venn diagram for Joanna/Colby, then, would apparently just be a circle. LOL! Great info on how to target your audience. Since I write very old skool, I’m guessing my target audience is “old ladies in nursing homes”. LOL! Best of luck to you Colby, on the release of The Trade!

  3. says

    It is what I have been trying to do in finding a traditional publishing house. Harper Collins, for example, is a stickler for word count and following their guidelines. Random House wants a good story and is not really too concerned about the word count. I realized; I was communicating with editors so the editor has to be pleased and not necessarily the publishing house. A common denominator of editors is “READ what we are publishing to know what we want.” For Colby, nice neutral-gender name for the sub-genre. I am multi-tasking genres. At first I thought: it was to target in order to find a traditional publishing house. I have something to send anywhere, and I realized that it is what I really want to do. I write political suspense thrillers and I am back writing on my young adult sports novel.

  4. says

    Evelyn- You’re right! The Venn diagram works here!

    Kat- thank you so much! I just finished Pentecost, and it was fantastic!

    Daniel- best of luck to you with finding the best fit for your work. The publishing business is definitely subjective, so you’re definitely right that finding that one big “yes” is a huge step in the process.

  5. James Ferry says

    I think you meant to say “home in” not “hone in.” Not to be a stickler/dick, but you can look it up. It’s one of those often-confused phrases.


    • says

      Jimmy, yes this is one of those often-confused phrases, but in this instance you are wrong.

      hone in. 1. To move or advance toward a target or goal. Often used with on. 2. To direct one’s attention; focus.

      As in focusing in on your target audience. Here is the moral of the story: Language is fluid. It changes and stretches. Just when we think we can home in / hone in on a rock-solid rule, we find the sands of language shifting.

      • Kat Sheridan says

        Crystal, yes, that definition of “hone in” is offered at Merriam-Webster, but then it further states: “Though it [hone in] seems to have established itself in American English (and mention in a British usage book suggests it is used in British English too), your use of it especially in writing is likely to be called a mistake. Home in or in figurative use zero in does nicely.” Language may be fluid, but I’d really rather not give a reader even the slightest chance to say I made an error.

  6. Carly Pizzani says

    Great advice, thanks Colby. I’m a blogger, but I think these tips translate to blogging too. Also – LOVE the Red Dragon reference! ;)

  7. sally says

    if my protagonist is an 11 year old who is thirteen at the end of the book, does that make my target audience a children? she writes about adult stuff though.

  8. says

    Excellent post! I think it’ll be a huge help and can’t wait to try these tips. Also, thank you for point #2 on using your demographic. I’ve heard sooooooooooooooo much advice on writing forums strongly promoting marketing to other writers. But that just doesn’t make any logical sense and has proven highly unsuccessful in my own efforts so far. Sorry, rant over. Excellent post!

  9. trish watson says

    Thanks for all this very good information. I am writing non-fiction and I have come to the conclusion that it is never going to be a commercial proposition. I mean my book, which is about Spain’s political crisis and absolutely unreal financial scandals, as well as a brief look at the Catholic Church’s contribution to the horror story, the child-robbery perpetrated massively until the eighties and resulting in thousands of people in search of their identity. It may be that I should have written this in Spanish, but I wanted to publicise some of these things outside Spain. Any views would be welcome?

  10. says

    Thanks so much Colby for this post, I turned it into a worksheet, and five books later I finally know who my target audience is. lol, thanks so much!

  11. says

    This article gave me insight and useful ideas, thank you Colby. I have a question: did you market your books in any sites because you wrote ”the readership of publications in which you advertise”

  12. says

    Am I the only person who finds these “find your target audience” questionnaires incredibly frustrating? I don’t know *how* to answer the questions, and if I did I wouldn’t need the questionnaire!

    For instance, I really *don’t* know where the audience for my cross-genre books hangs out, nor do I know how to figure that out. I can also tell you that choosing one of the three or four genres that my books partially fall into (the operative word being partially), or even more than one, does not work, either. Each genre seems to alienate the readers of the other ones.

    Yes, I probably should have decided on my market before I wrote the books. But I want to sell what *I* want to write, otherwise what’s the point?

    • says

      I can relate. I cannot seem to stick securely inside any one genre. Furthermore, I already enjoy the more obscure genres to begin with: cyberpunk, steampunk, fantasy, even westerns. I have no idea where these people are.

  13. says

    Looking forward to fine-tuning my vision. Going into 3rd printing of my book and want to reach the targeted audience with whom I believe my book will best serve. Thanks for taking the time to post your helpful tips! Will follow up with outcome based on your suggestions.


  1. […] Most authors probably imagine that readers discover their books by serendipitously discovering their work on a dusty bookstore shelf and falling in love. Sometimes it does happen that way, but it may be the rarest way a reader finds a book short of picking a copy up from the curb. Readers find books by word of mouth, by searching through genres, and by sticking with favorite authors. In all three cases, authors help the process along by figuring out, writing for, and marketing towards their “target audience:” your loyal readers. Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn hosts author Colby Marshall’s blog, “Writers: 5 Tips on How to Identify Your Target Audience:” […]

  2. […] Don’t waste your time barking up the wrong tree. So many authors expend their resources sending press releases and copies of their books to well-known publications of limited variety (the New York Times, Oprah’s Book Club, etc.). Rather than adding your book to the flood these publications receive daily, evaluate which specific groups would have the most interest in your book. If you are having trouble identifying who that audience would be, read thriller author Joanna Penn’s advice on the subject here. […]

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