The 4 Basic Audiences for Scholarly Books

If you’re planning to pitch your book for publication, one of the things you’ll definitely be asked about is the book’s intended audience. Why do publishers care about this? For one thing, a book with a clearly defined audience is usually just written better than one where the author wasn’t quite sure who they were trying to reach with their message. But really, as far as the publisher is concerned, the question of audience is a question of marketing and distribution. A publisher needs to know whether the kinds of people you want your book to reach are the kinds of people the publisher has the ability and know-how to reach. The publisher will also take cues from your proposal in thinking about how to present your book to the people who might buy it. If the acquisitions editor, in concert with publicity and marketing staff, can see a clear path to putting your book in front of the right potential buyers with the right sales appeal, that makes it easier for them to see your manuscript as a good investment for their press. So, to put it another way, the question of audience is also a question of “fit”—you know, that thing that acquisitions editors are always saying they’re looking for when they find out about a new book project.

When you submit a scholarly book proposal to an acquisitions editor, they may have some of their own ideas about who will want to read your book and how to reach those people. But your thoughts about this question also matter, because it’s important that your vision for your book is compatible with that of your publisher. There are many different ways you could articulate the audiences you envision for your book, and, as usual, there’s no single “correct” answer. That said, you will want to define your audiences in ways that will be legible to a non-expert on your subject matter, so you don’t want to think too narrowly or with too much academic nuance when you’re describing the people who might buy the book.

So let me make this easy for you. I’ve seen a lot of scholarly book proposals and book manuscripts, and there are basically four different audiences such books get written for. These audiences are not mutually exclusive, but readers may respond in different ways to different styles of presentation, so you’ll want to think about which audiences you are prioritizing as you craft your pitch (and the manuscript itself). My standard disclaimer: you don’t necessarily have to articulate your audiences in this way in order to have a successful book proposal. I just broke down these four categories based on what I’ve seen work for my clients and because I think this schema helps bring order to what can feel like a hazy aspect of pitching a book for writers who don’t have much experience with the publishing side. So here they are, the four basic audiences for scholarly books:

Other scholars. If your purpose for writing the book is to make an original contribution to the scholarship in your field—to produce and disseminate new knowledge that others will cite and build on with their own original contributions—then your primary audience is other scholars. This includes people with PhDs as well as advanced graduate students doing specialized research. If you need a book for tenure, the book usually has to address this type of scholarly audience. If this is an audience you will be naming in your proposal, you can also mention the specific field(s) of the scholars you are writing for.

Students. If your purpose for the writing the book is to shape how a particular subject or concept is understood by people who are not necessarily looking to become experts, then your book may have good potential to reach undergraduate students (and the scholars who assign reading to them). Such books can also be appealing to advanced scholars from outside your field who may need a primer or introduction to your topic in the course of producing their own scholarship. In your proposal, you can mention what types of courses and what level (e.g. introductory, upper-level undergraduate, etc.) the book could be adopted in.

Practitioners. I use this term as an umbrella that covers readers like activists, advocates, journalists, policy-makers, public educators, and others who have a strong connection to your subject matter and a practical need to learn from your scholarship in the course of their daily work. If you want your book to help these types of readers, then it’s important to emphasize the practical stakes of your findings and how your research can be applied to the everyday situations these readers encounter. In your proposal, you can mention which specific types of practitioners will find your work useful. It will also help to offer some evidence that such readers are in the habit of seeking out scholarly research on your topic or that you have a platform for reaching these readers directly.

General readers. If your scholarly book tells a great story on a broadly interesting topic, then you might have the potential to “crossover” and appeal to readers who don’t normally buy academic or scholarly books. Chances are those readers can be described more specifically than just “general readers,” though, because they are actually united by an interest in birds and wildlife, or Black women’s history, or technology and society, or whatever your topic happens to be. In your proposal, you should give this more specific description of the non-academic readers who will find your book interesting and, ideally, demonstrate that you already have a platform among these readers.

As I said above, your scholarly book can target more than one of these audiences. It’s rare that a single book appeals to all four of them, but it can be and has been done. My recommendation as a developmental editor is to choose the one or two target audiences that are most important to you and to keep those audiences in mind as you write (and pitch) the book. When it comes time to tell an acquisitions editor who the readership for your book is—most publishers’ submission guidelines will ask you to talk about audience in your proposal—you can mention any or all of these types of readers. It may help to prioritize them in order of importance, however, because that will help the publicity and marketing staff understand where they should concentrate their efforts. And remember that there’s no need to oversell the “general reader” or even non-academic practitioners if your main concern is that your book is received well among academics. A book with a small but clearly defined audience can be easier to sell, and may even sell more copies, than one where no prospective reader is quite sure whether the book is for them or not.

I’ve been giving this audience spiel with some frequency lately, because I’ve been doing a lot of quick proposal evals for authors who are getting ready to submit book proposals this fall. If you’d like some objective eyes on your proposal and some prompt advice on how you can make an even better pitch for your project, get in touch!

The Quick Proposal Eval is the only service I’m currently offering to new clients right now. You can also enroll in the next session of the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator, which runs January 3rd–31st, 2020. If you are hoping to schedule another service with me, like a full book manuscript assessment, keep an eye on this space. I’ll have an update to share about my 2020 schedule soon, I hope!