Who is your book *really* for?

It’s a weird week for academia-adjacent advice-giving, so I will admit to being a little less excited than usual to put the newsletter out today. A few days ago, a tweet thread offering advice for the academic job market went viral and then received some (deserved) backlash from those who pointed out that writing a “better” cover letter or teaching statement won’t alter the structural conditions that ensure a scarcity of full-time positions and shut so many perfectly good candidates out of permanent employment. So yeah, I hope I never come off as if I think following my suggestions about book-writing and publishing will somehow let you game your way into tenure or a job or anything else within the shitshow that is the contemporary academy. I’m in this to help you write a book that you feel good about, to write the book you want to write that has the best chance of reaching the type and size of readership you want to reach. I have learned from personal experience that a book will not magically get you a teaching job that doesn’t exist and it certainly won’t love you back like genuine friends and family will. If you think publishing a book will solve all (or any) of your problems, particularly in academia, we might need to have a long chat.

But let’s talk about what a book can do. A book can communicate your ideas to other people. A book puts the work you’ve spent several years of your life on in a format that other people know how to access and respond to. If this isn’t why you’re writing a book, then you may not need to be writing a book at all. Or, I should say, you may not need to publish a book at all. The whole point of publishing is to get your work into the hands and heads of readers. That’s why the matter of audience is crucial to crafting an effective book proposal (and book).

Most book proposal templates will ask you to address the question of audience or readership. You might even be asked to describe your primary and secondary audiences. These are trickier questions than they might seem on the surface. For instance, one of the obvious ways to identify a readership is to name the field you write in. Sociologists, historians, literary scholars, media scholars might all sound like reasonable audiences for your book, if you come from one of those fields. But think about the big disciplinary conference(s) in each of those fields. Would you go see every paper presented at your home conference? Would you want to buy every book in the book exhibit? Hardly. So those “audiences” are much too large to be useful when conceiving your book or explaining it to a publisher.

If you want to use field to articulate audience, think a step narrower. A section or special interest group within your home disciplinary organization would make more sense. Thinking at this level of subfield can also keep you from going too narrow in conceiving your target audience. If a subject area attracts enough interest to sustain a stream at a major conference (i.e. it gets enough submissions and paying members to be able to sponsor its own panels), that tells you something about the potential for interest in your book.

Articulating your audience in this way isn’t just about convincing a publisher that you’ve got a viable, marketable project on your hands (though it is about that, a little). Once you’ve identified a target audience for your book that’s not too broad and not too narrow, you can actually write (or revise) the book with that audience in mind. Having an audience in mind can help you evaluate which of your research questions is worth focusing on and which arguments you want to drive the structure and narrative of the manuscript. Research questions that lead you to merely describe a phenomenon (or text or object or whatever) restrict your audience to the set of people who intrinsically care about that phenomenon (or text or object or whatever). Research questions that require you to theorize a relationship around a phenomenon widen the appeal of your work to readers who might not care about your specific topic but who may see how your argument has implications for whatever their pet topic is.

There are topics out there with enough cachet to draw readers to a new book purely based on topic alone. But you don’t have to gamble on your topic being one of those. If you can explain who will find your book useful and why they will find it useful—regardless of the topic—you will be in good shape. Let people who take an intrinsic interest in your topic be a secondary, bonus audience. Your book, and your proposal, will be stronger for it.

We’re talking about audiences and markets in the book proposal accelerator this week. I am planning to offer another session of the accelerator this fall, and I’m running a poll on Twitter to find how many weeks people want it stretched over, so vote if you’d like! You can also sign up for priority enrollment in future sessions when they are offered, by filling out this form. I’ll be back in the newsletter later in the week with a couple more tips about articulating your book’s target audiences. See you then!