Wishful audiences

In the last newsletter, I talked about the importance of articulating your primary audience when pitching your scholarly book project. Today, I want to talk a little more about some of the secondary or tertiary audiences scholarly authors like to mention in their book proposals and offer a few tips for how you can claim those audiences in a convincing way.

Students. This is a big one, and you probably should be pitching your book as having use value for students at some level, because they’re a big market. An ideal, realistic level for a scholarly monograph is undergraduates in upper-level seminar courses. A rare few scholarly books are accessible to intro-level undergrads and broad enough to assign in lecture courses. If you think you have one of those on your hands, that’s great, but I’d recommend backing up a claim like this with some evidence that you’ve deliberately shaped the book to be useful in this context. A proposal full of disciplinary jargon or esoteric theoretical interventions will not inspire confidence that yours is really a book for students.

Scholars who are likely to disagree with your methods/approach/conclusions. Sometimes authors write in their proposals that they expect their book to shake up a field with totally new approach or a really edgy research question. But do the readers in your target market really want to be shaken up? Just because you strongly believe people need to start seeing things your way, it doesn’t mean people will seek out a book that goes against their existing paradigm. If you want to claim this kind of audience, offer some evidence that your book will draw such readers in. You might also want to point to recent books that have shaken up your field in similar ways, to show that it can be done.

Specific readers outside the academy, such as policy makers, activists, hobbyists, or professional practitioners. If you are going to suggest that your book could reach readers beyond the academy, you’ll want to offer evidence that your topic is marketable to non-academic readers. Pointing to coverage of your topic in mainstream blogs or newspapers could help your case. If activist or professional communities (e.g. business, journalism, tech) are discussing the issues in your book internally—at their conferences or in their trade publications, say—pointing to examples could bolster a claim that your book might be of interest to industry/practitioners.

To go the extra mile, you could provide some evidence that these audiences are willing to pay for academic expertise. Do they invite scholars to speak at their events? Organize reading groups? Hold book fairs? If you, specifically, have been invited to speak or write for non-academic audiences, especially if you’ve been paid to do so, that’s a fantastic tidbit to trot out in your proposal.

Most scholarly books don’t reach audiences outside the academy, so don’t feel like you have to make non-academic readership a selling point. And don’t oversell it if it’s not realistic. Keep in mind that a claim to “crossover” potential won’t be convincing if you write in very specialized language with a lot of academic apparatus. Again, the style of the proposal has to convincingly support the claims you are making about the book’s audience.

“The general reader” or “the broader public.” “The general reader” is not a thing. It’s not how markets for books are articulated by anyone in publishing, so it doesn’t help you at all to say it in your proposal. At best, this will be ignored; at worst, it could tell an editor that you haven’t thought carefully and realistically about who your ideal reader is. You’re better off making a convincing case for a smaller demographic of readers than making grand claims about a “broader public” that will buy your book. Even if you intend your book to be a crossover title that appeals to non-academics, it still has to find a specific audience. Name that audience instead.


I will be announcing the dates and other details for the Fall 2019 session of the book proposal accelerator very soon, so keep an eye out for that in an upcoming edition of the newsletter. If you want lots more tips like the ones above, plus live office hours where we can talk about the audiences for your book, do join us in September!