Do you know what your readers want to read?

Even if their preferences surprise you and differ from your own, you’ll only attract readers by offering what they want. So how do you figure that out? Well let me explain with a short story:

My children love eating fruit. But toddler fruit messes attract fruit flies. To catch fruit flies, my wife uses a jar of vinegar with holes in the lid. Fruit flies crawl into the jar, get stuck, and die.

But don’t you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? Everyone knows that.

So we conducted an experiment. We put honey in one bowl and vinegar in another. After two weeks, the vinegar was covered from edge to edge with dead flies. It was fruit fly Armageddon. The honey bowl snagged only one fly, who probably just got lost. 

Our experiment proved that, contrary to popular belief, you catch far more flies with vinegar than with honey. If you want to catch fruit flies, you need to know what the flies want. Humans prefer honey, but flies prefer vinegar. 

If you want to attract readers, you need to know what readers want. If you don’t find out what they want, you will keep trying different kinds of honey, and you’ll wonder why no one wants to read your books. 

How do you find your readers? More importantly, how do you determine what your readers want?  

Step 1: Become a Reader Yourself

The more you read, the more you will develop your reading palette, and the better your tastes will become. 

How can you tell if a bowl of borscht is any good if you have never eaten borscht? How could you hope to cook it if you don’t even know what it should taste like? What’s true for food is also true for books.

To become a reader, you need to spend less time binging Netflix and more time binging your genre. 

I have been in this industry for over a decade. I’ve worked with bestselling authors, wealthy indies, and writers of enduring evergreen books. Whether they were writing fiction or nonfiction, publishing traditionally or independently, every single successful author was already a reader of the kind of books they wrote. 

Read the Popular Books in Your Genre

Contrary to popular belief, reading books in your genre will not make your books sound derivative. In fact, knowing what is already available is the only way to make your book unique. If you aren’t well-read in your genre, you will blindly stumble into common cliches. 

As you read popular books in your genre, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I like about this book?
  • Why was this book successful in connecting with readers?
  • What do readers like about this book?

Please note, none of these are negative, critical questions.

Resist the temptation to sit in a place of judgment over these popular books. Any fool can scoff at success. But the wise embrace humility and learn from the successes of others. Your goal in reading books in your genre is to learn, not to make yourself feel better. 

Most genre authors are pretty good about reading their own genre. But there’s one group that does not read books in their genre, and I’m calling them out. 

In my experience, Christian fantasy and science fiction writers do not read enough books in their genre. Instead of learning from each other, they stumble around the genre in ignorance, and they are stunting the growth of the whole genre.

I know many Christian spec writers listen to this podcast, and I might have stepped on some toes, but I mean what I said. You are not reading enough in your own genre, and it’s causing your books to be worse than they need to be.

If you want to write Christian speculative books, please buy some and read them.

Read in Community

Developing good taste in books requires more than just reading. It’s also beneficial to read in community. Discussing a book out loud helps you organize your thoughts and forces you to interact with other readers’ ideas and opinions. 

Create a reading group of two or three friends, and start reading in your genre. Discuss what you like and don’t like about the books you are reading. These friends don’t need to be writers. They need to be readers.  

The lockdown disrupted our social rhythms, and many of us lost touch with our friends. Now is the time to rebuild those friendships and form new ones. Starting a reading group is a great way to begin to reconnect.

Something magical happens when a small group of readers carries the same book into a coffee shop. Complete strangers will ask what you are reading, and they may even want to join your group. To start a reading group, you only need a book, a time, and a place for the meeting. 

If you write romance, start a reading group for romance readers. If you write zombie adventures, start a reading group for people who like to read them.

You can also read with online reading groups. Goodreads.com is a great place to connect with other readers.

Spend time reading the Goodreads reviews of other books in the genre you are writing in. Book reviews on Goodreads tend to be nuanced and insightful, and that makes it easy to connect with readers and reviewers in your genre. 

Step 2: Write for Yourself

You can’t steer a parked car. Before you can get on the highway of success, you may have to drive in the wrong direction on the side streets. And before you can drive on the side streets, you must learn to drive a car in the first place.

When you are learning the craft of writing, it’s fine to write the kind of books you like to read. Writing for yourself will help you learn to craft good sentences, compelling stories, or convincing nonfiction. You can start by writing the kind of book you want to read, but don’t finish there. You are not a representative sample of your readers, and not everyone will like what you like. 

Everyone is born bad at writing. You may not want to hear this, but your first efforts at writing won’t be much better than your first efforts at singing. Maybe you’ve been singing all your life, but there is a huge difference between performing an aria for an audience and singing the ABC song with your kids. 

At first, the only person you will be able to convince to read your writing will be yourself. And that’s OK. Writing for yourself is a safe way to practice and improve. Keep reading books and keep writing short stories or blog posts. You’ll only get better if you practice.

If you diligently read in your genre, you will develop a refined taste for story elements and sentence structure. As your literary taste improves, you’ll see ways to strengthen your writing and improve your craft. If you have a community in which to discuss your book, you’ll improve even faster.

Writing for yourself is a good starting point, but it’s only a start. It’s like using honey to catch flies. You won’t catch many because flies don’t prefer honey.

Your tastes probably differ from your readers’ tastes. You like honey, but your potential readers want vinegar. Most of us were not trendsetters in school, and we are not trendsetters now. Literary trendsetters are very rare.

Step 3: Write for Your Timothy

To write what readers want to read, you need to write what readers already want to read. That means, you need to find a reader and start learning what they like. You’re not looking for a crowd. You are looking for a single representative reader. 

Writing for another human being forces you to get outside of yourself and think about what your reader wants in a book. If you can learn to thrill one, you can learn to thrill many. 

I call this concept “finding your Timothy.” Why Timothy? It comes from the Bible. The Apostle Paul wrote two letters to his young friend and coworker, Timothy. Writing to a single recipient gave the Apostle Paul clarity and focus. He wrote for one person, and in doing so, he wrote a book that has been read by over a billion people. 

What should you look for in your Timothy? 

Timothy is a Real Person

Corporate marketing professionals often advise companies to create a customer avatar or customer persona. A customer persona is a fictional composite that represents a group. That advice has trickled down into the publishing world. 

In the past, authors would say, “My book is for moms between the ages of 25 and 35 with 2.5 kids.” But creating a reader persona forces you to say, “My book is for Jessica, who is 32 years old and has three children.” No mom has 2.5 kids.

Having a representative reader in mind helps authors get specific about who they are targeting. I have walked authors through this helpful exercise, but it has one fatal flaw. 

It turns out that authors are very good at creating imaginary characters. Too good, in fact. Reader avatars created by authors are typically either too complimentary or too critical. Plus, those imaginary people are not real.

Writing a story for your imaginary reader is different than writing a story for a real-world human being. 

Your Timothy needs to be a real person who you can talk to in real life. This person can give you feedback on your story and tell you where they like to hang out online. Your representative reader can help guide you as you write and make marketing decisions.

Timothy is a Reader

Most people like to think they are readers because reading is fashionable, but if you look at the time log on their phones, they spend more time playing Candy Crush than reading books. 

Timothy is not that type of person.

Timothy spends his own money to buy books. He chooses to read rather than watching TV, playing games, or going to the pub. That doesn’t mean he has to be a reading recluse, but he needs to be someone who actually enjoys reading. 

If he doesn’t enjoy reading, he will never get around to reading your short story, which means he can’t give you feedback. If he’s not already a reader, you won’t convince him to become one.

Timothy is a Fan (of your genre)

Your Timothy also needs to like your genre. Writing a self-help book for people who don’t like self-help books is a recipe for failure. Don’t write a romance for people who don’t like romances. It will not work.

You will be much happier in life if you accept the uncomfortable truth that you can’t change other people. With great effort, you can change yourself, but you cannot change another person. A person can only change themselves. 

If Timothy is not already a fan of your genre, he will not make an exception for you. Many authors think their book is special, and since God told them to write it, the rules don’t apply.

I’ll prove my point with a question: Do you listen to heavy metal music? 

No? 

What if I told you that you just needed to give it another chance. Would you? Chances are, you already have a strong opinion about heavy metal music. I could tell you about the amazing heavy metal band Judicator, but if you don’t like heavy metal, you won’t like Judicator.  

The same is true for readers. Even if you could convince a person to try your genre, that person wouldn’t be a good representative reader because they’re too different from the core reader you are trying to reach. 

If you’re writing a romance, you want romance fans to be the first to like your book. Those fans can tell their non-romance fans about your book and do the convincing for you.

Timothy is an Acquaintance

Ideally, your Timothy is someone you know, but that person must be willing to tell you that your book is boring. You can’t usually get that kind of feedback from family and friends. Honestly, we don’t want that feedback from close friends. We need our friends and family for validation and encouragement. 

Your Timothy can’t be your shoulder to cry on. Timothy needs to be the kind of person who values truth more than he values your feelings. When you need feedback on how to fix your writing, you need a Timothy who will tell you the truth.

Timothy is a Beta Reader

The common term for your Timothy is a “beta reader.” I don’t recommend starting with a team of beta readers. After you learn to thrill one person, you can build a team of beta readers who can give you feedback on your book. 

For more on finding beta readers, listen to my episode titled How to Get More 5-Star Reviews With Beta Readers, Editors, and Launch Teams.

Where to Find a Timothy

Finding your representative reader is like finding a husband. You can find him anywhere, but the most common way to find him is through an introduction by a mutual friend. 

Tell your reading group you are looking for beta readers for your new book. Let your critique group know too. Chances are one of them will know a reader who’s a huge fan of your genre and would be willing to read an unpublished work.

You may be surprised to learn how many people enjoy reading early drafts. Many consider it an honor to participate in the creative process.

Step 4: Research the Market

Your Timothy and beta readers give you qualitative data about your readers. Qualitative data provides emotional nuance and tells you how people feel about your book. When you talk with Timothy, you can find out how your book made him feel.

You can also get to know your readers through quantitative research. Quantitative research can be measured or counted. You can’t quantify how much someone loves a book, but you can count how many people bought a book or how much they spent on it.  

To understand your readers, you need consider the qualitative and quantitative research.

I recommend authors use two popular sources of quantitative data that provide information on what readers want.

K-Lytics

K-lytics (Affiliate Link) is a service that provides genre and category research, and I’ve interviewed k-lytics founder Alex Newton on the Novel Marketing Podcast. Each month, k-lytics members get a market data report about which categories are currently popular with Kindle readers. 

When authors start writing, they usually have only a vague idea of what kind of book is currently popular with readers. K-lytics is a great way to educate yourself on market trends.

K-lytics really shines by helping you choose sub-sub-categories for your book. There are many kinds of sci-fi and romance books, and the right sub-sub-category can make a huge difference in how popular your book is. 

With k-lytics, you can find out which of the following categories is more popular.

  • Literature & Fiction -> Religious & Inspiration Fiction -> Christian -> Westerns 
  • Religion & Spirituality -> Christian Books & Bibles -> Christian Fiction -> Westerns 

Those categories may look the same, but one is more popular than the other. This kind of insight becomes even more helpful when there are minor differences between categories. For example, Westerns -> Frontier & Pioneer is currently more popular than Westerns -> Contemporary. 

Knowing which is more popular will help you decide whether to set your novel in pioneer times or a contemporary setting. 

Another helpful feature is k-lytics’s report on bestselling covers. If you were writing a western, you’d want to research what kind of image would be best for your cover. The k-lytics cover report would tell you whether a silhouette or a man on a horse would resonate with your target audience.

K-lytics also reports the bestselling authors in each sub-subgenre. This info can be tricky to find on your own because Amazon constantly updates the bestseller list. Just because someone is labeled as an Amazon bestseller at 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday doesn’t necessarily mean they have a popular book. K-lytics will take the long view and give you an accurate report about who has been a bestseller over the past several months.

Remember, you want to read at least one book by each successful author in your niche to learn what readers want. K-lytics can help guide your genre reading. 

Publisher Rocket

While k-lytics focuses on categories, Publisher Rocket (Affiliate Link) focuses on keywords readers are typing into the Amazon search bar. Publisher Rocket will show you how many people search for a particular word. It will also show you which books rank for that keyword and how well they are selling. 

Knowing what readers are searching for before you finish your book can make a huge difference. 

For example, Publisher Rocket will show you the difference between “second chance romance” versus “second chance romance with baby.” The more specific keyword phrase gets more searches and 800% more sales than “second chance romance.” It also has fewer competing books. So if you add a baby to your second chance romance story, you could dramatically improve your sales because readers want to read a second chance romance with a baby in the mix.

One small change and a rewrite could make a huge difference.

I recommend k-lytics and Publisher Rocket, but if you can only get one, start with Publisher Rocket. Publisher Rocket is a bit cheaper and provides some category information. K-lytics provides incredibly in-depth category information. Educate yourself with these tools. 

Step 5: Write for Your Fans

As you publish more books, you will develop a community of readers. As your community grows, your most important goal will be to write books for your readers. If you have enough core readers and can keep them happy, you can make a living. 

If you have already published a book and it is available on Amazon, I recommend the following techniques for listening to your readers.

Read Your Reviews

Most authors read their reviews all wrong. They see reviews as a critique of their book, or worse, as a personal critique. Authors often see good reviews as validation of the quality of their books and of their personal value.  

However, reviews are neither about you nor your book. 

I did a statistical analysis of word frequency on all the reviews of my book, Courtship in Crisis (Affiliate Link). The most frequent noun is “I.” The only words with higher frequency were articles and conjunctions. The word “I” is used twice as often as the word “book.” “I” is also the most common word readers used to begin their review. 

When readers write a review, they are not talking about you or your book nearly as much as they are talking about themselves. 

Once you realize this, reading your reviews becomes less emotionally exhausting and far more enlightening. Reading your reviews will tell you a lot about your readers and what they look for in a book.

If you want to do the same statistical analysis for word frequency for your book, copy all your reviews into a single Word document, and then copy and paste that document into this free word-frequency counter

Meet with Readers

Get to know your readers by meeting them in person. Next time you visit Chicago, send an email to your subscribers in the Chicago area to invited them to a meetup at a deep-dish pizza place. You can hang out for an hour, sign a few books, and have a good time. 

Most email marketing services let you send geo-targeted emails to your list, so it’s surprisingly easy to connect with people from a specific region.

If you write nonfiction and do a lot of speaking, you can visit with people at the back of the room as you’re signing and selling books. 

Any time you talk with a reader, ask as many questions as time permits. Your goal is to get to know them well so you can serve them better. It’s the secret to success. 

Upgrade Your Beta Reader Team

With each new book release, you can improve your beta reader team. As you meet people between releases, you can replace the least helpful beta readers from your previous release with new, enthusiastic, and helpful beta readers. If you continue this practice, you will have an elite beta reader team that will give you a good idea of who your readers are and what they want to read. 

Listen to Your Readers

Keep your fan mail handy. When a fan emails you, they are telling you about themselves and how your book made them feel. They’re not necessarily giving you information about you and your book. Store your fan mail in an inbox folder so you can reference it when you’re trying to determine what your readers want. 

Survey Your Readers

As you grow your email list, you can survey your readers to find out what they like. Ask them about their favorite

  • Movies
  • Authors
  • Books in your genre
  • Book by you

Google Forms is a free tool you can use to survey your readers. Survey Monkey also has a free version. If you write romance, ask your readers to name their favorite romance novel. If multiple readers name the same book, read it! 

If your surveys are fun, you will learn a lot about your readers, and knowing your readers will help you fulfill the first commandment of book marketing, “Love thy reader more than you love thy book.”

When you learn what readers like, you can attract them with what they want, even if you’re surprised that they like vinegar better than honey.

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