Who is your ideal audience?
I ask every new client, “Who is your intended audience?” Quite often the answer is an enthusiastic “Everyone!” And I’m so glad to know my writer friends are ambitious and inclusive. You must be ambitious to be successful as a published author. And while it’s not always necessary to be inclusive, it is a laudable desire, especially when creating content for children.
But no book is for “everyone.” First of all, if that were possible, surely by now we’d have discovered that book and put it on every school reading list. The reality is no matter how hard you hope that everyone reads and enjoys your work, it’s extremely unlikely and it’s an unrealistic and dangerous expectation.
Your writing won’t appeal to all humans, not all Americans, not all American sixth graders, not all American sixth-grade girls, not all American sixth-grade girls who are avid readers, and not even all American sixth-grade girls who like to read about animals. Your book might, however, appeal to a significant portion of American sixth-grade girls who like to read about horses.
Stated another way, what appeals to a kindergarten student is unlikely to appeal to a middle schooler, and what appeals to a middle schooler won’t appeal a college-bound high school senior. You won’t successfully appeal to all populations and you shouldn’t try to do that.
When an editor or agent asks, who is your audience, what they want to know is who is most likely to enjoy your book and buy it? It’s a marketing question that should be top of mind for writers hoping to make at least some of their income from authoring books. It is also highly important to authors who hope to have their work positively reviewed, even if they aren’t seeking to make a living from writing for kids. So with that in mind, the question isn’t “who do you hope will read your book.” The question is who can you realistically expect to buy and read and enjoy your book. The good news is that if you’ve considered this question before you started writing or if you consider it during the revision process, you can define who that audience will be and tailor your work for that audience.
How can writers define their audience?
While it’s true that when publishers are marketing books, they are using somewhat broad terms to describe who the book appeals to. They give an age range, they might say it’s for girls or for boys, and they’ll probably suggest it’s great for fans of such-and-such genre or series or topic, or it’s for kids (and educators) with particular learning objectives. And that’s important for helping it get to the most and most relevant bookstores, libraries, and schools. But to get it off those bookstore, library, and classroom shelves and into reader’s hands, the book itself has to be far more focused.
So as you write, or as your revise, I recommend creating an image of your ideal primary reader. I say “primary” reader because there will be readers who enjoy your book that weren’t your primary intended reader. You might be writing for a three-year-old primary audience, and they might have older siblings who join read-aloud time, too. But you’re writing (or revising) for the three-year-old. That the seven-year-old also enjoys the work is incidental during the writing phase, but will certainly be noted and exploited when it’s time to market and hand sell your book. So create that image of your ideal reader, maybe draw a picture, or write down a list of characteristics and interests that child has and keep that picture or description near your writing space so you can remind yourself periodically who you’re writing for.
How do you know how treat different works for different audiences?
I may have drank too much tea while I was preparing this post, because in trying to come up with an example of how you would write differently for kids of different ages (or experiences or reading goals, etc.) I began to imagine how you’d tailor your verbiage in giving instructions to a child to get to the bathroom in your house. If this doesn’t gross you out, here is what I came up with:
Imagine you need to give someone directions to get from the patio (outside) to the bathroom (inside) of a medium sized house. Your instructions might be simply: “It’s down the hall, on the left.”
For a teenager that would likely be enough. They have pre-existing experience from which to contextualize, advanced language skills, and memory, attention span, and problem-solving skills to work out what they need to do even in a house they’ve never previously visited.
On the other hand, how do you think these instructions would work for a toddler?
Ha. Ha ha! Oh, no…ew!
Sorry, I was imagining the results of such brief instructions given to a still-potty-training child. The odds are much higher than with a teenager that you’d soon discover a wet child or worse, a wet spot on carpet in your guest bedroom. You can pretend to blame it on the dog, but in the end the buck stops at you. You failed to tailor your delivery to the intended audience and are now paying the price.
Instead of those simple and vague instructions you could use with the teenager, if a toddler asks you where the bathroom is, you will probably pass the barbecue tongs to a trusted adult, take the child by the hand, and walk with them through the patio door. Maybe you also narrate the journey because you know this kid’s gonna come back to your house often and you’d like them to be able to find the toilet independently next time.
So as you walk through the living room, you say: “It’s down this hall.” At that moment you point to the hall. “It’s on the left. The other left, kiddo.” Pointing again, maybe making an L out of your left hand. “Here we go, it’s the door with the owl on it. Do you need me to help or can you do the next part by yourself?” You’ll probably wait nearby and make sure they wash their hands when they’re done, and then you’ll let them jog in front of you back through the living room and outside.
You provide very different details to the toddler than the teenager. You give more physical help to the toddler. This is because you understand the toddler has a short attention span and memory, so maybe they won’t be able to hold two or more steps in their head. You don’t want them getting distracted or lost or confused and wetting themselves while they get lost in your guest bedroom. So you tailor your approach accordingly and saved yourself a mess.
Since teenagers and toddlers aren’t the only developmental levels of childhood, let’s consider one more set of directions, this time aimed at someone in elementary school, perhaps they’re eight. You might provide more detail to the eight-year-old than you did to the teenager. But you probably won’t hold their hand and walk them all the way to the bathroom—that would be insulting. You might walk them to just inside the patio door and, pointing toward the hallway, tell them: “It’s down that hallway, and it’s the second door on the left.” You might even say it’s the one with a picture of an owl on it, if they have the capacity for that much information.
You provide some visual cues in your speech and you physically direct their gaze. You don’t expect them to be able apply a lifetime’s worth of parties at friend’s houses to suss out that there is probably just one hallway in this house, or that you are most likely to direct them to a downstairs bathroom not an upstairs one. You also will probably aim to give them enough information to get there quickly, but not so much to confuse or distract them. You do, however, trust them to get there by themselves. Once you confirm they understand, you step back outside to monitor the barbecue grill. Perhaps you do lean back inside for a moment to holler, “Don’t forget to wash your hands!” Depends on the kid, really.
So there you go, a maybe slightly gross look at why and how you tailor your delivery depending on your audience.
How can you practice tailoring your work for different audiences?
A fun way to help yourself understand how writers tailor the delivery of story to different audiences is to read a bunch of books on the same topic. For example, look at nonfiction books about gorillas. Pick some picture books, some early readers, some chapter books, maybe even a novel. This will help you see how other authors have tailored the work for kids of different ages and reading levels.
Try also finding fiction picture books about gorillas, or with gorilla characters, and compare them to nonfiction picture books about gorillas. The reader of the former is interested in being entertained, and the reader of the latter wants to be informed. They are different audiences and the authors of those books understand they must present their work differently to best meet reader expectation.
How about comparing picture books about gorillas that are sold through retail stores with those sold in zoo gift shops and with books available only from libraries or schools? Can you also find a book about gorillas written for a sixth-grader but at a third-grade reading level (these are called hi-lo books)? As you read consider who the primary audience is for that book and how the author ensures that their primary audience will get what they want and need from that book. Ask yourself what other audiences might also enjoy and benefit from the book. Is there a group of readers who probably enjoy and even buy this book who were not among the readers the author had in mind? Collectors, older or younger readers, educators, wildlife reserve visitors, researchers…?
I didn’t start this post intending to give homework, but now that I have, I think it’s time to let you go off to the library for some research. Apply what you discover in your comparisons to your own work in progress and your own picture or description of your ideal primary reader. Then get back to writing and revising. You’re going to be more efficient and creative now, I’m certain.