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Writing for the Self-Help Consumer, Pt 1

Identifying your audience

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As an editor of self-help books for more than 13 years, I’ve had many conversations with people who want to write books—often psychology professionals, but just as often, folks who feel their experiences on their personal growth journey are important enough to tell people about.

In this day and age when not only is publishing one’s words easier than ever, but when so many are struggling with life, many in the helping professions seem to want to get their techniques and concepts out into the hands of those who need help.

In this series of blog posts, I’ll explain some ways to make your book more effective, more engaging, and more likely to sell to its intended audience.

If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to visit my website, where you can e-mail me or use my contact form to get in touch with me.

My first post is about how to identify the correct motivated audience for your book.

Understand who you are writing for.

Many people seem to think that “everyone” will want to read their book and will find their ideas helpful. This may even be true: general techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, exercise, journaling, and other types of self-exploration can be useful for a multitude of issues with which people struggle.

But the point of identifying a specific audience is that the more specific the audience you have, the more likely you will be able to reach that audience when you get to the marketing stage of publishing your book, and the more motivated they will be to buy your book. It’s a fallacy to think that if you write to “everybody," then you will sell more books. Often, the opposite is true, because there are so many books out there, that the probability of a potential reader picking up your book in the sea of books on that topic is lower.

Think about it this way: If your book teaches a meditation technique that you think will help anyone who has stress, and you publish a book called Meditation for Stress, how many other books are out there on that topic? On Amazon, more than 800 books come up when I search “Meditation and Stress." That’s 800 books your book will be competing with to find a buyer.

But if you have developed a meditation technique that you notice is especially useful for your clients who struggle with anxiety related to self-worth, and you can focus your book to that audience, it will not only be easier to find ways to reach them, but there will be fewer books your book will be competing with. When I search Amazon for “meditation stress self-worth," just three books come up, one of which is a coloring book.

How do you target your audience? Pretend that you are explaining the concept of your book to a new client or to a layperson who has never heard of your technique before. You may even want to write it down. Now pay attention to the words you use when you describe the help you’re offering. Do you use terms like depression, anxiety, post-partum, workplace stress, etc? If so, you have clues as to who might find your techniques helpful.

If you have clients, students, or others to whom you teach your technique, think about why they come to you. What are they struggling with? Stress? Parenting? Relationship problems? Weight? Fatigue? How do you market your services? Do you reach out to people with depression or anxiety? To people with job burnout? What do you promise your client or students? This will help you understand how to focus your book better.

For example: say you are a therapist and have developed a technique for decision-making that you and your clients find helpful. You think “Oh, I should write this in a book and it will help more people than I can help just on my own!”

This is a great start, but it would be a mistake to write and publish a book called How to Make Decisions Better. There are 124 books that come up when I search on Amazon with this title.

I would ask this therapist to think about who her clients are who are helped by this technique, and what issues they have around decision-making. Are they people who have too much on their plate, perhaps having trouble saying no? People who worry about making the wrong decisions, and so struggle with making any decisions? Are they depressed, so they have trouble focusing enough to make decisions? Even if all of these cases are potentially true, it helps to know what most people are reporting as troubling symptoms.

This will help the therapist in this example drill down to the real issue at the core of her clients’ troubles making decisions. And then, she can focus on writing a book that stands out among books about decision-making, and fills a hole in the literature on that topic, for instance: a book on how to make decisions when you are suffering with depression. An Amazon search on “making decisions when depressed” came up with no results.

In my professional opinion, most books in this genre that don’t sell well aren’t focused to a targeted audience of people who are motivated to buy a book on the topic.

Other ways to narrow your audience include:

1. Visit a bookstore or go on Amazon or Goodreads and look at the books on the same topic as yours. Possibly even buy some of them that seem the closest to what you’re trying to do with your book. See what’s out there. If you’re online, look at the sales ranks in the book information section of the web page. Look at the customer reviews and pay attention not only to what the customers say they like about the book, but more importantly, what they don’t like. See if you can identify where there is a need for new information or a new angle on the topic.

2. If you have clients, students, readers of a blog, etc., consider doing research to find out what they like about your work with them or your words, approach, and technique, and what they don’t. Create a poll online and promise them anonymity for their honest opinions. Ask them what you offer that has helped them the most, and where your approach might be improved.

3. Show sample writing to friends or colleagues whose opinions you trust, and let them know you want to find the right audience for your work. When they’re done, sit them down and ask them to give you their honest opinions. Ask them questions about things they didn’t understand in your words, or questions they were left with. Ask them: who do you think this would help the most? Write down the answers.

4. Search online for the topic of your book and read what’s out there, including blog posts, research, opinions from both laypeople and professionals, and get a good sense for the lay of the land. For instance, if you want to write about a cognitive technique for coping with job burnout, read everything you can find about cognitive approaches to job burnout. Pay attention to who’s writing about the topic, what the research is saying, and what resources are available. Never write a book without understanding your topic fully and deeply.

Next week, I’ll write about organizing your book so that it is intuitive, useful, and accessible to its target audience, and how to use an outline effectively.

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