On Finding a Novel’s Target Audience & Understanding Reader Expectations (Part I)

Lately, as I’ve been pondering some of the feedback I’ve been getting on The Elementalist: Rise of Hara as well as the intricacies of publishing and marketing, I’ve been thinking about who the target audience for my novel might be because it’s very eclectic and therefore not easily categorized, in my opinion.

It never fully occurred to me until recently that this is actually a really important thing to figure out as an author—not just when you attempt to publish your novel but even while you’re getting feedback on early versions of your manuscript. (Some career writers would even say this should be considered before you start writing a novel.)

So why does this matter during the beta reader process?

Well, variety may be the spice of life and it’s very possible to learn something new from anyone you meet, but if what your story has to offer doesn’t really compliment the palettes of those you present your offering to (so to speak), then some of what you love about your story is liable to leave a bad taste in their mouths. Beyond this, every reader has his/her own standards for what they expect from a good story, and this can vary widely from genre to genre.

I think that’s why it’s important to seriously consider who your target audience is if you plan on publishing a novel so that your story is met with the best reception and financial success possible. Unless you don’t care about these things, in which case you might as well just skip my thoughts about all of this.

Different Reader Expectations for Readers of Different Genres

The thing about writing novels you intend to publish is that eventually, you have to choose a genre (or a few, if it’s on Amazon) to sell them under. If people want magic in their stories, for example, then they’ll go and look for something under “fantasy.” Furthermore, each genre (and sub-genre) attracts a certain kind of readership, who will have certain expectations.

This gets kind of complicated if you’re writing a cross-genre story and leaves me with one big question:

Who, exactly, is TEROH’s target audience?

I don’t think I have a full answer to this quite yet—mostly because I feel like I still need to get a female reader’s opinion on my full novel before I can say I’ve researched this enough—but…I’ve at the very least narrowed down the qualities in my book that I think will appeal to certain kinds of readers, partly with the help of the questionnaire I asked my beta readers to fill out for me.

(Epic) Fantasy — Worldbuilding, story length, and/or stakes of “epic” proportions. A prominent use of magic. These are some of the traits many fans of epic fantasy look for, and this is what I originally set out to achieve with TEROH.

The funny part is that none of my readers so far have described my WIP as fantasy, and I think that’s because I actually never use the term “magic” in the prose or dialogue at all. Instead, I use ESP terms like “aerokinesis,” “psychokinesis,” or “clairvoyance,” which might be more fitting for urban fantasy except my story is set in another world, doesn’t have unusual creatures or beings, and is told in third-person, among other things. One reader actually classified it more as a “science fantasy,” and I think that’s probably more accurate; technology plays as much of a role in my novel as ESP does.

What all along in my head has been a fantasy story is something notably different to my beta readers, which has forced me to really consider not just how TEROH ought to be pitched but also revised and edited. (Hence this post.)

Action & Adventure — This one is pretty self-explanatory but also, in my case, problematic.

One of my readers said parts of the novel reminded him of old pulp adventures, which is super awesome because I was originally inspired by stories like Indiana Jones and also The Mummy movie from 1999 in particular. The problem is readers who like action and adventure are more prone to enjoy a faster pace, and TEROH was designed to build up to an explosion beginning with a slow burn to give readers enough time to absorb the complexities (and politics) of the world—aspects that are probably more at home to other genres like epic fantasy.

In any case, I realize that pacing is going to be a precarious point for me.

Recently, I’ve been enjoying a variety of stories, mostly TV shows, such as The Magicians (based on Lev Grossman’s fantasy novels), The Expanse (which premiered on Syfy and is also based on a novel series), and a fantasy novel called The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty. All three of these have one major thing in common: even though they are adventures, they also start off pretty darn slow.

Now, while my overall enjoyment of these stories is also pretty darn high for the most part, I’m feeling especially conflicted about slow beginnings because of the feedback I’ve been getting on my novel as well as many readers’ reviews I’ve been peeking at for novels that are similar to mine. I know there are things I can do to tighten my story, sure, but part of me wonders how much of the conflicting feedback is based on reader expectations which may actually fall outside of TEROH’s target audience.

One reason I wonder about this is because of my own preferences as a reader (and a viewer). I’ve come to realize that I’m often drawn to stories that begin at a slower pace. I was sad to witness such TV shows canceled in the past (Like AMC’s Rubicon) before they truly hit their stride because personally, I enjoyed the slow parts.

I get it. A lot of people get bored easily if things don’t feel like they’re going somewhere quickly enough, but I also know there’s a niche of folks out there just like me who don’t mind some ambling along before things pick up a bit. Now that I’ve come to Part III (of V) in my story with my plans for revisions, thinking about all these things is making it increasingly difficult for me to decide not only how to handle pacing in my story but also which story elements to keep/not keep.

I want to make TEROH better, but I don’t want it to lose what makes it unique.

My story may indeed have action and adventure in it, but I’m thinking it wouldn’t be entirely beneficial to harp too much on this because an in-depth exploration of its world’s mysteries and the characters’ psychologies are equally important. There’s a very fine line to be walked, but how far is too far when it comes to bending towards either side? (Because, to me, it feels like there are sides to the balance.)

Dieselpunk — It’s no secret to regular readers here that I’ve been calling my WIP a dieselpunk novel. Pulp adventure and quasi-1940s aesthetics is my shiznit for this project. Now, a lot of people will say that dieselpunk is more of an aesthetic than a (sub)genre, and I’d mostly agree with that statement. However, I do feel there are some notable commonalities amongst many stories embraced by the dieselpunk community that have developed over the past several years and could qualify as storytelling trends.

The topic of war seems to come up a lot with dieselpunk stories, and I think that mainly stems from drawing from the World Wars for inspiration. Dieselpunk is also often thought to have a gritty aesthetic, lending it a darker tone and/or the inclusion of darker subject matter (such as war).

My story has both of these things: war themes and dark subject matters.

However, like with Action & Adventure, I’m finding that people who identify with dieselpunk also have certain expectations that honestly, I hadn’t seriously considered until now because I first wrote this book to satisfy my own tastes. I ran a quick little poll on one of the dieselpunk Facebook groups I’m involved with, asking them what their preferences were as fiction readers.

Results from a poll I took asking what fans of dieselpunk like to see in their stories. | The Chandra Tribune

Some of the results were pretty predictable, though I was really surprised to see romance at the dead bottom of the list. Granted, I didn’t expect to see tons of romance lovers turn up, but 11 out of the 38 participants were female (almost 29% for you numbers folks out there). You’d think the odds of more romance readers being in this group would be a little higher. I mean I’m sure there are lots of steampunk romances out there, and steampunk is like the big sister -punk to dieselpunk. (The funny thing is that the one vote for Romance was actually cast by a male, so what do I know? And yes, I’m coming from a hetero-stance.)

But TEROH isn’t quite a romance, per se, so why does this even matter?

Well…one of my beta readers—who were all volunteers, might I point out—also expressed a strong dislike for romance elements, of which my story has to a smaller degree. (At least I thought so.) So, combined with the poll I took, this makes me wonder a couple of things now:

  1. Given that my readers so far have all been male, would another female view my story much differently?
  2. How much of a turn off are the romance elements going to be for those who have naturally been gravitating to my story, and can this be curbed by catering to certain expectations up front with blurbage/the book description, cover design, and such?

Obviously, since my book has some romance (or some semblance of romance), it could be beneficial to make this readily apparent somehow without going overboard. Just a hint. Then again, maybe not. I’ve talked a little before about the kind of “romance” I have in TEROH, and it’s not the kind you’d find in a straight-up romance novel—that is no “happily ever after” endings. People manipulate and coerce other people, and they sometimes use their sexuality to do it. Actually, one of my readers described certain parts as more akin to erotica—which, to be honest, kind of surprised me.

So there’s this perception of Romance in TEROH, but it’s not really “industry-standard romance,” if that makes sense. And it’s not quite seduction, either, because my (all-male) readers don’t really see any of the male characters as “seductive,” which is really interesting to me. (In other words, I have no idea what to call it yet people have strong opinions about “it.”)

In any case, I’ve been itching to read Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart lately, only because I suspect my story may have enough in common with hers to warrant comparisons for learning sake—not necessarily because of any erotic elements but mostly because it’s fantasy and deals with a lot of politicking and worldbuilding and even espionage (see below).

Chalk it up to “market research.”

Espionage — God, this is getting long, but yes, TEROH also has some espionage elements. I originally had no plans to advertise it as such, but I do think it’s important to make some of the spy flavor known. Present but not necessarily prevailing so as to overshadow the other cross-genre elements, if that makes sense.

Thing is espionage often comes in either the fast-paced Charles Cumming variety or the Le Carré slow burn, and my story falls into the latter category, of course. Espionage can also have elements of adventure and romance. However, I’ve rarely seen it crossed with fantasy, let alone science fantasy, as compared to other cross-genre breeds. That being said…

Well, I don’t know what else to say other than that I apparently have a fat, complex pickle on my hands. Or maybe I’m just thinkin’ too hard; that happens sometimes. All I know is that, whether I go traditional or indie, marketing this thing effectively thing will definitely be a challenge.

How do you find your novel’s target audience?

While I certainly feel I’ve gained a better understanding of my novel and who might enjoy it, I’m still not 100% satisfied with my thoughts about this. (Click here to read Part II on this subject.)

Dealing with a cross-genre conundrum yourself? Let me know in the comments!


10 thoughts on “On Finding a Novel’s Target Audience & Understanding Reader Expectations (Part I)

  1. As someone who writes in a genre that has taken on quite specific expectations – and some prejudices – in recent years, the challenge is very recognisable. My books have not used all the genre ‘s expected tropes. My sales tell me I haven’t found the target audience yet, or not in any great number 🙂 They do sat that writing across genres is an error in marketing terms. But ultimately, we must write what it gives us satisfaction to write, and what comes out of the ‘pen’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That does makes sense from a marketing standpoint. I’ve been following an indie fiction author named Derek Murphy, who writes books based on his market research on niche but profitable topics he’s interested in. It’s a smart way to go about writing as a business.

      As for others who simply want a finished project on their hands, that may be satisfaction enough! I’m still debating the self-publishing/traditional thing myself. I’ve got a list of pros and cons that are about equal on both sides…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this interesting post, Tiyana.

    ‘Eclectic’ also means ‘broad’ and can be a good thing. Genres and categories are more important for publishing professionals than for the eventual buyer and reader. I suspect few readers always read only one type of book. Most read more widely, many very widely.

    ‘Science Fantasy’ is a good phrase, and is what ‘SF’ really means in most SF novels. It is magic rationalized by a usually rather thin veneer of scientific-sounding language. My WIP, and Dieselpunk in general, could also be called ‘EF’ or ‘Engineering Fantasy’.

    I love Indiana Jones and the 1999 ‘Mummy’ movie, both of which also contain much magic. I bought the DVD of the Tom Cruise ‘Mummy’ but have not yet watched it.

    Pace is a question for every writer and reader, one with no single right answer. I’m more tolerant as a reader of other’s novels than as the author of my own, so I’ve used various devices to save words, including omitting much of the more elaborate attributions and other bits of business authors use to punctuate dialogue. The result sometimes resembles a film script or the later novels of Michael Crichton, which I like but will not please everybody. And, though my WIP is first-person, my teenaged protagonist does not indulge in many internalizations.

    Your poll is interesting. I read everything listed, though mystery and romance the least. I’m not surprised by the results. Alternate History, Steampunk, Dystopian, and Dieselpunk are all really modern offshoots of SF. Romance elements would not put me off.

    Incidentally, I’ve never seen or heard of a bookstore with a ‘Dieselpunk’ section, or ‘Steampunk’. I’ve only seen ‘Teen’ and ‘SF/Fantasy’ sections. My WIP would fit either.


    • You’re very welcome! Thanks for reading and commenting. 😀 Personally, I’ve decided to not even touch the newer Mummy movie with a 10-foot pole, heh. But I hope you like it! (Let me know if you do.)

      Sounds like you and I have opposite writing styles. I tend to use longer sentences and silly alliteration and overindulge on details then find myself paring things back in places. I can’t help it! As a reader, I want to know the details, and I like unusual or quirky voices. They just have to fall in the right places. Pointing out the elaborate design on someone’s clothing as you’re in the middle of a battle with them? Eh, not so much. But I guess that’s the thing about writing styles (or anything to do with writing): you can’t really please everyone. (For example, I can’t read most YA novels because it usually feels like the author is trying to spell everything out for me instead of leaving things to inference, which seriously annoys and bores my brain.)

      When it comes to dieselpunk or even steampunk and sub-categories in general, I suppose this matters more with online retailers. For example, Amazon has a whole category dedicated to steampunk. (Although, if you browse the top books that come up there, most of the covers hardly look very steampunk—another matter entirely…) Oddly enough, quite a few dieselpunk novels come up under this category! Problem is most of them don’t have great visibility or aren’t ranking well long-term online, and I think part of that has to do with how they’re being marketed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think “romance” as an element is different from Romance as a genre. All sorts of books have romantic elements, but (from what I understand) Romance novels have certain requirements for how they have to end (similar to the expectation in a “mystery” novel that the mystery will be solved.

    Also, with magic, I think it makes a big difference whether it’s a few magical elements in an otherwise familiar world (which is what I do) or you’re in Narnia or whatever. Both are magic, but I think the audiences are different.

    For me, the key with a slow beginning is getting hooked by the protagonist, wanting to know how things turn out in his or her life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those are good things to keep in mind, especially about the protagonist. When I originally saw how much page space I was devoting to someone other than the protagonist at the very beginning of my story, a part of me was like, “Yeah, that’s probably not gonna stay…but I’ll let someone else read it first.” Guess I shoulda listened to my first instinct!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You know, I’ve never realised how important it is to pin down a genre when you’re trying to sell a story. John may be right that readers may care little for the actual genre of the story, but if you don’t pin down an adequate genre and category, your readers might never find you.
    That’s been the main problem for me. I picked the wrong cover, I picked the wrong title, and I can tweak the categories and tags in the meta data as much as I want, my novella will always be listed in online bookstores alongside romances and eroticas – and it is not that at all. So those readers won’t care about my novella once they’ll read the blurb, and my readers will never find me, because my novella is not listed in the right place.

    Really, one doesn’t realise how important thsi is until we have to cope with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Truly! Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have given this much thought if I hadn’t noticed how many dieselpunk books were categorized under steampunk, since I haven’t published before. (It’s actually less competitive than most other adult fiction categories on Amazon right now, I’ve noticed). I really thought this was interesting, which made me wonder about choosing categories and keywords and whether there was more to it–a rabbit hole of its own…

      My new thing to learn about right now is marketing in general and how to build and maintain an email list. A lot of authors seem to really depend on the latter!

      Liked by 1 person

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