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

Last week, I mused a bit about the importance of identifying your target audience as an author and understanding reader expectations within your genre(s). This week, I wanted to follow up with some more thoughts on this as it pertains to my WIP, TEROH.

Before I get too far, I’d like to point out that a lot of these thoughts are stemming from a few things: beta reader comments I received, reviews that I read on books that are similar to mine, and also things I’ve been learning recently about selling and publishing on Amazon. Some books from indie authors are more financially successful than others—and while I don’t think things like good cover designs, good book descriptions, and the use of well-researched keywords along with an apt selection of categories/genres are the only reasons for their success, they do tend to be a substantial part of it when you look a little closer.

With the right positioning, a book can get a decent amount of hits from organic searches over time and better reach its intended audience. But if you haven’t considered the market and don’t know and understand who your intended audience is or what they’re looking for, then how are you supposed to reach them? As a writer still weighing the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. traditional, these are the reasons I’m considering all of this now.

As I see it, knowing the answers to these questions from a writing standpoint is just as important from a marketing one.


Researching Reader Expectations

To get a more focused perspective on what readers today are looking for—which, in turn, will help guide my revisions—I decided to look at fifteen 3-star reviews on two epic fantasy novels I believe are similar to mine (30 reviews total), since that’s my main genre. The novels I chose both have strong fantasy elements (magic, worldbuilding, etc.) as well as politicking, an especially important element for me; one also had espionage in it. Next, I came up with a list of the top things that were mentioned in reviews. (While these are examined in a critical light, the upsides of the genre can easily be gleaned from these findings.)

  1. Confusing World and/or Plot (15 mentions/50% of sampled 3-star reviews): this was the #1 concern. While readers of fantasy are drawn to new or fantastically different worlds that are immersive, some expressed frustration with details they weren’t able to grasp or overly-confusing storylines. Too many new or foreign terms, characters, places, or plot threads were common deterrents.
  2. Too Much Information (Up Front)/Not Enough Info in the Right Places (8 mentions/27%): this ties into #1. Although a richness in worldbuilding is appealing to fantasy readers, some mentioned that they were given too many details that don’t seem relevant to them at the points in the story they are introduced. Redundant or contradictory information and a lack of balance between showing and telling were also brought up as was not receiving enough information where readers felt it really mattered.
  3. A Meandering or Uneventful Plot (7 mentions/23%): while fantasy readers appreciate some complexity in a novel, they can be turned off by stories that don’t have a clear point/direction or simply feel like a big prologue leading up to a sequel, rather than a complete story in and of itself.
  4. A Lack of Character Development for Major Characters (6 mentions/20%): some readers expressed a desire to see more gradual changes in characters. Consistency in thoughts and actions also seems important.
  5. Too Slow of a Pace, Especially in the Beginning or Middle of the Story (5 mentions/17%): some readers commented on the pacing of the stories or that the most exciting/interesting parts came too late.

While I probably could have looked at an even number of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5-star reviews, I decided to focus on the 3-star only because I thought they’d be the least skewed by hype or overly-negative perspectives. Anyway, there were other things that were mentioned, of course, but the ones listed above were the most common. None of these are truly surprising (and none are necessarily exclusive to fantasy), but #1, 2, and 5 are the biggest issues I’m currently dealing with in TEROH—which, in hindsight, all seem closely related.

One thing that was interesting to me was the reviewers’ views on sexual content. The number of reviewers who said there was too much of this in one story was equal to the number of reviewers who said there wasn’t enough. I think part of the problem stemmed from whether it was initially clear to reviewers whether such content would be found in the novel but also how explicitly the subject matter was dealt with.

I think this is an important takeaway for me: some types of content (sex, politics, and violence especially) can be triggers for certain readers, and if it’s going to be included in the story then it helps to make this explicitly apparent up front. At the same time, if this kind of content is going to be included at all then it needs to be developed with a certain amount of detail (but not too much if it’s not a major selling point) to have merit in the story itself.

Obviously, you can’t make everyone happy. Some people don’t even read book descriptions before jumping in. All the more reason to have an effective cover design that not only speaks to common genre expectations (which sometimes read as visual cliches, unfortunately) but also what makes the book unique.

Selling Points for TEROH

I suppose this stuff isn’t really complicated in and of itself, though it’s taken me time to wrap my head around this in light of my revisions. (My brain likes to consider all the complexities before drawing a “simple” conclusion.) Where I struggle is taking into consideration that my WIP is a mix of elements from different genres and therefore deciding which should be the most important or prominent—which, of course, can later affect how I pitch the novel from a marketing standpoint.

Anyway, after some consideration, I’ve narrowed TEROH down to three major selling points, from most important to least:

  1. (Epic) Fantasythe “mother” genre, if you will.
  2. Espionage, the notable cross-genre.
  3. Action & Adventure, the undercurrent that ties the above two together. (This is more of a sub-genre for this project, imo, so I don’t want to oversell this aspect.)

For now, this will help me prioritize certain aspects of my story over others. However, I suspect it will also help me later on with positioning my story and making sure that I’m appealing to the right target audience.

What are your thoughts on reader expectations and target audiences?

Let me know in the comments!


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

  1. Interesting questions and points, Tiyana! Certainly, we can’t please all readers some of the time, or some readers all the time! I can’t even please all of myself all the time if I take my Inner Critic into account.

    My WIP is basically a YA Dieselpunk trilogy, with a boy protagonist. My target audience is anybody and everybody, but perhaps especially teenage boys, or girls with some interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) stuff. Engineering Fantasy (EF) as I call it. Not that it’s primarily educational or didactic, just fun with wild machines. Scott Westerfeld’s ‘LEVIATHAN’ trilogy and Kenneth Oppel’s ‘AIRBORN’ trilogy are the closest that spring to mind, and not that close.

    So, action and adventure top my wishlist, with just enough exposition etc. to facilitate and enhance the action set-pieces. Mind you, there is more exposition etc. than physical action, but that seems unavoidable, and I make the exposition as entertaining as possible in its own right, using humor in particular.

    I have a little espionage, and my scale is epic physically, with huge places and machines, but more SF than Fantasy in the LOTR or GOT sense.


  2. For one thing, I think your research is a really good idea. I never do that as a writer (I’m a determined amateur), but I did do that as a musician way back when. What’s the market, who’s getting signed, and how, which trends are still growing and which are fading, etc.

    Being systematic like this can improve your odds, though there’s still a huge element of luck. For example, there are a million things wrong with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (it pretty much shouts “I am a first novel!”), but it was still a huge success. And, to go back to my comment on your last post, the single biggest factor in the success of Dragon Tattoo is that people got hooked by Lisbeth Salender, and that pulled them through all the rough spots in the series (including that between the first book and the other two the genre changes).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! This is all stuff I’d never seriously considered before recently, so I’m trying to get a feel for how this can affect the writing and publishing processes and whether it can help me put out a better product, as well.

      That’s a good point about TGWTDT. I think this applies to a lot of other books and series, as well. We all hope we’ll get just as lucky, but as for the stuff we can control…well, at the very least we can put our best foot forward. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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