Self-publishing or traditional publishing: who’s your audience?


As a rule of thumb, the wider your audience, the more you need a traditional publisher; the more specific your audience, the better self-publishing works. No matter how wide your audience is, though, you still need to define them.

Who is your audience?

Most writers will say, “EVERYONE!”  Business writers are usually a bit more savvy, but can still throw the net too wide – “EVERYONE IN BUSINESS!” After all, who doesn’t need to market better, manage their time better, understand other people better…? That, right there, is your starting point. If you can’t say who your audience is, say who it isn’t.

For example, who doesn’t need to market better? People with a marketing department – so we’ve already narrowed it down to “small businesses / sole traders”. Who doesn’t need to manage their time better? Well-organised people who might even need to loosen up and cut themselves some slack. So we’ve narrowed it down to “disorganised people” and identified a market for another book: hyperorganised people pushing themselves to nervous breakdown (Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff). Disorganised people - all of them? No, mostly those juggling home and work responsibilities – so working people, predominantly women, probably on the younger side, say up to about mid to late forties…? Suddenly, the audience is coming into focus.

Describe your audience

Once you have a picture of them, you need to put that in words. If you go for traditional publishing, you need to explain your market to the publisher in your proposal. If you go for self-publishing, you need this crystal-clear either for your publicist or your own reference (if you’re marketing it yourself).  The three top ways to describe your audience are…

  1. Demographics: Their likely age, gender, income-bracket, lifestyle, etc – as we did with the organisation book above (Michele Tocci’s Time to Create a Better Life).
  2. Genres and sub-genres: “Business coaching” and “Self-help” are huge genres – what are the categories within that? Look at the shelving systems in a huge book shop; look at Amazon’s drill-down categories for physical and Kindle books; look at the tags people might give the book.
  3. Similar authors & books: A common shorthand in publishing speak is using famous authors to describe a newbie: “She’s a kind of Peter Hamilton meets A.S. Byatt” or “It’s Time Traveller’s Wife meets Game of Thrones“. What’s similar to your stuff? When people buy your book, what will pop up in “People who bought this, also liked…”?

Find your audience

Once you know who they are, start finding them – immediately.  This is essential whichever publishing route you go. Self-publishers will need that starter-audience on their side; traditional publishers are more likely to pick up a book with a readymade market. 99U has an excellent article on build a crowd of readers before you’ve even finished the book.

Choosing your publishing route

With a well-defined audience, you’re in a better position to choose between self-publishing and traditional publishing.  Now we can ask some pertinent questions…

  • Is it a very niche audience? If so, self-publish. Very niche is too small to interest a large publisher, and very easy to target for self-publishing. One self-publishing company had a very successful book on the origins of stream train names in Britain: its niche audience was automatically interested and easy to reach through the 3 trainspotting magazines. A niche audience is sitting ducks / fish in barrels / pick your metaphor.
  • Can you reach the audience yourself? If you already have access to them, the marketing and distribution becomes easier. Is the audience already signing up to your workshops, on your newsletter, visiting your website, attending your keynotes?
  • Will they mostly buy your book in bookshops? A gift book, for instance, is often an impulse buy rather than a planned buy. If your book needs to be in bookshops, go with a traditional publisher – getting physical books into physical bookshops is one of the hardest things to do as a self-publisher.


Who isn’t your book for? Use that to narrow down your audience.

Describe your audience.
1. Demographics ____________________________________________________
2. Genres & tags ____________________________________________________
3. Similar authors & books _____________________________________________

Choose your route:
1. How niche are you? _________________________________________________
2. Can you reach your audience already? __________________________________
3. Does it need to be in bookshops? ______________________________________
Don’t forget you will also have other key factors to consider – revisit your book’s purpose to get a full list. 

Start finding your audience: Read the 99U article and start reaching out to your readers.

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