Why Booksellers and Publishers Shouldn’t Target Audiences

As an author, when you submit your book proposal or final manuscript to a publisher one of the first questions you are asked is: “What is your target audience?”
This seems to me to be backwards, and I hope one day the flaw in this scheme is realized by publishers and agents before it’s too late.
Allow me to explain.
When The Hunger Games was a new and hot read, I’d walk into Barnes and Noble and see elderly people sitting up in the cafe reading these teen-geared books.
I can only name a number of adults on one hand who have not read the Harry Potter books.
My wife and I are in our 30’s and collectively, our favorite book genres are kids and teen books. Very rarely, if ever, do we browse through the general fiction section of a book store.
Movies, unlike books, don’t target just particular audiences, and exclude the rest of the world. They target, for the most part, everyone.
When The Lord of the Rings movies came out, they didn’t just advertise the series to sci-fi/fantasy fanatics at comic conventions. Turns out, it wasn’t only sic-fi nerds that reveled in the franchise, but everybody from kids to grown-ups, men and women.
Almost everyone watches Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks movies, even if kids aren’t present.
I think books, to gain a wider readership, need to be categorized as movies are, by rating (G, PG, PG-13, and R). Let’s face it, there are some PG-13 rated books in the kids section and R rated books in the teen section and G rated books in the general fiction section.
Why can’t R.L. Stine be on the same shelf as Stephen King? And then, if you read the back of the book, there’s a rating on it like at the movie store (remember those?): Suitable for readers uder 13.
I don’t like books being so exclusive. One of my favorite books of all time is Little Women, yet publishers wouldn’t ever dream of marketing that book to me.
What do you think on this subject? I mean, I get separating history books from computer books, but fiction? Just put the appropriate parental warnings on the back and we’ll call it even.
I’m tired of Barnes and Noble deciding what books would be best for me, because quite frankly, they’re usually wrong.

Published by Andrew Toy

Writer when I'm not being a husband or dad. So mostly just a husband and dad.

40 thoughts on “Why Booksellers and Publishers Shouldn’t Target Audiences

  1. I love this. The fact that I as a young woman walk into the bookstore and have employees recommending chic lit for me when I really want to read fantasy or sci fi or the latest book by my favourite young adult author irritates me. I mean there are other issues there from target audiences but I definitely agree with you.

  2. I agree with you! Publishers and book sellers are asking the wrong question. For me, the bottom line is whether I would like to read something that I’m writing. If the answer is ‘no,’ then why am I writing it?

  3. I love this! I despise large, corporate bookstores pushing what THEY think are best sellers or what I should read. I miss the small, cozy bookshops where the owner would hand you books based on what you had in your stack on the check out counter. Places where the employees actually read the books in the store and were able to tell you exactly what you would love to read, even if it was a book or author you’d never heard of before. At a large bookstore, you only see what they want you to see and a lot of great reads get swept under the rug simply because they weren’t from a large enough publisher!

    1. Exactly. Usually the books they recommend aren’t even to my liking. They tend to recommend a lot of Twilight… lol

        1. LOL!!! It should never have become a thing. I mean, my daughter’s glitter sparkles, should that have super powers?

  4. Can I just say AMEN to that! I completely agree. Most of the time a reader can tell from the cover whether it’s a genre they want to read. The sci-fi/suspense books that I like look much different from the romances that my critique partner reads. Although I do appreciate them separating out the Christian fiction because that can be harder to tell from the cover (unless it’s Amish, of course) but again, that could be on the label. Great idea!

    1. Oh, no! Luckily for us, my wife and I read a lot of kid and teen books, so we’ve already got a pretty good screening process going on.

  5. I agree completely! I have very eclectic taste in books, so I certainly can’t be contained within a specific target audience. Come to think of it, I don’t know many people who don’t have eclectic taste when it comes to books. Most of my friends and family are voracious readers, and they all read a broad spectrum of genres.

    1. You’re so right. And with movies, too. The same people who pay to see a Disney movie will pay to see the newest war movie.

  6. I am an author too and so did I have the problem to name a target audience. My targeted audience are those who are open for it. That can be a 15 year old or an 80 year old person.

  7. Right on! It would be very boring to just read one type of book – I love fiction – romance, historical romance and modern, mystery, war plots, comic, etc. but I also love true stories, biographies, history, self-help, religious and kid’s book.

  8. I agree that there should be age ratings on books. My husband Michael’s books are all aimed at 18+ and I feel that they would benefit from a widely recognised labelling scheme (although, to avoid undue censorship, and with the numbers of books published, this would probably have to be a voluntary scheme). In fact, we added our own “Explicit content warning: not for sale to minors” label on the back of one of our books, as it contains sexually explicit material. We just felt better that way, as the book is really a romantic comedy, but we didn’t want someone buying it for a teenaged girl by mistake. At least we had given fair warning to people thinking of buying that book.

    With regards to marketing, as Michael’s publicist and PR, I find it tricky to market the books as I feel that I am just pigeon-holing the readers myself. Why wouldn’t a 60 year old woman read the zombie books? Why wouldn’t a 25 year old man read the romantic comedy book? I think aaishah.isaacs is right, “WHEN PUBLISHER’S ASK “WHAT IS YOUR TARGET MARKET?”, YOUR ANSWER SHOULD BE “PEOPLE” 🙂

  9. First of all, I skipped all the comments on this page because I wanted my answer to be my answer, and I can read the comments after I hit the send button. Second, I feel you are absolutely correct, and I have been arguing this argument for a very long time now, but I have not written a post about it on my latest Blog simply because I’ve become convinced that when it’s me against a bunch of reputable publishers, nobody wants to listen to anything I have to say. That said, why in the world, would any publisher want to alienate an entire demographic of possible consumers of his product, in the ill-fated interest of trying to demonstrate how prescient he is by telling me in advance whether or not I am going to like what somebody else has written. Buddy, if your foresight is that good, you should either be playing the stock market, or sitting at a gaming table in Las Vegas, not taking home the paltry sums of money you make by eliminating entire groups of people who might very well have thrown their money at you if you had just kept your silly opinions to yourself. Thank-you for letting me get that off my chest. It’s been a long time coming.

    1. You should never assume it’s you against the world. Often the good (and right) people in the world just need someone to pull them out of hiding.

  10. While I completely agree that marketing a book to a particular section of people can potentially exclude others who might love that book, this actually gets into the larger issue of marketing for any product. Would men buy sweatshirts if they had pink sequins on them? Would women buy a body wash because the commercial showed a scene of someone zip lining across the valley (yes, I know plenty of women like to zip line. So do I. Just bear with me for this example)?

    We don’t like anyone pigeonholing our work and turning away possible readers, but it happens. And it happens, to a certain extent, because people need to know where to sell books first. Maybe it would help to think of the marketing tactics as a entry point to the market instead of as a way to curtail the interest of new readers.

    1. I guess my bigger issue is actually getting ratings put on books to give the readers an idea of what sort of suggestive material they might be getting into.

      1. I definitely agree on that point. A rating system like the one for movies would go a long way toward helping us pick appropriate books for kids and young adults. If more people were honest and less worried about being politically correct they would probably admit that they had a serious problem with their tweens and teens reading sex scenes and profanity.

  11. Agreed! I’m not sure the age/rating thing is perfect either, but we definitely need to get away from target audience nonsense, especially in books. Great post!

  12. Yes, I often feel a bit discriminated against when I am interested in a book who is not really directed at me. This is why I will not put up a target audience for my book (if I ever manage to finish it). I’ll just say it’ll be for everyone who enjoys fantasy and reading.

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