Business Musings: Define Your Target Audience: The Intermediate Stages (Branding/Discoverability)

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In the past eight or so years since indie publishing took off, writers found that the commodity they lack the most is time. Time to write. Time to research. Time to read. Time to market.

We get inundated daily with shoulds and have-tos. Someone is always so much more successful than we are, and they’re successful at something we’ve wanted for a long time.

Then there are the overnight sensations, the folks who claim to make $50-100,000 per month on their writing, even though they have only published five or fewer books. They have some kind of marketing system, and 100,000 people on their newsletter list. They have figured out how to game Amazon’s algorithms or they’re the first people to use that brand new marketing tool (cough: Facebook ads) that some gigantic corporation has come up with. Or the first to use it effectively.

If you only follow these five steps, you too can make $50-100,000 per month on your writing as well.

Only it never works that way. First of all, there’s no way to know if the folks who claim to have a working system actually do have a working system. There’s also no way to know if that $50-100,000 they earned in one month was for just one month or if they consistently earn at that level.

Have they done it for four months? A year? Five years?

Because I don’t know about you, but what I care about in this business is staying in it for the rest of my life. That means building a business, not being an overnight sensation. (Or, becoming, as the music industry so aptly calls it, a “one-hit wonder.”)

This blog is geared toward the career writer, not the person who is in it for a fast buck and will leave when the going gets rough. (As many of you have noted in my comments and emails, the gurus of 2011 and 2012 have mostly disappeared. Even their websites are down. The ones who have survived have transitioned to career writers and generally don’t use gimmicks any more.)

Sure, it would be great to have a $100,000 month. You can bet that if I have that kind of spike on five books, I’ll be banking the money for a rainy day. I will hope that the money will continue. I will bet that it won’t.

Because I have earned that much money in a month off and on throughout my career, and I’ve learned that what goes up does come down.

The nice thing is, though, if you build your writing career properly, what comes down doesn’t come down as far as it had before.

Here’s what a proper income spike should look like (and sadly, it looks better in my other file. {sigh}):


                  /   \

                /       _______

_____ /



In other words, you have a sales spike, and while you will lose many of those readers, you will keep quite a few of them. You’ll end up with more regular readers than you started with. Provided you have a good product that inspires brand loyalty—which is something we dealt with for the past two weeks.  Brand loyalty, for writers, is generally to the writer’s byline, not to the publishing house or genre or anything else. Sometimes brand loyalty is to a series or a series character. But for the sake of our purposes in this series, think of your author name as the brand, and everything else will fall into place.

When I wrote the initial target audience post (six weeks ago!), I assumed that you either had no idea who your audience actually was or were so new that you had no audience. Today’s post assumes you have an audience, but you have no idea who they are.

Now, a lot of what I write in these branding posts (and many of my other posts) takes into account the fact that none of us have any time. Most of us lack the big bucks that major corporations have as well. So doing some of the market research things that marketing and advertising blogs tell you to do to figure out who your audience is are things that we either don’t have time to do or the funds to pay someone else to do it.

Besides, how many of you want to send out newsletters or updates to readers, asking them to take marketing surveys? Think about it from a brand perspective. How annoyed would you be if your favorite author wanted all of your personal data so that she could sell to you and people like you better than she already is?

If my favorite author was a nonfiction writer who was a marketing guru and her topics were only about marketing, I probably wouldn’t be annoyed. But if my favorite author was a Regency romance writer who had never contacted me before…well, at best, I’d ignore the email. At worst, I’d make a little mental note of my annoyance and do a small compare/contrast: is it still worthwhile to me to buy her books after she annoyed me? Probably yes. But if the annoyance continued…

So how do you find out about the audience you already have? And how do you find out about the audience you might be able to build?

The answer is both simple and hard. You take the information you already have available to you, extrapolate from it, and continue to pay attention to the world around you to gain even more information.

Sounds straightforward. But what does all that mean? What information do you have already? You probably had no idea you have information, except—if you’re lucky—emails from readers who liked your work. And please, don’t email them back asking them for personal details. Just thank them for taking the time out of their day to make your day a bit brighter.

So, let’s find out about your audience by using my audience. (Remember, I’m doing this branding series for myself, to apply the marketing knowledge I have from other businesses to my fiction business. So, I’m multitasking—using what I know to help explain the concepts I’m dealing with here, and educating myself in my own branding at the same time.)

I write two different science fiction series. Right now, I’m deep in my Diving Universe series, a space opera set far from Earth. The stories have a strong female protagonist, a bit of time travel, and lots of action, but also quite a bit of hard sf as well.

How do I find out who my existing audience is?

I look at the also-boughts on Amazon. To write tonight’s blog, I’m looking in real time at two different books—the first novel in the series, Diving into the Wreck, and the third book in the series, Boneyards.

The first thing I look at to do audience research is the also-boughts on Amazon and the other e-retailer sites that have also-boughts. In addition to my own books in the also-boughts (yay! That means people who liked this book bought other books of mine), I want to know who I share my readers with.

On Diving into the Wreck, I find Linda Nagata’s brand new novel (yikes! I need to pick that up), Ann Leckie’s newest novel, a writer I’ve never heard of named Laurence Dahners, John Scalzi, Tanya Huff, Lindsay Buroker (another writer I’m unfamiliar with), C.J. Cherryh, Sharon Lee, Lois McMaster Bujold, and on and on for another 100 novels or so.

What do these names tell me? They tell me a lot, actually. Here’s what I can see just from the names listed.

  • I have hardcore sf fans among my readership. They know some classic authors like C.J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold. They’re also up-to-date on the new classic writers, like Ann Leckie.
  • My readers buy military sf. Linda Nagata’s book is military sf, and farther along in the list, some Mike Shepherd books appear. They’re also military sf.
  • My readers love space opera. Lois’s books are both military sf and space opera, but they lean more toward space opera (in my opinion). C.J.’s are also split between military and space opera, leaning more toward space opera. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series is modern space opera (which is space opera with a touch more hard sf). If you scan through the list, you’ll find a lot of space opera in the also-boughts.
  • My readers like books with strong female protagonists. The Tanya Huff book covers feature a woman with some kind of futuristic gun (remove the gun, and the covers could work for some of my Diving books).
  • My readers like sf with crime in it, as witnessed by the John Scalzi novel on the list.
  • My readers like series books. In addition to reading everything in the Diving series, the also-boughts show a lot of repeat names, as readers work their way through other series.
  • My readers are adventurous. These also-boughts are all over the sf (and fantasy) map. The books include New York Times bestsellers, award-winners, and brand-new indie writers launching their very first series.

I could go on, but I’m not going to.

With the first book in the series, I can see the also-boughts of the people who decided to try the series. But what about the people who are sticking with it? After all, they are my actual audience.

By Boneyards, there are a lot more Rusch books in the also-boughts, which pleases me. Linda Nagata reappears right away, as does Lindsay Buroker, Mike Shepherd, Sharon Lee, Tanya Huff, and Lois McMaster Bujold. But some other writers have bumped their way up the list, like Robert J. Sawyer, Yoon Ha Lee, and Elizabeth Moon. Again, lots of books in series, lots of military sf and space opera, less fantasy, and some very hard sf, more than with the first book.

Not a surprise to me, because the Diving series is written in a very challenging fashion—mixing first and third person, past and present tense, time periods all over the map, and a complex backstory.

I’m able to refine, just from tonight’s glance alone, what the Diving readers are looking for. I can’t go wrong in assuming that the readers of the Diving series want space opera, a little bit of military sf, and some hard sf as well. They’re not afraid to read some challenging works. There’s a lot fewer fantasy novels on the list (except for some of mine) as we get to Boneyards, so this is a purely sf series.

Let’s compare that with my Retrieval Artist series. That’s a more mature series—fifteen books long as opposed to six—with a genre mix (detective plus science fiction). I have glanced at the first book in the series, The Disappeared, and a middle book, Anniversary Day.

Some differences between Diving and Retrieval Artist show up almost immediately. Two and a half screens of also-boughts on The Disappeared before another name besides mine shows up. Most of those also-boughts are the rest of the Retrieval Artist series. (That happened with Diving too, but there are fewer books in that series.) Then the Diving series shows up with one book, some fantasy books of mine, and finally…Andy Weir, William Gibson, Elizabeth Moon, that John Scalzi novel again, and a few pages down, Lois yet again.

No military sf at all. Very little space opera. No obviously strong female protagonists. Fewer female sf writers. Harder sf and sf that combines detectives and mystery stories. Some challenging writers who appeal to the hardcore sf reader. A similar audience with crossover, but not the same audience at all.

By Anniversary Day, the middle of the series, Andy Weir is nowhere to be seen. A lot more John Scalzi, some Walter Jon Williams, and even Connie Willis has joined the list. Ann Leckie is back as is Linda Nagata. Nathan Lowell is on the list along with James S.A. Corey and David Drake.

A bit of military sf, then, but not much. Space opera, some award-winning writers, even more challenging hard sf works, and a lot of cross-genre mystery works. Fantasy combined with mystery, sf combined with mystery. So the mystery is an attraction but the worldbuilding is as well, since there are no contemporary or historical mysteries in the also-boughts.

That surprises me. I would have thought that mystery readers would have crossed over. But they haven’t. Fantasy readers have (also surprising to me) but not mystery readers.

One cannot assume, in doing this work.

Different platforms have different information. I went from Amazon to Kobo to see if they ran also-boughts. They don’t call the books listed with mine as also-boughts. They’re called “related titles” and they feature an entirely different group of authors and series. (I’m suspecting they are also-boughts, since not all are on-point with genre.)

The names here also give me a lot of information about how Kobo, at least, perceives my audience for these works. If the books listed below are, in fact, also-boughts, then I see how different the international audience is from the U.S. audience.

I could do this all night, and so could you, but suffice to say there’s enough information in the also-boughts and related titles surrounding your work to give you the glimmerings of an understanding about your current audience.

But the title of this blog is your target audience. You want to grow your readership, right? Then you target the readers of the writers on your also-bought list. In the bad old days, you would have had to buy a list or market blatantly (Readers Who Love Lois McMaster Bujold Will Love Kristine Kathryn Rusch!)

You don’t have to do that now. If you do paid ads on Amazon, you can target readers who buy books by authors on your also-bought list in your ad buy. You can do the same with Facebook ads and all kinds of other paid advertising that relies on algorithms.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other things you can do. If you’re new or if you’re rebranding your series or if you’re writing a new series, you can make your covers similar to the covers of the books in your also-bought list. That’s why Tanya Huff’s book covers could work (with slight modification) for my Diving series—especially the Diving covers done by the original traditional publishing house a long time ago.

Looking at also-boughts is just one technique among a thousand to help you figure out your current audience.

If you know your genre and subgenre, you might be lucky enough to find marketing surveys that list the “average” reader of that genre. The Targoz Reading Pulse Survey that started me down this branding road has an entire section on the “average” reader. I got Randy Ellison’s permission to share some of that with you throughout this series.

For example, almost all reading and book buying surveys find that women buy more books than men. Some surveys find that women also read more books than men. I’m not sure if that’s accurate. The buying more books than men makes sense, because all marketing surveys find that women generally do the purchasing if they’re in a committed relationship. That goes for everything from groceries to tools.

There are a million simplistic articles online as to why, including some stupid articles that say women like shiny objects which is why they spend more money. (Seriously!)

But the real reason is more utilitarian. From a 2013 article in Forbes by Bridget Brennan, an expert who spends her entire career studying shopping patterns:

In virtually every society in the world, women have primary care-giving responsibilities for both children and the elderly (and often, just about everybody else in-between). In this primary caregiving role, women find themselves buying on behalf of everyone else in their lives…. If you’re in a consumer business, it means that women are multiple markets in one.  They are the gateway to everybody else.  

Since I know that more women buy more books than men, and I also know that the readers of my Diving series buy a lot of books by women and with women on the cover, I would assume that the majority of my readers are women.

But I don’t know that for a fact, and the Reading Pulse Survey makes me reconsider my assumption with this little tidbit:

Science Fiction & Fantasy (SFF) is one of the few genre subsets that has a majority male readership (68% male). The average SFF reader is a married 30-year-old (55%), college educated (52%) male who is a moderately active reader (38% read 12 or more books a year, and 35% read 5–11 books a year), buys a moderate number of books to match (20% buy 12 or more books a year, and 32% buy 5–11 books a year), and cares about convenience above all else.

A quick mental double-check of the fan mail I’ve received, a scan of my Twitter followers, and my other social media interactions makes me realize that I have a lot of readers who fall into the demographic listed by the survey. A lot of readers who fall into that.

The survey goes on to show that these readers read a lot of series and tend to buy a lot of ebooks for the convenience. Which leads me to think about the fact that my also-boughts are filled with other books from the same series, and then books from other writers’ series, again, backing up some of the information in the survey.

How do I use this? We’ll deal with that more in some of the following weeks, but the first way to use it is to leave my assumptions at the door. I’m not just marketing to women when I market sf books. I’m marketing to a largely male audience, who loves books in series.

Does that mean I should stop marketing to women? Heavens, no. But it does mean I should expand my own thinking about marketing of my works to include the male readers, maybe more than I already have been.

There are other ways to use this information as well. If and when I plan to rebrand the covers of these series, I might consider a bit more military sf covers for Diving and some more noirish covers for Retrieval Artist. Or see what the current crop of covers for other books are at the time.

I might end up gearing my Diving promotions more toward the space opera crowd, and my Retrieval Artist promotions more toward the mixed mystery and fantastical world crowd. I have choices, now that I understand what the readers like about the series.

I’ve only used a few pieces of information here to show you about target audience. There’s a lot more information out there—such as the marketing studies for movies in the same genre or for similar TV shows (Star Trek, Stargate, and The Expanse, anyone?). All of that becomes useful in dealing with the midrange target audience—the existing audience.

As I said above, we’re all pressed for time, and simply using some of these simple tricks will refine your marketing to reflect your target audience. And to grow your audience by appealing to the readers who like similar works.

What you want to do is get those readers to sample your work, but you don’t want to give that work away. You want the readers to value your work enough to buy the next book, not wait for another freebie.

How do you do that? There are a million marketing tricks. For example, the first book in the Retrieval Artist series is cheaper than the other books by a significant amount (but still expensive enough that I can occasionally discount the book for a Book Bub or some other promotion).

I have starter kits for Diving and the Retrieval Artist so that readers can buy the first three books in both series for less than buying the books individually.

And I often participate in promotions like a Storybundle, which unites writers of similar works. For the next few hours only, I’m in a Dark Crime Storybundle with O’Neil De Noux, Rebecca Cantrell, Dean, Libby Fischer Hellman, Melissa Yi, Annie Reed, J.F. Penn, and a whole bunch of really well known mystery writers in anthologies. I’ll be in a different bundle with a different book starting on July 19. The hope is that readers who are fans of one of us will buy the bundle to get ten books for $15 (and support a charity), and read my book, decide they like my work, and buy more of it.

That’s another way to do cross promotion with other authors. It works too. I noted that on one of my Retrieval Artist books, there was a sprinkling of Rebecca Cantrell’s work. That makes sense—she has a series that mixes crime with the fantastic, and that’s the work that appeared on the also-bought list.

Good marketing really is a science, but we’re writers. We only have time to do so much.

Fortunately, a lot of folks are making data collection easier and easier for us, so that with just a bit of knowledge, we can use newly created tools to our own advantage.

You just have to be willing to spend an afternoon delving into your own readership—without bothering the readers themselves. Their purchasing habits have provided you with enough clues to move forward on your branding and your marketing—without losing too much writing time to all this advertising work.

Don’t be intimidated by this. Remember, you can get your marketing wrong—and probably will. But the key isn’t to do perfect marketing. The key is to try, maybe fail, try again, maybe succeed, and then keep trying all kinds of things.

However, keep in mind that your most important job is to write the next book. You want to see those also-boughts filled up with your own work, like mine are. Because that means that readers liked what they read and went on to buy the other books you’ve written. The more books you have for them to find, the more they’ll buy. The more they buy, the more likely they are to become regular readers.

And, as I mentioned in the brand loyalty posts, the regular readers are the ones who become brand loyal. Returning customers are more than 60% of every single retail business.

They should be part of yours as well.

Don’t forget them in your search for new readers. Remember to acknowledge your faithful readers, because they are the ones who put the food on your table. They’re the folks who already form your audience, and they’re the ones who deserve your loyalty in return.

How? Well, that’s a topic for another post, somewhere down the road.

But do say thank you every now and then. Because you wouldn’t be where you are without them.


I wouldn’t be writing a blog every week without my loyal blog readers. I feel bad if I’m running late, because I have hard-core supporters on Patreon and I’d like them to get the post earlier than the folks who show up here and read for free.

Thank you all for coming every week, sharing your thoughts, ideas, and questions, and for sharing your hard-earned dollars as well. I greatly appreciate it.

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If you liked this post or the short series I’m doing, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

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“Business Musings: Define Your Target Audience: The Intermediate Stages,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.


9 thoughts on “Business Musings: Define Your Target Audience: The Intermediate Stages (Branding/Discoverability)

  1. As David Gaughran pointed out in a recent post on also-boughts, mine are all wrong – because I’m newish and many of the original purchases were made by friends and writers I knew online – who were being kind and supportive! So my also-boughts have NO relation to what I would have were these strangers who found my book.

    Newbie problem, but interesting. David advocates telling all your friends and family NOT to buy the book right away (or to simply not tell anyone you’re launching). Just to keep Amazon from deciding who your readers are.

  2. Thank you! I’m terrible at marketing, but even I can research the also-boughts. I feel as if I’ve just taken a giant step forwards. 🙂

  3. Kris,

    Have you investigated the flip side of also-boughts–looking at which books point at your books? You can extract this from several sites, but is my usual go-to. I’ve been hearing from many sources that that’s highly important, but I’d be really curious for your take on it.


  4. It’s funny to see you mentioning Lindsay Buroker, because I’m a fan of hers, I’ve just finished reading my way through her Fallen Empire series, and I can see why those books and yours would have the same reader demographic.
    Funnily enough I came across her (as I did you) while looking for marketing advice. She hosts a podcast called marketingsff which is an interesting listen, especially the episodes where the hosts talk amongst themselves rather than interview a guest. A

  5. This is the first blog post I’ve read that suggests harvesting the also-bots for information about who your readers are, as opposed to manipulating the also-bots in the hope of selling books. And crucially important for long-term writers who are growing their backlist and their brand, not least those who write in multiple genres or straddle genres.
    People are really focused on their sales curve before during and after promotions, but not once have i read the details of how their also-bots organically evolved during a promotion. Only if they were trying to get on a particular writer’s also-bots list and confirmed that it worked.
    For smart writers, the also-bots could lead to new, properly targeted places/readers to promote, or bundling opportunities with authors who share readers. So important. Kris, thank you.

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