If you’re like most non-fiction authors, you’ve probably put a lot of time and effort writing and honing your book’s big ideas for maximal impact. But even with all that hard work, you may not be getting the results you want when you pitch your book to a publishing company. In this blog post, we’ll discuss three common issues that can frustrate readers and prevent your manuscript from being accepted for publication or selling well if it is published. So if you’re struggling to find a publisher, make sure to read on!
At Target Audience Insights, we empower authors with actionable insights based on feedback from real readers. Here’s how it works: First, working with the author, we send an unpublished manuscript to readers in a book’s target market. These First Look Readers read the book, then provide feedback through filling out a detailed survey. Finally, our expert analysts identify patterns in reader feedback to craft data-driven reports aimed at informing edits and helping books reach their full potential.
Every Target Reader Manuscript Analysis nonfiction report explores what we call The Three S’s—Substance, Structure, and Sound. The Substance section is all about the readers’ perception of the book’s core concepts. Are readers excited about the big idea? Do they think the premise suits the audience? Do they buy into the message?
Reader feedback yields all sorts of helpful insights about how to improve a book’s Substance, but some issues are much more common than others, coming up over and over again in manuscripts of all genres.
In one recent Target Reader Manuscript Analysis report, around 53% of First Look Readers described the book—a memoir—as “unfocused,” lacking a clear vision or purpose and, as a result, coming across as chaotic or confusing. In this case, the author had written a memoir grounded in a compelling and inspirational story, but they too often diverged from the primary narrative and themes to chase rabbit trails: detailed tangents describing research, social causes they cared about, political commentary, and recommended policy changes. These issues weren’t necessarily uninteresting or poorly written, but they yanked readers away from the plot and soon made them feel lost and unsure what the book was about.
This is a very common issue, particularly in more personal works of non-fiction (like memoirs) and especially with first-time authors. Writing a book is a huge project and authors pour themselves into their work, often trying to cram in all their thoughts and perspectives at once. The unfortunate result is that, quite often, these sorts of books cover many things poorly rather than doing a few things well. Target reader feedback can (and often does) help uncover this problem and steer an author back towards a central narrative and thematic throughline that will keep their readers engaged.
Integrating Action Steps
In another recent report, the majority of First Look Readers resonated with and were excited about the broad ideas and lessons at the heart of the book in question, but around one-quarter (26%) wanted more practical application and action steps.
“[This book] is heavy on theory, but scarce on details,” said one reader. “If you want concepts to help focus your journey of self-discovery, then this book will be very helpful to you. If you are looking for specific practical steps to take, then this might not be the one.”
Books are not built on ideas alone—and readers quite often want more or better action steps. Particularly in books specifically aimed at conveying lessons to the reader—such as business leadership or self-help books—it’s up to the author to connect the dots, showing their readers exactly why and how their book’s core lessons are relevant and applicable to their lives.
Audience fit is the final most-frequently-cited issue raised by First Look readers in non-fiction manuscripts. These insights often come in the form of compliments: when readers like and benefit greatly from a book, yet they also can tell that the book was written for a narrow audience of which they are not a part, they recommend that the messaging be changed to fit a more expansive audience that includes themselves.
In a recent TRMA, readers who were not business executives noted that, though a book on business leadership was clearly not aimed at them, they loved it. In another, readers noted that a Christian author used denomination-specific language that could unnecessarily alienate readers from other Christian traditions who might otherwise love an otherwise widely palatable and extremely helpful book. Now, to be clear, writing for everyone often ends poorly, and finding a specific, focused target audience is a very good idea. But here, readers are able to provide authors with a gut check, helping them ask: would more people be interested in my book than I thought?
Building Better Books
If you’re struggling with any of these common issues, don’t worry—you’re not alone. Many authors face the same challenges. With the help of target reader feedback, authors can avoid these and other potential pitfalls and create a manuscript that engages readers from beginning to end.