I know that title sounds like click-bait, but I swear on my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style that I’m not hyperbolizing. First-time authors make plenty of mistakes (me included—I’m not judging!), but this is THE biggest by far: They try to write a book that “everyone” will want to read.
When I tell my fellow entrepreneurs that I write and edit personal development books, 4 out of 5 say, “I’d love to write a book!” And, because I'm a book nerd, my response is, “Cool! What’s it about?” Unfortunately…when they tell me the premise, most of them say something like, “What’s great about it is that it applies to everyone” or “Everyone can benefit from improving such-and-such.”
As soon as I hear the word “everyone,” I cringe inside. It makes me want to start carrying around a giant foam mallet so I can bop people on the head when they say it.
So, why is it a mistake to write a book that appeals to “everyone”?
When you don’t know your specific audience, it’s impossible to know if your message is useful to them.
We all want readers to benefit from our writing, correct? To do that, we need to know what their lives are like. We need to know their goals, strengths, and pain points. Readers want books that resonate with them in particular, not “everyone.” Of course there are universal truths, but we have different concerns based on our circumstances and stage of life. People have different concerns when they’re 25 years old than they do when they’re 75. Parents have different concerns than people without kids. Start-up entrepreneurs have different concerns than retirees. To create a book that is relevant to your audience, you have to get specific about who they are.
Take this blog, for example. I write to an audience of entrepreneurs who are writing books that are (a) related to their business, and (b) intended to teach, inspire, and help their readers. Every post should be (and hopefully is) relevant to that exact group of readers. It’s absolutely NOT relevant to “every” writer. And that’s perfect! I want to give meaningful information and inspiration to the exact right people—otherwise I’m wasting my time and theirs.
When you speak to everyone, you end up with a diluted message.
The greater the variety in your audience, the more you're forced to water down your message. Let’s say you're writing a book about nutrition. If you’re trying to reach an audience of “everyone,” it creates a situation where you have to second-guess every statement. All the sudden you’re saying, “But that advice isn’t relevant to elderly people and newborns and people with food allergies and people with irritable bowel syndrome.” Is there a single piece of nutrition advice that IS relevant to all those readers? If so, it’s undoubtedly something extremely generic, like “drink plenty of water” and “eat healthy food.”
Do EITHER of those things need to be written down in a book? Would it make for a compelling marketing message? “I just wrote a book telling people to drink water and eat healthy food.” How many people will see that and think “Geez, sounds like a must-read.” With a diluted message, you end up with a book that appeals to nobody.
Writing to an audience of “everyone” is usually a misguided attempt to capture mass sales.
Usually, when an author says they want their book to appeal to “everyone,” what they’re really saying is, “I’m afraid of missing out on book sales.”
Good books are written in service to the readers. And we do not serve our readers by treating them as a faceless mass. When we do that, we’re actually using people for our own ends. We create a numbers game—going after as many sales as possible—instead of thinking deeply about the specific needs of the specific people that we’re speaking to.
I know that sounds harsh, and I’m not saying that first-time authors are intentionally trying to use or abuse their readers. I believe this sort of numbers-game thinking is based in a fear of missing out or a fear of failure. We mistakenly think that speaking to a broad audience will result in big sales—and who doesn’t want big sales?
A better approach: Identify a specific audience and go deeply into it.
Instead of trying to appeal to everyone, an easier and more effective strategy is to identify a few key audiences and really speak to them. For instance, one of the books I co-authored, Mosaic Garden Projects (with mosaic artist Mark Brody), focused on two main audiences: (1) crafters who want to make outdoor mosaics and (2) gardeners who want to add mosaics to their yard. Knowing our audience, Mark was able to hone in on the types of projects, themes, and materials that were appropriate for them, and I was able to create a tone and voice that spoke to them.
What about your book--who are the two or three specific types of people you most want to reach? Don't be shy about getting specific.