There is no such thing as ‘the general reader’. OK?

In today’s seminar activity with the MA Publishing students at Oxford Brookes we were looking at book proposals, and identifying the key points, warning signs and questions that an editor looks out for whenever they read a submission.

The ‘fake’ proposal that they were critiquing contained a favourite phrase of mine: ‘This book will appeal to the general reader.’

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen that in a book proposal. It’s like saying ‘This book is for humans.’ Well, yes, but that’s not very helpful, is it?

Here’s what’s wrong with the idea of ‘the general reader’.

1.     nobody knows how to reach them. Even if your PR team manage to get their book on the telly, which used to be the definition of the mass audience, broadcast media is so fragmented now that there’s no one homogenous audience. (Except perhaps for The Great British Bake-Off.)

2.     they don’t think they’re ‘general’. Every reader has their favourite authors, genres, ways of looking at the world. Each one has a unique combination of experience, education, desires, needs, frustrations, concerns, and even when they share the same concerns they will articulate them differently and want to approach solutions differently.

3.     it’s lazy. When you talk about ‘the general reader’, it means you haven’t done the hard work of thinking who your book is for and how it will help them. Like the author who confidently declares there is ‘no competition’ for their book, it raises a big red flag for an editor. If you as the author can’t do this quality and depth of thinking about your book, who can?

It’s much better to be absolutely clear about who your readers are and how you will reach them even if there are only a few hundred of them, than to imply vaguely that all 7 billion plus people on the planet are potential readers.

And the clearer your mental image of your target reader, the more easily and naturally you will write for him or her, and the more likely they are to recognize that you’re speaking directly to them.  


(If you’re interested in putting together an effective proposal, and if you promise not to use the phrase ‘the general reader’, why not join me on 9 January 2017 for the next 10-day business book proposal challenge?