When it comes to the success of your book, one person is more important than everyone else. He determines whether readers will enjoy your book. He determines if word of mouth will spread. He is ultimately funding your whole project. His name is Timothy.
Who is Timothy, and where do you find him?
I talk about Timothy a lot, but somehow, I’ve never recorded an episode or written about him.
Avatar, Persona, or Timothy?
Most companies have what they call a customer avatar, a fictional amalgamation of their target customer. Some companies even print out life-sized stock photos of their customer and bring her to meetings just to make sure they’re keeping her interests in mind.
Radio stations also have a listener avatar that the hosts and DJs talk to between songs. If you think the DJ is talking directly to you, I don’t mean to disappoint you, but they’re not. They’re talking to their avatar, and you happen to be smack dab in the middle of their target audience.
When I ran a web design agency, I took hundreds of authors through a persona worksheet. In a one-on-one meeting, I’d ask them to describe their target reader and ideal website visitor. I encouraged the author to print out a stock photo of their target reader and tape the photo to their computer monitor.
I no longer recommend this practice.
To create a persona, almost every author would simply describe themselves in generic terms. If I was talking to a 45-year-old man, he would say he was writing to “men between the ages of 30 and 50.” If I was talking to a 60-year-old woman, she would say she was writing to “women between the ages of 40 and 70.”
It turns out most authors weren’t describing readers at all. They were describing themselves. At the end of the persona exercise, they had created an imaginary version of themselves who liked everything they wrote. Creating an imaginary friend didn’t help authors make better marketing decisions.
And yet, personas and customer avatars are incredibly helpful for companies. So why didn’t the persona exercise work for most authors?
The Problem with Personas and Avatars
I concluded that creating a reader avatar didn’t work for authors because they couldn’t afford the market research that big companies use to create good customer avatars.
Marketing-centric companies often invest in market research to develop their customer avatars. Sales-centric companies have salespeople who spend hundreds of hours talking to customers. Salespeople are well acquainted with customers and can help companies build an accurate avatar based on their experience. Market research and customer interaction give companies enough information to create useful fictional representations of their target customers.
In contrast, beginning authors don’t spend much time talking to their target readers. Authors aren’t typically involved in book clubs. They don’t interview readers or buy market research data from companies like K-lytics (Affiliate Link), even though I highly recommend K-lytics. Instead, authors look inside themselves, searching for information that can only be found by looking outward toward others.
Searching for your reader avatar by looking inside yourself is like trying to drive a car by looking only at the dashboard. While it’s important to monitor your speed and RPMs, if you don’t look out the windshield, you will crash.
Poor decisions mean wasted money, wasted time, and well-written books that don’t sell well.
A few of the authors we worked with had great reader personas, and over time, I realized those authors had one thing in common: they based their personas on actual people. Instead of describing themselves, they described an actual human they knew in real life.
When I researched my hypothesis further, I discovered that writing to a single human was a common practice among bestselling authors. In fact, many bestselling authors dedicate their books to that one specific person.
The Hobbit was written by J.R.R. Tolkien for his son Christopher. Steven King writes his books specifically to thrill his wife.
It turns out the practice of writing a book for a specific person goes back thousands of years. For example, many of the books in the Bible were written to specific people.
The biblical book of First Timothy was written to a man named Timothy. While the book initially had an audience of one, billions of people have read and enjoyed the book over the centuries.
But having a specific target reader is not merely a helpful marketing tip.
Writing to a Specific Reader Improves Your Writing
Bland generalities water down good writing.
Having a specific audience gives your book an approachability and readability that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Specificity promotes clarity and focus, which make a book more approachable for more people.
Identifying a specific reader helps you know how technical or sophisticated you should be. You can ask, “Would Timothy understand this word?” and “Would Timothy like this metaphor?”
Writing to a Timothy also makes writing less scary. You’re not writing for a crowd of scary strangers. You are writing to Timothy, someone you know and like!
Identifying your real-life target reader also helps you climb out of a season of writer’s block.
I eventually stopped advising authors to create a fictional persona and print a stock photo. Instead, I urged them to write to one real-life human and tape a photo of that real person to the computer monitor.
Once I changed my advice, I saw several changes.
Some authors discovered that they had no idea who they were really writing for. Those who struggled to identify a Timothy realized their book was in trouble, and they were able to save it before it was published.
Other authors found that having a real-life target reader changed everything.
Because you can talk to actual human beings, you can ask them questions and listen for answers. An actual person can read your draft and provide feedback. Authors who began communicating with their real-life Timothy wrote better books. Their marketing became more focused and effective. Websites, blogs, and podcasts got more visitors, readers, and listeners. In short, identifying a Timothy helped authors become more successful.
Won’t writing to one person limit my audience?
I get this question mostly from authors who haven’t sold many copies. The answer is no.
Writing to a specific person is like speaking to the person in the back of the room while giving a speech. If the person in the back can hear you, everyone else can too.
The reality is that if you are writing your book to no one in specific, your book is for no one. You can’t write a book for everyone, so you have to write your book for someone.
The real question behind this question is, “Can’t I just write a book for myself? Why do I have to write the book for the reader?” And this is the real crux of the issue. If you want other people to buy your book, you can’t simply write for yourself.
The reader is your customer!
Your reader is parting with hard-earned money to buy your book. If you want readers to pay for your book, you need to write one they’re willing to pay for.
If you want to journal to work through your issues, that is great! But don’t expect people to pay to read your journal.
Professional vs. Amateur
The difference between a professional and an amateur is money. The word professional comes from the Latin word pecūnia, which means money. A professional works for money. The word amateur comes from the Latin word amor, which means love.
If you write for the love of writing, you are an amateur. If you write for money, you are a professional. Don’t shoot the messenger! These words and definitions have existed for thousands of years.
It’s important to note that professionals who earn money by writing still enjoy their work. Most professional authors enjoy writing, but since their writing puts food on the table, they know they must write books people are willing to pay for.
If you want to write because you love writing, that’s wonderful! But if that is the case, the writing itself needs to be your reward. If you write for the love of writing and experience the process as its own reward, don’t judge yourself if your book doesn’t find commercial success. That wasn’t your goal. An amateur writer is primarily concerned with whether they enjoyed writing the book and loved the finished product. Sales shouldn’t matter because it is not about money.
Just remember that your landlord doesn’t accept “love of writing” as payment, so don’t quit your day job.
I see authors become discouraged when they approach writing as an amateur but judge their success by professional metrics. If you are a hobbyist, the book is a success if you had fun writing it. If you are a professional, the book is a success if readers pay to read it.
I worked with one author who was unwilling to accept feedback on his book and marketing. He wanted to do things his way, and he didn’t care about readers. Later, he was angry that his book didn’t sell. The problem was that he wrote the book for himself and not for a reader. No wonder readers didn’t want to buy it. It wasn’t written for them.
Some people see authors as elite aristocrats who look down on lowly peasant readers, but I don’t. I view writing as a job. Writers aren’t nobler than mechanics. In fact, people probably need a working car more than they need a book. So, if you want to be a professional working writer, get off your high horse and write the kind of book people want to read.
The only thing standing between many authors and success is pride. When you realize it is not all about you, you can find commercial success.
The better you serve your customers, the more customers you will have.
Can’t I just hire an editor instead?
When I urge authors to find a Timothy, they often object and say, “I’ll hire a professional editor instead,” but that objection reveals that the author doesn’t realize what editors do.
Timothy and your other beta readers are advocates for all your readers. They know what your specific readers want in a story. Beta readers like Timothy can easily point out problems in your story, but they often propose terrible solutions.
A beta reader is like a driver who takes his car to a mechanic. They each know how to use the thing, but they don’t know how to fix it.
A driver might say to a mechanic, “My car is squeaking when I come to a quick stop, so I think it needs more oil.” The feedback that the car is squeaking is important feedback. The proposed solution, “add more oil,” is useless. A skilled mechanic will know the problem is likely with the brakes, and he’ll also have the know-how to fix them.
Timothy’s Job vs. an Editor’s Job
Beta readers will tell you things like, “I didn’t like the protagonist. I think you should make him blonde.” An unlikable protagonist is a real problem, but changing his hair color is not a real solution. A good editor can help you fix the problem and make your protagonist more likable.
But you still need Timothy and other beta readers to point out problems because your editor may not know your specific sub-genre or audience. An editor helps you come up with great solutions to problems your readers point out.
Here is an extreme example that illustrates the point. Imagine you are writing for children. Children are terrible editors, but they know what they like in a book. You wouldn’t hire a child to edit your book, but you want to pick a specific child to be your Timothy. If part of your book is boring or confusing to Timothy, your editor can help you fix it.
As it is with children, so it is with all kinds of readers.
What to Look for in a Timothy
Look for the following qualities when you’re trying to find your Timothy.
Some people simply are not readers, and no book will change that. Don’t choose a non-reader to be your Timothy.
Timothy must be a reader. Remember, he represents all your readers.
Let’s say your Timothy hates romance novels, but you want to write romance. In order to write a romance that Timothy likes, you’ll have to break a lot of romance novel conventions to please Timothy, and by doing so, no typical romance readers will want to buy your book. Only Timothy will like it. Choose a Timothy who already reads and loves the genre you want to write.
I will add one caveat. By thrilling a Timothy who is currently underserved by other authors, you could create a new genre and find a profitable niche.
You know an underserved Timothy because he has a lot of unfinished books in his house. He wants to be a reader, but he just hasn’t found any books he likes.
If someone doesn’t own a bookshelf, don’t make that person your Timothy.
The best Timothy is someone who likes your writing more than they like you. Family members are not ideal target readers because they may hesitate to critique your writing for fear of hurting your feelings or damaging the relationship.
A family member could possibly be your Timothy, but only if they are disagreeable enough to tell you when they hate something. Steven King’s wife is disagreeable in the best way. She tells him when the story isn’t working. Kids also make great Timothys because they typically have no problem telling you your book is boring.
Your grandmother, who just wants you to be happy, probably wouldn’t be a good Timothy.
Find a Timothy who is willing to be a beta reader. Beta readers read early drafts of your book and tell you what needs to be improved. They point out problems, and then editors help you find solutions. Authors usually have multiple beta readers, but your Timothy is the most important one. If some of your beta readers think your book is too fast-paced, but Timothy thinks it’s too slow-paced, go with Timothy’s opinion. Timothy is the tiebreaker.
I found my Timothy. Now what?
Hopefully, you’ve decided to write to a Timothy, and you probably have someone in mind. The next step is to ask him or her for permission to make them your target reader. I think this step is important because the difference between a friend and a stalker is consent.
Follow Timothy on Goodreads
Timothy’s Goodreads profile will tell you what he is reading and what he thinks about the books he has finished. Read Timothy’s favorite books in your genre. Then look at the books he rated with one or two stars. Try to discover what he didn’t like about them.
Ask Timothy Questions
Take Timothy out for coffee and ask him lots of questions. Don’t pitch your book. Your conversation with Timothy is your opportunity to listen for what Timothy wants in a good story.
Here are some questions to get the conversation started:
- What are your favorite movies? Why? His answers will tell you what he is looking for in a good story.
- If money were no object, where in the world would you travel? Timothy’s answer could be a great location for your next story.
- What is your favorite era in history? If you write historical fiction, consider writing about that time period in your next book.
- What books are you reading right now? Read those books too.
As Timothy is answering these questions, listen for his
Determine Timothy’s Politics
Currently, there are three political factions in America: (1) Democrats, (2) Please-Don’t-Talk-to-Me-About-Politics types, and (3) Republicans. You can target Timothy’s faction and maybe one faction to the right or left. Maybe. But the Please-Don’t-Talk-to-Me-About-Politics types are growing more hostile to politics of any kind.
No one that I know of can create something new that targets all three.
Democrats and Republicans don’t read the same books anymore. They also don’t watch the same movies, drive the same cars, or drink the same beer. In fact, where I live, you can often tell a woman’s political affiliation just by her hairstyle.
Realize that by picking a Timothy, you are picking a political faction and moral system. If Timothy is a Democrat, don’t post photos of your gun collection on social media. On the other hand, if Timothy is a Please-Don’t-Talk-to-Me-About-Politics type, don’t change your avatar for the current cause. And if Timothy is a Republican, don’t share your pronouns.
Should I follow Timothy on social media?
You can follow Timothy on social media, but you must realize that people are not their true selves on social media. If social media is your only connection to Timothy, you won’t know him well enough to craft stories that will make his heart sing. There is no replacement for knowing someone in real life.
Timothy is Your Cheat Code
With 1,000 new books released each day, many authors wonder how they can stand out. Writing to a real, human, representative reader that you know in real life is how you can make your book stand out. Millions of authors are writing for themselves instead of their readers. Writing for a Timothy is like a cheat code. As more readers see your book and say, “Finally a book for me,” your book will quickly climb the bestseller lists.
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