Do You Know What You Are Looking For?

How to Help Readers Find Books They Didn’t Know They Were Looking For

Ask 100 readers why they read, and you will probably get 100 different answers. Ask 100 non-fiction writers why readers read, and you will get one answer: readers read because they have a problem and are looking for a solution.

That may be true for non-fiction readers. Non-fiction books have it easy. Everybody has some problem they’d like to fix. They buy non-fiction books, take classes, hire consultants and specialists, all for the purpose of solving their problem. But what about fiction?

The non-fiction writers say: same thing. Fiction readers have a problem of being bored and the solution is to entertain them.

Let’s ignore for a moment that that’s one of the most insulting things you can say to an avid reader. The thousands of books I’ve read over the past quarter century go far beyond transcending simple boredom or entertainment. I read for other views on themes that interest me. I read when I have other things I’m supposed to be doing (like sleeping). I read while I’m watching tv! Simply put, I’ve done an awful lot of reading when I wasn’t bored.

If fiction readers read only for entertainment, why do most readers only read in a narrow selection of one or two genres? In his free “Launch Your Book to Bestseller” e-course (I’m taking this course on a bit of a “why not.” It seems like it would work pretty well for non-fiction authors, but I’m not sure he really understands the fiction reader), Tom Morkes seems to believe that genre is a question of how the fiction is entertained, not why they are reading in the first place.

Maybe. I can see his argument even if I don’t entirely believe it. But if it’s a separate question, then asking what your reader’s problem and how you are going to solve it is asking the wrong question. Because, if the question is what problem does your book solve, and the answer for fiction is always boredom/entertainment, then this question does absolutely nothing. If you are trying to differentiate, having the same purpose does the opposite.

In the course, I said that for Once Upon a Saturn Moon, my target reader’s problem was angst over how humanity stacks up against aliens in a first-contact situation. He asked if the target reader would actually say “I have angst over a first-contact scenario.”

Of course not. As popular of a topic as angst is, I’ve never, ever, heard somebody said, “I have angst.” They talk about teen angst, or group x having angst. Even the alternative form of the word: anxiety or anxious. People with social anxiety disorders (raises hand) talk about having anxiety. Ordinary people don’t.

Does that mean nobody has anxiety? EVERYBODY has anxiety over something. They either don’t talk about it or they don’t think about having it. But it is there.

The mortal sin of fiction book descriptions

Tom’s view is that successful marketing uses the words that your market is using. But that is non-fiction thinking.  In non-fiction, you are blunt in describing a problem and how/why your book solves it. But fiction is a different beast. As I pointed out in a comment in the course:

The mortal sin of a book description is being blunt about the topic. In the first contact book list on Amazon, the first time the words “first contact” are even mentioned is #26.

Readers looking for a first contact story don’t want to be told “this is a first contact story” And frankly, they are probably looking for a certain kind of first contact story without realizing that they are looking for that kind of story. They may say that they are looking for a first-contact story when they are actually looking for a first contact apocalypse story and will pass over a first-contact to the galactic federation story.

So my description will talk about a long-standing alien war and humans being unwittingly drawn in as pawns, and will humanity survive? There’s that angst I was talking about. Because my target reader wants a book like that – maybe consciously, maybe subconsciously. Can you define “smut?” The Supreme Court can’t. But they know it when they see it. And that’s how fiction readers are. Very few know what they are actually looking for, but they know it when they see it.

The only place to be blunt and specific in fiction is your categories. The correct categories will help fiction writers’ discoverability better than any marketing you can do. Don’t take my word for it. Ask best-selling authors Hugh Howey ( and Dave Cheeson  ( In the description, you want subtlety.

What does that mean for you?

If you are writing fiction, you need to know what your book is about. What kind of characters are there. What themes do you cover? Even within a fairly narrow subcatagory, you aren’t going to appeal to every reader. But that’s okay. First contact sci-fi, or fantasy with dragons, still covers a lot of ground.  People go to those kinds of books for different reasons.

I love dragon stories. Specifically, I love stories with dragons like the ones in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. Pern dragons are sentient creatures who are bonded with their human rider at birth. Because I love Pern dragons, I loved that sci-fi series, the high-fantasy Eragon, and the alternative history His Majesty’s Dragon. (if you know more stories that fit this description, let me know!) But I could care less about Smaug from The Hobbit.

So, you need a compelling book description that shows, not tells (writing rules apply outside the book too!) what the book is about. The reader will decide if your story matches what you are looking for. Telling them won’t work. Telling telling them and getting it wrong could result in a bad review.

Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant call Robot Proletariat “Downton Abbey with robots.” It’s a catchy line, but I’ve read Robot Proletariat. I liked Robot Proletariat. But it didn’t seem very much like Downton Abbey other than they both have a rich family with servants. Frankly, if somebody bought that book based on the log line and liking Downton Abbey, they would probably hate the book.

Don’t treat your readers like idiots. You don’t know what they are looking for. They probably don’t know what they are looking for. But they will know it when they see it. Help them see what the book is about and then get out of their way.

Do you agree that marketing for fiction is inherently different than marketing for non-fiction? Have you successfully marketed a fiction book based on the non-fiction marketing model? Let me know in the comments.

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