Who Needs Your Words?

March 14, 2023 § 4 Comments

The joyful secret of building audience

By Allison K Williams

Memoirs sell because the writing is strong, the story engaging, and there’s an audience who wants to read this book. Agents and publishers determine the first two from your query and pages. Proving an audience exists is up to you.

Most memoirs sell with proposals. Your proposal shares the plan and purpose of your book, shows you’re organized and professional, demonstrates your writing skill, and most importantly, establishes that an audience exists and you can reach them. Before you sell the book, your proposal outlines your aspirations—who needs your words? Where are they and how can you be there? When the book is sold, your proposal guides the publisher’s PR department and helps them understand how to sell the book. If you self-publish or work with a small press, the proposal is your marketing plan.

Identifying an audience not only helps your book sell, it helps you write without being alone. Participating in the Reddit forum or industry mailing list for your topic helps determine what material is crucial and what to leave out. Guesting on podcasts and visiting support groups means practicing delivering your message effectively—which makes your writing better. After you’ve told that anecdote six times, you’ll know how to ramp up tension and where the punchline is.

Literary audiences are built on education. Your MFA cohort, fellow workshop participants, even the other writers in the webinar chat are all part of your audience. They’ll be your colleagues and your readers as you seek publication in literary venues and gain recognition, like Pushcart Prizes, Best American Essays mentions or inclusion, and acceptance at prestigious workshops and residencies.

Commercial audiences grow through mass media publication and your mailing list, enhanced by social media—because social media is where you can talk at anyone you want for free. Ideally, your commercial platform will eventually include public speaking and being recognized as an expert.

My own audience mixes literary and commercial. In 2012, I saved up to attend Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, where I met Dinty W. Moore. For five years, I spent a month each year sending one submission a day to literary venues. I’ve blogged for Brevity for ten years (and counting!) and built my social media presence by quoting my own blogs, interacting with other writers, and championing their work. Building my audience taught me about the book they needed, so I wrote it.

As you meet your audience and grow to love them, start thinking about defining them. Try this Mad Libs:

[Audience demographic] has [population]. They have [problem] caused by [experience]. My book addresses this with [help for reader]. I will reach/am connected to these readers [in Publication] or [with Action].

In the proposal that sold Seven Drafts, I summed up one audience like this:

Some beginning writers are genuinely unable to distinguish their own work from a finished book; many more lack strong critique groups, beta readers, MFAs and/or buckets of cash for workshops and professional editing…

These writers are ready to work, and need help with both a big-picture understanding of the editing process, and specific, actionable steps for revision. Feeling overwhelmed and disorganized, they want and need an encouraging guide.

And included subscription numbers for the writing magazines where I’ve published craft articles.

Is it fair that you have to do your own demographic research and write it up nicely? Is it fair that memoirists must identify an audience and start interacting with those people long before their book is finished?

Is it fair that you get to put your thoughts into words and share them with the world while others without the ability to write or desire to put themselves forward must suffer alone?

But here’s the joyful secret—you’re already building audience! You’re meeting them in the comments on this blog. You’re listening to your future blurbers on AWP panels. Enjoyed a webinar? Post a couple of quotes from it on social media and tag the teacher. Then review their book. Post the review on your social media and repost on the publication anniversary. Without stalking, gently insinuate yourself into their mental list of “people who support my work,” and they’ll be more likely to support yours.  

Building an audience fervent and large enough to support publication is time-consuming. Identifying specific groups who need your words makes it faster. Your other option is to write like a National Book Award winner. Which of these takes the least time and effort depends on the author.

Either way, build your writing career on thoughtful, compelling writing that tells stories your audience desperately needs to hear. Stories you know they need, because you talked to them. As Sean Thomas Dougherty writes:

Why Bother?

Because right now there is   someone

Out there with

a wound               in the exact shape

of your words.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Writing your memoir proposal? Get it done in a weekend, with professional guidance and without the agony. April 1-2, replay available. Find out more about Memoir Proposal Bootcamp here.

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§ 4 Responses to Who Needs Your Words?

  • Jenny-Lynn says:

    A timely gem. Thanks.

  • Spot on, as always.

  • Hannah H. Tarindwa says:

    I wrote a sort-of memoir as letters, it’s called 52 Letters to my Sweetheart and though I was hesitant to publish it on Amazon, I had to do it for a broader audience, but getting paid in Africa by Amazon is close to nil.
    Thank you for this insightful post. It is difficult to determine the audience at times but I found that my Beta readers are super helpful.

  • Regina says:

    There’s a part of me that thought, as I read your piece, Why bother? Then I read the poem….So – thanks for this essay today.

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