This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.


Writing a book means writing for an audience.

Put yourself into the shoes of your readers. This will help you to write in a more personal, rather than distant, style of writing. Also, it will be easier for you to decide whether to remove parts that might be superfluous to your readers, and improve the overall quality of your book by making it shorter and more to the point.

As you will not have time to think about hundreds or thousands of people reading and reacting to your book, you have to come up with representative examples. Apply names like Peter, Bob, Mary, etc. and write a short biography and a list of interests related to your book. While this stereotyping is not necessarily politically correct (by definition you want to simplify your audience into archetypes), remember that you are not really using those names anywhere in your book. Instead, it is to help you focus and improve communication with your editor or other people working on the project. If everyone involved in the project keeps those stereotypical representations of your readership in mind, brief statements like “Mary will not understand this paragraph,” “Peter would like to know more about the protagonist’s background,” or “Bob wants more detailed information and references about the topic” will speed up the discussion.

If you are not happy with Peter, Bob, and Mary, or dislike stereotyping in this way, you can also simply use descriptions like “the expert,” “the thrill-seeker,” or “the sensualist.” To further improve memorization and communication of those archetypes, you could use alliteration. Think of how easily you remember names like Lois Lane, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Mad Max, or Peter Pan. So, maybe you have Bob Babel who is well versed with languages, Emily Expert, a researcher who will use your book as a reference, or Mary Mild who does not like explicit language in your story.

During your writing career, you should refine your audience personas. Find out more about who is reading your books, learn more about your readers’ backgrounds, and compare what you have drawn up as possible personas with the people actually reading your book. Ultimately, your personas should become as diverse as the characters or topics about which you write. Like a puppeteer who can tell a whole variety of stories with his or her selection of puppets, you will be able to write a variety of books with your selection of personas (and characters, of course).

The more you know about your audience, the better you can remove parts of your book that will make people put your book away, or expand on points that interest people. You might even end up knowing your audience so well that you find a comfortable niche and you have but a single persona to write for.

Likewise, if you end up with two or more groups of personas that do not overlap, you should think about creating two different books rather than trying to capture a larger audience where both groups dislike half of the book.

You might find people interested in history, and people interested in Vampire stories. But putting them together might not necessarily work. For example, on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics’ consensus on “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was: “[It] has visual style to spare, but its overly serious tone doesn’t jibe with its decidedly silly central premise, leaving filmgoers with an unfulfilling blend of clashing ingredients.”

And most (good) books are simple tools, not “Swiss Army knives.” They deal with a single issue. People have specific needs and look for specific solutions. If you are muddying the water with several topics, you end up with a smaller audience. And if you cannot explain what your book is about in a short paragraph, your readers certainly will not figure it out for themselves. This might be hard to understand, especially if it is your first book. But this is how books work.

It is in your first book that you may be prone to writing too much, and thus never actually finishing. You have developed your ideas for so long that you may be impatient to articulate every one of them in this first book. But give yourself time. You can spread your ideas over several books rather than hoping to get them all into one book.

Of course, there are books that are “Swiss Army knives.” They deliver a range of ideas, especially in the field of education. But those books are sold as part of an existing course or training and are seldom stand-alone works. Their “story” is basically how to pass a certain level of education or exam. Other books of this type include reference books for languages, history, natural sciences, and so on. The selling point of those books is—as the name implies—that they act as a reference for other works or study.

For this book series, Better Books with LaTeX and Writing Better Books, the Agile Way , I came up with the following general roles of people who are probably interested in the books:

  • Marketer (searching for a niche, preparing the launch)
  • Author (how to work with an Editor, etc.)
  • The Undecided
  • Editor (with text notes, or a full manuscript)
  • Publisher (with a fully edited manuscript—physically getting the product to the customer)
  • Project Manager (with an Author, Editor, and Publisher)

Then I elaborated on those roles, creating basic personas:

1.
Peter

  • First-time author.
  • Has a “complete” script, “had a friend look at it,” and now wants to publish it.
  • Might need (unsolicited) advice to properly edit it instead of just going through a “self-edit.”
  • Needs to be reminded about the difficulties of selling a book. Has no idea about marketing.
  • Has not worked with an editor.
  • Creates his own book covers.
  • Would benefit from a “pep talk.”
2.
Mary

  • Writes novels in Word but now wants to write a non-fiction book.
  • Undecided about what tools to use.
  • Works with an editor, but they have no real work structure.
  • Does not know how to market, find market niches, etc. Her past successes were random and she never knew if her latest novel would sell or not.
3.
John

  • Professional editor seeking to expand his services from merely editing Word files to helping release books online.
  • Also is looking for better project management techniques to better guide an author along the way.
  • Often works in the scientific field and thus has to manage a lot of bibliographical references.
  • Spends lots of time indexing books.
  • Is OK with a LaTeX template but seeks to get a head start by making adjustments to it.
4.
George

  • LaTeX expert who wants to publish his work as an e-book.
  • Needs basic direction and then figures out the rest on his own.
  • Plans to do a series with a glossary and often needs to reuse text blocks.
  • Needs some help in terms of book design, polishing, and graphics.
  • Loves to share work and collaborate with others, does not care about parts of the book being “stolen.”
5.
Tina

  • Professional self-publisher who is looking for additional ideas to improve her existing publishing process.
  • Looks for ways to establish herself as a brand and create a network of readers.
6.
Clara

  • Wants to write a book about her profession but has no idea where to start.

What is missing in the example personas here is their level of reading ability. As we will see in Chapter 9, the quality throughout the book should be the same. This also means that the complexity of language should be the same throughout your book. If you notice, for example, that some personas would read at 8th grade level while others will read at 12th grade level, you might want to consider splitting your project into two books or reducing the complexity to an 8th grade level.