Reader personas: B/W image of person reading a book

Pre-social distancing, I had dinner with Hilary Davidson, author of Dress in the Age of Jane Austen, before she spoke to the North Carolina Region of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). Her book is a beautiful work, replete with full-color illustrations of Regency Era dress and robust descriptions of the clothes and historical context.

Hilary Davidson

As a book enthusiast (understatement), I was curious about Hilary’s experience working with the publisher, Yale University Press. She told me about how hard she had to argue to maintain a higher word count than the publisher wanted because she knew her readers and the different things they were looking for. I jumped in excitedly, “It sounds like you used personas!” “Yes! Exactly!”

A reader persona is a character you create to represent a segment of your audience. To develop one, begin by identifying the common demographics (factual, verifiable information) and psychographics (beliefs, values, attitudes) of your audience. Then turn sets of data into a “person” for whom you can shape your book’s content and design. It’s easier to think about your audience as a real-life person than as a faceless set of data.

Reader persona example 1: Fashion history book

Dress in the Age of Jane Austen

Let’s use Hilary’s book as an example. Hilary anticipated three distinct types of readers (uh, I took some liberties with the names):

  • Lydia – The teenage girl who is interested in clothing and fashion; loves dressing up and likes to look at pictures of clothes.
  • Elizabeth – The “average” reader who is interested in and fairly well educated about Austen and the Regency Era.
  • Mary – The academic who wants references for more detail or as a starting place for her own research.

Each persona leads to particular design implications for Dress in the Age of Jane Austen:

  • Lydia needs lots of pictures! (Don’t we all?) She won’t read the body of the book, so the captions for the images need to be robust enough to carry the thread of the text.
  • Elizabeth wants context and will read the text as well as look at the pictures, though admittedly her eyes will glaze over when she hits the footnotes and bibliography.
  • Mary will read every word of the book including every footnote and reference as she furiously scribbles notes for a lecture (and she’ll probably send an email to the author to point out the errors).

Hilary succeeded in designing the book for all three readers: loads of pictures with captions, accessible body text, and plenty of academic references. Each reader can find the content they want, and they can easily skip anything they don’t want.

Not a fashion fanatic? Try this example on for size…

Reader persona example 2: Project management book

Your book is about a new project management approach (anyone remember when Agile began supplanting waterfall methodology?). You identify three reader personas:

  • Tom – The CEO is short on time. He wants the grain without sifting through the chaff. Should he use this methodology in his business or not?
  • Sidney – The marketing director needs to explain to potential customers the benefit of working with the now-even-more-highly-responsive-and-efficient company.
  • Charlotte – The head of ops is analytical and needs the nuts and bolts of implementation.

So the design of each chapter could be:

  • An executive summary in a pullout box right up front.
  • A story to catch the reader’s attention and demonstrate (“showing not telling”) the benefits of the new approach.
  • The brief theory of the chapter’s main concept.
  • The step-by-step details for implementing this part of the new approach.
  • A wrap-up story to cement the ideas.

Our CEO, Tom, can read the executive summary and decide whether he needs any more than that. Sidney in marketing can focus on the executive summary and stories without wading through all the implementation detail. And Charlotte can read every word or skip the stories and jump right into theory and implementation detail.

Developing reader personas

To develop a reader persona, start by fleshing out the following attributes for one representative audience member:

  • Personal info: Age, gender, education, family, salary, etc.
  • Role: Job title, span of control, direct reports, etc.
  • Company: Industry, revenue, employees, etc.
  • Goals: What career goals or personal goals does this person have?
  • Challenges: What challenges do they face in achieving those goals?
  • Values: What beliefs, attitudes, etc. does this person hold?
  • News and hangouts: Where do you find this person socially? What does this person read? How do they spend their free time?
  • Decision-making process: How do they think? Are they intuitive, or data-driven? Where do they turn for advice?

Give this person a name. You can even find a photo to make them more real.

Using this method, develop two or three reader personas, if needed. More than that becomes unmanageable.

Using your reader personas

As you work on your book project, keep your reader personas in mind.

  • Understanding implications: Based on what you know about your readers, what is the ideal book length? Book format (print, ebook, audio)? Marketing approach?
  • Developing content: What does each reader need and want? How will they use the content included?
  • Editing content: As you revise and edit, assess whether at least one reader persona will use each piece of information; if not, cut it.
  • Choosing beta readers: When you’re ready for feedback on your book, choose beta readers who reflect your personas. Are they getting what they want from the book?

Finally, as you get feedback on your book, be on the lookout for reader personas you didn’t anticipate. You may think you’re writing for the C‑suite, and then realize you’re writing for the director level who influences the C‑suite.

When you get it right

When you understand your readers, you can give them the information they need in a format that lets them find it easily. And beyond that, you have more insight about how to speak to them as you market your book, deliver presentations, and make promotional appearances, such as book signings.

When Hilary Davidson gave her talk to JASNA-NC, she clearly knew her content inside and out, and every single bit of her presentation was interesting to the audience. She knew the knowledge level the audience had, and she could anticipate likely questions. The audience members learned something new about Regency fashion, enjoyed the experience, and left with excitement about the topic.

And isn’t that what you want for your readers—understanding and engagement?

If you need some strategic help understanding your audience, get in touch ( or 919.609.2817) and we can talk about the possibilities for doing that work together.

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