Having read a ton of proposals over the years, I’ve come to cringe whenever I encounter the phrase “educated lay reader.” As in, “my book will appeal to social scientists and educated lay readers.”
I don’t think Mr. Educated Lay Reader exists.
Or at least, not in the way these proposal-writers imagine.
Our friend ELR is called up in an effort to convey that the audience for a book on, say, the criminal habits of rural teenagers, is going to be large. And profitable. Ergo the publisher would be foolish to not consider this particular project for publication.
But who is ELR anyway?
I’ve recently encountered, in several different places, a piece of advice that I think is worth repeating: visualize your ideal reader in great detail. Don’t let yourself rely on generalizations such as “political scientists” or “people interested in social inequalities.” Really give this person some flesh and bones.
What does she look like? Where does she work? What does she like to eat? Does she watch television? What magazines does she read if any? What time is it when she gets to sit and read? For how long? Does she get her books at the library, at the bookstore, at Costco? Does she have a family? When she’s not working, what does she do? Is she a home brew master, a runner, an outdoors enthusiast, an opera fan? At the end of a long day, what kind of book does she like to grab from her bedside table?
If you have a hard time picking someone to visualize here, you might consider your spouse or even that nice editor you met at the conference last fall. Given the choice, does he spend his weekends and evenings devouring books firmly grounded in social anomie theory or is he out hiking or skiing with his family? If your partner wasn’t your partner—and regardless of whether or not he’s an academic—would he read your book on a plane?
Do you see what I mean?
There are lots of well-educated people readers out there.
Most of the publishing folks you know can be counted among their number. So can most of the academics you know. But a lot of books have a specialized focus and are written for a specific purpose (that is, to get someone tenure, or a promotion, or to challenge a research paradigm). And it isn’t fair—or accurate—to expect those books to appeal to Every Single Person who has a Brain and likes to Read.
Do yourself a favor. Forget the educated lay reader.
Visualize your ideal reader. If you’re an academic, she’s probably trained in the same field you are, but if you’re stretching (and you should be), she’s not a specialist in your subfield. She may not use your methods or be a devotee of your preferred theories. But there’s enough of an overlap between your research agenda and hers that she’ll be interested—if you write with her needs in mind.