Desperately Seeking Susan: How marketing’s pursuit of the ‘ideal consumer’ is bad for diversity and worse for business

Header image showing a man reading a book

The Ideal Consumer Profile (ICP) has been a persistent and useful marketing mechanism: winnowing down the potential buyer into habits, demographics and needs that the marketing can service and ultimately covert into sales. It’s a technique as old as marketing itself: from graffiti in Roman forums advertising fine wine to wealthy patricians, to Mad Men flogging Hoovers to suburban homemakers, to fitness equipment companies serving gimlet-focussed social ads to rueful couch-potatoes during lockdown.

The ICP is a staple of publishing’s Sales and Marketing meeting: and often an illusory and reductive figure called ‘Susan’ or ‘John’ will be put forward as the buyer profile for the vast majority of titles. ‘Susan’ and ‘John’ are not so much people (in fact both Susan and John are depicted in increasingly, offensively stereotypical terms) but shorthands for the intrinsic ‘normative’ biases of our industry, specifically along the lines of class and race. As the recent report, ‘Rethinking “Diversity” in Publishing’ (Goldsmiths, 2020) put it: ‘The idea of the core reader as a white, middle-class older woman (sardonically referred to as ‘Susan’ by several of our respondents) remains dominant.’ This  leads to a gargantuan bias in ‘how publishers perceive their audience’: ‘When we interviewed people that work in the promotion of a book … it became apparent that they all shared a common understanding of their ‘core’ audience: explicitly middle-class, implicitly white.’

The creation of an ICP is an essential and critical building block in consolidating these biases. So isn’t it time that we think about changing this model in order to better reflect our diverse society of book buyers?

Most obviously, this narrow approach dismisses the wide appeal of the individual product. Indeed any piece of literature, by its very nature, contains a variety of voices and experiences (what the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called, in the case of the novel, its heteroglossia), which therefore appeals to a wide range of tastes. To purposefully diminish the market for this product seems short-sighted at best and snobbish at worst. Worse still, it massively shrinks the market reach for this product and its sales potential. For example, the country’s biggest book-buying hub is its capital city, London, in which 40% of the populace identity as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) – all of whom are typically excluded from marketing and publicity campaigns.

This approach also creates a positive feedback loop that works to further hardwire bias into the publishing process. It works to define the success of a marketing campaign in very limited terms, with associated Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) all geared around targeting this extremely narrow ICP alone. This in turn is invariably fed back into the commissioning process. The result can all too often be a samey approach to marketing and publicity, where perceived successful campaigns are replicated, as well as a narrower commissioning focus, where fewer titles are actively published for a diverse audience. All culminating in conformity.

Really, we should blame our own blinkered approach as marketers. We need to be thinking longer and working harder in order to create better and more profitable businesses. As the new Simon & Schuster Publisher, Dana Canedy, recently said in an interview with Marketweek, ‘Different perspectives aren’t about social experiments. It’s good for business.’

Many newer professionals across the industry report feeling the same: that publishing is stuck in outmoded biases that need changing but they feel unable or too junior to initiate the sort of systems change necessary. So what can book marketing do in order to properly represent and service the UK’s book buyers in all their variety?

A more rigorous planning process, whereby each title is systematically assigned a variety of different buyers’ profiles that offer a cross-section of the book buying public, is an easy and effective first step to implement. More, in order to be truly effective, marketing and publicity departments must be comprised of professionals from a variety of different backgrounds and lived experiences, at all levels, in order to make these departments more effective at reaching the consumer. And, if this is not immediately available, departments must hire the right external consulting knowledge, or initiate the right internal training, as a bridging point. Indeed, in 2019 the Publishers Association (PA), as of 2019, 86% of publishing staff are white in the UK. And across the Atlantic the picture is very similar: PRH’s welcome internal diversity audit showed that 17.8% of its PR & Marketing department defined themselves as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour (BIPOC) in the US. Perhaps, given these statistics, of immediate importance is for senior members of staff to create an environment of empowerment whereby newer and/or diverse staff can speak up in order to help affect future change.

As Dana Canedy says: ‘If you’re in the consumer products business, having a diverse staff means that you’re going to tap into markets that might have been ignored or overlooked …You miss out on really maximizing your business in all areas at all levels if you don’t have diversity.’

Marketers are the natural change-makers of any industry: as a consumer-focused discipline, it is vital that we recognise whether all of society – indeed all of the market – is being properly served by our methods or not, and to help implement radical change within our organisations in order to better do so.

Rik Ubhi, the BookMachine Editorial Board member for Marketing and Publicity, is a specialist with over a decade’s experience of building brands, marketing bestsellers and promoting agenda-setting voices across an array of media. He has worked at Tindal Street Press, Simon & Schuster and is most recently co-owner and Director at Zed Books, implementing global campaigns for an array of internationally renowned authors. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a mentor with the Society of Young Publishers, Rik is frequently invited to comment and speak on developments within the industry. @Rik_Hi

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  1. Thanks @Rik  – an insightful and thoughtful piece about how marketing teams might (and should) properly represent and service the UK’s diverse book buyers.

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