Building an Audience: A Guide on Reaching Readers

This is probably one of the toughest articles I’ve approached in a long time. On the first day of a blitz bestseller run for Playing with Fire: a Magical Romantic Comedy (with a body count,) I’m sitting here shaking my head and wondering what I was thinking.

Well, I’m thinking I want to keep building my audience, and I’m taking the crazy expensive advertising route to do it. I’m stacking cards in a certain way hoping to reach readers I haven’t reached before. The more books I sell, the harder that becomes, too. It’s, frankly, terrifying. It’s also something every entrepreneur ever to form a company faces. Artists have the worst time of it, in my opinion, as it’s a hugely competitive field.

Talent won’t make an audience magically appear. (I wish.)

No matter how great of a book you’ve written or how beautiful a piece of art you’ve created, if you don’t have an audience, you’re screaming into empty air without hope of moving forward. There have been many articles on book sales statistics, but it boils down to most authors will never sell more than 500 copies of their books throughout the entirety of their career. The Creative Indie lists the average sales at below 250 copies sold, probably closer to 100 copies sold. According to the Guardian (2016), authors in the UK made substantially below minimum wage. The really bad news? Those are authors who say they work full time. That trend is typically true in the United States and other countries as well.

In short, there are a lot of authors, even more books, and a limited number of buying customers. In every genre, there are authors people recognize; these people have beaten the odds and scaled to the top of the mountain. When they release a book, they hit the bestseller lists almost without fail. They have one thing in common.

They’ve found and kept their audience. They’ve formed a relationship with their readers. They keep writing books their audience wants to read. That’s the recipe for success. The bad news?

Accomplishing this either happens due to staggeringly good luck or through using a game plan designed to reach new readers. Not even the major book publishers have managed to crack the formula to guarantee a book will fly. They do the same thing independents do: they pick their best bets, fling the book into the wilds, and pray.

Yeah. Let that sink in for a while. When even the big publishers can’t find a guaranteed way to push someone to the top, it’s not easy. It’ll never be easy.

Writing an article about how to maximize your chances of building an audience isn’t easy, either. It’s a very personal journey. It’s a journey that covers more than just relationships with readers. You need a strong cover that attracts readers. (I recently had to put a new cover on a book and rewrite its description because what I had simply wasn’t working.) You need to do a lot of things, and putting that all on paper? Definitely not easy.

I’m not a big fish in the pond. I don’t have a huge audience. I do have a loyal audience, and that’s a huge, huge thing. I wish I had a guaranteed recipe for success to give you. If I did, I’d give it to you at the same time I used it myself. I’m doing what I can with the money I have, because there comes a point where luck isn’t enough. (Hint: luck is never enough. Behind those ‘lucky’ people is a huge amount of effort to make that luck happen. The truly lucky, who never lift a finger to get anywhere, are unicorns. Don’t compare yourself to the unicorns. You want to be a unicorn, but if you’re here… you’re probably not a unicorn. That’s okay.

I’m not a unicorn, either.

I treat my writing as a career. I work at least five days a week 8-14 hours a day. (This week I’ve worked seven, but I did work limited hours over the weekend.) I have to be in agony before I take a day off for being ill. I can’t afford to miss any of my deadlines. It’s stressful. It’s demanding.

Working hard isn’t guaranteed to create success.

Working hard will give you a better chance of success, but at the very end of the day, your readers are the foundation of your success. That’s terrifying in many ways. No matter how talented you are, unless you reach the people who want to read the type of book you’ve written, you’ll be spinning your wheels without getting anywhere quickly.

So, how do you find your audience?

The first step is both the easiest and the hardest. You need to know who your audience is. You’ve probably heard it before. Authors will be compared to each other to appeal to readers who enjoy a certain type of book.

If you needed to compare yourself to another author, who would you compare yourself to? There’s a certain mentality among some where they wish to be unique. Being unique is fantastic, but it won’t help you reach an audience of readers hungry for your books. You need to find a happy balance between being unique and being similar enough to popular authors that you can attract new readers organically. (Organic discovery is what happens when readers use keywords/search times to find you or they find you through word of mouth. These people find you without any intervention from you.)

Organic discovery is the holy grail of creative careers, and it’s near-to-impossible to accomplish without a miracle.

As a result, you need to do a bunch of work to build your audience.

Know your genre. Know what authors you’re similar to. Understand why your books are similar to those. Then and only then can you find readers who will be actually interested in what you write. Advertising to a mystery reader when you write sweet romance? Not going to work.

This is where “read what you want to write” kicks in because if you’re not reading the genre you’re writing, you have know idea who your audience actually is or why they tick. You’re making things that much more difficult on yourself.

If you can’t stand reading the type of books you want to write, you’re probably not writing the right genre, because here’s another opinion you’re not going to like to hear: originality and taken the overgrown and obscure path isn’t going to make you rich or famous. You might find a few scattered readers here and there, but when you write experimental fiction, you’re working with an experimental audience.

Experimental audiences are that much more difficult to build. Can it be done? Yes.

If you have a spectacular book.

If you have a spectacular cover.

If you have a spectacular description.

If you have a spectacular core of fans who will read everything you write no matter how weird it may seem.

That’s a lot of ifs. If you’re in this boat, it can be done, but you might be wise to write something a little closer to the market to build your brand first. Then you can expand your territory to the books that sing to you the most. Now, there’s a super important thing to understand here: this advice is for those who want to make serious strides in their writing career.

If you just want to write, have fun doing so, and not really care who you reach or how few copies you sell, do what you want and have fun. You might get lucky. But don’t count on luck. It probably won’t happen.

As I said before, every single successful author I’ve ever met worked hard behind that dark curtain back stage.

Social Media

The easiest way to reach readers without spending a fortune is to build your social media presence. This is hands on and can be done in many ways. Like with everything else, the amount of effort you put into directly relates to what you get out of it. The most common mistake new authors make is using their social media time to go where other authors go, socializing with them rather than going to where the readers go. (Interacting with authors can be great, but it’s also a huge time sink, time you might be able to better spend doing something else.)

Socializing with authors can be a great way to learn new things, but they aren’t your audience. When you have limited time to build your audience, you need to go where readers go. You need to form relationships with them as a reader with similar interests. Discuss books. Be friendly. Don’t just try to sell your books and drop links at every opportunity. Sure, you’ll expose people to your covers, but you’re going to become just another voice screaming in the crowd.

If you want to make a good audience on social media, you need to make yourself as much of a product as your book. That’s not easy. There’s no one right way to do it, but there are a few things that’ll help.

To start with, pick one social media outlet and focus on it. If you spread yourself too thin, you won’t accomplish anything at all.

If Google+ is your main outlet, take advantage of communities and collections. Collections are a great way to showcase yourself and your skills. There is one critical thing you need to do: you need to have content that attracts readers. Humor is a great way to hold someone’s attention, but content is king.

Ask yourself what you like to read from authors. Ask yourself what makes you lose patience with someone’s posts. Avoid the negatives, embrace the positives, and work to focus on what readers want.

But remember, your opinions are colored because you’re an author. If you’re joining communities, watch before you speak. Build friendships. Build friendships with people who read books like you write.

This is hard. You want to maintain a certain amount of distance while giving your reader a sense of having a connection. I like reviewing books. Finding great books written by similar authors and reviewing them is a great, positive way to connect to readers. Your reviews can help them realize you share similar interests with them. (This is really important. If they believe you have similar interests, they’ll be more interested in checking out your books.)

No matter what social media outlet you use, don’t just spam your book titles. That doesn’t earn you readers. Most of the time, you just become noise.

You’ll notice I didn’t leave a roadmap guide on building your social media presence. I can’t do that. I barely can tie my own shoes on social media half the time, but I’ve slowly made progress. I’m the type of writer who’d rather just keep writing, so I do.

Now, that said, I’ve made progress since 2010 or so, which is when I started.

On Google+, I have just shy of 15,000 followers.

On Facebook, my page has just shy of 3,000 fans. I have a readers’ group with a hundred or something fans. (This is my street team, which I’ll talk about next.) I’ve mostly abandoned twitter because I just don’t have the time. (As I said, I’d rather keep writing books.)

Google+ has a very strong creative community, but reaching individual readers can be difficult. You need to write what they want to read about–or take the sort of pictures or draw the sort of art they want to pursue. Then you need to compel them so much they share and expand your reach.

And getting someone to share is often like pulling teeth without the benefit of painkillers. Ouch.

Build a Street Team

Street teams are a great way to expand your social media outreach without doing it yourself. A street team is a collection of hardcore fans who share your books with their friends and family. It’s a way you can get people talking about you and your stories. There are a lot of ways you can build your street team. Beginning with a community or group is a great way to organize it. Organizing giveaways of gift cards or books is a great way to encourage people to join your team and stay.

While you’re doing this, it’s important to remember these people are volunteers. As such, you need to entertain them, keep them wanting to read your books, and otherwise treat them like they’re worth their weight in gold.

And they are.

Building a street team is tough, and it requires that you start with social media, figure out who your hardcore fans are, and invite them to join your street team.

I use a general group for my street team, and I give them sneak peeks at what I’m working on, special giveaways just for them, and behind the scenes looks at how I write. I also give them a chance to chip in and say what they’d like to see from me moving forward. You can check out my street team here.

These people are usually the first people to preorder my books, and they’re the core of my career. (They’re the best.)

Paid Audience Building

If you’re not good at social media building, there are options. Paid audience building can be done a lot of ways. Honestly, there are so many different ways that you can do this that I can’t go into all of them here, so I’m going to go into my three-ish favorite ways of reaching a new audience for book readers.

1: Land a Bookbub Featured Deal.

2: Build your newsletter through group builders.

2a: Build your newsletter organically through your website and backmatter in your books.

3: Spend all the money on a bestseller run.

1: Bookbub.com is a huge newsletter service that shares sales and freebies with their audiences. In my base category, the list is over 600,000 readers. Landing a bookbub featured deal in the United States is a way to get 1,000+ sales without having to lift a finger.

You need a really strong book cover, a really good book, and a catchy description to be selected for one of these deals. It’s hard. It took me 3 years of effort to get my first acceptance for a bookbub, and it changed my career for the better.

Bookbubs can make or break your career. These are voracious readers who want to spend money to find their next favorite author.

Expect to spend $400-$900 if you get a US-based Bookbub for $0.99. The more your book costs at sale price, the more expensive your featured deal will be. The International ones aren’t as good as the US ones, but in my opinion, they’re still fantastic. Ever since I got my first bookbub, I’ve been able to build my audiences outside of Amazon and grow my amazon readership.

It’s a big deal, and landing one of these featured deals is the foundation of my career at current.

2/2a: Newsletters are an amazing way to connect with new readers. They’re really hard to do. It requires a lot of effort, savvy, and patience. You need to write interesting content. Once again, reviews are a great way to start a dialogue with your readers. I use humors, cat pictures, and updates on what I’m doing to keep my subscribers up-to-date on what I’m doing. When I have a book go up on preorder, I let them know, and I give them teasers about the project to give them an idea if it’s up their alley.

Newsletters intimidate people, but they’re truly amazing if you can make it work for you. But while newsletter subscribers are a captive audience, it’s easy to lose them because they’re being drowned in tens upon tens of other author newsletters each and every day. If you’re going to dive into the newsletter pool, you need to come up with an interesting way to engage with your audience, understanding that you’re going to have users unsubscribe and that only a small fraction of the subscribers you find will become avid fans of your books.

No matter how you approach your readership, you typically have one chance and one chance alone to hook a reader. Some people will change their mind later if they stick around to hear what you have to say. Nothing guarantees that.

There are millions of books in the world for them to choose from. At the end of the day, you need to make your book stand out to them. A reader will typically give an author one book to hook them into buying more books, so make that one chance as good as you can make it.

And remember, not everyone is going to like your book. That’s just an unfortunate part of life. I know this is easier said and done, but try not to sweat it. You’re going to get bad reviews, too. (As I learned with Null & Void, surprisingly… those bad reviews can sometimes really help you sell your books. Don’t ask me the why of it, but if you have a good book, people will read the samples despite crap reviews.

There are several ways you can build a newsletter. You can go the organic route (2a) and gain subscribers who only love your book and signed up because they want to hear more from you. You can do paid builders often organized by other authors looking to expand their reach. These can cost you between $5 and thousands of dollars.

It’s up to you which way you go about it. I’m going to keep my opinions on this one to myself, but I will say my newsletter has been a critical part of making my career a reality.

3: Finally, if you’re crazy like me, you can dump down a lot of investments to do a bestseller run. When I found out that I’d landed a bookbub on the last day of a run window, I decided to take the plunge.

I hired someone with mad ad skills for a staggering amount of money, gave them several thousand dollars in ad budget, and now I’m going to pray for the best. I have several goals I want to accomplish with this run.

First, I want to expand my reach and find new readers. I’m expecting this to be a loss lead. (In short, I’m going to spend more money than I make in hopes of finding readers who will go on to buy the rest of my books.) Second, I’ve been wanting to do a solo USA Today bestseller run. The Bookbub Featured Deal I have scheduled will get me a large chunk of the way there. The rest of the week I’ll be scrambling trying to make a miracle happen.

Even if I walk away with a bust, I can at least say I tried, and that’s something worth writing home about.

No matter how you decide to approach your audience building, there’s one important thing you want to remember: your readers are people, and if you want to keep them, you need to cater to what they want in books.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that what inspires me may not appeal to my audience, and when it doesn’t, the books just don’t sell.

Some books will just flop because they don’t appeal to what people want to read no matter how loyal your audience or how big your brand.

I hope I’ve given you something to think about.