Building a Crowd: Make Sure Your Book Has Readers Before You Publish


99U

by Sean Blanda
Ilustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco
It’s happened to most writers: we toil on a project for weeks, obsessing over every word. Then, when it comes time to release our work to the wild, we brace ourselves for everyone to sit up and take notice but instead … nothing happens. Why do some writing projects take off, while others never get off the ground?Occasionally, it’s luck. But mostly it’s because the savviest writers have already ensured there is a built-in group waiting in anticipation on the other side.Call it the «anti-marketing» plan: by building genuine connections with readers we can dramatically improve the chances of success and make the creative process more fun. As a bonus, when done correctly, community building efforts are cumulative – work hard to win over a supporter and you likely have a fan for years.Below we outline the steps to building an audience with the help and advice of a handful of industry experts.

1. You exist in a marketplace. Prepare to humble yourself.

We’re often deceived by the Hollywood narrative of being suddenly «discovered» and subsequently rocketing to notoriety. Chances are, we won’t run in to a literary agent at Starbucks who wants to hand us a three-book contract and arm us with a team of publicists.

Call it the ‘anti-marketing’ plan: by building genuine connections with readers we can dramatically improve the chances of success
As a result, many writers play the «publishing lottery,» blindly hoping that readers will magically gravitate to their work and, when they do, they’ll be so enamored with the book that they will feel immediately compelled to tell the world. Though some people get lucky, building an audience of readers typically takes months of research and trial-and-error.»Most people don’t do any research into their target audience, they are either too cocky or too scared,» says Dan Blank, founder of We Grow Media and advisor to authors and publishers about the best ways to get started building a community.Remember that you exist in a marketplace, and your job is to figure out where you fit iny testing who your audience is and what content resonates with them. With some up-front preparation work, you’ll save hours of heartache later.

But remember: «People can smell inauthentic community building a mile away,» says Pamela Slim, author of the blog and book Escape from Cubicle Nation. «Create something that means something to you and means something to your audience. If you’re in doubt about that, I’d suggest a different topic.»

2.Your goal will help put your work in context… 

Many creatives state «getting published» as an end goal but your creative and professional struggles won’t simply disappear with your project’s completion. Getting published is only the beginning.

«Too many people can’t see past that first book,» says Blank. When that happens, we can set ourselves up for disappointment if our writing doesn’t take off as planned. For long-term projects like a book, the effects of a dud can be especially painful, but there’s hope.

Your creative and professional struggles won’t simply disappear with your project’s completion.
To avoid this emotional roller coaster, determine your goals for what comes next. Why are you publishing a book? Are you self-publishing in the hopes of a larger deal? Do you have an existing business that you are trying to boost? Would you like to be a thought-leader and speaker about your topic?Your goal will help you figure out your next step when the time is right and put any successes or failures in a broader perspective.3. Pick your community and leverage communities that already exist.

It’s tempting to state «my work is for everyone» but all great creative work is a hit with a core audience before appealing to the masses. To increase the likelihood of success, build a solid base of supporters to refine your work and eventually broaden its reach.

«If you can’t build a small audience, how can you expect to build a large audience?» says Blank.

Blank has a test for forcing creatives to think about choosing the right community: If he offered you a prize of $50,000 to find five people who would be interested in your project in the next three hours, where would you go? Who would you call? What groups would you reach out to?  Where are these people already congregating?

4. Share with your community.

The most popular ways to connect with readers typically utilize a blog, a newsletter, or a book trailer. Some authors use all three.

Before she even considered writing a book, Slim had been blogging for over two years, sharing helpful advice with her readers about becoming entrepreneurs based on her years as a career coach. So when it came time to write Escape from Cubicle Nation, Slim shared everything with her readers in advance. She offered them the chance to be on her «advisory council» – a group she often emailed when she hit road blocks during the writing process. Around 150 people signed up.

If you can’t build a small audience, how can you expect to build a large audience?
«It let me test my ideas, I would just toss out questions and they gave me great feedback,» says Slim.  «They then became great advocates and got the first copies of the book.» Thanks to her base of readers and her «advisory council» her book became a launching point for speaking gigs, online courses, and more as readers told friends and promoted the book on their own platforms.»They were like my partners, we worked on this together and it felt really good as a first time author who didn’t know what she was doing,» says Slim.–
What do you think?

This is the first in a potential series offering advice for specific creative careers. What other topics and careers would you like to see explored?


Sean Blanda is the Associate Editor and Producer of 99U. You can find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

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