Your Audience Is Unorganized

You want to find a group of ideal readers for your books, but do you ever feel like you are herding cats?

The truth is: your audience is unorganized. They do not stack neatly, they don’t always form logical groupings, and they do everything possible to obscure their tastes and behaviors from your view.

They are a Rubik’s Cube with 10,000 squares on each side. I know, you want to feel like an audience-finding ninja, where you immediately crack the code:

But it’s hard. It takes time. And that is frustrating. You hear of others’ success and begin to feel that there is a secret that they found and no one told you about. So we begin to look for best practices, shortcuts, and magic buttons.

As if there is some secret place your readers are hiding: some mysterious section of Amazon or Goodreads, or some social media hashtag that no one told you about, and these things have already done the hard work of bringing together EXACTLY the right people who want to buy your books. And once you find this magic button, all you have to do is press it.

But beware of jolly candy-like buttons:

This button mentality aligns with our escapist tendencies: the idea that you can easily find your ideal audience, shout at them about your work, see your message spread with little effort (eg: “going viral”), and then you are free to run back to shelter.

That doesn’t happen too often though. It is hard work. And while your ideal audience isn’t pre-organized for you, the individuals who comprise it ARE out there. In fact, it is your job to bring them together, to connect and create that audience.

Consider it this way: assuming you have ever gotten married: how did people come together at YOUR wedding? That moment when you look out and see ONE group of people, a room filled with familiar faces, a lifetime of relationships. To you, it feels like a community, and yet not everyone knows each other. Perhaps you met each individual at different times in different places. And yet, you almost assume they know each other.

Likewise, your readership will be built little by little in a variety of different ways:

  • Advertising
  • Media mentions
  • Book reviews
  • Interviews
  • Book clubs
  • Placement in bookstores
  • Book signings
  • Exposure in online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. This could comprise of Amazon’s own algorithms, or how readers organize lists, reviews and rankings on those sites.
  • Goodreads and other book-related social networks
  • Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.
  • Personal relationships
  • Speaking
  • … and lots of other ways…

And the reality is that there is often overlap: The person who reads about you in an interview, hears your book mentioned by a friend, sees it on Amazon, but then eventually buys it at a local bookstore.

This is why statistics about how people buy books can never really tell the complete story of what lead to that moment of purchase. Consider how you buy a lawn mower or vacuum cleaner. How many weeks/months did you spend researching, across how many websites or media, and how many people did you involve in the process, even if these people include reading 40 Amazon reviews and asking 2 friends. The point of sale is the culmination of a process, but does not fully encapsulate it.

Likewise is finding your readership. What many of you likely want is to feel that you have reached a tipping point: where you feel that momentum has been built, and it is not a struggle to find every…. single…. reader…

And the other thing you likely want is to know how to encourage ACTION. To get them to buy, to review, to tell a friend, to tell a book group, and so on. Action is a process of two things:

  1. Communication
  2. Trust

In other words, how do you find that core audience of 100 readers, people who will truly love your book, and encourage 25% of them to leave a review on Amazon? To provide the foundation for word of mouth marketing?

You don’t need a huge audience to get a foothold, to get enough proof that you have fans – REAL READERS – enough to keep writing, keep publishing, keep growing.

Your community of readers is not hiding from you – they are not just around the corner in a big group waiting to surprise you. They are individuals you pass on the street, one by one. There is not some trick to instantly “give you an audience.” Many bestselling authors will tell you their success came about from an odd mix of:

  • Hard word over the course of years
  • Luck – unplanned serendipitous moments that they never could fully explain how it happened

And the process of reaching readers is both of these things, hoping the former encourages the latter.

But… if you are impatient, I can’t blame you. Really, I can’t. Our days can sometimes be filled with cultural indicators telling us that the only thing that matters is “more more more” – more readers, more sales, more followers, and higher rankings on bestseller lists. So here is the magic button you may have secretly dreamed about, the lottery ticket that just solves the puzzle. Go ahead, click it: become a bestseller:

I’m going to end on with this classic video by Derek Sivers, who makes the point in a unique way:

He frames the message as being about “leadership,” but I think it applies here as well. That “lone nut” dancing guy didn’t come to this concert and find a group of other dancers. So, he started dancing. Then he found one other person who would join him. Then two. And so on.

Yes, it happens very quickly in the video, and we all wish our own success would build as quickly. Like all metaphors, it simplifies the hard work and hastens the timeline. Sorry.

Your audience is unorganized. It is your job to bring them together. In what ways have you found small successes in connecting with readers one by one?

Thanks.
-Dan

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About Dan Blank

Dan Blank is the founder of WeGrowMedia, where he helps writers share their stories and connect with readers. He has helped hundreds of authors via online courses, events, consulting, and workshops, and worked with amazing publishing houses and organizations who support writers such as Random House, Workman Publishing, Abrams Books, Writers House, The Kenyon Review, Writer’s Digest, Library Journal, and many others.

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting post, Dan. I love the video of the dancing guy, especially how long both he and the first brave follower danced before anyone joined them. I relate as a writer building an audience and have found people who are interested in what I write and say they’d read my book when it comes out are often the people who’ve seen me in action, toiling away relentlessly on it for the last year and a half in every coffee shop in town. In actuality, it’s these people who I’ve connected with – the ones who have bravely come to dance with me – who, I think, will make all the difference, and as a writer, I value those personal connections above all others.

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    • says

      Graeme,
      Thank you! And I like how you describe your journey and how others feel A PART of it. Such a special thing to recognize and encourage.

      -Dan

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  2. says

    I loved this post. Yeah, I’m that persistent one with the cats. I see at the end the guy fed them and they gathered round. Giving readers what they want seems to be the point of that. But I do agree it’s timing and luck (and persistent promotions) that will bring a well-written book into the light. My small success at the moment is organizing an authors society in my local library where we can all become active to connect to readers. I started this “dance” and have about ten authors who joined with lots of ideas and enthusiasm. This local group won’t make any of us bestselling authors, but who needs that. Respectable sales and loyal readers is the realistic goal.

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    • says

      Paula,
      Thank you! Love the idea of connecting with local writers at the library. I’m at various local libraries nearly every day – it seems like such an obvious resource to leverage, yet so many ignore it.

      -Dan

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  3. Denise Willson says

    Dance, Baby, dance!

    Love it, Dan.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth, and lone dancer. :)

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  4. says

    Dan, Dan! This is brilliant. It prompts so many stories from my life, which I will spare you—yet this is so affirming! Love the emphasis on the first follower, and the importance of what many are now calling a “street team.” I love this video! Would write more but I’m off to tweet. Thank you!

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  5. says

    I like the wedding metaphor. I’ve long said the career I aspire to would look something like Jacqueline Carey’s (historical and urban fantasy writer from my home state of MI). I think about how I came to read her. I’d seen her first mentioned by Geo. RR Martin on his blog (of which I was randomly reading multiple entries one day). Then I checked out her website, and noted that she lived fairly nearby. Then she was mentioned in another fantasy forum. Then, perhaps several months later, I ran into a copy of Kushiel’s Dart on an endcap at a local B&N, in one of those staff recommendation sections. Her name just blared like a herald of trumpets. Yeah, bought it.

    I think about the variety of folks I’ve lent that little paperback to over the years (amazingly, I still have my tattered first copy of K.D., and at least six people have read it, some keeping it as long as a year!). I look at the diversity of fans on her fb page (which I think she does an amazing job with), and at her readings. There is the epic fantasy crowd (LoTR-type geeks–me included), urban fantasy crowd (Twilight geeks), the LGBT crowd (she’s gay and her characters come in all over the sexual continuum), the S&M crowd (one of her most popular characters is a masochistic courtesan), and–last but far from least–the tattoo fans (the same character “earns” an elaborate tattoo on her back as she works toward her destined status).

    Now there’s a group that can make for one funky, fun wedding reception! I think even us geeks would end up on the dance floor (shirtless dude at that one would have lots of tats).

    Fun and wise post, Dan! (We haven’t had a lot of Ren and Stimpy on WU, so kudos on that alone.)

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    • says

      Thanks Vaughn! Perhaps on April 1st, we will have Stimpy pen a guest post…

      I love how you framed this – thanks for that story!
      -Dan

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  6. says

    Yes, one at a time by all means and what’s also critical is that you have to understand the appeal of your book to readers–what’s in it for them. And I find so many authors stepping over this important aspect, creating weak synopses and superficial appeals. Read the fly leaf of a Bestseller in the genre you’re working in and I bet you’ll find some meaningful benefit expressed.

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  7. says

    I enjoyed your post. Very enlightening. It is SO not easy to find followers when you’re a writer and there is no easy button. What I never thought of is that it isn’t just ONE method, say FB or Twitter, but the conglomeration of all of them put together, plus a lot of luck, which might help us to gain followers.

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  8. says

    Dan, you had me at your title! It hit home, for sure.

    I love to see candid photos of people reading in their home or office environments because generally we all lack organization to some extent. I will be the first to say that there are books and papers all over my office and books all over my house.

    It’s hard to be an easy target when I’m so scattered, when my attention is on a spiritual book in one room and a business book in another, and of course there’s always something in the reading room, too!

    As an author, I have to remember that at least some of my readers are like me. They are not easily located or identified because their attention is scattered, like a moving target.

    In a way, we are not searching for a whole reader, but just the the time and attention that he or she may invest in our work.

    Finding out where a reader is spending time is a clue to finding that reader’s time and attention. I find readers by blogging an excerpt http://www.nat-n-cat.com/ which is bringing me interested readers, slowly but surely.

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  9. says

    Dan, years ago , when we first met, I remember you talking about building meaningful relationships one follower at a time. At the time, I didn’t really understand how that was going to work. But now, 4+ years and “nose to the grindstone” plugging along later, it is happening. I am finding my readers and they are finding me–in all sorts of places–on and off line. And the best part–I haven’t even published yet! It seems like it all happened so fast when in fact, it has taken a lot of work to get to this point. Communicating and establishing trust can only happen over time and with a great deal of persistence. And what a powerful video about leadership. Thank you for another wonderful post. It rings all kinds of chimes and I’ll be sharing.

    Kathy
    http://krpooler.com

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  10. says

    Dan, your post supports the wisdom of the platform model–build your core audience and cultivate relationships while you’re writing the book. Still challenging but with less pressure, and you can get feedback along the way to end up with a better product. Lots of benefits if you start early on what you’ll inevitably have to learn and do to succeed.

    Step out of the litter box (your comfort zone) and become known. Get to know the cat wranglers (reader review sites). Plant catnip in your favorite gardens. Nourish the cats and they will come.

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  11. says

    I am working on my first novel and have been for about a year and a half. When I started, I knew that I would have to start a platform. I did that by blogging. I have a review blog dedicated to debut authors. I had no clue when I started it that I would have such an interest. It really took off! I’ve been told that other writers don’t necessarily buy one another’s books, but they have readers and if they help spread the word about my blog, then I also get readers. That is what I had hoped anyway. I still have mainly authors and editors as followers, but it is a step forward. Any other ideas on drawing readers as well? Thanks for the post, Dan. It’s very helpful!

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    • says

      Rebecca,
      Congratulations on the success with the blog. You are smart to be so observant and appreciative about what you have achieved, but also be realistic to know that the value you have created has boundaries as it applies to sales of your own book.

      Ideas for doing more – TONS! Way too many, as that is really the work I do day in and day out. (I won’t do any self promotion here though)

      So a couple things that I would advice:
      1. Talk to these authors and understand what worked for THEM in getting readers. Use their experience.
      2. Talk to readers every week. Be it in book clubs, on Goodreads, in forums, via Skype or email.

      Thanks!
      -Dan

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  12. says

    Great post! You really captured exactly what it feels like to try to find your readers and how alluring those quick fixes and easy buttons can seem. I read the beginning of the article thinking “Yes- I’ve said exactly that!”

    One of my favorite interactions with a reader happened recently at a holiday party. The subject of my novel had come up at a mutual friend’s wedding several months before this party and this friend I was talking to was really enthusiastic about reading my book. Well, apparently he had just finished the book the day of this holiday party and could not stop talking about it. It was really flattering (and fun)! Here’s the thing, I write women’s fiction and the book is first-person, female narrated. Never, ever would I have targeted 40-something males as my ideal readers and yet, he loved the book (and kept talking about it from the perspective of the main male character). It was a great reminder about how important it is to tell people about your writing and let them make there own decisions about whether it is right for them.

    Thanks again for a great post!

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    • says

      Mary – what a great story – thank you! And I LOVE the bigger point you make. I think this is why I dislike broad assumptions and statistics in the process of connecting with readers. EG:

      1. “I write women’s fiction. Women read it.”
      2. “I read that Pinterest is frequented by 80% women”
      3. “Therefore: to find my audience, I will become VERY active on Pinterest.”

      Bah! That is nothing against Pinterest, but I get so nervous about writers going down the wrong rabbit holes.

      Thanks again!
      -Dan

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  13. says

    Dan, your message hit me in just the right place. When not writing, I am spending an exorbitant amount of time ‘herding’ my readers — Being a debut, Indie writer, the experience is akin to being a magician – Performing tricks and hoping the audience will be impressed and not laugh or leave the auditorium.

    But I am finding them, one by one, and when a reader contacts me to tell me they ‘loved’ my story, it is worth all the effort.

    p.s. Loved the dancing nut.

    Peace

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    • says

      Suzanne,
      Thank you! The trick from here is what you do AFTER those readers have connected with you – how do you honor and encourage further connections, and make that a part of your own process. And yes, isn’t it funny how endearing the “dancing nut” is!?!
      :)
      -Dan

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  14. says

    The part about the first follower is a very unique way of looking at things. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard following praised over leadership. I alway said I was a better follower than leader and I feel better now. This piece covered a lot of ground. That film clip about the cats was hilarious. Anyone who’s ever owned a cat can see the humor in it. Trying to make cats, who are born independent in nature, do what you want them to is really fighting a losing battle. I’m learning just how hard a writer needs to work to gather readers.

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    • says

      Thank you so much! I agree, I think too much is made of “leadership” and we default to all wanting to be “leaders” because it sounds good. But leadership is hard, and quite frankly, not always the appropriate action. Actually, one could argue it is rarely the appropriate action.

      -Dan

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  15. Marcy McKay says

    Hi Dan – I love, love, LOVED your analogy of audience building to the guests @ a wedding. They’re all “gathered together” for the same reason, but arrived there through totally different ways. BRILLIANT. Thank you!~

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  16. says

    Does anyone ever think the problem isn’t herding cats as such, but rather the creation of them?

    Of course I’m referring to readers not cats. There are plenty of cats in the world, but are there plenty of readers? Maybe we should focus on creating readers and not simply just “finding” them.

    I feel that the unlimited sources of entertainment offered by the internet and TV, carve readers away from books (print or electronic). The pleasures of reading a book are diluted and it becomes simply another tedious task.

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    • says

      Nicole,
      I certainly won’t argue that “creating readers” is an important mission – FOR SOME. And we all have differing opinions on this (and different experiences) – mine is that people read now more than ever. This is not a fact, it is just my impression of the world. And that more “consumption” is out of choice – out of PLEASURE for wanting to experience stories (real or imagined.)

      For many writers, I think that adding the additional step of “CREATING A READER” adds a complex layer. EG:

      1. CREATE A BOOK
      2. PUBLISH IT
      3. CREATE A READER
      4. CONVINCE THEM TO BUY YOUR BOOK

      That third step is a BIGGIE. Again, I am not saying that it isn’t an important thing, but putting that responsibility on each writer could be a greater burden.

      Thanks.
      -Dan

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