June 10th, 2020

The One Question You Need to Ask to Boost Your Readership

by Colleen M. Story

Have you heard of the Aesop fable titled, “The Peasant and the Apple Tree?”

It goes like this:

“A peasant was cutting down an apple tree despite pleas from animals living in it. He stopped when he found a hive with honey. The Tree is now doing fine!”

All of us are very much like that peasant. When we see something that interests us, we stop and pay attention.

We need to remember this when building our author platforms. I’ve found there’s one question that helps me gain readers perhaps more than any other:

“How can I benefit my readers’ lives?”

When you can answer that question succinctly and clearly, you have the key to a successful author platform that will draw readers your way.

Selling Books is Hard and Only Getting Harder

Marketing remains the most difficult part of the writing life for most writers. The odds are against us. In 2018, Bowker reported that for the first time, more than one million books were self-published, which was an over 40 percent increase from the year before. That’s in just one year. And it doesn’t include the traditionally published books.

Meanwhile, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, roughly a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.

Supply is far outpacing demand, which means one thing: It’s getting harder to sell books.

Before you get too irritated at these readers who aren’t reading your books, take a look at your own behavior. When you want to do something fun with your leisure time, where do you turn? Most of us have other things we do in addition to reading, and when we do read, we tend to choose books by authors we already know, or by authors our friends have recommended.

Whereas a simple blog or social media presence may have been all you needed in years past, the rules are different today.

Readers have way too much vying for their attention. In addition to all the other books out there, they also have access to more modes of entertainment that may pull them away from books completely.

Pew survey results show that by far the most important source for book recommendations is family members, friends, or co-workers. Only 28% of respondents—just over a quarter—said they get recommendations from online bookstores or other websites.

In a smaller survey by copywriter Gigi Griffis, results showed that when buying a new book, a whopping 82% bought a book by an author they already knew and loved.

So how are we, as hard-working writers, to gain new readers? We have to give them a reason to pay attention. We have to be the honey in the tree.

The “What’s In It for Me?” Rule

My first job as a writer was as an “associate copywriter” working for a large corporation. I had been writing on my own for three years before that and had gotten a few stories published, but to say I was a newbie when it came to writing marketing copy was to make a huge understatement.

Fortunately, the company had a copy of The Copywriter’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Copy that Sells. It was a godsend, as it gave me all the tools I needed to begin building a successful writing career.

The biggest takeaway? Whenever you’re creating a piece of copy, you have to keep one question firmly in mind: “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM for short).

Asking that question from the reader’s point of view helped me create copy that increased sales for the company, and continues to help me in all my freelance writing work to this day.

What many book writers don’t realize is they need to incorporate this same question into their marketing practices.

“If you work in the field of marketing,” says writer and musician Dave Clark, “or are selling virtually anything on Earth, the acronym WIIFM should be top of mind in every activity in which you..partake.”

You’ve seen the difference yourself when shopping for products and services. You can tell immediately which companies are there for you and which ones are too focused on themselves.

Writes Raaf Sundquist, former Senior Strategist at design agency Telepathy:

“I see it all the time: ‘We drive the competition crazy!’ or ‘The best thing about shopping here is having us by your side.’ And so on and so forth. These are the types of phrases that make the companies who express them feel pretty darn good about… themselves. But what about their customers?”

Way too often I read writer’s blogs and social media posts and find they’re focused in the wrong direction—on the writer instead of on the reader. Writers post about their personal lives, their writing challenges, and their accomplishments, but rarely do they turn the spotlight around on their readers. 

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sharing something personal now and then. It can even help us connect with our readership at times. But if we don’t have something else to offer—that honey in the tree—the reader will lose interest and move on.

Think about what causes you to pause and read a blog post or a social media post. Now and then you may enjoy a personal story, but often you’re looking for something that’s going to help you in your life. It’s what we’re all looking for. So if you as the writer/marketer aren’t offering that, why should a reader stop and see what you’re all about? She’ll be on to the next thing before she even gets past your headline.

How Can You Contribute to Your Readers’ Lives?

I spent many years floundering around my author platform before I remembered the question I needed to ask: How can I contribute to my readers’ lives? (Or “what’s in it for the reader?”)

When I finally took some time to answer that question, it made all the difference. How can you do that? There are many ways, but I’ve found one method that worked or me and seems to work for other writers too.

First, consider what you’re good at, then combine that with one of your key areas of interest, and you can come up with the perfect way to contribute to your readers’ lives.

Try writing down two lists:

  1. Your best skills. What are you good at? Include non-writing-related skills. Maybe you’re a great cook, the perfect matchmaker, or a finance whiz.
  2. Your top five interests/passions. What are you so interested in that you could learn about it for years to come? Maybe it’s marine life, romantic relationships, or travel.

Once you have your answers down, let your creative brain go to work. How might you combine these to create an author platform that both inspires you and helps your readers?

Here are some examples:

  1. Combine cooking with romantic relationships, and create a platform helping readers win over their loved ones with unique recipes.
  2. Combine matchmaking with marine life, and create a platform informing readers all about the love stories of the deep, perhaps between whales, sharks, and even seahorses (who are monogamous, by the way).
  3. Combine finance with travel and help people find ways to afford a variety of adventurous vacations no matter their budget.

Can you tie these types of platforms into your books? Use your imagination. The first example would be perfect for romance writers, but even sci-fi authors could insert a romantic cooking scene into their next story, or ask readers to submit recipes they might use for an alien character.

Too often writers hold themselves back, worried about whether their books match perfectly with their platforms, but it’s not as important as you might think.

What matters is giving your reader that honey so she’ll stick around long enough to find out what else you have to offer. After she sees you as a source of help—in whatever form of help that may take—she’s much more likely to be interested in the books you write, as well.

Create an Author Platform You Enjoy

Give it a try and see what you come up with. As for me, I had spent years as a health and wellness writer and I knew I was passionate about creativity. I tried combining the two and came up with Writing and Wellness, my motivational site. Once that site was up and running, I started getting new readers for one reason: I was helping them.

If you can find a way to do the same, you’ll discover you can increase your readership and enjoy building your platform at the same time.

What’s your author platform superpower? Click on Colleen’s FREE worksheet and see if you were right!

About Colleen:

Colleen M. Story inspires writers to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment in their work. Her latest release, Writer Get Noticed!, was a gold-medal winner in the 2019 Reader’s Favorite Book Awards for writing and publishing, and a recent 1st-place winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards. Colleen frequently serves as a workshop leader and motivational speaker, where she helps attendees remove mental and emotional blocks and tap into their unique creative powers. Find more at her motivational site, Writing and Wellness, and on her author website, or connect with her on Twitter.

23 responses to “The One Question You Need to Ask to Boost Your Readership”

  1. barbaralinnprobst says:

    I'm wondering if this is most useful for writers of non-fiction, including self-help and how-to books. For a novelist, it seems to be a bit different. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that readers of fiction are looking for something a bit different than practical advice—i.e., how can I "use" this, "what's in it for me?" Often, it's to be transported. To immerse oneself in a story world. To be entertained, perhaps to escape. To feel and think along with the characters. The question of how to reach readers is the same, of course, given the competition and over-abundance of choices. So yes, a personal recommendation is a huge factor! Online readers groups are another trusted source of recommendations—fellow readers who know the sort of book I like. I'd be curious if you see a difference with fiction ... Thank you!

    • colleen says:

      Thanks, Barbara! And yes, I hear this question often--isn't it different with fiction? But the problem we writers have remains the same--we need to find a way to get readers' attention. If you have the funds to advertise extensively, that's one option. Another way that seems to work is to be incredibly prolific with lots of books out there--you gradually build a readership. But I write fiction and nonfiction, and my platform helps me get eyes on both. Once people are interested in what you do--and once they sign up for your newsletter—you can tell them about your books, and they will be more interested in checking them out because they know YOU. I know many fiction authors who have formed a platform around a niche (can be anything you like really) and thereby sell more books. It works no matter what you write. :O)

  2. What's in it for my readers is a bunch of negatives: I don't bore them. I don't insult their intelligence with ridiculous plot twists unsupported by deep motivation. I don't play to their baser instincts (people have told me they love my villain). I don't skip the motivation. I don't settle for 'good enough' writing. I don't waste their time. I don't give them simple Romance between slightly star-crossed beautiful young people. I don't make them guess the end (if they're paying attention), but I don't make it easy to get there.

    My last comment from my beta reader was 'You terrible, terrible woman.' I treasure that, because 'torture Rachel' is my writing mantra.

    Now all I have to do is figure out how to market that.

    • Colleen Story says:

      Ha ha. I'm sure there must be a way, Alicia! Actually probably many. I would think "Not Settling" might work--you could blog about that forever! Good luck. :O)

      • As most other things have not had the desired effect of getting market share and standing out for good writing, I'm asking if your personal opinion is really that this is a viable strategy. Because it is going to be hard to reverse.

        • colleen says:

          This is definitely a viable strategy for drawing more readers to you, getting more eyes on what you do, and increasing your email list (if you follow through with freebies and email sign-ups once people are on your site). I'm not saying it guarantees you bestsellerdom or riches from royalties--there are so many factors that go into that. But if you're simply looking for readers, it works. I've seen a steady increase from book launch to book launch myself, and know other writers who have done the same. It does take time to build, no doubt. It's not an overnight thing.

  3. Rick George says:

    And here we thought if we wrote dang good books and did some readings, quality would lift us above the crowd. The data you share provides us with hard truths that we need to face. The advice you give can apply to all of us. It's hard work, this writing gig. Thank you, Colleen.

    • Colleen Story says:

      In an ideal world, eh Rick? It happens sometimes. But I think for more of us, it's best not to wait and take action. Thank you! :O)

  4. ecellenb says:

    I've tried combining what's happening in my series for children with recipes, one smoothie and one for carrot cake. They've helped with connections to readers. These particular books have activities for home and school in them so the recipes were a natural progression.

    I look forward to checking out your worksheet!

    • Colleen Story says:

      What a neat idea! People love recipes so that seems like it would be a good start on a niche. Sounds like you're combining education with your stories. :O)

      • ecellenb says:

        I do exactly that for The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon stories. One agent told me some time back that no one would ever do the activities and they were a waste of time. Fortunately I did not listen and went with my gut. Those activities have been a hit!

  5. Excellent advice & I'll try out your worksheet! I've avoided having a blog. Personally, I just don't have time to read them, and so I figured no one else did either and they were kind of dead end & not worth my time. But you make a very good point - to make them about the reader and what they want/need. Thanks so much, Colleen!

    • Colleen Story says:

      Thanks, Christine! Yes, I've heard that too, but I've found a regular, consistent blog to be my best platform tool and I've heard the same from other writers. The key is to find your niche, focus it on your readers, and then be consistent with it, and you'll draw eyeballs. Good luck! :O)

  6. Kris Maze says:

    Thanks, Colleen for these insights. I plan to go over your worksheet as well. Love the connection you demonstrate with writers and giving us useful tools!
    What are you thoughts on building an email list for an author platform? Do you have recommendations for this?

    • Colleen Story says:

      Thanks, Kris! For me building an email list goes hand-in-hand with having a niche (that focuses on helping readers somehow) and blogging regularly within that niche. You can offer freebies (as I have here) to entice people to sign up both on your site and with your guest posts, and then I've found providing consistent, helpful content to be effective in retaining readers.

  7. Excellent post! Thanks. 🙂

  8. Really useful post! Thanks, Colleen.

  9. Susan H. says:

    Great advice and clearly stated. When I started my blog, I wrote about what interested me. Now I try to answer questions my readers are asking or solve problems my readers have. This post clarified why that works.

  10. Gerri says:

    Thank you Coleen! I just finished reading Kris Maze's blog, 3 Ways to Share Your Writing With Traditional Publishers. It has so many great ideas, and I was enthused. Until I got to the platform part! I blame my reluctance to market my books on too many years of Catholic school. 🙂 But your WITS blog gave me a whole new perspective. I already have in mind my first blog that is something for the reader. I can do that without bragging. I can remain humble.;-). Gerri

    • Colleen Story says:

      Yes, Gerri! That's what I love about this approach too--it's not about sell sell sell or bragging, as you say. It's about trying to help others which feels SO much better. Good luck on your blog! :O)

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