by Lisa Norman
This marketing thing has been the hardest part of writing for me, and I’ve met a lot of writers who have had the same experience. Some indie publish because they get tired of trying to market to agents and publishers, only to discover that now they must market to readers. Even traditionally published authors now need to market directly to readers. Seriously? After sweating blood, often for years, to write the thing, now you have to go find your own audience?!?
Yep. Welcome to writing in the twenty-first century.
The most common question I get asked related to book marketing is: "How do I find my fans (readers, subscribers, etc.)?"
And the answer is: there is no magic wand. I don’t have an easy answer. But I’ve been studying authors and watching their careers for years and I can tell you, there IS an answer.
It begins with something only you can truly know: Who are you? What do you want to be known for as a writer?
It was Socrates who said, “Know thyself.” That advice can be so stress inducing, there’s no wonder they killed the poor man.
Some of us, me included, were raised to think that it was absolutely rude and the height of hubris to say, "This is what makes me special.” And just having to answer the question, “What makes you special?" is almost impossible for me. I get all twitchy.
I ask my students this question, and I’ve heard “Me? There’s nothing special about me!” too many times.
Some of us have heard too many times that we are not special. We've experienced failures and disappointments. Even looking at that question is painful. Secretly (and some openly) they believe that they are not special.
Traditional marketing starts with, "What do you give to those who buy your product?" (Marketers call this your value proposition.) And in the creative writing world, that translates largely to: "Who are you and what makes you special?" When professionals ask this, they aren’t trying to be mean. They’re looking for the magic wand that will give you success, because that answer is the most important part of marketing.
Ouch. No wonder so many writers have trouble with marketing!
But I promise you, you ARE special. You’re a writer, and that is magic.
I cornered a big-name marketing guru and asked for suggestions on marketing for writers and he blinked. This man makes millions of dollars in marketing. He works for some of the biggest corporations, and this stopped him cold.
After a very long pause, he reiterated everything we've always heard: write great books, get them out wide, share lists, create your own list, know your value, and lean into what makes your work special.
Later he came back to me and made another point that I thought proved what a pro he is. He said, “Writers are in the entertainment industry. Their value is in the stories they tell and the entertainment they offer. Learn your value, and then use that.”
I’ve heard this from the pros more than once. They aren’t trying to be vague. They’re actually trying to help.
During the research for this series of articles, I looked for hints and tips on getting started building that all-important list, and there wasn't a magic method. Oh, sure, you could buy a list. (Don't.) Or you could join in newsletter swaps (those actually work SOMETIMES, if you are in a good group, but I've seen them result in very weak lists if you're not extremely careful, and it is hard to know how solid a list is before you participate).
The only thing more useless than a small list is a big, weak one. Once you’ve got to a big list, you’re paying to send emails, and now you’re paying to send out things no one cares about. Small and powerful is better.
Remember: I work with authors with lists of many different sizes. I’ve had to talk more than one writer with a huge list out of deleting the whole thing because it was weak. They’d participated in swaps and contests and now their list was full of people who wanted a Kindle or a free book from someone else.
I want to encourage you: You are not alone.
The sad fact is that no one, no post, no expert is going to be able to give you the key to instantly growing your list. BUT — I can give you insight into how to find it. You are the key to your own success:
The magic is in you.
Get away from writers and hang out with avid readers for a while, and you'll quickly discover that they think writers are amazing. Why? Because writers have entire worlds in their heads! We have stories, characters, and magic, all going on behind our eyes! Your true fans are going to love the unique magic that is you, the unique stories that live in your head. The unique things that make you … you! And so, to connect with them, you need to connect with yourself.
Let's get started!
First, dig deep into what you enjoy. What can you write about with joy? How does that show up in your writing? For some people, it is mystery, romance, adventure, quirky stuff... it can be anything. And it will be uniquely you. I can't tell you who you are when you are having the most fun. But I can tell you that when you find it, THAT is the most important piece of the marketing puzzle.
The answer is your unique magic.
Once you’ve found it, I want you to look at your existing list as an experiment. Don't judge it by quantity. It is your research pool.* Try posting something fun, something that makes you happy. DO make sure that you're using all the best practices: a catchy subject line, a punchy hook. But be genuinely you. And make sure that you are giving something to your people.
* If your list is zero, then start chatting on social media, blogging, or just go hang out where there are people and find a chance to talk about… that amazing thing. For one person I know, it was a particular fandom. When she found herself in a room with others who felt the same, she turned to me and said, “My people! I found them!”
Now understand: we often can't judge if something is working or not right away. Sometimes the best sign that you have that it has worked is if someone emails and asks a question. If they respond to a newsletter or a blog, take note. I once had a mentor tell me that if one person asks a question, 9 others probably had the same question and didn’t ask. If someone in our modern world takes the time to email you, call it a win.
Look at this blog! Writers in the Storm is known for engagement. We ask questions! And we have some fascinating discussions in the comments. Why? Because we’re all here to talk about the same general topics, and they fascinate us! For WITS, the ideal audience is writers. But for your blog and your newsletter, you want to appeal to readers.
More important than how many people are on your list, I want you to look at a statistic called your “open rate.” This means how many people opened your email. If you sent out emails to 100 people and 10 opened them, your open rate would be 10%. Your email system will try to track this, but with all the modern privacy protections, your actual rate will likely be higher than what you see in your statistics. 10-20% is pretty good. Consider anything higher a win.
You want to treat statistics like this as a trend, so don’t worry about if there were 41 or 42 people who opened the email.
Let’s say that you send something out every two weeks. Fun pictures of your cat or your fish. If 10 people opened the first one and 3 people opened the second, that’s going in the wrong direction. Either your list has the wrong people on it or they wanted something else from you. They see something else magic about you. Then you need to decide: are cats central to your stories? Or have you wandered from the heart of who you are? (I mean, seriously, who doesn’t like cat pictures???)
You may also want to ask your people a question and see how many answer. Or put a hook to a blog post in there and let them click through to read it. If they clicked to read more, you know they are interested!
Understand: people are busy. If they give you 30 seconds, that means they like you. More than that and you are doing great!
If it looks like people are reading your messages, lean into that topic. Post more about it, do something similar. But remember: it must always be fun for you!
Let’s say 10 people opened that first email with the cat. Then let’s say that you noticed a couple of new people signing up to your list. The gold standard in our modern world will be when you see that picture going viral (being shared), but don’t hold your breath. It happens. I’ve seen it happen to some of my clients, and it is amazing when it does. But most of the time… you’ll get 12 people to open the next newsletter. That’s a win.
Want to know how one of my clients went viral? He posted 3 times a week for 3 years. He studied his statistics and he found out what his true fans loved. And then, he posted more of that. The post that went viral (and launched a career) had been posted 6 months previously. It took that long to catch on and get shared around. Truth: he wanted to quit after a month. He’s not quitting now.
Silly side note: someone recently shared that exact blog post with me as an example of something truly amazing. The person who shared it didn’t know that he was my client, didn’t know how powerful that post was. They just knew it was amazing and wanted to share.
Another student I had went viral with his very first post. Blew me away. He had so much potential! Sadly, when his next post didn’t have the same success, he stopped posting. The first post had been fun. The second was work, because he thought he had to replicate that success. After that, he thought writing articles was just too hard.
This should not be painful, because it should be coming from your center of fun and things that you truly enjoy. If you don’t love it, you’ll never have the energy to keep it up, so don’t try to do what works for someone else. There’s a sign outside a church near me: “Be you. Everyone else is taken.”
Give your content a cycle or two (weekly, monthly... whatever). And then maybe try something else. See what is happening. Watch your statistics. Slow growth is GOOD growth.
There’s a saying that the first 10 subscribers are the hardest to get. The next hardest will be getting to 50. It'll be a little easier to get to 100. From what I've seen watching a bunch of authors build their lists, it seems to get a lot easier after 300. (Note: this does not apply if someone has bought or swapped for that first set of subscribers.)
I can’t count how many writers I’ve seen give up between 20 and 50. Almost always, they say that it is too hard to keep generating content. If it is hard, you aren’t working from the core of your joy.
I asked my husband (he teaches firefighters and EMTs) how to lift something heavy. “Lift with your legs! Keep the thing as close to your body as possible. Don’t twist. Don’t bend. Don’t lift it over your head.”
Do you see the analogy here? If you aren’t using your core strength, you’re going to hurt yourself and you won’t be able to keep going. Stay close to your core truth. Be you.
When you get the feeling that you are starting to connect, that people are starting to share your posts, lean into that topic. Give them more of that. If they are engaged, ask them what they want... what do they like most about what you have to offer?
Once you know that you have true fans, people who love what you create, people who see your stories as uniquely entertaining, then you can ask them what they want more of!
Especially if you’ve bought your list or if you don’t know your value, don’t ask someone else to tell you what it is. That can lead you in the wrong direction.
This type of experiment can take years, and I haven't found a reliable shortcut. But when you find your unique magical signature, your style, you'll recognize it. You’ll feel it. Your fans will become more interested. And this knowledge will inform your writing career and all your marketing.
When you find it, everything becomes easier. Even writing.
Have you ever talked to someone who isn’t listening? They’re looking at their phone and offering vague encouragement like, “Yeah. Uh huh.” You know, the conversation where you have to fight to stop yourself from saying, “And then an elephant walked in and crushed the waiter, so we decided to leave.”
You know that feeling… you haven’t connected. Readers can be like that.
Now contrast this conversation with a moment you remember talking to your best friend about something you both are interested in. You’re finishing each other’s sentences. You’re playing off each other. One time a friend and I got laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. She happened to have an oxygen tank handy and we both started taking puffs off of it so we could keep laughing! That is “engagement.” Find it with a reader and you have a fan. It won’t always be laughter. Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes you give them nightmares. The key is, you make them feel something.
A small, engaged list is much more powerful than a large, oblivious one. As an example, I was working with an author who had about 30 people on his list. One of those people happened to be a book reviewer in his genre who was committed to seeing this author succeed. So committed that he connected with other reviewers to help set up a series of interviews for the author about their new book. That 30-person list could sell more books than some lists I know with thousands on them.
Experiment. Test. Play. You CAN find your secret magic.
I wish that I could give each author that magic piece, but I've found that each author’s answer is unique. I teach classes in this stuff, and each student finds their own answer.
Some authors work with solid creative coaches to help them find that core of their purpose and their joy. If you really don't know what gives you joy, and you can't find it, connecting with a professional creative coach may be a place to start. Here's a post on WITS from my favorite coach for creatives.
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Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.
Top image from Depositphotos.
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