As much as we authors like to think we write first and foremost for our own enjoyment, let’s be frank: without an audience, our work is entirely self indulgent. In this fourth installment of Branding for Nonconformists we’ll be talking about fostering community — your community and others’, online and in real life — by cultivating genuine relationships with readers and colleagues. What do I mean by “genuine”? You like and respect your readers as creative human beings, not as members of your “following,” because you are a member of their “following” too. When a reader tells you how much your work means to them, you respond exactly as you’d hope one of your favorite authors would respond to you.
Now that we’ve made this essential clarification, let’s discuss three categories of book lovers:
1. People who already appreciate you.
2. People who don’t appreciate you.
3. People who will appreciate you once they find out about you.
People who already appreciate you.
Readers who devour and share everything you publish, who like and respond to most of what you post on social media, who show up for your event even if they had to drive an hour (or more) in the pissing rain to get to the bookstore, who tell you they still think about your novel years after reading it; and writers who come to your workshops and feel so inspired that they become ardent readers as well. These are your people.
People who don’t appreciate you.
A couple of years ago I read a middle-grade novel that made me cry. It was so clever and so heartbreaking that I felt sure the person who wrote it and I were destined to be friends. Naturally, I tweeted about the novel and followed the author: like me, an active Twitter user with a modest following. She liked my tweet, but didn’t reply and didn’t follow me back.
This happens to me a lot.
Along with colleagues who don’t acknowledge us as such, we can add to this list bloggers who ask for freebies but somehow never get around to reviewing the book (and at some point quietly unfollow you), Goodreads users who leave no accompanying review to explain a one-star rating, all the trolls and scolds and users, plus the mean girls in your high school who were just as contemptuous at the ten-year reunion. Some people are never going to like or care about you or your work, and our work here is to stop caring that they don’t.
People who *will* appreciate you once they find out about you.
A fairly broad swath of the reading public could fall into this category, but how much more can we do besides publishing our work and engaging with readers as best we can on social media?
Now let’s turn the tables on each of these categories to evaluate how effectively you’re relating to members of each.
Do you appreciate the people who appreciate you?
Tegan, a young librarian from Illinois, has been reading and recommending my work from day one. Being in regular touch on social media, we were very excited when we realized we were going to be in D.C. at the same time this past June — Tegan was in town for the ALA annual conference, and I was visiting my sister and baby niece. I got up early and hurried down to a coffee shop around the corner from Tegan’s hotel so we could finally meet in person, and we had such a lovely time. Not every reader will become a friend, but in my experience, the most enthusiastic readers usually do (even if we haven’t yet had the opportunity to connect in real life). Heck, I’ve even written a fictional version of my friends Todd and Bill’s vasa parrot into my children’s novel.
Mind you, I’m not trying to toot my own horn here — I can always do a better job of expressing my gratitude. I want to spend more time being an active and intentional member of other people’s communities, be it a fellow creative posting an image to Instagram asking questions designed to spark conversation, attending the book launches of authors who’ve come out for mine, signal-boosting the work of marginalized writers, and taking part in scheduled Twitter conversations (like #MGBookChat, founded by Corrina Allen, Jarrett Lerner, and Kathie MacIsaac) that ultimately promote the work of everyone who participates, teachers and librarians included.
If you want your followers to read, watch, like, and comment, then you need to be better about consuming and supporting their content; and if they don’t produce content themselves, at least you can reply to their replies. True, a lot of authors don’t do this and their careers seem to be proceeding just fine — as Gary Vaynerchuk says in the interview I referenced in an earlier post, “There’s a lot of work involved in dealing with your fans, a lot of work in servicing and connecting with them directly, and not everybody wants that” — but I do want that, because making people feel warm and safe and seen is one of my guiding principles.
I know this all sounds very time consuming, but think of how much time you spend each day scrolling through your feeds on autopilot; there have to be more mindful and efficient ways to go about community building in the same amount of time you’re already spending on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. More on this in my next post.
Are you wasting time trying to connect with people who don’t appreciate you?
As soon as we stop looking for attention from readers who will never be fans and colleagues who will never be friends, well, what do you know? We have so much more energy to invest in relationships with people who do like what we’re about! If someone writes a book or article I love, I tell them so. If they reply warmly — which is how I always, always respond when readers tweet, email, or DM — then I know we’re on the same wavelength, and I will continue to follow and share their content. If they don’t reply at all, then I’m not going to remain enthusiastic unless I’m already getting extraordinary value out of their work (I’ll elaborate below).
To clarify, lest any of you dear readers think me unreasonable: I’m not talking about tweeting to Neil Gaiman or N.K. Jemisin any other mega-bestselling author with a bazillion and one followers. I’m talking about attempting to build a network with other authors who, in all likelihood, don’t have too many mentions to keep track of — which means that if they don’t reply, they’re simply not interested in connecting. That’s their prerogative, of course, and as I wrote in the “Bandwidth versus Snubbery” chapter in Life Without Envy, most of the time no one is intentionally ignoring us; but either way, the only sensible thing to do is shrug and move on.
How can you connect with people who *will* appreciate you?
Marketing experts talk about the “rule of seven”: that a person needs to hear about a product (and that includes your work) seven times before they’ll “take action.” (It sounds so slick, I know, but I’m about to demonstrate the validity of the general concept.) You want to be the artist putting out so much high-quality content (both free and paid) that your name keeps popping up when potential readers search for topics within your niche, your peers are consistently recommending your work, librarians love your books so much that they’d even take a bullet for you (exaggeration? not by much), and so on — adding value to your community and others’. Let’s use Mary Robinette Kowal as an example.
- A year or so ago I followed a Twitter link to this blog post. As a white person working on my own self awareness, I really admired Kowal’s candor. It takes a lot of integrity to chuck a book project into which you’ve poured thousands of hours’ worth of work, and she doesn’t pretend to be all cool and stoic about it either. I’ll have to check out her novels sometime.
- I attended Launch Pad this past July, and over the course of the week Kowal’s work was referenced at least three times by classmates whose taste and opinions I had quickly come to respect. (Aha! Social proof!)
- In researching this series, far and away the most helpful and insightful podcast episode I found on author branding was co-hosted by: you guessed it!
- I’m now following her on Twitter, and her game is exceptional — see favorite tweets here and here.
- I revisited her blog, which is a veritable trove of wisdom for debut authors.
Notice how much value she’s given me (and every other potential reader) before I’ve spent a penny on any of her books?
…And now I have happily spent many pennies on one of her books (and if this novel is as up my alley as it appears to be, then I will be spending many pennies more).
If you only remember one word from this piece, let it be “reciprocity”: to build a community around your work, make a point of being a good member of other communities. Look for authors who are giving back to their readership and see how you can emulate them in your own way. Reapply the Golden Rule to the age of social media, and practice it daily. Do all this, and you’ll be building a quality author brand: one that offers significant value for your audience from the moment they discover your work.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of several fantasy novels, a travel guide to Ireland, and two books of practical philosophy: Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People and A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation (forthcoming in October 2019). If you liked this post, you can subscribe for updates (and to thank you, you’ll get a link to two free sample chapters from Life Without Envy).