For the first two years I was writing and blogging and podcasting and doing social media, I felt like I was howling into the wind.
But I kept writing, kept blogging, kept podcasting, kept reaching out to other writers, and slowly, I started to find an audience who liked my work. It can happen for you too.
In today's article, Natasha Bajema explains how she's managed to attract a following as a new author.
Superfans are the holy grail for any author.
Former Wired editor Kevin Kelly famously argued that 1,000 superfans is all you need for success as a creator (authors, musicians, artists… anyone who sells things they create). A superfan is someone who will buy anything you produce and sing your praises to anyone who will listen, winning you potential new fans for your books. Word of mouth is incredibly powerful for selling books, and that’s why authors strive to get superfans.
If you’re a new author like me, you probably want to know all the secrets of gaining loyal superfans who love and promote your books. You might also wonder if there’s something you can be doing now to get a head start. If you haven’t published a book yet, is this something you should start thinking about now? Or do you have to wait until you press publish?
In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t have all the answers yet. That’s why I reached out to fiction author and self-publishing guru David Gaughran to interview him about his newest book Strangers to Superfans: A Marketing Guide To The Reader Journey.
[Note from Joanna: David Gaughran will be on The Creative Penn Podcast soon to discuss the book.]
“…half the battle is knowing your Ideal Reader and the kinds of things she responds to (and what she hates). It’s about not viewing your readership as some kind of amorphous blob but a collection of individual people. Actual human beings!”
In his book, Gaughran suggests that we should “view things from our Ideal Reader’s perspective and map out their customer journey, i.e., from being a reader which is unaware of our work all the way to being a rabid fan.”
Your goal as an author is to get them to complete the Reader Journey: the stages of a reader moving from being merely interested to actually buying your book to later becoming a superfan. The five stages are discovery, visibility, consideration, purchase, and advocacy.
Although a reader’s progression through the stages isn’t necessarily linear, there are “different challenges or chokepoints along the way, all of which require different solutions.” Gaughran offers a practical guide “to map out the Reader Journey and optimize each stage.”
Even though I’m a new author, I’ve designed my entire launch strategy around winning over superfans early on in my career. However, the stage of getting my readers to advocate for my books and become loyal superfans feels really far away.
As I began reflecting on the Reader Journey and my own journey as an author, I discovered some interesting synergies. I realized that there might be actions authors can take early on in their careers, and I’m doing some of them already.
Below, I weave insights from my interview with David Gaughran into some early lessons learned from my author journey and my quest to win over superfans.
Lesson #1 – Get Yourself Out There
If you asked me to pinpoint the one thing that fundamentally altered my author journey last year, it would be my decision to attend a number of writing/self-publishing events where I met other people within the Indie community. In other words, reaching the discovery and visibility phases of my Author Journey.
In the Reader Journey, Gaughran explains that in the Discovery stage, “all readers start off in the same place: being completely unaware of our work. The Visibility stage is when a reader is tangentially aware of you.”
The same concepts apply to you as an unknown author within the Indie community. You need to get out there as a writer, attend events, and network as much as possible.
I know that’s not what my fellow introverts want to hear. Can’t you just join Facebook groups to interact with other writers? Not if you want to jumpstart your writing career and receive opportunities for getting in front of your ideal readers.
Although the Internet allows us to develop virtual writer communities, it’s always better to connect with other authors in person.
Being known by other writers can be powerful for your author journey. Why? Because you’ll get opportunities that will help sell your books that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
At events, you might meet authors in the same genre who are willing to do cross promotions. If they really like your book, they might be willing to promote it directly to their reader list. Perhaps, you might go far as finding a collaboration partner to produce more fiction faster.
If other authors don’t know who you are, they can’t send their readers to you. If you don’t know other writers, you’ll miss out on opportunities to collaborate. You’ll also miss out on the chance to get smarter about self-publishing and creating superfans.
To most introverts, myself included, the notion of networking can seem rather daunting. But writing and self-publishing conferences are where the real magic happens. It’s where you’ll plant the seeds for discovery and visibility for your career as an author.
If you’re worried about not fitting in or don’t know what events to attend, start by listening to podcasts.
Not all writing conferences are created equal. Tuning into podcasts is a great way to learn about what events to attend and prepare to talk to other authors in the Indie community.
After listening to several hours of podcast per week, you’ll gain sufficient understanding of the self-publishing industry to blend in and feel confident when you network with other authors.
Even though I’d rather hide in a corner most of the time at a writing conference, that extra boost of knowledge from podcasts helps me have the courage to put myself out there and make some extremely valuable connections. I’ll give you an example from my own experience.
In the fall of 2016, I began listening to the Self Publishing Podcast (now called the Story Studio) where I learned about the Smarter Artist Summit hosted every year in Austin, Texas by Sterling and Stone’s Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright. For months, I wrestled with the financial expense and anxiety of attending the event but finally bit the bullet.
At the Summit in April 2017, I made some amazing connections with writers at all stages of their careers along with well-known experts on self-publishing such as Michael Anderle, David Gaughran, and Mark Leslie Lefebvre.
After the event, I followed up with Mark to brainstorm my ideas about experimenting with crowdsourcing and using a Kickstarter campaign to create a superfan base. He was so excited about my ideas for building my reader audience that he promised to have me on his podcast.
A few weeks ago in March 2018, Mark and I wrapped up an interview for his new Stark Reflections podcast where I talk about my successful Kickstarter campaign.
If I hadn’t put myself out there, I doubt I’d be doing any podcast interviews or even writing this post. To plant the seeds of discovery and visibility for the future, you need to network, meet other authors and find opportunities to collaborate, and talk to members of the self-publishing industry to learn about the latest trends.
Lesson #2 – Put Something Out There
The days of hiding away alone in your office to write, edit, and publish novels and succeed as an author are over. You need to establish a platform and social media presence to be a successful author these days.
And to do this, you need to put out quality content as soon as possible. So, stop waiting, hemming and hawing, and get something out there already.
Your author platform is crucial for discovery and visibility, but also for the third stage of the Readers’ Journey. Gaughran notes “the Consideration stage is when readers are actually on your product page and considering the purchase of your book.”
This is when your book cover, blurb, and sample are incredibly important to convince a reader to buy your book. But I believe your author platform is key here as well.
Compare and contrast two hypothetical authors who just launched their first book. Author A created a professional-looking website several years before publishing their book and began uploading high-quality content on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Author B doesn’t have a website or any other online content at the time they launch their book.
Now consider potential readers interested in both authors. They look at the books by Author A and Author B and decide to look them up online for more information. They find nothing about Author B, but a diverse collection of posts by Author A that allows readers to get a feel for the author and their voice.
Which book do you think readers will take a chance on?
Moreover, readers can’t discover you if there’s nothing to find about you online. If you don’t publish anything or have an active social media presence until you launch your books, there’s nothing to help readers to gradually get to know you and remember you.
Putting something out there before you launch your books is not just about building your reader audience. It’s also useful for leveraging opportunities you gain through networking with other authors.
Without any online content, the connections you make at author events or even virtual communities may lose strength because there’s nothing tangible to build them on.
A finished novel is not necessary to begin building your reader audience and increasing your future potential for discovery, visibility, and consideration. I’ve tried a number of interesting options for publishing content and have been slowly building my reader audience.
In April 2016, I launched my website with a blog where I post regularly about my author journey. Over the course of two years, I’ve published 34 blog posts tracking the evolution of my career and sharing my insights along the way.
About 2,400 people have visited my website and viewed 4,682 pages of my content. My blog has 48 followers from the WordPress community, but I get most of my traffic from my social media presence on Facebook (511 friends), Twitter (420 following), and LinkedIn (1,169 contacts).
Admittedly, these stats are not wildly impressive, and I didn’t find blogging very helpful for gaining fiction a ton of readers. However, at minimum, readers can find discover me through my content on search engines.
In my first year of blogging, most of my traffic came from Facebook. But by the second year, most of my traffic is coming in from search engines. That means that people are discovering my website through web searches and content. As such, my website/blog now serves as part of my author platform where prospective readers can learn more about me before buying my book.
If you’re really brave (or crazy), you could also post draft chapters online to generate reader interest. In the fall of 2016, I started a crowdsourcing experiment and began releasing scenes of my first mystery novel Bionic Bug on Wattpad and giving my readers the opportunity to vote on three choices for the next scene.
Once the votes were in, I wrote the scene with the most votes. I gained a small but enthusiastic following for Bionic Bug. Most of these people are now my superfans and supported my recent Kickstarter campaign.
You might also consider a soft launch strategy for your series to gain traction with your reader audience in advance of your formal launch. Many authors are now holding several books in a series back until they can release them successively in a rapid sequence. This allows authors to leverage momentum of each book, maximizing opportunities for discovery and visibility on Amazon.
The truth is that you don’t have to wait to “bank” your books. You can have your author cake and eat it, too.
One of the great things about the Internet is that you don’t exist at an online retailer until you press publish. That means you can wait to release your books on Amazon, while still publishing them on other smaller retailers.
I’ve made my first novel Bionic Bug available on Kobo while I’m working on the second, third, and fourth books in the series. This way, I can direct interested readers to buy the book and leave a review and begin building my reader audience long before I make a splash on Amazon.
If you have a book finished and want to release the first few in your series at the same time, don’t wait to build momentum. You won’t regret getting started early.
By the time I release the four-book series on Amazon in late 2019, I expect to already have an enthusiastic launch team to help me spread the word and leave reviews.
You need to put something out into the universe to start a ripple effect. Since it takes a long time to develop momentum, it’s a good idea to start on it sooner rather than later. If you do put something out there, then you should make sure the content represents the quality you wish to be known by (or clearly state that something is a draft upfront).
Lesson #3 – Start Your Reader Engagement Now
One of my greatest fears as a new author is to launch my series on Amazon and then hear the sound of crickets. That’s why I’m planning ahead and putting pieces into place to support the different stages of the Readers’ Journey. You can start engaging prospective readers and winning over superfans long before you launch your books, but it can get tricky with time management.
According to Gaughran, the final two stages of the Reader Journey are the Purchase stage when readers are actually reading your book and the Advocacy stage which takes place after a reader has finished your book. This is the point at which reader engagement becomes especially important for cultivating superfans.
If you already know your Ideal Reader, he suggests “there are two main things an author needs to do to help more readers become superfans. One is pretty easy and just requires a little set-up—which is having pristine end-matter and being present where your readers are in terms of social media. The other is quite hard and requires constant work—and that is having some form of open channel with your readers which keeps them happy and engaged. Any organic two-way communication between you and your readers creates engagement.”
One-on-one reader engagement requires a great deal of time and regular personal communication.
Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day, and many of us have full-time jobs and family obligations. It’s also a well-known fact in the self-publishing industry that the best way for you to make more money as an author is to write more books. Time is money.
This is probably the reason that Gaughran claims that most authors spend more time building large email lists rather than considering their engagement levels. “You need to make readers feel valued, and a part of what you are doing… but generating the level of excitement in your readers that will make a truly impassioned recommendation, that’s where it gets complicated.”
I’ve been trying out a few ways to engage readers in advance of my book launch that leverage my current work, but simultaneously provide an interactive experience for my readers.
The great news about being an Indie author is that you own your intellectual property. That means you can get creative with your content to engage your readers and kill more birds with one stone.
Recently, I built upon my early crowdsourcing efforts to launch a Kickstarter campaign for Project Gecko, the second book in my series. I offered limited edition signed hardcover copies of Bionic Bug as the main reward. I also invited backers to sign up for my fan club where they would become members of the Lara Kingsley Series Facebook Group and get the opportunity to help choose names, settings, and details about the storyline in Project Gecko.
The Facebook group has been underway for several weeks. Every few days, I ask my fans to brainstorm ideas on a specific issue in my draft. I collect a list of ideas, choose my favorites, and then put it to all of my Facebook contacts for a vote. I’ll use the winning ideas in my book and give credit on a special page in the back of my book.
In the coming months, I will also be launching a weekly podcast around my first novel, Bionic Bug. In the front matter, I’ll be leveraging my expertise from my day job and discussing the latest emerging technology headlines.
In each episode, I’ll read a chapter from my book. Then I’ll conclude the episode with behind-the-scenes information. To gain support from my reader audience, I plan to have a Patreon page that offers a few cool rewards.
Both of these projects are quite time intensive, but they are doing double duty and helping me to accomplish my overall goals for my formal series launch in 2019. Through reader engagement on my Facebook group, I’m cultivating superfans who will hopefully help me with my book launch and reviews. With the podcast, I’ll be adding valuable content to my website, increasing my chances of moving readers through the stages of discovery, visibility, consideration, purchase and advocacy.
Superfans Want to Get Involved at “Fan Zero”
It’s never to early to begin understanding your ideal readers and cultivating your superfans. As you begin your author career, there are things you can do in advance to set yourself up for your future launch that improve your chances for creating superfans.
Michael Anderle recently suggested one of the secrets to creating superfans is to involve them from the beginning: “the strategy, no matter the tactic is to get fans INVOLVED in the creation of the stories. Give them a place to voice ideas, suggestions, and become part of the story.”
Several successful authors such as Andy Weir (The Martian) and Hugh Howey (Wool) have tinkered with involving their readers at the beginning of their bestselling careers.
Once you know your Ideal Reader, Gaughran says “it’s about focusing on your core audience, not trying to be all things to all people, creating engagement, and delivering value in every interaction.” In his new book, he offers advice for creating superfans at each stage of the Readers’ Journey.
So far, I think my strategy to develop superfans has paid off and may even prove successful in fueling my series launch in 2019. In the past three months since publishing Bionic Bug on Kobo and running my Kickstarter, I’ve sold 83 books (ebook and hardcover), gained at least 42 brand new fans and earned about $2,440 from book sales. I’m not going to quit my job just yet, but I’m pleased with these results.
Here are some other authors who have used these tactics successfully.
- In 2015, Eric Mack began crowdsourcing an entire science fiction novel, which was finished last Spring. He served as the lead writer, developed the story concept and acted as admin on an open Google Doc where anyone could provide input into the draft.
- Hugh Howey, bestselling author of the Wool Trilogy Series, also has used crowdsourcing to get ideas for his novels.
- I also discovered that Andy Weir, author of The Martian, crowdsourced aspects of his bestselling novel (which is now a movie starring Matt Damon and other Hollywood A-listers).
- More recently, CJ Bernstein has developed an online interactive reader experience that allows him to get readers signed up to his email list in advance and earn revenue before his first book release.
- Maria Luis, a romance writer, has created a weekly love serial called Undeniable. Each week, she writes a new scene in a romance story and offers readers the opportunity to vote on options for the next scene. She discusses how this strategy has helped her build the fan base for her books on the Self Publishing Formula podcast.
- I’ve recently launched a podcast around Bionic Bug in which I discuss the latest tech trends, read chapters from my book, and share behind-the-scenes information about my book. I’m using Patreon to gain support from my audience. To set up my podcast, I’ve purchased a Blue Yeti microphone, a Jabra headset, my intro music from Pond5, audacity recording software (free), and Blubrry hosting services.
- Paranormal fantasy writer Vered Ehsani has also created a podcast in which she reads her books, chapter-by-chapter and is using Patreon to gain support from her reader audience.
- Jim Kukral is offering a service that will turn your book into a podcast for you called Book2Pod.
Will you consider using some of these strategies to build your first 1000 superfans? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Natasha Bajema is a fiction author and lives in Washington, D.C. with her two dogs, Malachi and Charlie. She has been an expert on national security issues for over 18 years, specializing in weapons of mass destruction (WMD), nuclear proliferation, terrorism and emerging technologies. She works for the National Defense University where she teaches an elective course to senior military officers on WMD and film and leads a research project on the impact of emerging technologies on WMD.
Her past work experience includes extended assignments in the Pentagon, the Department of Energy and the United Nations. Her publications include two co-edited volumes entitled Terrorism and Counterterrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism, both of which were published by McGraw Hill. Natasha holds an M.A. in international policy from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a Ph.D. in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Learn more at NatashaBajema.com.