Sell to Readers, Not to Writers

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is based on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

Plight: Writers Selling to Writers

Of late, I have noticed in the writing community a trend of writers posting their most recent writing-related piece or event in front of other writers. For example, in some writing groups I’ve joined on Facebook, writers will share their blog post links or book signing announcements to those (closed) writers groups. On Twitter, writers will participate in follow-for-follow events or #writerslifts wherein writers follow each other to boost their follower numbers, effectively creating for themselves a (closed-ish) writers group. Every bit of news they post goes out just to other writers, not necessarily to fans of their work. Much like shouting straight into a bucket, your cry going nowhere.

Let’s dig into how so many writers have gained an audience almost exclusively made up of other writers. New writers land on a social media site, eager to start building their platform. They see all the new writers who came before them scrambling to make those follower numbers happen however possible, inflating their numbers with an audience that doesn’t care about their work on a personal level. And these new writers proceed to do the exact same thing. Effectively, these numbers boosting efforts create a screen between the writer and the audience that will love their work, generating a bunch of noise that goes nowhere. Not (always) necessarily because those soulless follows are made up of selfish writers, but because those writers now have cluttered up their own feeds so badly with other writers shouting their wares in the marketplace that they almost certainly won’t see your posts.

And when writers do follow you, why exactly should they care? They followed you because you’re a writer, not for your writing. You’re selling to writers with little personal investment in your work.

I can see why attempts to sell to writers seems reasonable. Obviously, writers (typically) write because they are also readers—that’s why we get into this business, because we want to make art that someone will love as much as we loved someone else’s art—so it makes some sense to market your writing to other writers. Another advantage to posting work in front of writers is that we all understand and empathize with the writing struggle, so we will of course give the post a like and maybe a repost, regardless of whether we enjoy the other writer’s work on a personal level. So there’s some perceived interaction there.

However, writers be hustlin’. Not only do we write a lot, most of us also hold down day jobs, so all that writing happens in our free time. Writers simply don’t get the luxurious swathes of time required for getting to read every new release. We are your fans, of course, but not the kind of fans you need to make sales.

What you want are readers.

Solution: Writers Selling to Readers

The above link shows I’m not the only one who’s noticed the way writers conduct their sales efforts online. The energy of the image seems to convey the pointlessness of trying to sell to other writers. You’re standing around with a bunch of writers, saying to them, “Hey, buy my book!” while they’re also saying to you, “Hey, buy my book!” These two puzzle ends just don’t connect.

When I reposted this tweet with my thoughts attached, one of my followers, a fellow writer, asked how one even goes about selling to readers as opposed to other writers. A totally fair question, because it’s hard to know, right? Hard, when all the writers within view are doing exactly this.

Through passive research (usually in reading about something else entirely), I’ve formed together several bits of related information into an answer. (In the ensuing explanation, anywhere that I write “book,” assume I also mean “short-story,” “poetry,” and anything else you could be selling to readers.)

Curate your content for readers

When I talk about “readers,” I don’t mean just anyone who happens to read your content. That could apply to other writers or the president. I mean that person you were before you got into writing, but obsessed. A reader is a shambling collection of dusty volumes who gobbles down more books for sustenance, who owns copies of their favorites, who haunts libraries and bookstores, who browses Wattpad and Archive of Our Own for something to read while stuck waiting for jury duty (me, this was me), who joins book clubs, who peruses book blogs and best-of lists and book podcasts for their next favorite read. Readers are not writing because they’re busy reading.

So put yourself in the warm fuzzy slippers of a 100% pure angus beef reader. They want more (good) words to read and they want to be able to trust the judgement of you, a writer who makes more words for them to read. So what content could you curate for your hypothetical capital R Readers? Don’t worry if you have few to none of these kinds of followers yet, because you’re going to draw them in by following the steps below.

Naturally, you want your readers to read your work, but you won’t always have something of yours to share. So first off, hype your own writing and cut down on posting about Being A Writer. (It’s the aesthetic, I get it.) Link your reviews and those of others about books you just read. Alternatively, just hype books you genuinely like. As suggested in Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon, share snippets of your writing, your process, and your inspirations. Interest readers with exactly what they like and the follows will follow. If you can demonstrate your taste to your readers, they’ll know whether they’ll like what you eventually have to sell to them.

Determine your book’s target audience

My previous point involved more generalized direction. But when we talk about selling to readers, that involves selling something. And selling something involves selling to someone. Of course, I’ve been talking about selling to readers, but now you need to determine your book’s readers, specifically.

Marketers find a product’s target demographic all the time. They figure out the details of the person most likely to buy their product: age, gender, occupation, socioeconomic standing, political views, etc. Once they know that, they target those demographics with advertising of their product. This way, they don’t waste advertising dollars on shouting into the bleak internet void, but instead get what they’re selling right in front of the people most likely to buy.

Translating this process to book marketing is a little weird and I won’t pretend I have much experience at it. My best suggestion would be to write down those demographic details for your ideal reader, but also go a little deeper. You already know your book has a genre, so you’ll add lovers of that genre to your list of details. You can also determine what tropes your book contains, knowing lovers of those tropes will enjoy it. There are a number of ways to leverage this information, namely through the use of Google Analytics and Google Advertising, but for our purposes, this will be useful knowledge in a later step.

Discover your book’s comps

By now, you have almost certainly seen the #PitMad posts that go around Twitter. For those unfamiliar, #PitMad involves posting the pitch of the book you’re querying on a specific day with a specific hashtag, which book agents can then peruse for anything they might want to acquire. If they dig your pitch, they’ll leave a like to invite you to query them. One of the main and best parts of this frantic event (in my opinion) has been the recent addition of including the book’s comps (comparable books, movies, video games, anything that gives a shorthand hint as to your book’s vibe).

Though/if you’re not participating in a #PitMad event, you should also find your book’s comps, even if you’ve already published without ever needing this information. Knowing what books are similar to yours helps readers who loved those books decide whether they want to give your book a shot. While many comps come from non-book mediums, I suggest you specifically use books for your comps, as this will be most useful to you for the next tip.

Find book-loving communities

No, you don’t get to sit on your duff on Twitter, hollering about your book on your own feed in hopes that your target audience will find it. You have to go out and find where your target audience hangs out. This is where knowing your book’s comps comes in real handy, because those books? The ones similar to yours? They already have communities of fans built up around them. Who knows, maybe you’re one of those fans, too! Those fans want something similar to this story they love, and it just so happens you have it.

Now, this is where many a writer stumbles. You don’t get to just crash into a book’s community of fans and start posting links to your book. “If you like this book you came here to gush over, you’ll like mine, too!” is a spammy, awful turn-off and bad internet manners to boot. Nobody likes it and nobody will like you. These readers don’t know you from Adam, so instead, you must find somebody these fans already trust.

Dig up book community influencers

The overall “book community” consists of many neighborhoods: bookstagram (Instagram), book TikTok, bookblr/booklr (Tumblr), book Twitter, book Reddit, book blogs, book vlogs, book podcasts, etc. Anywhere that people are talking about books. And every one of these community neighborhoods has several people that book lovers flock to. Look for the people with quality content, frequent posts, and many likes and comments. These people are committed to the love of books and their opinions matter very much to the rest of the community. These are the people fans of your book’s comps already trust.

Reach out to these influencers of the community surrounding your book comps. Describe to them your book’s target audience and comps to let them know their followers are sure to enjoy your work. Offer a free digital copy, ARCs, your press kit for their blog, feature in your newsletter, anything of value that isn’t money, in exchange for an honest review. Ask them to post the review either on Amazon or Goodreads, where the most people will see it, and let you know when it’s done. Remember also that just because someone accepts your offer, they are not obligated to finish the book or write the review. For this reason, you should do this outreach with several influencers.

Be a good community citizen

Once the review of your book goes up, you should share it everywhere you can. Your newsletter, your blog, your social media feeds. You know this benefits you, of course, because the review is of your work! (Hopefully a good one! If it’s not, well… proceed how you think best.) But in addition, this reviewer just did free work for you. In return, they should expect any traffic you can push their way from your own audience. Sing their praises and your gratitude!

Do this enough, and you’ll gain a whole retinue of book lovers ready to read and review your next piece. I suggest keeping a spreadsheet of everyone who helped you out. Partly, give your very kind reviewer a follow, because with your research into influencers of communities surrounding books like yours, you know at least some of their content will be of interest to followers of your work, giving you a built-in way to curate more content readers will enjoy.

Rinse and repeat.

Ultimately, this advice falls under book marketing, which many people with more experience than me have studied, discussed, and explained at length. Go find them. In fact, you should check out The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman to find where I picked up a good chunk of this advice, as well as further explanations for how to get word of your work out through many more different mediums. The rest has been a smattering of knowledge gleaned from researching press kits, improving my own book reviews, and paying attention to the habits of Twitter accounts I actually enjoy following (as opposed to feeling bombarded with soulless, unendorsed retweets). This column has been just a quick and dirty method for digging out of the habit of selling to writers. All I ask is for writers to stop wasting their time and energy and begin the journey of selling to their beloved true readers.

Thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “Sell to Readers, Not to Writers

    1. I’m semi back! I’ll just be posting when I have something I really want to say, so I’m glad you enjoyed this one. Your appreciation makes the return all the better 🙂

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