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Personal Branding

Building a Crowd: Make Sure Your Book Has Readers Before You Publish

Build a community of fans and customers before you release your work to dramatically increase your chances of success and be lightyears ahead of your peers.

It’s happened to most writers: we toil on a project for weeks, obsessing over every word. Then, when it comes time to release our work to the wild, we brace ourselves for everyone to sit up and take notice but instead … nothing happens. Why do some writing projects take off, while others never get off the ground?

Occasionally, it’s luck. But mostly it’s because the savviest writers have already ensured there is a built-in group waiting in anticipation on the other side.

Call it the “anti-marketing” plan: by building genuine connections with readers we can dramatically improve the chances of success and make the creative process more fun. As a bonus, when done correctly, community building efforts are cumulative – work hard to win over a supporter and you likely have a fan for years.Below we outline the steps to building an audience with the help and advice of a handful of industry experts.

1. You exist in a marketplace. Prepare to humble yourself.

We’re often deceived by the Hollywood narrative of being suddenly “discovered” and subsequently rocketing to notoriety. Chances are, we won’t run in to a literary agent at Starbucks who wants to hand us a three-book contract and arm us with a team of publicists.

Call it the ‘anti-marketing’ plan: by building genuine connections with readers we can dramatically improve the chances of success

As a result, many writers play the “publishing lottery,” blindly hoping that readers will magically gravitate to their work and, when they do, they’ll be so enamored with the book that they will feel immediately compelled to tell the world. Though some people get lucky, building an audience of readers typically takes months of research and trial-and-error.”Most people don’t do any research into their target audience, they are either too cocky or too scared,” says Dan Blank, founder of We Grow Media and advisor to authors and publishers about the best ways to get started building a community.

Remember that you exist in a marketplace, and your job is to figure out where you fit iny testing who your audience is and what content resonates with them. With some up-front preparation work, you’ll save hours of heartache later.

But remember: “People can smell inauthentic community building a mile away,” says Pamela Slim, author of the blog and book Escape from Cubicle Nation. “Create something that means something to you and means something to your audience. If you’re in doubt about that, I’d suggest a different topic.”

2.Your goal will help put your work in context.

Many creatives state “getting published” as an end goal but your creative and professional struggles won’t simply disappear with your project’s completion. Getting published is only the beginning.

“Too many people can’t see past that first book,” says Blank. When that happens, we can set ourselves up for disappointment if our writing doesn’t take off as planned. For long-term projects like a book, the effects of a dud can be especially painful, but there’s hope.

Your creative and professional struggles won’t simply disappear with your project’s completion. To avoid this emotional roller coaster, determine your goals for what comes next. Why are you publishing a book? Are you self-publishing in the hopes of a larger deal? Do you have an existing business that you are trying to boost? Would you like to be a thought-leader and speaker about your topic?Your goal will help you figure out your next step when the time is right and put any successes or failures in a broader perspective.

3. Pick your community and leverage communities that already exist.

It’s tempting to state “my work is for everyone” but all great creative work is a hit with a core audience before appealing to the masses. To increase the likelihood of success, build a solid base of supporters to refine your work and eventually broaden its reach.

“If you can’t build a small audience, how can you expect to build a large audience?” says Blank.

Blank has a test for forcing creatives to think about choosing the right community: If he offered you a prize of $50,000 to find five people who would be interested in your project in the next three hours, where would you go? Who would you call? What groups would you reach out to?  Where are these people already congregating?

4. Share with your community.

The most popular ways to connect with readers typically utilize a blog, a newsletter, or a book trailer. Some authors use all three.

Before she even considered writing a book, Slim had been blogging for over two years, sharing helpful advice with her readers about becoming entrepreneurs based on her years as a career coach. So when it came time to write Escape from Cubicle Nation, Slim shared everything with her readers in advance. She offered them the chance to be on her “advisory council” – a group she often emailed when she hit road blocks during the writing process. Around 150 people signed up.

If you can’t build a small audience, how can you expect to build a large audience? “It let me test my ideas, I would just toss out questions and they gave me great feedback,” says Slim.  “They then became great advocates and got the first copies of the book.” Thanks to her base of readers and her “advisory council” her book became a launching point for speaking gigs, online courses, and more as readers told friends and promoted the book on their own platforms.”They were like my partners, we worked on this together and it felt really good as a first time author who didn’t know what she was doing,” says Slim.

What do you think?

This is the first in a potential series offering advice for specific creative careers. What other topics and careers would you like to see explored?

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (28)
  • Srinivas Rao

    Good stuff Sean. I think one thing people have to keep in mind is that this applies to self published authors as well. We recently self published what you might call our first “flagship” title on Kindle. We wrote a full blown marketing plan for it which including the following”

    1) Network Outreach
    2) Guest Posts
    3) Slideshare Presentations
    4) Podcast Episodes
    5) Build a Street team (you should talk to Sarah Robinson who just wrote Fierce Loyalty and get her insights on this.)

    The best advice I ever got from author was from Carrie Wilkerson who told me “book promotion is a marathon not a sprint.” Fortunately I’ve been exposed to many author’s marketing plans and each ones is different. What I’ve learned is the marketing of te book is just as much work as writing it, if not more.

  • Daniel

    Like so much encouragement-based writing, this post is totally lacking in concrete ideas, and just speaks in general ‘shoulds’ and ‘need-to’s’. The closest we get is “utilize a blog, a newsletter, or a book trailer.” Waste of time. Un-content. Non-content. Would love to see something helpful on the same topic, 99u.

  • Daniel

    This comment gives twice as many concrete suggestions as the article. Very damning for the article, but thanks for additional ideas Srinivas!

  • Srinivas Rao

    Hey Daniel,

    Thanks for the kind words. My intention wasn’t at all be damning about the article. I love the work that the 99u team does. I think this is article will probably be the first in a series from what Sean wrote at the end, so I wouldn’t write them off just yet (no pun intended).

  • Rowan

    This biggest problem I have with this is the time commitment. I don’t want to be spending all this time on newsletter and blogs etc when i really want to be creating my art.

    But it makes sense.

  • Steve H-B

    Daniel I’d say your criticism would be wholly justified if the title was “10 Killer tips to GUARANTEE you get published” but, at the end of the day, the title and the content are about opening the reader up to the concepts that they may have to ‘take their future into their own hands’ to some degree. This alone for many would be authors (aged between 35 and 55) will probably be a bit of a shock to them. I wouldn’t be quite so damming when this is stated as the ‘opener’ to a series. I’d also ask what your area of expertise is as the name you have posted under doesn’t seem to let me follow up on who you really are or what your background is?

  • Dan Blank

    Daniel: thanks for the feedback, I definitely understand that what you seek is the practical step by step tips, not the vague, distant “advice” that is easy to say, but hard to do.

    Some of the quotes I shared for this piece are what I have found to be hard truths for many writers. They say they want to get serious, they want to build an audience, but they ONLY see social media – broadcasting Tweets – as a way to do so. One of the main points I wanted to make is that audience research is a key differentiator, and that is advice that a lot of folks move past too quickly.

    If you want to dig into specific ideas for your goals, please ask questions, here, I am happy to answer them as best I can.

  • Dan Blank

    Thanks for framing this Steve!

  • Dan Blank

    Rowan: great point, and I hear this a lot from writers. Most writers are juggling a day job, a family, household commitments, hobbies, their writing, and now the concept that they are responsible for developing their audience. It can be overwhelming to consider.

    I think it’s important to be clear about the goals you hope to achieve as a writer. That, your non-writing time is strategic in terms of what you do, where you invest your time and money, and that you feel it actually aligns to why you write. Many people feel that if their work isn’t read, then writing is not complete.

    Much appreciated.

  • Dan Blank

    Srinivas: great advice! I love the marketing plan, and how you felt this “product” aligned to other strategic business objectives.

    A book marketing plan can cover dozens of activities, as you mentioned, and could be aligned to a clear timeline over the course of 6+ months. (years, ideally!)


  • Daniel

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Dan. Even a superficial (but longer) list of mediums/avenues to pursue would be extremely helpful. So if blogs, newsletters and book trailers are 3 mediums, what are 15 others? I agree that many would-be authors are ignorant as to the depth and breadth of marketing opportunities (going beyond twitter, facebook and blogging) and I would love to see a longer list of potential mediums/activities that readers can then research further on our own. Thanks again.

  • Daniel

    Hi Steve, I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, but I am a writer who has already done a lot of research on publishing / self-publishing and marketing. So I guess with that in mind, I found this post to be fairly general. However, I see your point: if you didn’t already know, it is extremely valuable to read that you need to aggressively market yourself in order to succeed at writing/publishing. I remember realizing that was transformative for me. I believe you need to spend at least an hour on marketing for every hour of creative time–maybe more. Thanks for the feedback.

  • Amaya Ellman

    There are useful tips in this article – and from the commenters. Quick fixes to book marketing don’t exist. Even the ‘bestseller’ people put the effort in before they become well-known. It just appears to look easier because they’re selling a lot of copies and being featured in magazines.

    Blogging thoughtfully about your own work, making connections with other creatives and being careful and respectful of potential readers is key in my view. If I try too hard to push a book, I find those potential readers tend to pull slightly away. It’s a balance between being confident in your ability to write and wanting to market the work and realising you’re just a drop in the ocean and accepting that for the time being.

    To be absolutely honest, I thought I would dread marketing but, now I’m getting used to it, I realise I love connecting with new readers and reviewers. If you want to earn fast bucks or be an instant hit, change jobs. Writing books is rewarding because it’s so difficult and requires real talent to stand out.

    Good luck to other writers & thanks to Dan for the article.

  • Dan Blank

    I actually get concerned by those lists of “20 Ways to Find Your Audience,” and each bullet is something huge, such as “Pinterest,” or “Book Clubs.”

    It’s HOW you use them that matters. But, I totally want to answer your question and give you more specifics.

    One great resource that I really like a lot is Jenny Blake’s Book Marketing Spreadsheet:

    Look through all 15 tabs, you will find lots of great ideas/avenues here.

    I would also recommend following these two people who share lots of great tips (with TONS) in their archives:

    There are so many other incredible folks sharing tips about finding an audience for your book, but Jane and Joanna are both incredibly giving people, and offer tons of ideas.

    Let me know if I can help further.

  • Dan Blank

    Daniel – I like how you are considering the time needed – EVERY DAY – to focus on connecting with your audience. I have heard different writers provide different breakdowns of their time for this, but an hour a day is certainly a GREAT habit, and more than many writers do.


  • Dan Blank

    Love hearing this! “I realise I love connecting with new readers.” YES! Awhile back, Mediabistro did a great interview with Rebecca Skloot on how she became a NYT Bestseller, and I shared some of her tips in a blog post. I hope 99u doesn’t mind me linking to it, here, I think it provides a nice context for what we are talking about here (the amount of work involved, and the VALUE of that work), plus it does get into more specifics:

    Thanks again!

  • Tameka (BloggerPoet)

    I think this post is valuable in that it asks writers to take some responsibility for their own marketing and doing some of the leg work in building up their reading audiences. One of the best things I ever did to promote my writing was to create a blog. It is a wonderful tool to not only promote your work, but to also engage with other writers and potential book buyers. Blogs, social media, traditional marketing and public relations must all be used in tandem in order for a writer to maximize their audience. Writers should also attend as many literary events as they can. Building relationships is key in opening yourself up to readers. I don’t think there is a magic list to building an audience. The basics that are suggested in the post are enough to get you started and then it is up to you the writer to figure out which avenues work best for you.

  • Bobbi

    I can relate to Rowan’s sense of being overwhelmed with the idea of doing blogs, newsletters, marketing, etc. when as a writer, all I want to do is write in the precious little time available.

    I was told of this need to blog and build an audience before publishing a couple of years ago and rejected it immediately. There was no way I could conceive of setting up a blog, much less committing to regular posts, and work on my project as well.


    I now have the first draft of my book completed. I know there is a long way to go before it’s edited and ready for public consumption, but having that under my belt, I find I can pull little pieces from it and use those as the basis for blog posts. I’m in the process of having about 10 posts ready and edited before I actually launch my blog. Then I won’t be scrambling if life gets in the way.

    Having material to draw on, and having an inventory of posts, so to speak, is making this fell more doable now. I guess timing really is everything.

  • Dan Blank

    Bobbi – Congrats on things coming together. For the blog, be mindful as to how your blog adds conversation to an existing community and audience. Who will you connect with that will LOVE what you share here? Relationships really matter when growing a blog.

  • Dan Blank

    Thanks for sharing what has worked for you! And you make an excellent point that there isn’t a magic list. Too often, I find people look for some secret tactic that magically builds an audience, forgetting that the basics really matter. Relationships take time to grow, and for many, these messages and connections happen over the period of months/years, not hours/days.


  • Joshua Danton Boyd

    Great article. Very helpful.

    The idea of building a community around your work is already very important too I think, especially online. I think writers should take more lessons from the music industry and how they’ve adapted to new technology. There have been plenty of bands who have used their tiny online fan base to eventually achieve huge success (Arctic Monkeys being a prime example).

    There’s an idea that I’m currently toying with. I’m writing a book at the moment that is set on this planet, but at a certain point in time there is a split from the real Earth’s history and I am creating an entirely new one.

    To demonstrate this, while I’m writing the book I am also creating map using Google Map’s overlay feature and a wiki with details of the histories of all these countries. I plan to realise this alternative world without hinting too much of the plot. Hopefully this will start to intrigue people before the book is even finished and get me some customers before it even goes on sale.

  • florabrown


    While many writers feel the same way you do, marketing must be done nonetheless if we hope to sell our work. This is a reality whether you go with a traditional publisher or decide to self-publish.The key is to find strategic ways to market as well as enlist the help of others in getting this done. There’s no way we can do all that needs to be done by ourselves.

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