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First-time authors are often plagued by questions about how to build a readership, gain a following, and build a platform from which to launch their books.
We received a question from a Novel Marketing listener about how to connect with a lot of readers:
I have no following, no readers, and no platform. I have ten potential readers made up of family and friends who I suspect would buy my book. But how do I go from 10 to 10,000 readers in five years.-Novel Marketing Listener
If you’re writing fiction, we have a course that teaches you how to build a readership. You can also listen to our episode about The Guaranteed Way to Become a Bestselling Novelist.
But what if you’re writing nonfiction?
First, I want to congratulate this listener on getting ten readers! The first ten readers are always the hardest. It’s often hard to get people interested at the beginning. But if you have ten true fans who are willing to read everything you write and share it with their friends, you are off to a great start. Many writers don’t even have ten true fans.
Tips for Growing Your Readership
Research the Total Potential Market Size
One of the first steps of marketing is to determine how many potential readers exist. You may have found a niche that only a handful of people care about.
Research the Market for Memoir
When an author writes about their own life, the target market is typically quite small. The potential audience for a memoir is limited to people who already have questions about the author’s life.
A memoir authored by an average person will generate interest from only a few dozen readers. By contrast, a memoir by an American president or major celebrity will likely interest millions of readers.
Commercial success requires the author to have some celebrity, and you may need to come to grips with that reality.
However, writing for a small audience is perfectly acceptable, though less commercially viable. My grandfathers wrote autobiographies, and several hundred of our family members treasure those books.
Research the Market for a Rant
It’s also hard to find a market for a ranting book. No one wants to read a stranger’s political, theological, or philosophical rants. In general, people don’t want to read rants.
Your nonfiction book must offer solutions to make someone’s life better.
Once you’ve discovered a market of people who want and need what you’re writing, you’ll need to resonate with them.
Success in Publishing Requires Resonance
In physics, resonance is like pushing a child on a swing. If you are in resonance with the frequency of the swing, you are pushing the child as she swings away from you. You are encouraging the swing in the direction it already wants to go. If you misjudge the frequency, you’ll miss your chance to push or push the child off the swing.
Writers must aim for resonance based on the spirit of the era in which they write.
In other words, writers must be in tune with (or in resonance with) the cultural zeitgeist.
Zeitgeist: “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.”– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Nonfiction writers will know they’re resonating when someone says, “Yes! This is what I have been feeling recently!” When someone feels understood and helped by an author or book, they tell their friends about it. That is resonance.
Resonance is the reason my blog post went viral. People were already frustrated with the concept and practice of courtship. My blog, which normally garnered about 2,000 readers, got over a million views. The people who read the blog said, “Yes! This is how I feel.” Then they shared it with friends.
The article wasn’t for everyone. Some people passionately disagreed with me. But the blog post was published when the culture started reevaluating its stance on dating and relationships. If I had published that same article now, it wouldn’t be as powerful because it would have missed the moment. If I had published it five years earlier, it wouldn’t have received the same attention because it was too early for the cultural zeitgeist.
How to Find Your Resonance
1) Resonance is about timing.
Culture changes over time. If you’re too early and out of step with the zeitgeist, you will push the girl off the swing. If you’re too late, you’re still out of step with the zeitgeist, and you are cliché. You are straining to push the swing after it is already out of reach.
For example, if you wrote a Y2K book in 1999, you were too late. A dozen authors had beat you to publication.
I regularly advise authors to read all of the most popular books in their genre so that they’ll be aware of the conversations happening in and around their genre.
For example, if you’re writing about parenting, you need to know what the current parenting books are teaching. You don’t have to agree with those authors, but you do need to know what they contribute to the conversation.
2) Resonance is about the audience.
Each community vibrates at its own frequency. Saying your book is for everyone is like standing at a swing set, trying to push all the swings at once. You must watch the motion of a specific swing–or observe a specific audience–in order to push at the right time.
Narrow Your Audience
If you can specifically narrow your audience, you’ll find it easier to resonate with them.
Consider the cliché example of a book by an older person shaking their fist at young people and hoping young people will read it and change their behavior. The book is destined to fail because the author doesn’t understand the challenges of the people they hope to reach. They’re not resonating with that specific audience.
One author who pulled this off was Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade. The author was in her forties, and she was writing to people in their twenties. By profession, she was a counselor for twenty-somethings.
I give the book as a graduation gift, and the graduates who have read it really like it. It answers some of the questions they’re asking at that time of their lives, and it does so respectfully. Meg Jay had resonance with her audience because she understood their challenges and could offer practical advice and solutions they’d accept.
Know Who Your Book is NOT For
You can’t resonate with every community. Being in sync with one community will necessarily put you out of sync with others. Generally, women in nursing homes and men on basketball teams don’t read the same books. If you resonate with one community, you will not resonate with the other.
That’s why it’s important to know who your book is not for. If your cozy romance doesn’t resonate with basketball players, don’t worry about it. You weren’t aiming for resonance with that audience anyway.
Join the Community You Want to Reach
You need to spend time with the community you want to reach. If your target community won’t accept you, you won’t be able to find resonance with them.
For example, if you hate science fiction and want to write a book to “fix” it, you will fail. That was the problem with The Last Jedi. It wasn’t made by fans of Star Wars. The writers tried to “fix” something that wasn’t broken. Making Luke Skywalker a coward, the rebellion incompetent, and Rey a nobody was the “fix” that broke Star Wars.
The arrogance of claiming to know better than everyone who has come before and better than the fans is actually ignorance. It simply proves you’re outside the zeitgeist and failing to find resonance.
3) Resonance is about listening.
You need to listen to the music around you to be in tune with it.
To return to the original metaphor, you need to watch the swings. A novelist needs to watch the movies their target readers watch and read the novels they read.
Nonfiction writers need to find out where the conversation about their topic is taking place and join the group. Depending on your topic, you may find the conversation happening on blogs, podcasts, Reddit, or Facebook groups. Technology conversations typically happen on Reddit. Parenting conversations are probably happening in Facebook groups or an app.
Once you find the community, resist the temptation to jump in and start sharing your wisdom. Before you say or post anything, listen to what the community members are saying. Make notes about the questions they’re asking.
After you’ve made observations, you can answer those questions in the community forum, on your blog, and in your book.
If you blog about a topic, check your analytics to find out if it’s resonating.
4) Resonance is about persistence.
- It takes time to get in sync with those around you and understand the cultural music.
- It takes practice to be able to play music in tune with culture.
- It takes persistence to play leading music that prompts the culture to follow you rather than the other way around.
It takes time to build a following, and that is actually a good thing. I’m glad our listener gave himself a five-year time frame to build a following because getting famous overnight can be psychologically harmful.
Resonance is Not Platform
Resonance is much more than how many people follow you on social media.
Platform can be a sign of resonance, but it’s not how you make resonance happen. Resonance is the horse, and platform is the cart the horse pulls. Don’t put the cart in front of the horse. Start by finding your resonance, and the platform will follow.
The key to resonance is to reach beyond yourself. Authors who write from a selfish place rarely have the vision to see how the swing is moving. Sometimes authors get lucky. They create something for themselves, and it happens to resonate with the cultural moment. But that’s akin to buying a lottery ticket, and it’s not reproducible. For every person who succeeds in using that method, many people fail.
A methodical approach to getting in sync with your audience and finding your resonance will yield more reliable results.
How to Build Resonance and Your Following
Resonance Booster #1: Blogging
Blogging is one of the most powerful tools a nonfiction writer has. A blog is a place to practice finding resonance with your readers by listening to their feedback and refining your message.
As you continue providing helpful answers to questions, you’ll build credibility with your target audience.
Every blogging platform has a statistics engine that provides powerful statistics about how long people stay on a page to read your article. I always recommend WordPress.org and Google Analytics, but many tools are available.
Write a Blog Post for the Ten People You Have
Write a blog post that addresses the questions your ten readers are asking. Then send ten personalized emails to your friends with a link to your blog post. Say, “I wrote a blog post about this topic, and here’s the link.” You can also send it via text, Facebook message, or whatever method you usually use to communicate with that person.
1. Did they read the blog post?
2. Did they share it with their friends? (That’s how you’ll know you’re resonating!)
3. Did their friends read and share it?
If you get to step three, you’ll really start to grow your following. Your friends’ friends will become your readers, and when you send your next email, you’ll send it to 15 people instead of ten.
Read the Comments
The questions and objections in the comments of your posts will help you tweak your message.
When I wrote my book, I tested most of my chapter sections as blog posts before putting them into my book so I could get feedback from blog readers before I published it in print. In fact, I didn’t include one chapter because there was too much controversy and confusion over one aspect of it in the readers’ feedback.
If you think that blogging your book ahead of time will ruin your sales, be sure and listen to our episode on How to Blog Your Book. The reality is that the most faithful readers of your blog will be the first in line to buy your book, just as the readers of a novel are the first in line to watch the movie.
Resonance Booster #2: Start Speaking
Public speaking is another great way to find your resonance. While you can’t reach as many people with speaking as you can with a blog, you get real-time feedback about whether your message connects with your audience.
The eyes are the window into the soul. While speaking, look into the eyes of specific audience members. You’ll be able to see if they are bored, confused, or following. If you’re speaking to a small audience, people may even feel comfortable asking questions during your presentation, which will help you improve and clarify your talk before you give it again.
Listen to the following episodes to learn more about growing your readership with public speaking.
- How to Get Your First Speaking Gigs
- How To Sell a Ton More Books with Public Speaking
- How to Get Better at Public Speaking with Jane Jenkins Herlong
- Public Speaking for the Introverted Writer with Joanna Penn
Resonance Booster #3: Start Guesting
Guesting on podcasts is a nice hybrid between blogging and speaking. You have the reach potential of a blog since the host may have millions of listeners. At the same time, being a podcast guest also provides some real-time feedback. While you can’t see the audience, you do get audio feedback from the podcast host.
The podcast host’s questions will help you further refine your message. The more interviews you give, the more comfortable you’ll get with your message. Over time, you’ll become known as an expert on your topic.
- How to Get Booked for Guest Podcast Interviews Overview
- How to Sound Great as a Podcast Guest
- How to Look and Sound Professional on Zoom, Webinars, and Podcasts
- How to Conduct Your Own Media Tour (Without Hiring a PR Firm)
Where do I begin?
Finding your resonance and building a readership can feel overwhelming, but you don’t have to do everything at once. If you’re wondering where to begin or whether you have to implement all these strategies, be sure and listen to our episode on Book Marketing Milestones.
How to Craft Excellent Blog Posts
Your blog is key for building a platform, establishing your expertise, and gaining a loyal following. In this special video course, Thomas Umstattd Jr. helps you craft blog posts people want to read and share. Whether you are writing articles for someone else’s site or crafting posts for your own blog, this course will help you get to the next level.
When it comes to blogging, Thomas Umstattd Jr. knows what he is talking about. His two blogs have several million pageviews, and he has also coached authors all over the world who collectively get millions of visitors each year.
Peter DeHaan, author of Women of the Bible: The Victorious, the Victims, the Virtuous.
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