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A few years ago, the popular buzzword in the author world was “tribe.” Building a tribe of readers was seen as the key to success. Reader relationships are still important for authors, so why did the term “tribe” go out of fashion?

The problem was that authors built their tribes on Facebook in the 2010s. When the algorithm changed and then changed again, many authors lost their connection with their tribes, and the tribe members lost connection with each other.

Having a tribe of readers is still an incredible asset that will help you sell your books and raise your profile amongst readers, but you need to know how and where to build a tribe if you want it to grow.

What’s the difference between a tribe (community) and a platform?

A platform is where you communicate with your readers, and your readers communicate with you. It’s a two-way conversation. Every author needs a platform.

A community, on the other hand, is not just a conversation between you and your readers. A community also allows your readers to talk to each other about you, your books, and other topics.

The difference between a platform and a community is like the difference between a sermon from a pulpit and a church potluck dinner. When handled well, communities can be a powerful and effective tool and far more powerful than platform alone. However, they can also become a source of conflict and drama. The worst ones become an empty room of soul-crushing sorrow.

How do you start building a tribe, and where do you build that community? 

I asked a community-building expert. Andrew Guttormsen is the co-founder of (Affiliate Link), an all-in-one community. If you’ve joined us on, you’ve used

Why hassle with building a community anywhere other than Facebook? 

Andy: If you care about the experience you want to deliver to your readers, you want control of that experience. You probably have a vision for how that community experience should be. To provide the best version of it, you need flexibility. Even though Facebook groups have their upsides, they do not give you much flexibility.

Thomas: Facebook groups are easy and cheap to create. You can invite your friends and core fans and quickly build a group of 50 people. But as that group grows, a single conversation thread becomes prominent, and people tend to only see that one post or thread.

As more posts are added to the group, they have to be generally interesting to a larger group. It’s hard to consistently post content interesting to people who are interested in different things, which means you have to police the group. Strict policing creates drama, but if you don’t police it well, your group becomes filled with spam and trolls. What’s more, the algorithm only shows certain posts to certain people, and everyone sees something different in the group.

Suddenly, you’ve lost control. Even if you have a team of moderators, they’ll be wrestling with the algorithm, so you never know what posts people see.

Additionally, many people you interact with in a Facebook group aren’t human. They’re bots, using GPT to generate posts and comments that sound very human. Sadly, those AI-generated posts and comments are probably typed more accurately than many human commenters typing on their phones with their thumbs.

The whole community experience becomes an artificial interaction where you’re never sure whether a group member is real.

Andy: You’re exactly right.

Imagine a world where you have a clear vision for each interaction those group members will have with you as they’re onboarded into that community.

  • Do they see a nice video of you welcoming them?
  • Do they have a “get started” checklist?
  • Do you know exactly who you should connect them with?
  • Can you automate that interaction so that you can make that introduction?

You want to be able to control and deliver the best version of that experience.

Thomas: And what do you get on a Facebook group? The worst version. You get beaten over the head with rules about what you can and can’t do because they have to protect the timeline. Plus, you have to wait to see if you can join.

It’s not very hospitable, and it doesn’t scale well. It’s okay to start there if you must, but if you want your community to take off, you’ll want to move it to another platform, such as Discord or Circle (Affiliate Link).

Before you move, realize there is another problem you’ll face when moving your community out of Facebook: The Empty Restaurant Problem.

The Empty Restaurant Problem was illustrated to me years ago when I took my grandmother out to eat. We wanted to eat at this little Italian restaurant, but there was a long line to get in. We were hungry and didn’t really want to wait.

Another restaurant was next door, so we decided to go there instead. Once inside, we saw we were the only patrons in there. The tables were empty, and that made my grandmother nervous that the food wasn’t going to be good. It unnerved her so much that she decided we’d be better off waiting in line at the Italian place, so we left and got in line.

How do you solve that empty-restaurant problem when starting a community?

Andy: Everyone worries about that. “What if I start this thing, and it’s a ghost town?” Starting a community puts you in a vulnerable position. You’re saying, “Hey, I’m going to create this thing. I want you to join it because you’ll get value from it. And by the way, it doesn’t exist yet, but you can be one of the first people to join.”

Our instinct is to pretend like the community is bigger than it is at first to mitigate the hesitation of those potential members. But as the creator of a brand-new community, you have a huge unfair advantage because you can give more value to those first members.

Signature Gatherings

If you’re just getting started, we recommend starting with what we call signature gatherings, which help relieve some of the pressure of growing a group.

Your community is a combination of people who are interested in you and your work or other common interests. For an author, a signature gathering could be a weekly gathering to discuss the newest chapter of your book, discuss a similar book, or perhaps talk about launching your book.

Signature gatherings bring people into the community at a scheduled time to focus on one or two objectives. Inviting people to a signature gathering for a purpose relieves the pressure you might otherwise feel.

You can concentrate on running two or three signature gatherings well and tell people you’re looking for your first 20-30 founding members.

It’s a great way to start because you can build the community together with your founding members. You can really deliver on two or three core value propositions of your community. You don’t need people to hang out there all day, every day. That happens sometimes, but it’s not an expectation. Just invite them into a couple of signature gatherings.

Thomas: Your signature gathering approach is great because it mimics real life. Some people think that the rules for online community building are different simply because it’s on the internet. That’s not the case. People are the same and want the same things from an online community.

If you drive by a church on your way to work on Monday morning and the parking lot is empty, you don’t assume the church is dead. You just know that people typically go to church on Sunday morning rather than Monday morning.

If you don’t set the expectation that people interact in the community 24/7, then it really takes the pressure off. Establish scheduled times when you’ll hang out. You might schedule a signature gathering around your book launch or an author interview.

Novelists who seek to build a tribe need to make the community about something more than themselves. Most novelists don’t have enough books to sustain a community based solely on their own books. Your audience will be much more vibrant if you broaden the community to the Dragon Riders Community, where you are one of several dragon-rider novelists.

That way, you can invite other dragon rider authors to hang out for short periods or have their own spaces in the community. It makes the atmosphere more welcoming. Creating the community based on your genre rather than yourself allows you the flexibility to host a signature gathering to discuss a recent movie in your genre.

Maybe you can discuss the movie on Thursday and have the spoiler conversation on Saturday.

I typically tie my signature gatherings to my courses. People post their homework in the community so other members can comment and give feedback. That’s magic. People love getting feedback on their homework. As people work through the material, they return to the community.

It will work differently for novelists, but those signature gatherings will make your group feel like a full restaurant.

Start Small

Thomas: Your group doesn’t have to be big to be vibrant. Dunbar’s Number theory says that the group’s effectiveness diminishes once you have more than 150 members. There’s a lot of social science around the number 150. Most churches don’t get bigger than 150. Most tribes around the world don’t get much bigger than 150 before they split into multiple tribes. The Roman cohort was maxed out at 150. The typical wedding is 300 people minus the overlap of the bride and groom’s social circles. The typical funeral attendance is around 150 minus however many people have died.

Psychologically, we can’t handle much more than 150 people in a social network.  

You can have a much larger community, but as it grows, the complexity increases.

If you have 50 passionate beta readers in your launch team community, those members can hang out with you. The reward for being a beta reader on your launch team is that exclusive access to you as an author.

We both know you put your pants on one leg at a time like every other human, but your readers see you as something a little bit different. You’re a little bit special in their eyes.

Another way to solve that empty restaurant problem is by writing conversation starter posts. You can post questions or content to start conversations, or you might share exclusive updates.

Organize the Discussion as it Evolves

Another tactic I’ve learned through hard use in my 23 years of hosting online communities is using topic spaces.

When you join a platform like Discord or Circle (Affiliate Link), you can easily add spaces where people can discuss certain topics. The temptation is to create a space for every topic that could potentially be discussed in the history of the community. But every time you add a space, you create an empty restaurant. If you have 20 spaces with no questions or content, you’ve created 20 empty restaurants.

I recommend starting with one general conversation thread and one off-topic space for memes and jokes or something like that. As people start repeatedly posting in the general thread about a particular topic of limited interest, you make a space for that topic.

For instance, on, we had a small group of people who were really interested in AI. They wanted to talk about every AI tool for authors and would listen to my episodes on AI multiple times. Every time I’d do a listener survey, they’d want me to talk more about AI.

Another group of people didn’t want to hear about AI at all. In their view, AI was going to put us all out of a job, so they didn’t want to talk about it.

Since is run on Circle, I could create an AI space where those conversations could take place. Folks interested in the topic could participate, and those who weren’t didn’t have to see the posts.

To avoid the empty-restaurant problem when I started the space, I moved all the AI posts and comments from the general thread to the AI space, and suddenly, there was a new space for a specific conversation that was already populated with relevant content.

People who don’t want to hear about AI can go to that board and mute notifications.

I did the same with the job board space. In a Facebook group, you’re normally not allowed to promote yourself, but someone might want to hire you. I created a job board space where you can offer your skills and post a link to your services so someone who needs the skills you have can hire you.

Be slow to add boards or spaces regardless of what tool you use.

How do you set expectations for the community?

Andy: These communities are living, breathing, evolving things. They’re constantly changing, which relieves some pressure because you don’t have to make every decision correctly the first time. You can be wrong. These decisions are reversible.

The empty restaurant problem, where people aren’t interacting in the group, can also be mitigated by setting expectations when onboarding members.

Community builders often skip the onboarding process, but it’s important. There are three steps you must nail when you’re onboarding people.

Prepare for Membership

One of my favorite examples is a community run by Pat Flynn from Smart Passive Income. It’s a business-focused community that adds members in cohorts. To onboard people, they host something akin to a college freshman orientation so that it’s not all new when they show up in the group for the first time.

The members in that cohort meet each other, and the group leaders can set the expectations. Group members get access to a lot of information, but they’re also expected to contribute in specific ways.

People aren’t coming in passively. They’re coming into the group knowing they’ll have to deliver, too, which helps with that empty room feeling in the early days.

Become an Active Member

After you bring them in, welcome them and walk through everything they should do next.

Lay of the Land

First, give them a lay of the land and kind of help them figure out how to navigate the platform. The fewer spaces, the better, but be sure to show them how to get the value from those signature gatherings.

Connect to Another Member

Help them connect with other members on day one. If you can create a way for them to have a relationship in the first 24 hours, you’ll reinforce their decision to join. People will judge the quality of the community by the people in it. If they can connect with another person right away, they’ll have a positive start.

Offer Positive Reinforcement 

We love having checklists. You might tell your new members, “Here are eight things I want you to do in the first 24 hours.”

You might suggest they

  • Visit a certain space
  • View a resource
  • Send a message after completing the checklist to get a gift.

After you send them a gift, you can introduce them to the community. Many people ask members to introduce themselves, but if you write an amazing introduction, building that person up, your credibility will influence how they’re received.

If you set the expectation of how they will contribute, everything else gets easier in the following months when you’re looking for people to play a role in those signature gatherings.

Thomas: I love the idea of giving your new members a scavenger hunt with a prize at the end. Maybe you offer an exclusive short story in your fantasy world that only people who’ve completed the quest of the eight check boxes get to read. Those steps cause them to be active in the community.

 We accidentally figured out that strategy ourselves.

Most people who join come because they’ve signed up for the course. One of the homework assignments is to post an introduction and then comment on at least three other people’s introductions.

From the beginning, people are interacting with each other. We encourage folks to “comment unto others as you would have them comment unto you.” I’ve found that’s the only community rule we’ve needed. It has worked well, and it’s very flexible.

Bringing people in as a cohort could be tricky for a novelist. That approach is easier if the group is educational. But you could treat a launch team like a cohort. Maybe you have a new group of beta readers that acts like a cohort.

We just had a cohort of the folks who attended our in-person conference. I created a space that was only available for conference attendees to connect with each other. Most posts were only interesting to the conferees because people were planning arrivals and departures. It was boring to people who couldn’t attend, so they didn’t have to see those posts.

How can you incentivize somebody to join the community in the first place?

Andy: First, be empathetic and put yourself in the potential member’s shoes. You need to know what they’ll get from the community because they’ve joined to get something out of it. Determine how you’ll deliver on your promise, and that comes back to nailing the signature gatherings.

Essentially, you’re offering them value and inviting them to join to receive that value.

We have over 10,000 communities on Circle, from big brands and people like Oprah to individuals running amazing communities of 100 people that provide a full-time living through paid memberships.

From small to large, they all start the same way. They find 30 people. As a marketer who loves marketing, you might be tempted to do the big launches and get fancy, but even the largest communities don’t start that way.

The group creators start by identifying a list. They make a list of ideal members pulled from people they already know. They’ll look for 30 people from their LinkedIn contacts, cell phone contacts, email lists, colleagues, or people they know from other groups. Then, they reach out to each one individually. They may not even create a landing page for it, but they do have a one-on-one conversation with those first 30 folks to pitch the idea for the community.

It’s not about big numbers or money; it’s about proving to members and yourself that you can deliver value to 30 people. If you can, you’ve unlocked a whole new world and can grow that community.

Make a list of your ideal members and send ten individual emails. If they respond positively, make one-on-one calls to each one. Reach out to the next ten people until you have 30 members.

Let them know you’ll probably start on a certain date. I’d be very upfront with them that the community is brand new. Don’t pretend it’s bigger than it is. Use the size, exclusivity, and newness as an advantage.

Thomas: In business school, we learned about the one-percent-of-China fallacy, which plagues many businesses.

Maybe you’re a business that manufactures a better mousetrap. The reasoning goes that since there are mice in China, you could sell this mousetrap to just 1% of the people in China, and you would sell millions of mousetraps and be fabulously wealthy.

It sounds easy. Mice live in China, and 1% seems very doable. But that’s not how the real world works. You must first find one person in China who wants to buy your mousetrap.

Suddenly, you realize you don’t know anyone in China and don’t speak Chinese. You have no idea what kind of mousetraps they already have, and import taxes are a complete mystery.

Once you start talking about real numbers rather than percentages, it forces you to see reality as it is.

Instead of saying, “I’ve got 10,000 people on my list, and if I can get just 1% percent of them to sign up for the community, we’ll have this great community of a hundred people!”

 Instead, I love the idea of starting with 30. That’s enough to have a vibrant conversation on a single board, especially if you’ve talked to each member individually. Those are your super fans who don’t need a big party at first.

When you’re throwing a big party, a few friends get there early to help you set up. Then, as people come in, they start peeling off from set-up and strike up conversations with new members. It’s the same experience in real life, and it requires work.

Does making 30 phone calls sound like too much work? If it does, remember you don’t have to have a tribe. You can have a platform where you talk to your email list or podcast listeners, and they respond to you. That’s totally fine, and that’s what most authors do.

But there is magic in your fans and members talking to each other, which becomes self-perpetuating. Once you reach critical mass, the community starts and concludes conversations without you.

On, people ask questions and find answers without me providing the answer. It’s satisfying to see that self-perpetuating work, but it does take some time to get there.

Andy: The value people get from the community isn’t necessarily the book they would have purchased anyway. It’s often about some value you’re unlocking that’s a bit different or less obvious, which is far more valuable than a book.

Thomas: That’s right. If you want to get to know your Timothy better, having a community where you can listen to your target audience is critical.

You get to listen to them talk about your genre to each other, especially as you start conversations about other books you didn’t write. They may be hesitant to criticize you in your own community, and you may be hesitant to allow that to happen. You may be tempted to delete the post if it hurts your feelings.

But as you listen to them discuss the new dragon movie that got the dragons all wrong, you’ll learn valuable things about your readers. You’ll discover what tropes resonate with your readers and what they do and don’t want to see. Those insights can guide you as you write your next book, and they can help you write the kind of book your readers already want.

How do you get people to stay in the community?

Thomas: We talked a lot about getting people to want to join in the first place, but people come and go. There’s a certain churn in any community. How do you get people to want to stick around?

Andy: We did some in-depth research on our 10,000 communities through hundreds of survey responses from the top communities. We looked at the platinum communities, which are the top ten communities in terms of engagement and retention. We reviewed product usage data from 10,000 communities.

One of the biggest myths is that you must keep people engaged for a long time. Our data showed that many of the top communities have a start and end date, which relieves even more pressure from community creators.

Build it Around a Mission

Some communities are built around a mission, like a book launch, that lasts for three months. Some are cohort-based, where they’re learning some skill for six weeks. Others gather for a time to do a challenge together, such as publishing at least one piece of content every single day.

Thomas: An author could facilitate a reading challenge where the group reads 12 books and discusses one each month. One of those books can be the author’s.

Get Community Input

Andy: In addition to several great signature gatherings, you can add a community-first feel to the group.

For example, bringing in an expert to teach on a topic is super valuable, and people understand that and get excited.

But to take a community-first approach, you could ask your community to vote on which topic they want to explore with the help of an expert.

To take the community approach one step further, allow your group members to nominate people in the community to teach something. The point of the community is that we get value from each other. Identify several people who can teach on various topics and let the community vote on which they want to learn about first.

That approach gets people more active and engaged and helps them stay longer.

Give Badges as Positive Reinforcement

Offering badges is another way to keep people. Initially, I thought badges were silly, but most people love badges. You can give a badge for engaging in the community discussion, identifying them as a top contributor. Positive reinforcement will help members do what you hope they will.

Thomas: That’s one of the reasons I’ve stuck with Circle. I’ve found the badges to be so useful. One of the challenges in author communities is that there’s a certain kind of person who’s not a successful author but enjoys feeling like one by giving lots of advice to other authors. Those types of people are drawn to author Facebook groups and online communities, and they always seem to have advice. But it’s hard for beginning authors to sort the good from bad advice, so it turns out to be a bunch of noise.

Badges help community members sort out who has credibility and expertise. On, you get a badge for each course you complete.

If you’ve educated yourself on publishing, marketing, and writing with the resources we offer at Author Media, you get badges beside your name. Your posts in the community have weight.

Badges also create an incentive to take more courses. People who attended our recent conference got the taco badge because the conference was in Austin, which is famous for its Austin tacos.

That gamification goes back to forums I was doing in 2001, where you got a gold star for your 5,000th post. It doesn’t make sense that it matters so much, but it absolutely matters. People want to earn that, and even though it might seem silly to you, it does make a difference and motivates people to stick around.

What is your advice for dealing with toxic community members or trolls?

Andy: This will probably surprise you, and you may not even believe it, but the first year or so of Circle, we barely had a moderation feature because it just wasn’t an issue.

Thomas: I do believe you! We had a spammer sneak in, and I noticed there wasn’t a “mark as spam” button, and I was surprised. Then I realized we’d had this community going for a long time, and it was the first spam comment we’d received. It wasn’t even from a bot. It was a human who’d jumped through all the hoops.

Andy: People generally behave better in Circle communities than in Facebook groups or Discord servers. It’s a community that you control.

You’ll find that many of the moderation issues you anticipate never come to fruition. If you have a larger community, you may spend a little time moderating, but it tends to be moving a post to the correct space or pointing out something in another thread where someone can get an answer. Moderators aren’t dealing with many trolls.

Set the expectations for your ideal community participant or your Timothy, onboard them properly, and you won’t have to do much moderation.

Thomas: Even requiring group members to create a username and a password can weed out trolls. That’s more work than a troll is willing to do when they can haunt another Facebook group.

The username and password requirement creates a little friction and causes the community to be a little smaller. I prefer a smaller, higher-quality community with less drama.

Hosting your community on Circle keeps the unwanted social media “waves” rolling through other social networks from splashing into your community. If you’re running a Facebook group during a presidential election year, there’s bound to be big waves of conversation related to the latest presidential drama that splashes into your community. You have to fight to keep those waves from rolling through your group.

On Circle, you’re more separated from that. It’s a separate account on a separate website, and it’s themed differently. Those subtle psychological differences keep that conversation from rolling in.

Consider this: Do you talk to your doctor about politics? After you’ve waited for your appointment and he’s ready with his stethoscope, will you bring up politics? If he’s your friend, you might discuss politics at a dinner party, but at your appointment, you’re talking about your medical issue. The purpose of your appointment is to have a conversation about your health.

For some reason, that’s the understanding on Circle and, to some extent, on Discord. Everything else is better than Facebook.

Andy: Your reputation and brand are on the line. On Circle, you control how you and your brand are represented. It’s good to have that control.

How can we learn more about running a successful community on Circle?

Andy: We have an 87-page guide called the Circle Community Benchmark Report. It’s based on data we analyzed from the 10,000 communities on Circle, including their product usage, engagement, revenue, community size, and how they’re finding their members. We anonymized and analyzed all the data and drew a lot of conclusions.

Thomas: I downloaded it, and it’s like a short, data-driven book on community-building. You can see what is and isn’t working. It’s geared more towards nonfiction, but if you realize that your fantasy or romance readers have needs, just like they do when they’re in these nonfiction communities, the principles are more applicable than you might think.

Tribe building is not trendy right now, which means that it’s easier to get started, especially for your genre. There’s not as much competition for your genre or micro-genre.

Our Author Media community on Circle is a great companion to our podcast. Although, I find it hard to get podcast listeners to sign up for a community without first getting them to sign up for your email list.

People listen when doing dishes or driving, so they can’t sign up and forget to do it later. I have to work to get listeners on my email list, and then I email an invite to the community.

One final tip is to include a link to your community in the back matter of your book. You might say, “Do you want to connect with other readers? Join our community.”

Use That way, you can point the link to any platform you want. If the URL changes in 20 years, that paper will still be there, but you can change where that redirect link points.

What advice do you have for an author who wants to upgrade their platform into a tribe?

Andy: Give it a shot. It’s not easy, but you can do it. By the way, some platforms say you can “create a community that runs itself,” and I want to caution you that it never happens.

Building a community requires a lot of work. But man, the transformation you can provide your members and readers is worth it. Building close and personal connections with folks is fulfilling because it gives you the energy to keep going. There’s a lot of positive reinforcement that makes it more real.

If you’re willing to do the work, you can probably have a community of 30 founding members within 30 days.

And by the way, I just want to say I’ve been so impressed by your staying power. To have been serving authors for this long is just amazing. Nobody does it. It’s really cool.


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