Kids these days! They read books and even write books, but how do you connect teenagers with your website and book?

I recently coached Amy Earls, an aspiring young adult speculative novelist, through some strategies for connecting with teens. We recorded our coaching call so that Novel Marketing listeners could join us.

Amy: As an aspiring author, I want to build my following, but I don’t have any teen followers right now. One problem is that teens don’t seem to be visiting websites.

I hear they’re on Instagram and possibly on Facebook. They’re definitely on TikTok, but if I want to grow a following of teen readers, how do I market my website for a teen audience?

How do I market my website for a teen audience?

Thomas: The first step is to start connecting with teens in real life. Real-life teens will teach you how to target the other teens.

More than any other demographic, teens hang out in tight clusters, and the behavior of one cluster will be very different from another cluster. Not all teens are on TikTok, for example. One group is into video gaming, while another is into hacking websites. Other groups are into clothes and boys. There are a million types of groups.

You need to target a specific group of teens. J.K. Rowling targeted twelve-year-old boys, and that target allowed her to reach everybody.

What is the specific teenager that you’re targeting with your writing?

Amy: First, they are readers. I know Goodreads is a place to find readers who are interested in a specific genre.

My tagline is Flyby Faith, so I’m writing specifically to Christian teens interested in growing their faith and finding their gifts. That’s a big part of my book. My characters have gifts they use for other people.

How specific should I get when defining my reader?

Thomas: Get as specific as possible. I recommend finding an actual teenager who is your representative reader. It’s easy for authors to create an imaginary friend who likes everything they’ve written. It’s harder to pick a human teenager.

Connect with a teen who’s not related to you. You’re targeting Christian teens, so get involved with your church’s youth group. Volunteering in the youth group will help you learn the lingo. Teenagers right now are growing up in a very different world. I know every generation says that, but it’s vastly different for them right now because of the pandemic and technology.

It’s hard enough for teenagers to communicate normally, but right now, they have to communicate in a world where they can’t see anyone’s face. They’re finding that communicating through a screen is preferable to face-to-face communication because they can control the screen.

That’s important to them because there’s enormous pressure to conform. They could be ostracized. Every generation has faced the possibility of ostracization, but it’s especially intense for today’s teens because they know they can get canceled by their community if they don’t follow social norms. So they strive to be careful with their words and appearance.

As you interact and listen to teens, you’ll learn where they hang out. Christian teens may hang out in different online places. Once you narrow down which table at the high school cafeteria you’re targeting, you will change how you interact with the teenagers.

If you’re targeting Christian teens, maybe you’re not targeting any of the tables in the cafeteria. Maybe you’re targeting homeschoolers.

Homeschooled teens read a ton of books. One of the authors in my mastermind group went to a homeschool convention a few weeks ago, and he sold out of his books in two hours. It was a two-day convention, and he only kept one book to show people coming by his booth. Homeschool teens are voracious readers, but they’re looking for different books than Christian teens in public school.

Amy: I contacted a youth group to ask if any kids were interested in reading my book for feedback. One teen girl was interested, and she loved it. She said, “I’m a fangirling. I love this book!” 

How do you grow from getting one reader response to getting more than one?

Thomas: First, ask her what aspect of the story resonated with her. Knowing the point of resonance will inform what you put in your back cover copy and your book proposal if you’re pursuing a traditional publisher.

If you’re going to indie publish, it will inform what language you use in ads and how you talk about the book.

Stories are made from different tropes. Tropes are the ingredients of stories, and different tropes resonate with people differently. Spending time with teens will help you understand what tropes connect with them.

One of the challenges of writing cross-generationally is that we assume we know what a younger person feels or thinks. After all, you were once a teenager too.

But right now, in this era, technology is changing quickly. Historically, each generation has been defined by the technology developed in their age. My grandparents were the first generation to have a radio. My parents were the first generation to grow up with TV. Generation X was the first to have cable TV. Early millennials grew up with computers, and later millennials were the first to grow up with the internet. Gen Z is the first generation to grow up with phones. The answers to their questions have been available to them via Google on the phone in their pocket.

Generation Alpha, which is supposedly the next generation’s name, is growing up in a post-pandemic world. They’re potentially the first generation where the defining characteristic is not a new technology but the fact that everyone is wearing masks. That makes things different and weird.

A story resonates when the elements connect with the pain points people feel in their life. That doesn’t mean you need to put masks on your characters. You don’t need to have a pandemic in your story. You need to have the same kind of core pains that teens today are overcoming. Every novel includes the protagonist overcoming challenges. If readers can relate to those challenges, then they’ll relate to the protagonist, and they’ll like your story better.

Amy: Let’s say I gather five interested readers. If they like what they’re reading, and they’re ready to promote it, how do I get them to my website before I have a book published? Where do I invest my money so that I’m growing and offering my readers something of real value that will help them?

Where do I invest my money to grow my readership and offer them something of value?

Thomas: What’s your budget? The best way to spend $50 is different from the best way to spend $50,000. If you have $50,000, you start hiring professionals.  

The dollar amount needs to be money that you’re willing to lose because writing and publishing are risky. The rewards can be high, but the likelihood of commercial failure is also high. There are no guaranteed hits. Even big publishers lose money on most of the books that they publish. The only people who can reliably guarantee that their next book will be a hit are people whose last five books have been hits. And even then, they sometimes write duds.

This is a high-risk, high-reward budget. Don’t use your kid’s college money or your mortgage payment. But you need some budget because the more you sow, the more you can reap. If you’re only putting two seeds in the ground, you’re hoping those two seeds are going to bring a return.

Amy: I’m not sure what the norm is, but can I start with $1,000?

Thomas: Yes. With a budget of $1,000, you can start by going through my free course on how to build an amazing author website. The course is free, but building a website does cost money.

You want a good website built with WordPress.org on Divi that is search engine optimized. I walk you through all of that in the course.

While kids may not think they go to websites, they go to Google all the time. They’re constantly Googling. None of your promotional efforts will do any good if you’re not ranking for your own name on Google. 

In fact, if you don’t rank for your name, it could even backfire. If a teen is searching for your name and finds somebody else, you’re just promoting somebody else.  

You need to rank first on Google, and it takes a while to build search engine results, so you want to get that clock started right away. That’s the first place I’d spend money. Divi (Affiliate Link) costs $89-$249, depending on the plan you choose. You can buy three years of  BlueHost (Affiliate Link) hosting for $100. In total, you’ll need to spend about $400 to have a website for three years, but you can also get a lifetime subscription for those things.

After you build a website, you’ll have about $500 left for other things. Before we decide where to spend the rest of the money, what’s your timeline? When will your book be ready, and which way are you planning to publish it?

Amy: I’m planning on publishing traditionally. I rewrote the manuscript, and I’m in the editing phase, so I’m giving myself about a year as a loose timeline.

Do traditional Christian publishers want YA novels?

Thomas: I’ll just tell you straight up, there’s no real market for Christian Y.A. because, without exception, Christian publishers do not know how to connect with teenagers. None of them have it figured out. Occasionally, they’ll take a shot, but in the last ten years, they’ve had zero hits.

In the secular world, there’s been TwilightDivergence, and Harry Potter. In the Christian Y.A. world, there have been zero hits. A few books have paid for themselves, but there have been no runaway hits made into a movie. Christian publishing has had hits like Left Behind and The Purpose Driven Life, but nothing big in YA.

I think it’s because Christian publishers fundamentally misunderstand the teenagers they’re writing to. They’re writing to teenagers as they want them to exist rather than as they really do exist.

Authors who see the best sales in the YA genre have embraced the homeschool market. They’re quietly making good money, but they’re often doing it as an independently published author because the traditional publishers don’t understand the homeschool market. They don’t market to it well. I’m willing to be convinced that there are some exceptions, but I have not seen them yet.

Authors who do well in the homeschool market have connected themselves to the homeschool market. They don’t depend on traditional publishers to do it for them.

It sounds like you’re trying to build this website in order to build a platform to get a publisher interested. Having a platform is even more important for you because the publishers have no idea how to connect to the kids. Older people are running these big publishing companies, and they don’t know how to connect.

You’ll have to use raw numbers to prove you have readers interested. The best raw number to show a publisher is the number of email addresses you have.

But how much do kids use email? People don’t tend to do email much until they have a job. Once they have a job, especially a sit-down job where they’re in front of their computer all the time, that’s when email becomes magical. Your typical ebook reader has a desk job, and they’re in front of a computer all day. Emailing those readers is a powerful sales strategy. I’m not convinced that email is as good with teenagers. It’s good, but it’s not a golden ticket.

It’s really hard to become an influencer, especially a cross-generational influencer. Instead of becoming an influencer yourself, go the indie publishing route and sponsor the influential teens who already have 100,000 followers on TikTok. Somebody with 100,000 followers on TikTok is not making any money. If you approach that person and offer to pay them $50 to do a TikTok about your book, they’ll probably be thrilled. You may be the first person to reach out and offer to pay them. On TikTok, 100,000 followers isn’t enough to interest big advertisers, but it’s plenty to interest you.

If you’re targeting homeschoolers, the TikTok influencers need to have a homeschool audience. I know it hurts to narrow your target audience because you want to reach all teenagers, but you need to reach kids who won’t shut up about your book. The only way to get there is to pick which group you’re going to thrill.

Will speaking at public schools help me sell books?

Amy: Do you think that could work for even public-school kids? I could speak at public schools, but I don’t know if that would work as well. It sounds like homeschoolers would be the biggest market for young adult Christian books.

Thomas: Public schools aren’t super friendly to Christian authors, especially if you’ve got your branding right as a Christian author writing a Christian book. They’re pretty biased against that. Public school librarians are very biased against it. It’s not impossible, but it’s probably the hardest path. Maybe someone has done it successfully, but it’s not a proven path. You’d probably be better off going to private schools and Christian schools.

On the other hand, if you have a secular, mainstream book and connections in the public schools, you can be very successful with that strategy. Once you connect with 50 schools, you can rotate through them and speak at 25 schools each year. Every two years, you’ll meet a new group of kids, and you can just keep selling your books to that audience. It doesn’t make you a bestseller, but it can make you a living.

It’s much harder to find that as a Christian author.

What should I do if my domain name isn’t available?

Amy: Another question. Right now, when I Google my name, the results bring up an artist with my same name. Does that mean I should change my name, or does increasing the SEO help people find me when they search my name?

Thomas: We have an episode titled How to Stand Out When Your Name Fits In. First, determine how strong the artist with your name is. She has an advantage because she owns the domain name.

I just searched, and this artist has AmyEarls.art. That means someone else owns AmyEarls.com. They may be willing to sell it, but it looks like it’s $10,000-$15,000.

Amy: One website said I could buy it for $200.

Thomas: That’s probably a domain broker. Domain broker sites want you to make an offer, and $200 is the minimum. For $200, they will try to find the person who owns the domain and see if the owner is willing to sell. Then they start the negotiation. It’s usually $80 to start that conversation, so don’t go into it thinking it’s only going to be $200. That’s just your opening offer. The owner may counter-offer $20,000, and you might settle at $500.

That said, buying the domain you want from somebody else who owns it can be a good investment. I bought AuthorMedia.com and Umstatt.com from someone, and I’m glad I did, but it was more than $200.

Ask yourself what it’s worth to have yourname.com.

Since the person with your name is an artist, you won’t be fighting with her on Amazon. You’re the only person with your name on Amazon, so that’s good.

If you decide to fight for your name and ranking on Google, you’ll have to be aggressive with your SEO. That means you’ll need to post new content on your website regularly. You’ll need to be blogging or podcasting and asking other websites to link to yours.

The other option is to add a middle name or to have two initials. What you must not do is combine those strategies. Don’t use your first name plus a middle initial and then your last name. That is the worst. If you don’t believe me, ask James L. Rubart. Ask him about all the trouble that has been caused by using a middle initial.

Amy: What about AuthorAmyEarls.com? Does that work, or is it better to just have my full name for the domain?

Thomas: AuthorAmyEarls.com helps create a distinction between you and the artist. Your SEO meta-title should be “The official website for author Amy Earls,” or something like that.

You don’t necessarily want to push the artist out of the search results. She hasn’t done you any harm, and she’s just trying to do her art.

If the person who owns AmyEarls.com is willing to sell the domain for $1,000, for example, you could approach the artist with your same name and ask if she’d like to set up a website together. On that website, Amy Earls.com, you’d have your photo and her photo. When people visit AmyEarls.com, they can easily decide which Amy Earls they’re searching for.

Companies with similar names occasionally use a disambiguation page. They make a truce, join forces on the .com website, and ask website visitors which company website they want to visit.

Acme.com might take you to a page where you can click to buy Acme bricks or Acme dynamite.  

The other option is just to pick a middle name and use it as your pen name. Mathematically, you’re far less likely to have the same name as someone else when you use three names. That will help you with your SEO.

Are podcast interviews a good way for authors to reach teens?

Amy: You mentioned podcasts, and I’ve thought about pitching podcasts as a guest, but I don’t know how much teens are listening to podcasts. I know they’re not reading my blogs. Should I attempt to pursue podcasts more?

Thomas: Teens haven’t historically listened to podcasts because they’ve had their parents’ old iPhones or their parents’ old Android hand-me-down phones. The old devices didn’t have enough space for podcasts. That was the olden days.

Now that Spotify has plunged into podcasting, I’m seeing teens adopt the use of podcast. Now might be a good time to start a podcast for teens because there aren’t many teen podcasts out there.

Teens are consuming lots of content on YouTube. YouTube is its own skillset, though, and it’s twice as complicated as podcasting because you have to figure out the audio as well as the lighting and camera.

Talk with that one reader who liked your book and get a list of places she and her friends hang out online.

Amy: I asked her, and she said she doesn’t do any of that. She said her friends are on different social media. She’s in a public school, and she reads a lot. She’s not on social media, but she loves to promote things to her friends.

Thomas: I wonder if we will start seeing a trend where teens disconnect because the online world is so toxic. The cost of being online is developing real-life relationships, which are far more valuable than online relationships.

If she doesn’t hang out online, offline marketing may work better for you. You may want to go to conferences and speak at youth groups. What you lose in not being allowed in public schools, you may gain in connecting with youth groups. If you can develop some strong youth group talks, you can approach a youth leader and say you have an engaging talk their students will love. Churches and youth group leaders are underfunded, and you’ll make them happy if you speak for free and give the youth leader a week off.

Eventually, you’ll get more popular, and you can start charging, and that’s a strategy that works for all readers.

Did your reader mention where her friends hang out online?

Amy: She said Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. She said that some people had talked to her school before, but that may not be an option for me.

Thomas: Another difference in teen social media use is that they’re less likely to broadcast, and they’re more likely to have one-on-one conversations. They use social media as a messaging app, and the messages are self-destructive. They last for a little while and then disappear.

Teenagers are some of the most surveilled people in the history of the world. Their parents, school, government, and every corporation they buy from are all spying on them. They have very little privacy. They seek out social networks that are willing to give them the illusion of privacy. They believe their messages are being deleted.

Can I be a successful author if I’m not on social media?

Amy: Is there a possibility of success for authors who choose not to be on social media? Is that even an option these days?

Thomas: Yes! That’s what I recommend for most authors. For authors targeting adults, the combination that works most effectively is an email list and a website with either a blog or podcast. After those are in place, they just need to write more books.

For most authors, social media is not the best use of their time. It’s not completely worthless, but the return on investment per hour on social media is lower than the return on investment for pretty much any other activity.

Most authors spend so much time on social media that it costs them about one book per year that they could have written. Their career would benefit more they would write that extra book because each book promotes the other books. Each book makes you a better writer, and each book makes you more money. Very few activities can compete with writing more books.

Many authors spend five years on one book, and they need that book to justify five years’ worth of work. If you’re able to write a book in three months, it only has to pay for three months of your time. That’s an easier burden for a book to bear, especially if you’re just getting started.

Successful indie authors learn to write faster and spend less time on social media. As they do, they improve their writing craft faster than authors trying to build a “platform” on social media. Social media, and Facebook especially, is a terrible place to build a platform. Facebook constantly changes the rules, and people’s platforms get destroyed with every algorithm change.

Social media is like a seasoning you add at the very end if you need it. But not all dishes need that seasoning.

Amy: That frees me a little bit to know that there doesn’t have to be this platform by performance where you need pretty pictures and funny things in your life that people might or might not like.

Thomas: And—straight talk—it keeps you from having to get naked. Sadly, the popular female influencers are willing to share swimsuit photos. In many ways, social media is for beautiful people who are willing to show off their beautiful bodies. That’s part of the reason it’s so toxic for teenage girls. It creates an unreasonable expectation of what beauty is.

Successful influencers are posting those kinds of photos, and they’re willing to be that vulnerable. If they’re not physically naked, they’re emotionally naked, and that’s not healthy either. To share every struggle in your life with the whole strange internet is not sustainable.

I’ve seen people do it for years, and they burn out and end up spending a lot of time and money in therapy. I don’t think social media is the way.

Imagine if you spent that time calling youth group leaders of small churches asking to speak at their church. If you spent 30 minutes a day making phone calls, you’d make a greater impact and ultimately sell more books than you would have if you had just invested your time in social media.

Amy: That is a really good point. I love that.

Thomas: Any other questions?

What can I offer as a reader magnet on my website?

Amy: I’ve looked at my web stats, and it seems like people look at one blog and leave. I’ve thought of publishing a short story so that there’s something appealing on my home page for people to sign up for. What are your thoughts? What else would be good?

Thomas: We call that a reader magnet, and it’s a great thing to put on your website. Ideally, you want to offer a short story in the same story world as your book. One advantage of writing fantasy and sci-fi is that the world is part of the draw. You can share more of the world in short stories, and people can start to fall in love with whatever is weird about your world—for you, it might be your characters who fly.

While the short story may or may not have all of your characters, the fact that it has flying people in the same world is great. Maybe you can create a reader magnet with some of the backstory you had to cut so you can start your book off with a bang. It can’t be an info-dump. It has to be reworked into a compelling story.

When you’re writing for people other than yourself, it’s important to move the camera down to their eye level. If I want to see the world as my kids see it, I need to move the camera down to knee-level. Suddenly, obstacles that are no big deal for me are insurmountable obstacles for my kids. We just moved, and we had moving boxes all over. My children can’t step or climb over a moving box, so moving boxes are a massive obstacle for them.

Often, when authors blog for teens, the camera is at the adult’s eye level. You must enter their world, learn their vernacular, and find out which issues they struggle with. Ask your reader what music she likes because that will tell you a lot about what’s resonating and what problems they have.

Amongst Christian kids, NF is a popular artist. He raps about anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, and he has millions of downloads. He’s even popular outside of the Christian market.

If you’re listening to the music they’re listening to, you gain credibility, which helps you understand them. You’ll be able to see the world as they see it, which will help you write stories that resonate. You’ll also have an easier time writing blog posts because you’ll know what’s important to them.

Amy: I love that. That’s super helpful.

Thanks for joining us in this coaching session. If you would like to record a coaching call like this, apply here. You ask questions, I answer them, and everybody gets to listen in on the advice.

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