When a novelist does not belong to the group of readers they are targeting, they sometimes struggle to find beta readers. This is especially true for YA novelists. What’s more, the lack of initial readers may contribute to an author’s fear of book promotion.

In today’s episode of “Ask The Vulcan,” we’re going to talk about how to find your readers and promote your book without guilt or shame.

Author Daniel Rowel had questions about how to find readers, and he visited my new website, AskTheVulcan.com, to pick my brain (you can too when you click that link!).

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Welcome to the show, Daniel. Tell us what you write and what your question is.  

Daniel Rowel: I’m an indie author, and I started out writing a middle-grade fantasy series. After a while, I realized middle-grade fantasy was tough to pull off in the indie world, so I moved to young adult fantasy for my current series.

I’ve heard you say that I need to know what my readers want so that I can write the kind of book they want. But I’m struggling to understand that concept while writing my books. I think it’s a book they’ll want to read, but I’d like to get better at knowing if I’m actually delivering something they want.

How do I know if I’ve written what my readers want?

Thomas: Typically, the young adult audience is between 12 to 19 years old. Since you are 27 years old, you’re not part of the age group you’re writing to. Therefore, you need to get acquainted with readers within that age range.

Do you interact with young people?

Daniel: Yes. I’m the youth pastor at my church, so I have a lot of contact with young people. We have a smaller youth group. My group is a little niche because there are a lot of homeschoolers. I’m writing to a different audience and not the general public.

I’m not necessarily opposed to writing outside of the young adult genre, but that’s another question. I don’t know if I’m really writing for adults or young adults. Where should I focus?

Thomas: One principle of marketing is to play to your strengths and identify your unfair advantages. Your job as a youth pastor is your unfair advantage if you’re willing to leverage it. I recently went to a homeschool convention, and I saw an entire world of publishing with almost no contact with the outside world. Publishers in the homeschool market are making millions of dollars collectively.

There are several different groups in indie publishing. There’s what I call the “20 Books to 50K” world, which is your standard indie author world. They dominate niches like romance and military science fiction. Many of those indie authors make a lot of money writing lots of books, and they apply a certain method to their writing and marketing.

In the homeschool world, fantasy authors are making a lot of money using similar tactics. These authors attend homeschool book conventions wearing armor. They display armor at their booths. Nearly every author dresses in armor so that young readers will know which booths sell the kind of books they want to read.

Hundreds of thousands of readers buy exactly that kind of fantasy sci-fi book.

Homeschoolers don’t care so much about the genre label. Certain genre labels may turn them off. Homeschool kids want to read a good story that’s not condescending, but there are a lot of those kinds of books out there.

When you said your group is niche homeschoolers, it sounded like you thought that was a downside. Is that the group you want to reach?

Daniel: I’m not opposed to writing to that audience. I was just making the point that I don’t think they represent the general public. But if that is a niche that I could write for, I’m not opposed to that at all.

Thomas: It’s important to understand that there is no “general public,” and there may never have been. In our age, there are many ways to divide people. Everyone is different. For example, political persuasion is just one of many separating factors. We have Democrats, Republicans, and the Please-don’t-talk-to-me-about-politics people. Those three groups are vastly different. 

We can separate people by whether they like to read books or not. But once you are done slicing and dicing people into groups, the number of people potentially interested in any particular book is pretty small.

You don’t want to target a generic person, who might be called the “general public.” You want to target a specific person. I call this “finding your Timothy.” Timothy is a representative reader with a phone number. You can call him to ask for thoughts and feedback.

Do you have anyone in your youth group who could be the “Timothy” for your book?

Daniel: Yes, I have a couple of students.

I’ve been hesitant to ask them because I feel awkward asking for feedback. I don’t want to seem like I’m self-promoting, especially as a youth pastor. I want to make sure that my priority is the relationship with my students.

I’m not against asking, but that’s one reason I’ve been hesitant in the past. I’ve suggested it a few times, and I get an awkward vibe. I wonder if they think it might be horrible and don’t want to have to say so.

How can I decode reader feedback?

Thomas: If they are silent, you can assume they don’t like it. Typically, if you give a book to a reader and they give you vague feedback or no feedback at all, that means they don’t like it.

If they give you specific feedback or talk about the ending, then that’s an indication they liked it.

Readers feel honored to be invited to a beta reader team. You’re not charging them money, so you’re not self-promoting. You’re granting exclusive access to your book before anybody else reads it. If you reframe it that way, you’ll feel better about asking them.

They’ll also be far more excited to join because who wouldn’t want to be involved with an insider club that nobody else has access to? Teenagers love that sort of thing. They want to be on the other side of the velvet rope.

Pull that velvet rope across for only a handful of people. You might say, “I saw that you’re into this kind of book. Would you be interested in being a beta reader for my book?”

Daniel: I know some students in our group who read fantasy and sci-fi. They weren’t silent about the book, but they seemed hesitant to even take it from me, even though I know they read the genre.

To be fair, I didn’t push for it because I don’t want to come across as like I’m using my youth pastor position to gain readers for my books. Maybe I just need to reframe my thinking the way you’re describing and approach it differently.

Thomas: Will your book be beneficial to these kids if they read it?

Daniel: I believe so. I hope so.

Thomas: Is it more wholesome than the standard entertainment they’re likely to be consuming?

Daniel: One hundred percent, yes.

Thomas: Then don’t feel guilty helping them. You’re making their lives better with your story.

If you had some amazing healthy and delicious food and you see somebody eating Taco Bell, you can come to their rescue. Say, “Hey, I’ve got this food. It’s healthy and delicious. You don’t need to be eating that bean burrito from Taco Bell.” Your offer is kind and helpful.

Your book is beneficial. You need to consider whether you believe in your book or not. If you don’t believe in your book, you come across as hesitant, and nobody else will believe in your book either. You must believe your book is a helpful and entertaining alternative to Netflix or Fortnite. If you don’t, then you need to work harder to write a better book.

If you believe in your book, then promote it without shame because you owe it to the message in the book, and you owe it to your readers. If it will benefit them, why would you keep it to yourself?

Daniel: That’s a great point. I’ve never really thought about it from that perspective. You’re right. I’m not asking them to do something they wouldn’t want to do anyway, since they already like reading these kinds of books. I do believe it will help them.

Thomas: Pastors often display their books in the foyer of the church. Sometimes they give a book to guests for free, and sometimes they sell it. But you’re not even selling your book to these kids. You’re creating a group of beta readers. Hopefully, you can find one who is your super fan.

Give your book to six kids in your youth group. Three or four of them will like it, and one of them will love it. That’s the one you want to keep happy because that kid represents all the other readers who will love it.

Don’t feel guilty about promoting your book because that will hurt you. It will keep you from being an author. If you don’t believe in your book, you’ll never be able to convince anyone else to believe in your book. And if you don’t sell any books, people won’t read your book, and you’re wasting your time.

You can feel even less guilty with your beta readers because you’re not even charging them. You’re inviting them to the “cool kids club,” where they get free access to your books before anybody else does. They get to give you feedback, and you listen to it and make changes. That’s fun. That’s power. Teenagers have no actual power, and yet they get to influence something in the real world. That’s exciting.

Daniel: What if none of them provide any feedback. You said to assume they didn’t like it for whatever reason. In that scenario, maybe it’s the wrong audience, or maybe the story or writing was bad. How can I get more feedback?

Thomas: Make sure to ask them, “At what point did you stop reading?” Make a note of the chapter or page where they stopped. If they stopped reading in the first page or two, then it’s probably the writing. The beginning must grip your reader, or they’ll give up.

Perhaps they’re not the right fit for the genre, and the story doesn’t grab them.

If all your readers are giving up in different places, it’s more likely to be the writing.

If some people love it and others hate it, that means you have different kinds of beta readers. For example, some readers enjoy stories about elves. Other readers hate elves, but they love dragons. If your book has dragons and no elves, the elf-loving readers will hate your book.

If readers aren’t getting far enough to find out whether it has elves or dragons, then you probably need to work on your craft, and that’s OK.

How can I improve my writing craft?

Everyone benefits from working on their writing craft. If that’s the case for you, I recommend reading books on the craft of writing and structuring a novel.

In our course, The Five-Year Plan, we recommend a different craft book for you to read each month. After reading it, you write a short story to implement the lessons learned from that month’s book. By the time you’ve completed the course, you’ve written dozens of short stories, and you can use them for marketing and promotion purposes.

Some of your stories will be great, are some of them won’t be. But you’ll learn a lot in the process, and you’ll have tried many new methods.

The first step to discovering the issue is to get feedback from your target readers. You have an unfair advantage in this regard because you’re interacting with your target readers in real life. When you ask them how they liked it or where they stopped reading, you can look at their face and see the truth. You’ll be able to tell whether they’re just being nice to you or not.

Daniel: That’s a really good point.

I’ve wondered if homeschoolers might be a good market. I looked up some homeschool podcasts and reached out to a couple, but only one responded. That podcast asked for my book, which is free on Amazon, and they downloaded it from there.

The feedback I received from that podcast said that the writing needed work.

However, I have 200 reviews, and many of them are five-star reviews. I do get some bad reviews on the writing, but I think that’s because I couldn’t afford an editor, so I didn’t hire one. I know the book is suffering because of that.

I recently saved up some money and paid an editor to edit that book. I’m going to work through those edits to improve the book, but that podcaster’s feedback made me wonder if maybe the homeschool market isn’t right for my book. What’s your opinion on that?

What do homeschool parents want to see in a novel?

Thomas: Homeschool parents are sensitive to proper usage and grammar. They want their children to learn proper English usage. If the copyediting of your book is weak, they won’t want their children to read it. For instance, Sesame Street is not popular with homeschool parents because many of the puppets use poor grammar.

Cookie Monster says, “Me want cookie!” instead of “I want a cookie.”

Most parents don’t mind that, but amongst homeschool parents, it’s very controversial. If you wear a Cookie Monster shirt, you’re showing the homeschool community that you’re not “one of us” because they want to use good English.

Usage and grammar errors are a huge red flag to homeschool parents. They view it as something they’ll have to “un-teach” their kids, and your book is effectively making more work for the homeschool parent.

The good news is that grammar and usage is the easiest thing to fix. You don’t have to be good at that. When I talk about improving your craft, I’m talking about becoming a better storyteller. You can hire a copy editor to fix passive voice, commas, spelling, and usage. New York Times bestselling authors who have sold millions of copies still need copy editors. I recently interviewed Jerry Jenkins, who has sold a billion dollars worth of books, and he still requires editing. I think he’s sold 60 million copies of his books.

What if I can’t afford an editor?

Instead of publishing an unedited book because you can’t afford an editor, I recommend putting it on Kickstarter to raise money for the editing.

At Author Media, we have a Kickstarter Course. Authors who have completed the course have raised anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000. Through crowdfunding campaigns, authors can pay for professional editing with the sales from their future readers who back the campaign. In addition, the Kickstarter campaign gets people excited about the book. Your supporters and readers want it to be good, so they help fund it.

When you have the money on hand, you don’t have to risk thousands of dollars, and you still get that professional-grade editing. On the other hand, a failed Kickstarter campaign indicates that the marketing, pitch, or promise of the book is weak.  

Crowdfunding on Kickstarter is a great way to test the cover, back cover copy, and concept of the book. Most people decide to buy your book before reading it, so the initial sale isn’t impacted by the writing inside. It’s the pitch, promise, and cover art that make strangers want to purchase or back the campaign. The quality of the writing on the inside affects word-of-mouth marketing, but it doesn’t impact the sale to a total stranger.

Daniel: You’re saying it’s likely that the issue with targeting the homeschool markets is the lack of editing, and when that issue is solved, it’ll be much more marketable to homeschoolers.

Thomas: Yes. When a homeschool mom reads your book and sees typos or usage, she’s counting the issues that she’ll have to “unteach” her kid so that he gets a good score on the SAT. If your book feels like extra work, she won’t buy it. Your book needs to feel educational to the homeschool mom. That doesn’t mean it has to cover the Carthaginian wars with Rome, but it needs to be educationally edifying. Good editing is one way to make it educational.

Daniel: I will definitely keep that in mind for my future books. I’ve never considered Kickstarter. My strategy was to make it permafree, and if it received good reviews, I figured it would be worth paying an editor.

But Kickstarter solves that problem because you can test the book’s marketability before you even put it out there.

Thomas: It helps protect your reputation too. When you publish an unedited book, you give the impression that you’re a worse author than you are. People are comparing your unedited story to somebody else’s edited story. 

You may be surprised how much better your book will perform with some editing.

Daniel: I think my next step is to plan for editing and make sure I get all my books edited.

I’ll look into Kickstarter, but how does an unknown author like me reach out to people to help pay for a book they don’t even know about yet?

Thomas: I’d encourage you to listen to our episodes on Kickstarter.

You can also visit AskTheVulcan.com. It’s a new search engine I created to search all my podcasts across all my websites. Type “Kickstarter crowdfunding” into that search engine, and you’ll find dozens of episodes on crowdfunding.

But here are a few quick tips.

Create a Stellar Kickstarter Page

You’ll need great cover art. You’ll have to pay for the cover of your book before you launch your Kickstarter campaign, so you’ll need that money upfront. In your case, you already have good art on your website that you can use.

Create a Video 

Record yourself talking about why you’re writing the book. In the video, explain why your book will be interesting. You’ll also want to include a written explanation in a block of text on your Kickstarter page.

Contact Potential Backers

Then create a list of 50 people to contact one-on-one. Say, “Hi. I’m trying to make this book happen. I’ve got these rewards. As a financial backer, you’ll be featured in the book.”

Create Funding Tiers and Incentives

Put together enticing tiers and incentives. You’ll be surprised at the number of people who want to support you and your book, especially when they know that their names will be included in the back matter. For an author, having your name in print isn’t that cool, but it’s really exciting for a reader. They’re immortalized for all time in the back of your book.

Limited-edition signed and numbered copies are incredibly popular with Kickstarter backers. If your book becomes a big deal, their signed, limited-edition copy becomes an investment. 

An original Harry Potter book recently sold at auction for $70,000. The publisher printed only 500 copies initially, and three hundred of them went to libraries. That means there are only about 200 original copies in the wild.

We cover other strategies in the course, but those will get you started. You may be surprised by the enthusiasm for a creative project like this, especially when backers know their name will be listed in the back of their very own copy.

How can I overcome my fear of book promotion?

Daniel: The more I hear you talk, the more I realize that my biggest issue is fear. I’m an unknown author, and I don’t feel like anyone would want to fund my books. That’s the mental hurdle for me right now.  

Thomas: Fear is probably the most common challenge for authors promoting their books. There are several ways to overcome that fear.

Replace Fear with Another Fear

 Exchange one fear for another. For example, writer’s block is just another term for “fear of writing” or “fear of being misunderstood.” Most authors fight writer’s block with a deadline. They’re more afraid of missing the deadline and suffering the subsequent consequences. You can attach consequences to your deadline so that the fear of missing it is greater than the fear of writing.

You might be afraid to jump off the diving board. But if somebody says, “Jump off, I’ll kick you,” suddenly jumping off the diving board is less scary than getting kicked while you’re up there. One fear can replace another. That’s one way to do it.

Replace Fear with Love

But you can also replace fear with love. Perfect love casts out fear. I don’t know if we can love perfectly, but if you love your readers and your book well, you’ll be less afraid to promote it. When you believe in the mission and purpose of your book, you’ll care about the mission.

Imagine there is a big, scary thug beside a small mother. She might be scared. But if that thug is threatening her child, suddenly, the thug has a reason to be afraid of the small mom. Do not get in the way of a mama bear. Her love for her child makes her a force to be reckoned with.

Your love for your readers can make you a force to be reckoned with. Get to know your readers so you’ll know how to serve them. You’ll fall in love with them, and that will instill the confidence to promote your book.

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