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Opinion: Building A Reader Community Is More Important Than Marketing Books

Opinion: Building A Reader Community Is More Important Than Marketing Books

Matthew Wayne SelznickSelf-published novelist Matthew Wayne Selznick explains why he's not marketing his books, he's building a reader community – and why he thinks you should follow suit.

I bet you spend a lot of time, and maybe money, too, marketing (or thinking about marketing) your books.

You’re not alone. A glance through your writing groups will reveal more conversations about marketing than storytelling.

It makes sense. After all, despite those who say “I only write to have written,” and “I would do this even if I knew no one would ever read my work,” a book is not really finished until it’s read by someone other than the writer. So, we worry about how to make that happen. We want people to buy our books!

There are times when it’s appropriate to push hard for those sales. On a day-to-day and even long-term basis, though, it’s not where your focus should be.

Build Relationships, Not Audience

As a creative professional, your focus must be on building real connections with your community of readers. Those relationships have greater value than any ad run or blog hop, and you’ll be personally enriched as well.

If you're now thinking “I came here  to learn how to sell more books!”, let me give you the cold, pragmatic, bottom line.

As primates, we’re more inclined to look after our own before we invest interest in strangers. We thrive in our tribe. We want the people in our tribe to thrive, because stronger individuals make a stronger group. You must build a tribe around your creative endeavors.

Spelled out for the people in the back: you’ll sell more books to people who care more about you than care about your books.

Back To The Touchy Feely Part

As you wade through the unending razor-grass prairie of independent author marketing advice, phrases like “build an audience,” “permission marketing,” “author platform,” and “personal brand” will pop up like chirping velociraptors.

Just remember: the real velociraptor was about the size of downy dachshund. It's important to understand all of those phrases (except for the first, as we’ll see in a moment), so long as you keep them in perspective.

Don’t make more out of what marketing “gurus” say than their words are actually worth (including mine), even for the sake of good drama.

Faceless mummies en masse“Build an audience,” though? That one, I want you to reject entirely. An audience is group of people gathered to receive a one-way transmission from you to them. It’s not a relationship; it’s not a conversation.

In the Conversation Age in which we live and work, you don’t want an audience. It’s far better for you and for them to participate in an exchange. Much better to know, as far as possible, who your readers are as people, and for them to know you as more than just the person who wrote that thing.

Sound like a lot of work, Salinger? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, you can build your reader community in concert with all that ad-buying/blog-hopping busy-work.  Just be accessible, be transparent, and be who you really are, whether you’re online or in person. Be a human being.

It’s more work to not do these things, really.  Your community will gather, by accretion, around the core of your authenticity.

But How?

In a future post, I'll ogrossvaterffer some best practices and practical advice on building your reader community.

Meanwhile… what do you think? Would you rather have a dedicated, evangelical, committed community of readers who support all of your creative endeavours with their voices and their wallets, or is it enough for you to simply know there are some faceless people out there who really enjoyed that book written by that one author who also wrote that other thing I can’t think of right now? Which approach has a better chance of bringing you a life-long, sustained career as a creator?

Tell me what you think by posting in the comments. Extend the discussion by sharing this post with your own communities to bring in even more opinions. I look forward to the conversation!

If you enjoyed this Opinion post, you might like these other provocative pieces:


Author: Matthew Wayne Selznick

Matthew Wayne Selznick is an author, creator, and creative services provider living in Long Beach, California. His non-fiction book, Reading The Amazing Spider-Man: A Critical Review With Storytelling Lessons From A Writer's Perspective, was released in March. Through his company, MWS Media, he helps authors and other creators bring their creative endeavors to fruition, to market, and to an audience.


This Post Has 52 Comments
  1. Great post, Matthew. I’m glad I stumbled across it. The toughest parts for me have been the “community” and “communication” pieces. I’m always sure to comment on others’ blogs, but knowing how to get them to reciprocate can be tough. I read somewhere once that writers make the worst readers; while I don’t WANT that to be true, I know it is a guilt I share.

    Again, thanks for the great post!

  2. There are some great tips on these and other pages, particularly for the fledgling web designer such as myself. I’m trying to build up my portfolio part-time to a point where I will be ready to take the full time plunge….so all these handy hints will be useful at some point I’m sure!!

    1. Glad to hear it, Logan! Don’t wait until you’re ready to go full time to build your community, though, if you want my two cents. Just as with any creative endeavor, the time to begin community building is while you’re still in the “in progress” phase!

  3. I am careful when writing a post for my wordpress.com blog to write well, which is an indication of the writing in my novel, Greening of a Heart. Hopefully, those who visit the site are coming to know me through one of my categories: short SFH Reflections. I know I reject immediately the blogs I wander into when the writing is careless. Why would I want to read more? Thank you for this post that has given me more tho think about.

  4. A lot of good sense in your post, Matthew. As with most things in life it all comes down to relationships. I joined Twitter etc because I was told, as a new author, that was the way to get sales. I quickly forgot all about the sales talk and just enjoyed the talk, talk. If any of my virtual friends buy my books, it’s a bonus.

  5. I love what you’ve written, Matthew. Sense at last! I know marketing and book promotion has to be done, but it’s so easy to become engulfed in the marketing frenzy, and to lose focus about what’s important and what we ultimately want.
    Your words “Just be accessible, be transparent, and be who you really are, whether you’re online or in person. Be a human being…” say it all for me. Thank you.

  6. Great post, Matthew; I’ve shared it on my Twitter feed and I look forward to the practical advice. I’m relatively new to all this and I can count the real members of my ‘community’ without taking my shoes and socks off, but I recognise how important those people are to word-of-mouth promotion.

  7. Finally, something that makes sense to me and for my readers! I write for the ‘Tween market and everything that I’ve read or studied, with respect to marketing, does not fit this group of readers. This makes so much sense! My readers ARE the Conversation Age and every over ‘marketing program’ misses them completely. I can’t wait for your next post! Thanks so much for you sage advice!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Stephanie!

      Yep! Tweens are “digital natives,” people for whom the definition of friendship and community is global and local. They’re “makers” themselves, too, so it only makes sense they’d be eager to connect with an author as a peer and equal (which is how all connections between creators and consumers should be!)

      I’m glad this post struck a chord for you. Stay tuned… I hope you get just as much from my next one. I’m dying to know how you execute on these ideas, and how it works out for you.

  8. Nice idea, Matthew, about the community. Like you, I get tired of the promotion gurus, many of whom I suspect of being simply covert promoters of their own work and websites. It would be better to talk about books than sales – at least you can believe in books!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, David!

      Writing about how to market your writing is almost as big a niche as writing about writing, David, especially these days. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with folks sharing their expertise, I reckon. Heck, you might see something like that from me in the weeks and months ahead.

      And as I wrote in the post, it makes sense that indie writers, especially, would be extra-keen to find the shortest possible path to mass acceptance. After all, many indie writers are the poster children for immediate gratification!

      I just hope we keep front-of-mind the fact that storytelling started as a communal action, and we live in an age when the community is no longer restricted by geography or even time. I say, let’s make the most of that.

      I’ve seen, first-hand, that readers appreciate it!

  9. Thanks, Matthew. I am very shy and the thought of marketing my novel(and even my children’s stories),all of which have been professionally edited, horrifies me. Thus, I keep editing and re-editing them until there will be no novel or stories for children remaining. Born with a twin, I suppose I never really learned to easily venture out on my own and am a basically shy person. Always having had my assignments completed in high school and college the day after they were assigned, I am not a procrastinator so believe it is the shy gene that has me stuck with my stories!!

    1. Hi Virgina! You look like you’re doing all right! Six hundred plus followers on Twitter, for example!

      I notice you use a pen name (your website goes to Virginia Pike.com), so maybe it would help to think of the “author” you as a client? That might help you get over that hump?

      If I’ve helped you to think of this whole business as more about being yourself and less about capital-M Marketing, well, mission accomplished.

      Now stick a fork in that book! It’s done! 🙂

  10. Geat post Matthew:

    I am anxious to read your future posts. I have been a DIY Indie authir and publisher for decades. Currently building a platform for the release of my Horror/Thriller e-novel in April 2014 starting the week after the holidays are past us in Jamuary, with a variety of extended efforts targeted at the readers of these popular genres.Your surname strikes a chord as I have been a movie buff all my lfe.

    Best wishes…


    1. Thanks for commenting, Warren! Stick around here for my follow-up post on community building, and if you want more from me… I’ll see you on my site, which is linked in the original post!

      There’s a nice big pool for the Horror/Thriller genre–you’ll find lots of like minds! I recommend joining (if you haven’t already) some of the fora and community groups specific to your particular niche of Horror/Thriller (if you have one) and become an active, genuine part of those communities. You might find the germ of your tribe is just waiting for you!

      As for my surname… it’s surprisingly common! However, if there’s a pile of leftover RKO royalties with my name on it in a dusty corner somewhere… I’ll take it! 🙂

  11. Good advice. One place I disagree with is rejecting building an audience. I’d rather have a two-way relationship with my readers, but many people don’t want that. They want to read a book and, if they like it, read more by that author. I won’t reject that aspect out of hand.

    My answer to how to do it isn’t marketing, though. It’s writing good books and then writing more good books. That’s how you build an audience. The best marketing a writer can do is writing the next book.

    1. Thanks for replying here, Terry! For folks who don’t know, Terry is one-third of the long-running writing podcast The Dead Robots’ Society. In the interest of disclosure, MWS Media, my creative services company, hosts their site, and I’ve been a guest on the show many times.

      Now, with that out of the way..!

      I want to clarify that I didn’t write that one should reject the reader who just wants to read your books.

      Every member of the community will find their own comfort level, naturally. If some folks just want to read your works and don’t bother themselves with interacting with you as a person, so be it. They’re as welcome as anyone.

      In the context of the post, I wrote that one should reject the advice from marketing “gurus” to “build an audience” because, for the purposes of this discussion, “An audience is group of people gathered to receive a one-way transmission from you to them. It’s not a relationship; it’s not a conversation.”

      I advocate the approach that one build an interactive community… relationships.

      I hope that distinction is clear as glass, because it’s a very important one.

      As far as writing more and more good books, well, no one can (or should) disagree with that! 🙂 It gets back to my comment to Dan Holloway, above.

      That said, I’m not interested in cultivating an audience for my work, no matter how many good books I have on the market. I want a community.

      It’s a question of how we, as creators, approach the relationship.

      If some members of that community choose to behave more like members of an audience, again, that’s their right and choice, of course. It’s out of our control, as it should be.

      As a creator, I’m still going to treat those folks like community members.

      I hope that makes sense to everyone!

      1. Thanks for the response, Matt. It may seem like splitting hairs, but I’m going to respectfully disagree.

        I wasn’t suggesting you meant to reject the reader. I got that. I was disagreeing with your advice to outright reject the marketing advice to build an audience. That said, I agree that much of the advice on how the gurus suggest doing so is wrongheaded. I’ll explain my thinking.

        You defined an audience as: “An audience is group of people gathered to receive a one-way transmission from you to them. It’s not a relationship; it’s not a conversation.”

        I submit that the vast majority of readers are an audience and it is worthwhile to build their interest in you as an author. Most have no interest in a conversation. I also agree that engaging those wanting a conversation is very worthwhile. My disagreement is quite narrow and perhaps pedantic. I’m a writer. Sue me. 😉

        My thought is your phrasing was too exclusionary. To reject the entire line of advice. I say to keep the concept of building an audience as part of what you as a writer need to do, just reject most of the ways the gurus advise to do it.

        Building an audience is critical to a writers long term success, be it commercial or hobby. Those loyal readers will keep coming back again and again, while telling others of you. Nora Robers is a good example of this.

        Like her books or not, she writes well for her audience and each new book builds that audience. She has a long tail and it wasn’t build, for the most part, in having a conversation with her readers. I know she does converse and interact with them, but she doesn’t forget that she needs to write books her audience will love.

        That’s my nit. Reject most of the advice on how to build an audience, but not the idea that it is worthwhile to build it. Use your writing and don’t waste your time doing outlandish things, certainly. But do build your audience. Build that long tail.

        1. I getcha, Terry.

          My thing is: if one works from the perspective that one is building a community, the audience building (for those who just want to be an audience) takes care of itself.

          All communities include an audience since some members of the community will prefer a more one-way relationship with the creator.

          But! Not all audiences are communities, because some creators never approach their readers as members of a community.

          “She has a long tail and it wasn’t build, for the most part, in having a conversation with her readers. I know she does converse and interact with them, but she doesn’t forget that she needs to write books her audience will love.”

          I don’t think it’s an either / or kind of thing. I would never suggest to sacrifice your productivity in the interest of connecting with your community.

          If a creator is doing that, they have a time management problem. Different issue, I think.

  12. As one who will never have the physical energy to do much in the way of in-person communication with the people I’m writing for, I’m trying something else: I’m posting the novel-in-progress, a finished scene at a time, on my blog.

    It’s also being serialized – MWF – at VentureGalleries.com.

    Online is my only option – there is bound to be a piece of time every day in which my brain works – and I love interacting with the people who read. I can live a week on one good comment!

    I’m taking it very slow – without pushing anything – because I can handle only so much interaction, and I want to interact with everyone who wants to (I also visit other blogs – and am making new friends).

    I’m hoping to be ready for publication – all or in part – by Sep. 2014. A community is what I want. I have joined the groups which are natural for me – and contribute to them – on Facebook.

    If by some huge random enhancement in the medical community, I get an infusion of energy, I know where I would put it all.

    You are 100% correct: not an audience – a family.


    1. Slow and steady wins the race, Alicia! Thanks for the comment.

      Are you finding that you’re attracting community members through the cross-posting of the serial at VentureGalleries? Put another way: is there incentive for readers on that site to make the leap over into your community?

      It’s important to make sure external promotional efforts funnel folks back to your own hub on the web… for example, ALLi members who visit my site because of this post will find a nice welcome waiting for them there, all week. 🙂

      (I totally know what you mean about the fuel found in one good comment! Hurrah for those!)

  13. The post makes a lot of sense, though I would think that finding such a community is the real challenge. I’ve had limited success with Facebook and have good reviews on Amazon, but networking is a whole new skill in addition to authoring.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Gregory! I’ll cover some strategies / methods in my next guest post, but for now I’ll say this:

      The idea isn’t to find a community… it’s to create a community. You already have one, I assume, among your friends and family. Some of those people should be (I hope!) also interested in your work and committed to your success. That’s where you start.

      If it’s any easier, don’t think of it as networking. Think of it as finding friends. Just like in the schoolyard when we were six, that starts with saying “Hi” and “can I play?” 🙂 And it grows from there.

  14. I’m been a primary school teacher for over 30 years. Although I’ve stopped teaching now, I write stories for children and I’m a professional storyteller (the sort that tells them out of your head: not reading). I don’t miss teaching, but I do miss talking and being with kids. I hope to help children to enjoy stories so they want to read them. Mine and others. There is scientific evidence that says something good develops in your brain when you read. I look forward to your practical advice on how to develop reading children.

    1. Hi Colin!

      I want to manage your expectations a little: my practical advice in a future blog post won’t be about how to develop reading children. As a professional storyteller (my first wife was a professional storyteller), you’re probably better suited to write that post!

      I’ll be talking about specific steps you can take, most of them online, to grow your reader community. Stay tuned!

  15. Excellent post here, Matt, and one I believe in whole-heartedly. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be face-forward when we can though, via book signings and readings, etc., since that’s one of the best ways to connect on a personal basis with people who are interested in what we do. Personally, I prefer to connect with people at the grass-roots level and build from there. Social networking is great, but again, I’m selective in who I let in and I build relationships with those I connect with. I also limit the amount of time on social networking sites, so I don’t get carried away.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and doing it so well.

    1. Thank you, Debbie!

      Indeed, as I wrote in the post, “There are times when it’s appropriate to push hard for those sales.”

      In the weeks (months?) between those launches, though, I really think it’s best to mostly, well, just be with your community of readers in whatever way makes the most sense.

      That’s why I emphasized transparency and authenticity whether you’re online or in “meatspace.” Your reader community doesn’t begin and end with social networking (except in the sense that social networking doesn’t only mean online, and never did).

      I agree it’s important to be selective. My policy is: I treat everyone with respect until they show me that they don’t deserve it, both in person and online. That means I’m disappointed sometimes… but more often, it means I get to know some fascinating people I might never have had the chance to engage with otherwise.

  16. Having tried the follow-my- leader school of ‘this is the way’ ( How to?… to the power of ten), more courses than sticks could be shaken at, more on-line webinars at three in the morning, more download what I don’t need because my email is what you think you need to go on doing more of this….I just have to say I have probably ten authentic on- line ( but certainly not virtual) friends, all of whom have read my book and become my part time, voluntary sales team, and more importantly my co-conspirators and commiserating friends.

    In fact my most recent blog was about what this had taught me…pretty much along the lines of what is here recommended! Why does one go three miles down the wrong road before recognising that is what it is? Only because one knew nothing about the right one, starting out.

    1. So true, Philippa.

      I had the advantage of starting my creative life in indie and punk rock bands. In that world (which is none too different that the world of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland fixing up the old barn and enthusiastically saying, “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!) the community is the first cause… everything flows from that.

      I think you hit on something important in your comment when you wrote, “…commiserating…” That speaks to the very important point that it’s not about finding a group of people to help promote your works. It’s about being a tribe, and being genuinely invested in each other as people.

      Philippa, will you share a link to the blog post you wrote about?

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. Yes Matthew, with pleasure. It is meant to amuse as well as confess! It is here: http://involution-odyssey.com/blogscribe/

        The truth is as a writer one absolutely needs readers to validate and authenticate, and although my book is about as unmarketable as a book can be, the readers are also as different from one another as can be, which their reviews, voluntarily posted on Amazon do show….a close friend said ‘You reviewers are almost fanatical’! If you want to swim further those are here http://involution-odyssey.com/endorsements-for-an-odyssey/

        1. One of the lovely things about the Conversation Age, and something Chris Anderson noted in his book The Long Tail, is that there is now a community for everything. I don’t think there’s such a thing as an unmarketable book, unless it is technically unreadable.

          Might it take longer for the community to accrete around you? Perhaps. But they’re out there. The connection is usually you before your work even enters into it.

  17. I love talking *with* people at events whether I’m chatting at a fair or fete, at a book event, a scifi convention or over lunch. Connecting at a human level is essential as people buy books from people they know.

    I’m curious about your practical advice and will be waiting for that post.

    1. Wait and see, Alison! Although it sounds like you’re already on the path.

      As someone who is both a creator and a creative services provider, I’ve been thinking about how to be more proactive with face-to-face engagement. I’ve toyed with the idea of creating public “office hours,” where I announce that I’ll be at a coffee shop or cafe on a certain day between certain hours and leave an open invitation for local members of my community of readers (or clients) to come around and chat.

      In the coming months, I’ll almost certainly be doing something similar online, probably utilizing Google Hangout or Skype.

      You mentioned “over lunch.” Do you have local reader community members you meet with?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dan! First! 🙂

      Kevin is a brilliant futurist and thinker. His 1,000 true fans model is how independent bands have been surviving and thriving for decades before the Internet made such things possible for creators of all kinds.

      I prefer to think of my fans as community members, as you might have guessed, because I think the creator and consumer are peers. “Fan” could imply that the consumer is lower on the ladder than the creator, at least to some people. On the other hand, some folks embrace the label for themselves.

      In any event, as creators, we have to hold up our end of the relationship and produce content (in our case, written works) for them to, hopefully, enjoy. I don’t think it’s enough simply announce new releases, though. I’ve seen that the community really enjoys being included in the process.

      Not that they should necessarily influence the content of your work (unless that’s what you’re doing with that particular work!), but I do think part of the value we can provide is a window into the sausage factory.

      I’m going to put more focus on that part of the equation myself in the coming year.

      1. agree entirely – this is something i’ve written about lots (and takes up several chapter in the book I have coming out next month) – and interesting you mention music – before I started writing for an audience, my main experience of indie culture was music and much of hat I learned has come from the bands I know

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