Everyone knows they need to find readers, but once you identify where they are, how do you capture them? How do you turn them into super fans? In an extract from her new book, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, Orna Ross, explains everything you need to know about fans, true fans and super fans.
As an author-publisher, you sell books to readers by attracting them through a funnel. At the widest end of the funnel are those who’ve heard about you and your book and like the sound of it. At the narrowest end are those who buy and read every book you publish and tell other readers about them.
Your aim is to pull as many readers as possible through that funnel, deepening your connection to them in ever more rewarding ways.
Finding Followers, True Fans and Superfans: The Reader Journey
Conventional business has long mapped customer journeys as a way to understand the steps a customer takes from not knowing a brand at all to buying and recommending. The customer journey concept is important in book marketing and sales too, enabling authors and publishers to identify the right content to send at the right time. In publishing, it’s known as the reader journey.
The reader journey varies slightly, depending on whether the reader is buying print books or other physical products in a physical environment or making their discovery and purchases online, but it’s remarkably consistent across formats and territories.
It has five steps: discovery, deliberation, investment, reading, endorsement.
- It starts with discovery, the reader becoming aware of you or your book. Before this, you're a nobody to them and they’ve never heard of your books. Now, somehow, something’s caught their attention. Maybe they read a review, had your book turn up in their “also-boughts” on Amazon (the books that Amazon highlights as “people who bought this book also bought these”), noticed your cover while scrolling on social media, found you on a shelf beside their favourite author while browsing in a bookstore, had you turn up on a search in Google. There are many ways that a reader can discover your work and the more ways you can get yourself in front of them, the better.
- That’s not an invitation to do everything you think of, willy-nilly. You can’t do everything but start thinking about how you can increase the touchpoints with the right readers for your books. How do you make your book more discoverable?
- After discovery comes deliberation. The reader is thinking: Shall I buy this book or not? You may pull them across the line on first sighting. More commonly, they go away and come back again. Marketing wisdom suggests it can take up to eight encounters before a potential customer feels they know, like and trust you enough to buy from you.
- Increase the likelihood of a purchase or a sign up by the quality of your copywriting in book descriptions and marketing material and images, audio or video. Make the book come alive for them.
- This is the heart of the reader journey, the first investment—usually the first book sale, or a free book download in exchange for an email address.
- Make it a valuable, compelling, irresistible offer.
- After that comes reading. Yes, that’s a separate stop-off in the journey. People buy books without reading them. Estimates indicate that one in two books purchased by the reader go unread. In some genres, it’s many more. And that doesn’t account for those books bought as gifts by others which often gather dust.
- Remind your readers about you and your books by having a newsletter that checks in with them and shows you care.
- The high-point of the reader journey, from the author’s perspective, is endorsement—the reader sharing their love of your books and your author brand with other readers.
- Set up a structure that makes it easy for your readers to review and talk about your books.
Finding Followers, True Fans and Superfans: ACCESS Marketing
ACCESS marketing is a sequence of progressive actions that takes your readers from discovering you or your writing to engaging with you and subscribing to your email list. From there, you continue to satisfy their need for entertainment, knowledge or inspiration, even more. ACCESS marketing encourages us to be creators, not hustlers, in our social and email marketing activities.
- Attract – Attract readers to your list through social media, blogging, advertising or some other method
- Captivate – Keep those who have followed or liked your offerings interested and continually attract newcomers by regularly posting captivating content.
- Connect – Have an easily accessible mail address where a reader or follower can connect with you. Regularly invite email contact
- Engage – Make your channel meaningful by starting and nurturing conversations. Ask questions. Invite input into characters, plot turns (fiction), ideas and quandaries (nonfiction) word choices and formats (poetry).
- Subscribe – Invite your followers to subscribe by offering them what is often called a “lead magnet” or “reader magnet”. (see below)
- Satisfy -Make your emails delightful and email regularly, on the promised schedule.
Selling books to this group then becomes easy, and there’s nothing salesy about it. It’s just a matter of sending an email or other message to readers who already know, like and trust you and your work.
For more on ACCESS marketing you can listen to our podcast episode on the topic here.
Like all book marketing, the aim of ACCESS marketing is to turn browsers into readers, and reader into true fans, or maybe even superfans.
Creating True Fans
In 2008 Kevin Kelly, technologist, author, founder of Wired magazine, and astute commentator on the digital age wrote an influential article about the value of a creator having 1,000 true fans.
Kelly posed an alternative to the star system for authors and other creators. Instead of trying to blast your books out to as many readers as possible you aimed to please just 1,000 true fans.
He defined a “true fan” as a fan who “will buy anything you produce.” If you have roughly a thousand true fans (also known as super fans), and you get your pricing right, you can make a living. A thousand true fans, each spending $100 a year on your products or services would give you a gross of $100,000 a year and, provided your expenses were not high, give you a reliable and sustainable basic income.
The key word is “roughly”. The number of fans and the revenue benchmark of $100 per fan per year isn’t meant to be exact prescription. It’s about setting a different framework for how we think about earnings as a creator.
“1,000 true fans is an alternative path to success… Instead of trying to reach the narrow and unlikely peaks of platinum bestseller hits, blockbusters, and celebrity status, you can aim for direct connection with a thousand true fans. On your way, no matter how many fans you actually succeed in gaining, you’ll be surrounded not by faddish infatuation, but by genuine and true appreciation. It’s a much saner destiny to hope for. And you are much more likely to actually arrive there.”
Kelly describes a pattern of concentric circles with keenest fans at the center, a wider circle of regular readers around them, a wider circle of mildly engaged readers around them, who may have read one of your books or bought something else from you. Around those one-off readers is the still wider circle of readers who have heard of you but not yet dipped in and then the biggest circle: those in your niche who don’t yet know you or your books.
You cultivate an audience through advertising, social media or some other method. You then convert some of those users to free subscribers. Some of those subscribers into patrons and buyers to higher-value products, such as premium print books, extra content, exclusive access, or direct interaction with the author. Authors can segment their followers and offer tailored products and services to the different levels of fan at varying price points.
On the episode of the AskALLi podcast where Joanna Penn and I discussed this, she raised the concept of overlapping concentric circles.
“I have two very clear brands, Joanna Penn–The Creative Penn–and J.F. Penn, and I definitely have people under my Joanna Penn brand who are amazing, and do buy everything and are my patrons—all my books, all my courses, all my audiobooks and they listen to the podcast. I don’t think I have many people like that under J.F. Penn, because I have so many different series, which appeal to different readers.
Similarly, I am a true fan of Kristine Kathryn Rusch—but for her nonfiction, as Kris Rusch. I’ve read a couple of her novels, but she writes under all these different names and all these different genres and I’ve read some of them, but certainly not all. Whereas, with her nonfiction, I buy all her nonfiction, I’m a patron, I fly to America to see her speak.
Same with you Orna. I’ve read all your nonfiction but I haven’t read all your poetry.
And so, what I would say for authors who write in multiple genres or series: understand that you can have different concentric circles, each built around pockets of true fans.”
You can listen to that podcast episode here.
In 2020, with Kevin Kelly’s blessing, Li Jin founder and Managing Partner at Atelier, an early-stage VC firm that funds the “passion economy”, updated the thousand true fans theory. Jin argued that the rise in social media use, the impact of influencers, and the availability of new paid creator tools like Patreon, Podium and Substack, has shifted the threshold for success. Today, creators can effectively make more money off fewer fans.
Not not 1,000 fans paying $100 a year, but 100 fans paying $1,000 a year.
Like Kelly, Jin points out that the revenue benchmarks of $1,000 or $100 per fan per year isn’t meant to be an exact prescription. Also that the 100 True Fans and 1,000 True Fans models aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s up to the creator to work out the model that best suits their offering and their fans.
To authors thinking solely about the traditional book buying business, the idea that 100 fans could provide a living for a creator might sound unlikely, even fanciful. But creator platforms like Substack, Podium, and Patreon show that the buyers are there.
Patreon, a “membership platform that makes it easy for creators to get paid”, recently said the average amount pledged by patrons to creators has increased 22 percent over the past two years. And since 2017, the share of new patrons paying more than $100 per month to creators—or $1,200 per year—has grown 21 percent.
At time of writing, Podia, which hosts and sells all kinds of online courses, memberships, and digital downloads, says the number of creators earning more than $1,000 monthly on its platform is growing at 20 percent a month, while the average number of customers per creator is growing at a rate of 10 percent.
Substack, the subscription newsletter platform that offers authors and other writers a self-publishing subscription email platform, has accumulated more than 250,000 paying subscribers at time of writing, with its top ten writers collectively bringing in $7 million a year. Find out more here.
Substack takes a 10% cut of earnings and payment company Stripe takes another 3%, writers pocket the rest. Podia charges a monthly membership for the features it provides and creators keep all income. Patreon charges vary depending on when you joined and which level of service you want but average around 8% of your payment as payment fees and platform fees, plus a currency charge.
But opportunities to find financial freedom go beyond retaining most of the revenue and moving from being a freelance content provider to running your own creative business, . Substack offers its writers grants ranging from $3,000 to $100,000 which, like book advances from publishers, buy writers time to do the work of building content and a readership.
While a true fan is a reader who will buy everything you produce, a superfan is a reader who goes out and tells others all about you and your books. These are the readers you take further along the reader journey.
To have a whole team of fans pushing your book upon release is something that most successful indie author book launches rely on.
- ARC Team: Your Advanced Review Copy (ARC) Team is a group of readers who receive a copy of your book before its launch and leave a review the moment you publish your book.
- Street Team: These readers form a subsection of your ARC readers. They won’t just post a review, they are gung-ho about your book, and want to tell the world about it. On launch day, they are ready with their reviews, they’ll turn up to your book party, they’ll post on their social media sites, they’ll help push sales any way they can.
The direct relationship between creators and consumers is where we see the fastest growth in the creative industries at the moment.
The undying, long-lasting, true superfan is a very precious relationship to an author.
It’s important to note, though, that it’s a rare fan—true or super—who remains with you, forever and a day. Most will be around for a while, then they’ll move on. We all do it—and that’s just as it should be. You meet a book when you need it, and you identify closely with a particular author for a while, then you shift or transform and they are no longer so relevant.
From an author's point of view, this means you are constantly marketing, aiming to reach more readers all the time, aiming to call back those who have read and enjoyed your work before.
Finding Followers, True Fans and Superfans: Creating a Marketing Funnel
The reader journeys through a funnel. At the widest end of the funnel are browsers who are in the earliest stages of the reader journey: discovery and deliberation. They’ve heard about you and your books and like what they've heard. At the narrowest end are buyers, fans and superfans, who are furthest along the reader journey with you: reading and endorsement. They buy and read every book you publish and tell other readers about them.
A marketing funnels is a numbers game. You will draw only a few readers through the whole funnel from browser to buyer to true fan to superfan. For example, let's say 1000 readers click through to your mailing list sign-up page, and 100 of those actually register (If you're not an experienced advertiser, that might not sound like a lot to you, but that would actually be an excellent result). Of those 10 buy your currrent book. Of those six become true fans, prepared to buy anything you bring out in future. And two of those become superfans, who constantly tell others to buy your books.
When you start out, it can seem very challenging to get even a single reader. As you write more books, the numbers begin to shift in your favor.
What does a reader funnel look like?
The wide end of your funnel includes your touch points with your right readers. Examples of touchpoints are a website, a social media platform, a podcast interview, another book of yours, an article you wrote. Anything you've done, said or put out into the world that a potential reader might stumble upon or seek out.
Your next task is to try and convert them and capture them on your mailing list. This is where a good reader magnet really helps.
A reader magnet is a free offer of something connected to your books—like a short story, a digital poetry chapbook, a free how-to book –that you give away in exchange for a reader's contact details.
TIP: Once you've created a reader magnet, you can use services like Bookfunnel or StoryOrigin to seamlessly deliver the goods to your reader. If you connect those platforms to your mailing list too, then they automatically push readers onto the correct mailing list and if you have an autoresponder sequence set up, then hey presto, your marketing funnel is automated, working for you while you write your next book.
Once you've got access to your readers' email address, converting them to true fandom, then super fandom, is a process. Letting them get to know, like and trust you, usually through a pre-written and automated email sequence that offers them good things. Through a social media group that you run. A podcast or YouTube channel. More free stories or poems. Great experiences, online or off. Content that blows their minds, or makes them laugh, or inspires them to be better.
The choice is yours.
After a time, when you've built up trust, you encourage them to check out your books for sales, paid products, and services. You run launches and promos that specifically target your list with books and other delights that they're delighted to buy and endorse.
How do you know if your reader funnel works?
ALLi Partner Member Written Word Media has an excellent article demonstrating how to analyze the effectiveness of your reader funnel.
- If you're finding that you're not converting people to your mailing list then perhaps there's an issue with what you're giving away or the copy you're using to attract readers.
- If you're getting people signed up but then not converting those subscribers into buyers, then there could be an issue with your email sequencing or the reader magnet they read.
Find out more in this post.
The Ultimate Guide to the Reader Journey: Fixing the Funnel
So that's the reader journey. Look at the five steps — discovery, deliberation, investment, reading, endorsement — and see where the funnel pathway you've laid for your reader needs attention.
- Do you need more touch points where the right readers can find you and your books in the discovery stage?
- Do you need to increase reader access to you at the deliberation stage?
- Do you need to make your book covers, descriptions or advertisements more enticing at the reader investment stage?
- Do you need to make your books more compelling, so more buyers finish your books in the reading stage?
- Do you need to give your readers more opportunities to engage with, and spread the word about your work, in the endorsement stage?
Make the funnel you provide for your reader as clean and clear and stumble-free as possible.
This is an extract from
Creative Self-Publishing: ALLi’s Guide to Independent Publishing for Authors and Poets, by Orna Ross