Writing Tips – Finding Your First Readers, A Case Study

I always said if I found a clever trick for attracting readers, I would share it. Today I’m filling that promise.

So here we are. It’s been said, over and over, that for any product, including books, brands, and authors (yes, as an author, YOU are a product), the hardest part of any startup is attracting the first thousand users, readers, customers, etc. Success in this industry isn’t going to land in your lap. It takes drive, hard work, patience, and perseverance. Hopefully this case study will give you some ideas to gaining those first 1000 raving fans, or growing your base if you already have one.

I try something new every week, and this was such a simple idea that when it paid off, my initial instinct was to stuff it in my jacket pocket, carry it to a secret lock-box, and bury it where nobody else could ever discover it. But that just wouldn’t be me. As I’ve said before, as an author, I am not your competition. We would all be a lot better off if we shared as we learn.

First off, a note to those people who contacted me on Facebook about the beta-read: I hope that you are enjoying the story, and your emails will ONLY be used as a point of contact to get feedback about the story. While I would love to have you on my regular list, and you will be given the opportunity to sign up, you won’t be added unless I have your express written permission to add you. You don’t have to worry about spam from me, ever. This post is to fulfill another promise to my writing friends, that as I continue to attract readers, I would be 100% transparent and clear with them about what I’m doing in this space, and give them ideas about how they can build their own readership. Finding readers is as hard for authors as finding new stuff to read is for readers. I’m trying to bridge that gap from both sides, to connect us, the authors, directly to you, the wonderful people out there looking for a good story.

Step One: The Product

Essentially, this strategy revolves around giving away a whole novel for free to a select few potential customers. If this concept makes your stomach turn because you are worried about copyright infringement or plagiarism of your work, this is going to take a huge leap of faith on your part. In theory though, it can be adapted for a shorter piece of fiction that you don’t mind giving away. For me, I picked the absolute best thing on my “to be released” shelf. I didn’t want to hold back, because a solid product is important.

The book, Stone’s Shadow, has been prepped, rewritten, replotted, and edited so many times that I don’t want to think about it. Even though I’m presenting it as a “beta read,” it’s really close to being a finished work. In fact, I’m sure a couple of you reading this have already looked at the story, because this isn’t the first time that I’ve fished it out for user input.

I’m pointing this out, because whatever product or freebie you decide to use for this strategy MUST be solid and representative of your skill level. This isn’t flashing some random PLR document in a “free for subscribers” pop-up box on your website. This is about building an audience for your work, and you will only get one chance to impress them, so choose carefully, and make sure you present the best product you possibly can. There’s a reason that modern marketing books harp on having an awesome product. If it isn’t awesome, then you aren’t going to get awesome results, period, so make sure it shines before going any farther.

My Personal Grievances with Phishing Scams

I don’t like phishing scams. I don’t like sending unsolicited emails, and there’s a reason that you don’t see some annoying pop-up on my website after you read the first three lines of this blog post, even though EVERY single marketing expert I’ve talked to is essentially calling me a dumb-ass for not putting it there. I don’t like invading someone’s space. I’m not looking for an email list of 5000 people that delete everything I send to their inbox. I would rather have a couple dozen loyal fans, and I don’t believe I’m going to get them by crowbarring my way into their inbox.

Because of my self-destructive policy on privacy, it’s hard for me to reach out to people, connect with them, and most importantly secure a way to contact them in the future. Similar reason to why I’m shy to ask a girl for her number. I’m terrified of being the “creep” or the “salesman.” I don’t want that to be someone’s opinion of me, and I think that message resonates with a lot of you.

That said, if we don’t try reaching out to readers, then we won’t find them, they won’t even get a chance to try our books, and they sure as hell won’t be telling their friends how awesome the book was. Readers are loyal to authors, not fancy titles and clever graphics. These things are meant to attract an initial batch of readers, and they DO work for that, so have an awesome cover before you put it out there to the rest of the world. But your book cover isn’t going to call you up and say, “Jane Smith liked your book, you should give her a call, here’s her number.” If you have no way to connect with your audience, how are they going to find out about the next one? If someone already bought your book, and you print up a bunch of stickers or bookmarks, wouldn’t you like to send them some as a thank-you? Are you the least bit concerned if they liked it or not? You should be.

Facebook Groups

I wanted to do more than just market books. I really want to connect with readers, find out what they are looking for, and listen to their ideal book wish list. Can I write stuff just to tick off those boxes? Not really. But if I have an idea for a story and it’s a perfect match for something people are craving, then that’s my green light to write it, and I’ll know just who might be a good beta reader, in exchange for a free read. In business, this is sometimes referred to as product-market fit, and it can be an important factor when deciding between two potential products that you want to roll out.

To connect with my audience, Twitter wasn’t really working for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Tweeps, but they are not my target audience as much as my peer group, at least not for my fiction work. I went to the dreaded Facebook, not because I like the platform, but because of a very special feature that it has: groups.

Facebook normally cuts the nuts off anything you post. It doesn’t even send alerts to your whole friends list. I have 1000 “friends,” and maybe 20 of them will get an alert when I post something. Often, I see people responding to my posts 3 to 4 days later when they decide to look in on what Marty has been doing. Groups don’t work this way. Typically, the last thing commented on shows up at the top of the feed. This means that popular posts stay popular for a while. Also, the traffic engagement rate is many times higher, because any group member that clicks over can see the most active content in the group at that moment. They’re better than hashtags.

The other awesome thing is that you can engage directly with the kind of people you want to talk to. And the more you engage, the more memorable your comments, the more people will recognize your avatar, even if you aren’t “friends.” In my KSP group, there are several people that I recognize in every comment thread, and many of them recognize me. They know me. I decided to join some groups where my audience would be hiding (scifi, fantasy, horror, specfic) and engage with them directly.

Resist the urge to self promote

It doesn’t work, at least most of the time. I have seen some authors pull heartstrings by making up a story about how someone criticized their work for this-or-that reason, created a sob story, etc, and sold some books, the average response being “That’s messed up. You’ll show them. I’m gonna buy your book right now just to show them” kind of thing. That sometimes works, but there are only so many times you can open that box before people catch on to what you’re doing, and pity purchases do not create real fans, especially if the story doesn’t deliver.

Don’t join promotion groups. Don’t trade “page likes.” In short, stop wasting your time. If that bullshit worked, then we’d all be making a living from our books. What you can do is engage directly with the audience that’s there. Like their posts, talk about their questions, post neat stuff that they will like. Fans are not a list of email addresses, they are real people who happen to like similar stuff. People in various genre groups love stuff about those genres. And, I mean, if you are writing in that genre, then you must like it too, so don’t be a salesman. Be another active member of the community. Talk about books and movies that aren’t yours, and drop a hint from time to time when the situation calls for it. Just remember that you aren’t there to promote, you’re there to engage. Learn what’s acceptable in the community (from the members, not the “rules”) and follow that.

My GrowthHack

I’ve actually been planning this for a while, but I wasn’t sure which group, which book, or even which genre. There’s a horror group that I’ve been following for months. I try to stir up the pot with the rest of them, and I like sharing my opinions about movies that I thought were awesome or sucked. Needless to say, I was a little nervous putting my post up in there. I didn’t want to destroy those little connections I had made with a sales tactic. But it was something I thought would be cool, and something that I haven’t seen done on Facebook, ever.

I posted an open invite, to anyone. I put my monster book in a Google doc, and set it up where there would be restricted access (yes, I’m a little nervous about giving away a whole novel and having someone swipe it, too. But I took the plunge). My post basically said that I had a book I was getting ready to publish, and I wanted some feedback on it.

While I see this kind of thing all the time in writing groups (again, not necessarily your target audience), I’ve never once seen it in a fan group. I didn’t want writer input specifically, I wanted reader input, from people that would be happy to read a book for free before it ever comes out. I can picture them telling their friends if one shows up a a book club with it in hand. They’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I actually read that a couple months before it was released. I made friends with the author. It was … (this is where awesome product becomes important)”

The people in the group I chose are true horror fans, and I wanted to see how they responded to my words while at the same time enticing some of them to try my work. Again, if nobody reads it, then nobody is ever going to talk about it. It’s worth the risk. If I end up with one hyperbolic fan out of the sample, it’ll be worth every ounce of energy I put in. BTW, first feedback I got was from a reader that “couldn’t put it down.” So I consider the whole operation a success. I found a new reader who loves my work.

The post got an immediate response, and instead of being shunned and labeled as a self promoter, a bunch of horror fiction readers responded in a very positive fashion. So many that I had to make a generic “first message” after a bit. It amounted to, “send me your email, I’ll add you to the document, and commenting will be enabled.” I tried using a little more charm, but that was the general message. I could still control access to my document, I had interested readers ready to give it a shot, and most importantly, I had a point of contact, so I can send an email later on asking them if they liked it. Again, PERSONAL ENGAGEMENT, not spam. There’s a difference.

The Results

Ten email addresses in ten minutes! Ten people cleared to comment on my document with a no-pressure attitude and minimal instructions. The only thing I tried to express was that comments were not restricted, and they are all free to express their real opinion without reprisal from me. Just like any other kind of beta reading, be ready to open yourself up to backlash and harsh comments. If you aren’t ready for that from an internet audience that specializes in criticizing your genre as a matter of habit, then don’t try this.

Within 24 hours, I had 30 readers approved on the google doc, shared a bunch of short conversations about various things (including how awesome one of the email addresses was; I had to comment on it because it made me laugh), and an engaged beta-reader list. Basically, each person who responded to the post demonstrating an interest was sent a private message, to which they could respond with an email address, further comment, or question, or just a fun chat. Once they sent an email, I copied it to the google doc, and to a spreadsheet with their name and a note about anything that stood out to me about that person or our conversation. At this point I was waiting patiently for comments to start populating on the document, and trying to be quick about approving anyone else who wanted to opt in. I decided before I posted the invitation that it would be open to ANYONE who expressed an interest, and I intended to keep that promise, no matter how big or small the list was. There are now over fifty readers on my spreadsheet, and I’m sorting them by their impression of the book, their personality during our engagement, etc. Anything that will make our interactions memorable.

In fact, the response was so quick that it wasn’t long till Facebook contacted me to verify that I wasn’t a data collection bot. I wrote them a message and handled the situation, explaining that each message I sent out was solicited from a post, and that I wasn’t spamming random people. That seemed to work, and my account hasn’t been shelled by them. After a couple of days, engagement slowed, and I let the post die. Which is fine. Not every person in the group is a bookworm, and fewer of them are looking for or willing to take a chance on a new author, even for a free read. Some might be busy with their present reading lists. No worries. Don’t be pushy. If ten out of that fifty like the story, maybe they will look at my other work, or support me in the future. If they join my email list, They’ll get alerts about future beta reads, as well as free stuff and promotions when I put them out, early cover reveals, sales dates, etc. Since I changed my email list strategy, I’ve become more and more guarded about ONLY trying to get people on it that like my stuff, and I use it as my ultimate thank you box.

The Catch

Scary as hell? Yes, these are perfect strangers and some of them could be trolls, but I had to open myself up.

My hopes and dreams? Some of them will fall in love with the story, and continue our dialogue. I’ll try to do something nice for them when I release the book, and of course, if they want to beta read for me again, they will be welcome to. The people who really like the story are MY target audience, genre and title aside. They like MY book, MY writing, and MY story. Those are the readers that you want to keep track of. They are the ones who will tell their friends when your book comes out, they are your ambassadors to the readers of the world, and they’ve already done you a HUGE favor. They opened something you wrote and read it, even though they knew nothing about you at all. They are NOT a statistic and shouldn’t be treated as such. I will treasure each and every one of them, and guess what, when I decide to release something for free, or print more stickers, or bookmarks, or whatever, guess who gets first dibs? The loyal fans that loved my story. If I can, I would like to be their friend as well as the guy who wrote that cool ghost story.

This little strategy of mine relies heavily on trust. If you do something devious, like taking the emails and just tossing them on your MailChimp list, then you aren’t going to win any friends (unless you asked their permission first). These people are trusting you, and if you treat them like crap, guess what happens the next time you announce something in that group. Anyone? Exactly. This is just a friendly warning to anyone considering using this method as an exploit to pad the ole e-mail list. Just like those annoying website pop-ups, this strategy can backfire on you in a heartbeat. Perhaps worse because you are posting in a public forum. Use it only for the intended purpose, or to do something similarly awesome for a group that you like participating in. One of the guys in the KSP group built a flight control box that works via USB cable, and any of us can order one from him if we want it. Do something cool and people will like you and participate. Do something shady to scare up email addresses, and they’re going to find you out, and tell everyone that your an asshole.

For my little hack, I wanted to find some readers to try my book and give me feedback. Not to sell them anything, not to add names to my email list, and definitely not to piss them off. My incentive to them was a whole, complete, unadulterated story that they could read, no questions asked. The people I wanted to connect with were already readers looking for something new to try. In short, I facilitated a match up. Will all of them love my book? Probably not. But the ones who do, I found them, and we will definitely have a lot to talk about.

Want in?

If you haven’t read Stone’s Shadow, and it sounds interesting to you, the offer is still valid. Contact me through email, twitter, or FB, send me your email address so I can add you to the document, and you’ll be added with comment privileges, no questions asked. This will not sign you up to my email list, there’s a box for that on the side panel of this page if you’re interested in that (it’s different from my wordpress blog alerts). All lovers of horror and speculative fiction welcome.


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Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.

4 thoughts

  1. We tend to be like-minded on a lot of writing-related issues. I don’t like to annoy people who visit my site, so I avoid pop-ups and advertising. Things I hate to see on other sites won’t make it onto my site. I also see other writers as assets rather than competition and believe that as we help each other, the entire industry will improve and grow. I started my website with this idea of “If you build it, they will come.” And, I’m with you in wanting the loyal people who continue to return instead of another name on a list of someone who will probably never stop by again.
    Good post. Even includes some ideas I’ve been kicking around, but haven’t formed into a plan yet, nor am I to the point where I’m ready to put it into use, but I like to think ahead. You have more of a cohesive idea here than the bits and pieces I’ve been thinking about. It’s great to hear about how you put it to use and your results.

    1. Thanks! This little idea has been kicking around. I think it takes some kicking around. There will always be questions of implementation, but if something seems off about an idea, it may require some refinement before you go live with it. There’s a thin thread that is stepped over to the other side of having a good idea and being afraid to try it. 99/100 things that I try fail horribly, but every once in a while. Something works out.
      You still need to bring in readers, but it should be fun and clever. It won’t get hundreds of thousands of people, but it will attract the right ones. Keep writing, and keep reaching out to new readers 🙂

  2. Like you, I hate those popups. I refuse to have them on my website. Thanks for sharing your process, makes me wish I was a writer sometimes. I am pretty busy doing what I love, reading and proofreading.

    1. They obviously work, otherwise people would knock it off. But I’m about 2 steps from giving up on all traditional advertising. I get a better response by engaging, and wonderful people in my audience that keep coming back. My blog was a crap-shoot, and I had a lot of drive-bys that never took another look. Readers like yourself and Mandy, on the other hand, I feel like I know you guys, and this is our private little spot where we can talk about stuff that I don’t discuss with many people. Just hope I can keep putting out good stuff so y’all stick around 😉

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