Listen to Your Readers

A few weeks back I launched a program called The Reader Connection Project. This was meant to be a free 10-day course, where I walk writers through 5 actions they can take to immediately connect with readers.

Things didn’t go as planned.

I expected like 9 people to sign up for this. I figured I would spend the week with a handful of writers, and it would fun little collaboration.

But quickly there were 40, then 70, then 110, then 160, then 200 people who had registered. I was blown away.

Today I want to share the feedback of what these 200 writers learned in this project, and do so in a way that will be useful to you. I’m also going to share what I learned along the way.

This piece of feedback from a writer who participated is a good starting point:

“This has been a great project for me, helping me connect with readers and also helping me get over seriously bad self doubt. I can’t tell you how freeing this feels. And it wouldn’t have happened without the Reader Connection Project.”

Here are the top takeaways that writers got out of the program:

Go Deep, Not Wide

Most writers I know are tired of trying to get more followers. They are convinced that agents and publishers and readers want to see a big number of followers. The result? The writer exhausts themselves trying to game the system with tips and tricks and shortcuts.

What is the alternative? This feedback a writer shared:

“The Reader Connection Project reframed how I think about marketing: develop a deeper relationship with the reader, thereby building bridges of mutual interest and respect.”

Doesn’t that just feel better? And doesn’t it intuitively make sense? Social media is people, and no one wants to engage on some superficial level. They want depth.

When you decide to go deep instead of wide, suddenly social media makes sense. It becomes just like real life. No one runs around trying to shake as many hands as possible. Instead, they forge real connections with people, and sustain them slowly over time.

There, that’s your social media strategy.

Joining a Creative Community Creates Momentum

It can be soooooo lonely to not just write on your own, but to figure out platform and marketing as well. That isolation can create a lot of false narratives that you alone are failing, while everyone else is succeeding. That’s not true.

This piece of feedback really struck me:
“The biggest thing was realizing that so many authors are going through what I am going through. Struggling to find my readers, and finding the right way, for me, to help people discover my books. But this group has shown me that, like me, there are so many writers out there who dearly want to personally connect with their audience and really serve their readers. It restored my faith. And I’ve found all of you quite inspiring.”

That is why I work with writers, instead of shoving them into some course where they drown amidst 50 modules. A linchpin of this is the Creative Shift Mastermind that I run, because I have seen the profound difference that working with a small group of other writers can make.

It’s like a veil is lifted:

“These videos and the interaction with other writers is helping me understand my ideal readers much faster with a more balanced view. I can’t say how absolutely great it has been to connect with other writers in exactly the same place as me.”

If you are struggling alone with this work, find a collaborator, or a group of collaborators.

Listening Helps You Communicate More Effectively

Too many writers try to launch a “platform” before they have really spent time listening to readers. The result, their readers feel like some distant person and the writer is stuck posting random stuff, desperately trying to sell a book.

I loved this feedback:
“The Reader Connection Project showed me how my ideal reader might think – and how to really speak their language. I discovered some things I was quite mistaken about; some things I was half-doing.”

And this:
“This program helped me talk about my books and how I communicate with my readers.”

The internet has made the voice of the reader so much more accessible. You can more easily read reviews and hear how readers talk about books, but you also have the ability to reach out to readers and writers directly via online tools.

If you are primarily focused on getting ‘likes’ and ‘follows’, I want to encourage you to switch your mentality and consider, how can you reach out to one person and have a meaningful conversation around books?

Then consider: how can this help you better communicate what you write and why?

Readers are not Demographics, They are Complex

This was the heart of the project: understanding readers so you can better connect with them. Too often, writers describe their ideal readership in flat, wholly unhuman terms. They list out vague demographics, or a simplistic view of someone whose entire life seems to hinge on reading a single type of book.

Writers do this because the truth can be confusing: readers are complex.

But when you truly spend the time to talk to readers, and study how they talk about books, you find insights that others miss. Like this:

“The Reader Connection Project helped me identify two new kinds of readers for my books who I would have thought to try and reach.”

“The Reader Connection project gave me a glimpse into the heart and head of the reader.”

“The Reader Connection Project helped me delve into readers’ motivation for reading, that the answers are complex, that readers themselves don’t always know how to articulate.”

When I work with private clients, we often create personas to try to understand the core readers we hope to reach. But even when we do that, we describe them as holistic human beings, who have a wide range of preferences. I want to encourage you to view your readers in the same way.

There is No “Audience,” Only Individual People

The term “audience” creates a vision that you are speaking to a collection of people who are all the same. But whether you are sending a Tweet or publishing a book, each person reads it as an individual. What it means to them is personal. This perhaps sums it up best:

“The fundamental takeaway of The Reader Connection Project for me: Writing a book is about connecting with my fellow human beings”

Stop Copying What Other Writers Are Doing

Writers often study blogs, podcasts, webinars, and courses to identify “best practices” on how to develop their platform and market to their ideal audience. They do so because they want a shortcut — a hack — that allows them to identify what works and avoid what doesn’t.

That sounds smart, right?

The problem with it is that a writer in this situation is copying what thousands of others are copying, and it’s often a tactic that worked really well a few years ago, but has long since stopped providing good returns.

Do your own research. Talk to readers. Talk to writers. Develop your platform and marketing based on how you are and who you hope to connect with.

This feedback was welcome to hear:

“The powerful insight for me is that while most of the “best practice” advice is overwhelming, the idea of making human connections is very accessible. I can do that.”

“One thing your and this community you’ve built has taught me is to trust my instincts more.”

I want the aspects of your life that deal with platform and marketing to feel fulfilling. It’s difficult for that to happen when you are on a crowded hamster wheel chasing the next marketing trend.

Start Now, So You Don’t Panic Later

What I have found is that the sooner you begin this type of work — discovering the voice of the reader and connecting with them — the better you will feel when it is time to launch your book.

I have been through hundreds of book launches. I know that feeling when the book you have worked on for years is about to be published, and you simply want to do everything in your power to ensure it connects with readers.

Why wait until the last minute until you are in the “launch window” to do this work. When you view your readership as human beings, the nice thing is that it is easy to identify simple ways to connect with them right now.

Here are some good quotes that sum it up:

“The Reader Connection Project taught me that it’s both OK and necessary to connect with readers long before you have a book to sell. How to make connections with people one at a time and how to offer something of value to gain trust well ahead of sharing my novel and asking them to spend both their hard earned money and precious time.”

“Through your tutelage, Dan, I became a student of what people read, their motivations. Knowing this is so important as I anticipate my memoir launch next year.”

“Dan, you have a way of inspiring me to do stuff I have been putting off and of coming out of my shell for the sake of my art.”

I Learned So Much As Well…

The truth is, the Reader Connection Project taught me a lot as well. I tend to prefer deep collaborations with writers, and over the years I have honed the two ways to work with me into two programs:

  1. The Creative Shift Mastermind: a three month program where I work with groups of 10 writers at a time.
  2. One-on-One Consulting: where I become the copilot in helping a writer develop their platform, reach readers, and launch their books.

My experience in the past couple of weeks taught me that some writers want to work with me, but need a smaller commitment. That has given me a lot to consider as I prepare my programs for 2019.

Another thing I have learned is to consider how to amplify the message of a book. The real reason that I expected only 9 people to sign up for the Reader Connection Project? Because for the most part, each of the five steps are already covered in my book, Be the Gateway. I figured that this information had been “out there” for two years now.

But again and again, writers in the Reader Connection Project mentioned that they had read my book awhile ago, but only because of this project were they now taking action.

What was the difference between this project and reading the book? A few things:

  • Videos: As a core part of this project (and my Mastermind for that matter) is that I shared videos where I talk through details of each step. The feedback I received was that hearing the advice was so much more useful than just reading it.
  • Community: Working with a small group of other motivated writers is a world of difference than sitting alone in your house, and having to figure things out on your own.
  • Leadership: Again and again, people mentioned that they could really feel how much I cared about writers and readers when they watched my videos and went through the program. I think there is a big difference between seeing a series of tactics on a to-do list vs having someone truly guide you through them.

Everything I learned above is being infused in what I create in 2019. The first of which will be my next Creative Shift Mastermind program. If you want to be the first to know when I open the doors, please add your name to the early interest list here.

Thanks!
-Dan

The Essential Ingredients of a Writing Career: Hope and Perseverance, My Interview With Author Therese Walsh

I’m so excited to share my interview with author and editorial director of WriterUnboxed.com, Therese Walsh. In our chat, we dig into:

  • How she co-founded a blog that turned into a thriving online community for writers.
  • The realities of the book publishing business, and how to develop the right mindset to navigate it.
  • What she has learned from the writing community through years of engaging with thousands of writers.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below, or in the following places:

You can find Therese in the following places:

You have to ask

Some writers I speak to have this dream: that they will release their books, and something magical will happen. People will find it. People will read it. People will review it and tell their friend about it. A wave of interest takes hold, and before they know it, they have a dedicated readership.

That dream is not often the reality.

Does it happen? Yep. It actually does happen. But not nearly as often as we would like to think.

When it does happen, what is often hidden is all of the behind-the-scenes hard work that the author did to connect the book with readers. Today I want to share three inspiring examples of authors and artists who did just that. Who moved their careers forward by not waiting for the world to discover them, but to instead take actions to forge meaningful connections with those who would love their work.

Are you worried there is some complicated system? Well, there isn’t. I can actually boil their advice down to one word:

ASK.

That’s it. If you want the world to discover your work, your talent, your vision, don’t wait for people to magically discover you. Reach out to them. Ask.

But asking is super difficult, right? It means we have to engage with other human beings. It means they could say ‘no.’ It means we could be rejected. Judged. Laughed at.

Well, today I can’t wait to share the inspiring stories of Meera, Samantha, and Cathey. Three women who didn’t wait for the world to discover their writing and art, but who ensured that their voice was heard.

Meera Lee Patel on Asking

Meera Lee Patel is an author and illustrator whose creative work is her full-time job. I had interviewed her back in April, and we did a second interview a few weeks back. What jumped out at me in our conversation was this statement:

“I did a talk a couple months ago in New York, and we were talking about rejection. They asked the panel, “When is the last time you got rejected.” I said, “I get rejected every day.” Somebody kind of laughed and was like, “Are you cold calling people, why are you getting rejected so often?” I said, “Oh yeah, I’m cold calling people. I’m seeking people out and saying, ‘I like the work you make and I want to make it with you.’ I don’t see that as a bad thing.”

This scenario really jumped out at me. How Meera confronted the notion that you don’t just silently wait for people to discover your work. I loved how she reframed cold-calling: not as a ruthless pitch, but as a mutual collaboration. She goes on to explain that the perception of her success and the reality of her process differ:

“I do know that people look at me and they are like, ‘I would like to be where you are,’ and people do not come to me, even now. Any work I’ve gotten has been from me reaching and saying, ‘Hey, can I do this with you.”

“I don’t have anybody emailing me asking me to do things for them. I reach out constantly. I used to reach out to just anybody, because I was like, ‘I just need work, and I need to pay the bills.”

“I’m lucky enough that I get to be a little choosier now. I’m like, ‘What are my dream companies? Where does my work fit in? Do I believe in them and their products? Is my work ready.”

“Then I reach out to them. But nobody emails me back, ever.”

“I pitch myself so often, where I forget to where I reach out to, so it’s nice because I get to forgo that feeling of rejection. When I get rejected from somebody, and I feel really bummed about it, I have a rule, that for every rejection that I feel down about, I have to reach out to three more companies or people. That action of forging ahead anyway makes me feel like I am doing something to change the current state that I’m in. So that action changes my attitude, and I always feel better knowing that I already tried again.”

“For every 10 people I reach out to, I probably get three responses, and usually all three are rejections. But sometimes one is positive and two are rejections. Or two are rejections and one is ‘not right now, but try again in a year.’ So the acceptance rate is very very low. And I think that is across the board for most people, unless they are highly coveted, just because there are so many artists out there, and there is so much amazing work, that I don’t think companies and brands could possibly hire everybody. I don’t take it personally anymore, but it took awhile to get there.” What’s amazing to me is even with all of this rejection, this is the work it takes to create a full-time career as an artist. This process actually works!”

Meera’s experience is a cold dose of reality that cuts both ways. YES this is difficult work. But also: YES this work actually pays off.

I think too many writers and artists spend too much time scouring the web for shortcuts. For hacks that make it easy to find the secret button in Amazon that will magically sell more books.

But the real tools are the ones we are all born with: our ability to forge meaningful connections with like-minded people.

You can listen to my full interview with Meera here.

Samantha Hahn on Asking

I first interviewed author, illustrator and art director Samantha Hahn back in 2015, and a few weeks ago we sat down for another interview.

I knew that she was in the middle of a big creative shift. After years of being a full-time illustrator and author, she wanted to expand her career to include art direction. She and I had coffee back in 2017 and she told me how she was breaking into the field. I was just astounded by her bravery and gumption. How she was making contacts, getting work, and learning the skills.

How did she get her first clients as an art director? She didn’t respond to job listings — instead, she did this:

“I reached out to brands who were starting out, or brands who had a really amazing product that I loved, but I could see how to elevate their presentation. That was my initial point of entry: reaching out to brands whose products I thought was good, and whose products I would be excited to showcase in my own portfolio, or elevate in their own marketing materials, and reach out to them and make a pitch about how to do a photo shoot to them.”

When she first asked a friend for advice on where to begin as an art director, her friend replied, “There is no money in it, but everyone starts with photo shoots for editorial, meaning magazines or websites.”

Even knowing there was no money, Samantha jumped in head first:

“It’s a chance to collaborate with a group of creative people whose work you like.” “That was my first light bulb moment. I can figure out how to do a photo shoot. That’s how I started, by assembling people I wanted to work with, and producing images that were compelling. I learned how to create mood boards through that. There was a lot I had to learn, and I was willing to make a lot of mistakes and fall on my face and just do the best I could and figure out things on the fly and problem solve on the fly.”

Today, Samantha continues her illustration work, but now has an impressive portfolio of art direction work as well. Why? Because she asked.

You can listen to my full interview with Samantha here.

Cathey Nickell on Asking

Not long ago, I worked with author Cathey Nickell in my Creative Shift Mastermind. About two years ago she published her book Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. But the other day, she posted an incredible update on Facebook:

“I recently celebrated my FIFTIETH school author visit! I’ve delivered my presentation so many times, I can practically do it in my sleep. Nevertheless, every visit feels fun and special.”

That number is stunning. Fifty times that she was able to bring her book into the lives of kids, teachers, librarians, and parents.

I reached out to Cathey about the details, and what she told me was astounding. So, I recorded an interview!

In the process of booking these 50 school visits, I learned:

  • She sold more than 2,500 copies of her self-published book.
  • She was a paid speaker for most of these visits.
  • She brought in creative collaborators — the illustrator for the book, and usually had an actual “art car” show up at the reading.

Cathey’s gumption and ability to connect her books to kids is just amazing.

You can listen to my full interview with Cathey here.

Conclusion

These three stories are not unusual. Every day, I speak to writers and artists who share their own versions of this. They didn’t find some secret hack that allowed them to get 1,000 new book sales or 10,000 new followers.

Instead, they consistently reached out to like-minded people. They asked. They collaborated. They created meaningful connections that developed into trusting relationships.

That can be scary, right? But it is also freeing. To know that today, you can can connect your writing and creative work to the world by simply reaching out and asking.

Thanks.
-Dan

P.S.There is a wonderful book on this topic that I highly recommend: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer.

Keeping a Book Alive (and Selling Thousands of Copies) Two Years After Launch, with Author Cathey Nickell

Today, author Cathey Nickell shares details of how — two years after release date — she has ensured her book gets in front of readers, and has sold thousands of copies. Cathey is the author of Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car, and she recently finished her 50th school visit, presenting the book to kids. Everything that Cathey shares illustrates the practical aspects of how how to ensure your book finds new readers. 

You can listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below, or in the following places:

You can find Cathey in the following places:

What To Do 8 Months Before Book Launch

Earlier this year, author Pamela Toler hired me to help her prepare for her upcoming book launch. We began working together 8 months before launch day, and when I said to her, “Many writers may ask why you began working with me so far ahead of book launch,” her reply was:

“I felt I was starting at the last possible minute to ensure I was taking the steps I wanted to, without being in a rush. To be thoughtful about it, and cast a wide net.”

Why did she feel that way? Because she has been down this road before. She had published other books with big publishers, and knew how much work there is to be done, and that she didn’t want to do it alone.

Today I want to take you behind-the-scenes into the work that she and I did. This is the stuff I do day in and day out with authors. Over the past eight years, I have done this hundreds of times with writers. If you are preparing for a book launch of your own, I hope this insiders look will be helpful.

Pamela Toler is an author, speaker, and historian whose next book will be released on February 26, 2019, titled: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, published by Beacon Press. This is the book launch we worked on.

You Need Collaborators. Even If You are An Introvert. Even If You Have No Money To Invest.

Pamela’s previous books include Mankind: The Story of All Of Us (published by Running Press), Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War (published by Little, Brown and Company, and The Everything Guide to Understanding Socialism: The political, social, and economic concepts behind this complex theory (published by Adams Media.)

While I work with a lot of self-published authors, I also spend 50% or more of my time with traditionally published authors such as Pamela. I point this out because I think that would surprise new authors or self-published authors. There is this perception that “Once you make it — once you are traditionally published — everything will be handled for you. You can just focus on writing.”

But that isn’t true. Publishers are amazing partners in the process of sharing your book with the world, as I will share below. I think it is important to note that Pamela hired me even though she has an amazing publisher, and even though she has an established career as a published writer.

Professionals need collaborators. Whether you are starting out, or are mid-career, I want to encourage you to develop professional relationships. There are a million ways you can collaborate with people.

Too many writers are mired in hundreds of articles, blog posts, podcasts, webinars, and courses telling them all of these tips about how to develop a platform and launch their book. I mean, this very blog post is one of them. The problem with that is that writers can feel “I am doing the work of being a professional,” while they are totally and completely isolated.

You should have colleagues. This may include:

  • Other writers who write in the same genre or topic as you.
  • Any other writer, even if they write different things from you.
  • Booksellers
  • Librarians
  • Those who organize literary events, festivals, conferences, readings, etc.
  • Readers! People who like to read!
  • Editors
  • People who support books in any form. Yes, this can include agents, publishers, publicists, marketers, etc.

I speak to professional writers and artists nearly every day. What do they have that others don’t? A creative community. A network of professional colleagues and personal friends who create and support creative work.

How did they get this? They reached out. They showed up. They were curious. They were generous. They were supportive.

None of those things require you to spend even a dime. They just require you to be human.

Prepare For the Work of Being A Published Author

Can an author just write, and never give a thought to platform, marketing, or social media? Yes! I love when people write for the sake of writing.

But… when you publish, you are also participating in the business of publishing. This idea that publishing costs money, and that books don’t magically find their way into readers hands. Asking someone to spend 6-10 hours reading your book is not a small ask.

This is why Pamela said she hired me:

“I wanted a collaborator because I was too close to it. I wanted someone who would ask hard questions. The deadlines you set were useful, otherwise, a lot of important actions would get pushed to the bottom of the list. Collaborators bring different eyes to it.”

She then listed out some more specific reasons. The quotes are from her, and then I add some commentary after each:

  • “To maximize opportunity and give the book best possible chance.” The thing that no one wants to tell you is that no one really knows what will ensure your book will be a breakout success. So the real work is to do careful analysis of your ideal audience, how you can reach them, and then put in place a few specific marketing pieces. I dig into that below.
  • “Help in managing the stuff that I will have to do.” When I work with an author, I typically create a spreadsheet of all of the possible actions we can take, and from that, we carefully select key items. Even in doing that, there is so much to be done. This is where authors drown. Having someone to help prioritize and manage this is the difference between freaking out and feeling professional.
  • “Free up the publisher to do what they do best.” I loooooove the work that publishers do. But the truth is often that they have a finite amount of resources to give to any one book. The more that Pamela can do on her own to support the book, the more that this will clarify and amplify the work that the publisher will do to market it.
  • “To feel sane and relaxed.” It’s worth noting that Pamela is incredibly busy preparing for the book launch and attending to the rest of her life. She is swamped. I don’t want to make it seem as though she is in this luxurious position of feel super calm. But… because of the work she and I did, she doesn’t feel pushed over the edge, and isn’t freaking out about missing chances.

The Work We Did

8-months prior to book launch this is the work that Pamela and I focused on:

  • Clearly identify the ideal reader for the book. We analyzed what she knew about her audience already, and then dug deeper into where they hang out, and who already reaches them. We created personas for her three core audiences, and then identified what podcasts those people listen to, books they read, blogs they follow, events they go to, etc. Some of this was a brain dump of what Pamela already knew, and some of it was a big expansion. This spreadsheet gives us hundreds of ways to consider how she can connect with ideal readers, yet the entire time, envisions them as an actual person, not some vague set of demographics.
  • Get radically clear on her messaging. We analyzed everything about how she talked about the book, herself, and her writing. We rewrote her bio, her social media profiles, and considered how to frame the current book with her previous books, and even her future books.
  • Assess her online presence. We identified what needed to be updated, what was missing, and how to ensure each piece was accurate and ready for the new book. Her online presence is now much more clear than it was. During this process we worked through a complete redesign of her website (she also hired a web design firm to create that), and a revamp of her social media channels.
  • Create a book launch timeline. We started looking at what to do and when. We went through an exhaustive list of categories and tasks that she could focus on, and then selected what would matter the most to her book. We then broke those tasks down into specific actions, and aligned them to a calendar. This timeline goes from the Fall of 2018 to past the book launch.
  • Clearly define key marketing campaigns. There are a few key ideas that were developed as marketing campaigns. I can’t say what they are yet, because they are in development, but something to take from this is to clearly identify one or two ideas that you can totally hit out of the park. That will be generous to others, filled with joy, and that people will want to share.
  • Create an editorial calendar. We created a day-by-day, week-by-week editorial calendar that covers her email newsletter, blog, speaking events, and social media channels. What we wanted to consider was how her message develops as she moves towards launch, and how she can share authentic and engaging content without resorting to Tweets that screamed “Buy my book!” We also left a lot of white space in the calendar for her to share thoughts and ideas that can’t be pre-planned.
  • Demystify the technical questions. I was on call to help troubleshoot and guide her through any technical questions that came up along the way. This could include website, social media, podcasting, and so much else. There were a number of places where I smoothed over something that would have taken her a long time to find and do.
  • Consider post-launch as much as she considered pre-launch. Pamela will be speaking and promoting this book well after launch date. That allowed us to consider how she can set herself up for success in April, May and June, months after the release date for the book. Plenty of authors come away from a book launch exhausted and confused. For Pamela, we want this work to be sustainable and filled with moments of meaningful connection with her readers for months, and years, to come.

Throughout all of this, Pamela was coordinating with her publisher, who are just amazing, by the way.

If you need help in this process for your own writing, you can learn more about my services here.

Thanks!
-Dan

P.S.: You can find Pamela in the following places:
Her new book: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History
pameladtoler.com
Her blog: History in the Margins
Instagram: @pamelatolerauthor
Twitter: @pdtoler
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