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Who Reads Your Work Matters More Than How Many

In measuring your success as an author, focusing JUST on numbers is a sure way to always feel like crap about yourself. Why? Because there is always someone with more – someone who represents a “next level,” that you have failed to achieve. Someone who has sold more books, has a more popular blog than yours, way more Twitter followers, or who has standing room only at their readings. This article on money addiction illustrates how there can never be enough, in a somewhat terrifying way:

“In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough.”

An author I’m working with, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, recently wrote a series of blog posts about how she uses John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story to outline her novels. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 of the series)

How “well” did those blog posts do in terms of page views? Behold:

Not exactly, “going viral,” is it? So, with just dozens of page views each, these posts were a failure, right? A failure, because they didn’t reach a mass audience, right?

Well, the other day, Miranda received this email from John Truby’s office, and this message from John:

“It’s exactly what I intended when I wrote it. It’s also very gratifying to see someone who is obviously a serious novelist get so much benefit from the book.”

John asked if he can share excerpts from Miranda’s posts in his monthly enewsletter which goes out to 15,000 subscribers. I think it’s kind of amazing that if these posts had to reach one person – that John would be it. For him to see how his book has created possibilities in the life of an author. And of course, Miranda wrote these posts in response to writer friends who asked her about her book outlining process. Helping other writers with this posts is another primary audience that she is serving here.

Who she reaches matters more than how many people.

This extends to the entirety of the blog Miranda and I have been collaborating on, which has never had very big traffic, and yet we hear from writers all the time who are finding it incredibly useful. Would it somehow feel nice if suddenly we had 10,000 visitors per day? Sure. Validation like that always feels nice. But is it THE POINT? Nope.

Another author I know, Bill Murphy Jr., recently wrote a piece for Inc. titled “7 Sales Strategy Secrets from an Expert Panhandler.” I read the article when he posted it, but then saw this update on his Facebook page at the end of the day:

Would you rather have 10,000 people read your post, or 14 of the EXACT right people, those who don’t just fit the “ideal audience description,” but actually take the effort to email you regarding your article? That level of engagement is priceless – these are the people who don’t just click on an article and then flit away; they don’t just “consume” the article, but they engage with the ideas within it, and with the author. In other words: it creates an interaction and an experience.

In working with authors, I have recently found many of them are shocked at how hard I push for them to start email newsletters, to begin building their email lists. For one author, I recently said that I would rather see her start a newsletter even before they built their website or started on social media. She couldn’t believe it. Why? Because everywhere she looks, everyone is promoting this idea of “going viral” on social media; the idea that starting out with a tiny email list just seemed old fashioned.

The reason email is so critical is that it represents that one-to-one connection with just the RIGHT people. Again and again I have heard writers say that they will start newsletter lists only AFTER they become popular. And while I won’t say that is “too late,” it does leave a lot of value on the table. Most successful authors I speak to who have really built a grass roots following talk about how critical their email list is to that growth.

Developing an email list also helps writers solve that one huge question mark: “who is my audience,” a question they often struggle with. My advice is always: start now. Start with 10 people – friends, family, colleagues, anyone you know and who may support your writing. Start a weekly newsletter and ask folks if they want to sign up.

I sent my first newsletter out to 10 people back in 2005. It completely changed my career, in the best of ways. What is great about starting with a small manageable number is that you:

  1. Have a clear sense of who you are writing to.
  2. Aren’t crushed under the pressure of having to stand on a stage in front of 1,000 people when you are still finding your voice. That seems to be the fear that many writers express to me when they describe their fear of starting on social media, such as Twitter. It seems too open, too public, and they have some awareness that the world (and the Library of Congress) is watching, waiting for them to say the wrong thing. But starting with just 10 people that you know, that is a bit easier, isn’t it?

What’s also nice is that you can work on doubling that number of subscribers, which can happy rather easily: from 10 to 20, 20 to 40 subscribers, etc.

Another benefit of developing a newsletter list: start with your base – the people you know who are most engaged with your work. Focus on engaging with those who have raised their hand, who have shown up to say “Gee, I kind of like your writing.”

For instance, how often have you seen this scenario: a book reading where only 5 people have shown up, and the person in charge is frantically going outside to encourage more folks to come in, or busy on their cell phone to check to see if people are coming. What they should be doing is spending their time talking to and learning about the 5 AMAZING people who actually did show up! Make the event extra special for them. Buy them cupcakes.

This is certainly something I am keeping in mind as Scott McDowell and I continue to run our monthly meetups for creative professionals in New Jersey. I honestly never know how many people will show up, and I honestly couldn’t care less. Interesting people ALWAYS show up, and whether it is a group of 4 or 20, we have always had lovely conversations – the type where you check your watch and you can’t believe how late it has gotten.

Further reading: The Fallacy of Going Viral.

Thanks!
-Dan

  • Such a helpful post. I always need reminding that it isn’t about the numbers. Silly cat videos will always get more views than a thoughtful, well-written, informative article on any topic. You just have to keep on keeping on… BTW I’m going to buy the Truby book.

  • I have 400 people on my mailing list. I only use the list to announce new books or mp3s. So I only use it 2-4 times per year. But I rarely get any feedback/engagement from them.

    • That’s great to hear. I will say that frequency encourages engagement.
      Thanks.
      -Dan

  • Jan O’Hara|Tartitude

    Weekly, Dan? I know I couldn’t manage that with what I have on my plate. Will monthly do? Or how about quarterly unless you have real news?

    • Hi Jan,
      I would still push for weekly. One can repurpose lots of other things they share, and it can be SUPER simple. A photo, a poem, a thought. It does not (and SHOULD NOT) be a newspaper. Thanks.
      -Dan

      • Jan O’Hara|Tartitude

        Ah. No surprise but I’m over-complicating things. Thanks for the response, Dan.

  • Jackie Smith

    Thanks for the reminder. I am easily drawn into the swirling cyclone of numbers counting and yet find the most satisfaction when someone takes the time to write just the briefest of comments or notes.

  • Ellen Shriner

    I totally get and agree with your “quality over quantity” point. But I am completely baffled by your suggestion to start a newsletter–why would any of my friends and family want to receive a newsletter ?!? when they’re already reading my blog? And what news would I be sharing? And really, weekly?? In general, I have found your blog really valuable, so I have to assume that there’s more to this concept . . . perhaps you share it in your workshops?

    • Ellen,
      Not everyone remembers to go to a blog. So a newsletter is a nice way for people to be reminded. The content can be similar as it is with my blog/newsletter. Weekly, to me, is critical. Would you watch a TV show that came out quarterly? Or, only when the producers felt they had something to share? Weekly is frequent enough for people to feel you are a part of their routine, but often not so often where it feels annoying. And this is a CHOICE for people. They can choose to subscribe or not, you don’t have to make that decision for them. Thanks!
      -Dan

      • Ellen Shriner

        Thanks for the additional explanation–I’m sure I’d understand this better if I’d taken one of your workshops!

  • Thank you, Dan. I really needed this reminder today. Like Miranda, I have a small, steadily-growing blog. I have had a few posts go viral. It’s so seductive to see that occasional spike in numbers. But they really mean nothing. It’s like a flash flood — there and gone without raising the water level.

    I send out a newsletter every other week following your model 🙂 — a blog post with a few bits and pieces. It works well, and I’ve had several people thank me for NOT sending weekly. I think weekly might be important in the beginning, but after you’ve got a following, less so.

    BTW, Dan, I do owe most of my strategy to your “Build Your Author Platform” course, which I hope to retake some time. Life in the form of aging-parent duties intervened last time and I couldn’t finish. Hope you offer it again soon!

    • Debra,
      Thank you for sharing this. Yes, when you dig behind the numbers of those spikes, you often find things such as “80% of these people stayed on your site for less than 2 seconds.” So the spikes FEEL good, even if they don’t always produce meaningful results.

      I have heard all kinds of things about email, but in the end, it is a primary communication channel.

      THANK YOU for the very kind words about the author platform course. I will be offering it again very soon, within the next couple of weeks.
      -Dan

  • Like Ellen, I first saw no reason to start a newsletter because I couldn’t figure out a niche separate from my blog. Eventually, as you explain above, I got clearer. Now I send out a short Magical Memoir Moment (picture plus prompt) that helps other people remember a story. I blog about memoir as a genre and about my experiences as an author and about topics related to being Mennonite–simplicity and legacy. All of this was very unclear in the beginning, but now I think I have a rhythm going. Dan, your Build Your Author Platform course was very helpful. And I think newsletters help. Mine was a way to reach potential readers in the 100 Day Challenge before the book launch. Even though the group was small, it was deeply engaged.

  • Meg Justus

    I think I have two people I could put on my mailing list who’ve expressed interest in my books. And I have no idea how to find more.

    • Hi Meg,
      Well, you don’t “Put” them on the list, you ask if they would like to subscribe. That is what is so nice about newsletters – people CHOOSE to opt in or not, and they can ALWAYS unsubscribe. What you may find is that if you create a newsletter list and sign-up form, that you will get a handful of subscribers each week. Even if it is ONE per week, that adds up over time. Thanks!
      -Dan

      • Meg Justus

        I made a bad choice of words, but my original statement remains the same. I’ve had a sign-up on my website, with a giveaway as an incentive, for a good six months, and I’ve *never* had anyone opt in. Ever.
        I don’t know what to do about that.

        • Hi Meg,

          Ah, now I see, I just went to your website: http://mmjustus.com

          What I would recommend:
          1. Sign up with Aweber.com to get a proper email marketing service. use Mailchimp if you prefer. Both will have videos on what they do and why. Search YouTube for more videos.
          2. Install a FORM on your website, not an invitation to email you. Also, your current invitation is hidden, only a single word clicks, the final “here,” and overall, that is an unusual way to ask people to join a newsletter list.
          Then of course, post this offer elsewhere: on your email signature, business cards, etc.
          Thanks.
          -Dan

          • Meg Justus

            1) Tried that, got completely and utterly confused with Mailchimp (can’t spend money on this, so Aweber is out, esp. since I’m darned sure I’d have a similar experience), and gave up. Without literal (not video, which doesn’t help since I can’t ask questions) handholding, this is over my head.
            2) I don’t have the first clue how to do that. And again, would need literal handholding to figure it out.
            Email I know how to do. If that doesn’t work, I guess I’m screwed.

          • Meg,
            I suppose it’s the “over my head” and “handholding” parts that are the real thing to work past. So, in these situations, the first three choices would be:

            1. Be lucky enough to have a friend or colleague or resource locally who can literally sit next to you and help you, for free.
            2. Pay someone locally or online (via phone or Skype) to do the same.
            3. Pay someone to just set this up for you. Lots of folks can do that.

            You seemed to indicate that you can’t spend money on this at all, but I’m not sure if I read that correctly. If that’s the case, then it becomes a bit more about learning styles. What I would do in a situation such as that is schedule an hour a week for research. For the first couple of hours, I wouldn’t have ANY expectation of taking action, just watching videos, reading articles, commenting in forums, all to just “get a sense of it,” without the pressure of not being sure of a specific step. Then, after a month, I would begin trying to take action, perhaps on a fake test website/newsletter that I setup.

            It does sound as though hiring someone to do this is your best bet, as it reserves your creative energy for your writing. There are lots of folks in the book world who do this, but you can even try very inexpensive options on Odesk.com or eLance.com

            Thanks.
            -Dan

          • Meg Justus

            You did read that correctly about the money. If I spent money on every marketing problem I’m trying to solve, I’d never sell enough books to make it up, so I’ve put a moratorium on spending marketing money until my books can pay for it with some profit left for me. I guess I’m just really frustrated that every time I turn around there’s something I’m not doing/doing right when it comes to marketing, and there’s only so much of that I can take before I just want to throw up my hands and walk away. Except that I’ve already committed myself to sticking to this for the long haul, so I’m not giving up. I understand marketing is an ongoing process, not a one-shot deal no matter how much I want it to be, and it will always be an ongoing process, but all I really want is to get at least the basics running on their own so I can concentrate on other stuff. But apparently I’m not capable of doing that. So I get frustrated. It’s not so much each individual thing. It’s that I feel nibbled to death by ducks. [wry g]

          • Meg Justus

            Okay. I fought through the form, and I think I’ve got it, except for one thing. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how to make the button anything but traffic cone orange, which is apparently the default. Also, I figured out how to make it so the signups come directly to me via email. Until I get more than I can handle without Mailchimp or aWeber or whatever, that’s the way I’ll deal with it, because that’s the part I just couldn’t figure out to save my life.
            But how do I make that orange button some less horrible color???

          • Congrats on getting the form up! To me, THAT seems like the points. Why waste a moment of energy worrying about the color of a button? Use that energy to write!
            -Dan

          • Meg Justus

            Well, I did get 1130 words this morning. But after putting all that work into my website, that ugly button was just offensive. So was the word “submit” (I hate that word in any context to do with writing — I wasted way too much time trying to get traditionally published). At any rate, I switched to a different plug-in and I now have a form that does not offend my sensibilities. I also got the social media buttons worked out. And *that* is the last damned thing I’m going to do to my website until my next book comes out .

          • 🙂

  • Carly Compass

    How do I sign up for your news letter? Hopefully posting here and leaving my email will get me on it…Thank you for a very good article…it’s not quantity it’s quality…