Create experiences, not data

The measure of our success cannot always be counted in raw data; rather, it should be felt in the depth of experiences we create. If you are a writer, that experience may be the one that a reader feels when reading your book. It may also be the countless silent ways they think about your book years later.

That experience doesn’t show up in data that Amazon can calculate in their algorithm. You don’t get royalties on it.

Often, we try to track data to validate the meaning of our work. For an author, we may track:

  • Bestseller lists
  • Amazon rankings
  • The number of reader reviews
  • Stars and ratings (e.g.: on Goodreads)
  • Twitter followers
  • Facebook likes
  • Snapchat, um, Snaps? (confession: I don’t know much about Snapchat.)

Instead of just tracking numbers, I want to encourage you to focus on creating experiences.

Experiences that your books or other work creates in the lives of others.

Experiences that you as the author can create in the lives of others.

Experiences you create for yourself as someone passionate about their work and how it shapes the world.

Experiences that no one else — not Mark Zuckerberg, not Jeff Bezos — can create as middlemen in you reaching other people.

What does this look like? Perhaps:

  • A meaningful email email exchange, from one person to another
  • A meaningful conversation
  • A meaningful social interaction in-person or online
  • A hug
  • A high five
  • One of those weird bro handshake things that I never learned. (The one where you start by shaking hands, but then reverse it to some kind of finger lock, then you lean in to hug while flexing your bicep, but then reverse it again, by just bumping shoulders, and then you end with some quick pulling away, and maybe add a finger point. That’s how it works, right?!)

Again and again, when I speak with a successful author, I hear about the countless interactions they have had with others, the small experiences they have to create meaning around their work.

This could be visits to indie bookstores, and conversations they have with the owner. Or a long conversation they have with librarians. Or teachers.

It is all the work they do years in advance of their book being published, to connect with others around their work.

At this point you may be thinking:

“Dan, I wrote a book for exactly the reason to avoid all of this. You see, I’m an introvert, but I have a story to tell. A book, one that can be printed by the thousands — or millions — and reach others quietly and personally, that is my goal.”

First: I hear you. I really do. I absolutely want you to be read by thousands, or millions, of people. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: a book is a perfect form. The technology of a book is just amazing.

But… (you knew there would be one, right!?)

It is work to build a readership. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert often comes up as model that a memoir writer will have in their mind. They want the success of Eat, Pray, Love. Sometimes this is spoken out loud, oftentimes it is not.

I just went to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Wikipedia page to see what her life looked like prior to Eat, Pray, Love — how much work was it for her to get to that place of success?

There are 300 words cataloging her work before the term “best-seller,” and 418 words after it. Is this a scientific way to calculate something? NO! (I’m a writer, after all.) But I would encourage you to read the bio, and think about each step, each article she wrote, from 1993 to 2006. Every connection she made, every way she pushed her own writing forward to get to the place to pitch Viking with the idea of her book, and with them accepting it based not just on the strength of the idea, but on her track record as a writer.

What Elizabeth created was experiences along the way. Sure, the primary experiences she created were for readers through her articles, her first two books, and other writing. But she also had thousands of interactions with colleagues, developed a network, and created a fan base one person at a time.

In the past I have written about Rebecca Skloot’s 10+ year journey to go from “Oooh, I have this idea,” to sitting down with Oprah.

One by one, Rebecca created experiences with readers, with editors, with conference attendees, and so many others.

Do I hope that you are able to skyrocket from obscurity to bestseller based on your book alone? YES! I do, I really do.

But I also believe in investing in experiences. Why? Because you have the power to create small moments that change people’s lives. There is not gatekeeper in this process, and there is nothing passive about it.

Sometimes an author views becoming a bestseller as:

  1. Struggle in obscurity for years as you craft the book.
  2. Pitch an agent who falls in love with the book.
  3. The agent, who now deeply believes in this book, pitches it to publishers with passion and vigor.
  4. The publisher, who has chosen to marry this book, now gives you a kick-ass editor who takes the book to the next level; a sales team who sells it into all the big retailers; a foreign rights team who extends your reach globally; a design team who gives you this amazing cover and interior; a publicity team who pitches every big media outlet like their lives depend on the success of this book; and a marketing team who gives you the most inventive ideas ever to ensure readers become aware of this book.

Does this happen? Yep. Every day. For the thousands and thousands of books published each year, this happens.

And maybe it will happen with you. Maybe you will get lucky at every step, and other people will take on the work to ensure your book finds a readership.

But you know what would help in the meantime, whether you get that lucky or not? Creating experiences for yourself and others, around the work you are most passionate about.

You can do this today.
You can do this next week.
You can do this every week between now and becoming the next Elizabeth Gilbert.

In the past few years, I have seen a lot of online marketing people espouse the value of developing an email newsletter. Now, I have sent a weekly newsletter for more than 10 years myself, that it has had a massive impact on my career.

But, to me, too much emphasis has been placed in this idea of “GROW YOUR EMAIL LIST FAST!” by so many online courses and webinars. Why?

Because in the race to grow one’s email list, what is lost is the ability to create meaningful experiences. When you are focused on doing anything possible to get more data — another subscriber, another follower, another rating — you begin to see these not as meaningful interactions from one person to another, but just data.

Your reader isn’t data.

I was reminded of that this week from a writer I know, Becky Galli, who shared this:

“Quick confession: I sent out my newsletter and watched how many people opened the emails via MailChimp:

At 9:08am I had 7.
9:15 I had 25.
Then 111.
Now 127.

As I scrolled through the list, an amazing feeling washed over me. I may be alone — empty nest, divorced — but I have people who read what I write.

Man, that is affirming. Just thought I’d share that feeling. We writers live such a life of ups and downs. We have to “kiss the joys.”

Is data useful to us in setting meaningful goals, milestones, and in creating effective marketing strategies? Yes, of course. This is work I do every day with clients.

The key is to make the connection that Becky has: that behind every number is a person. Each is an experience that has been created. A moment that will shape their lives, and grow their relationship to you and your work.

Thank you.