Knowing your readers

Two writers I am working with recently told me how our work in establishing their author platforms and marketing strategies is helping them with their writing. One expressed how our work has helped them clearly see the connections between all of her books in terms of the themes. The other said the work is helping to figure out some aspects of how she is ending her next novel.

This is not uncommon feedback for me to hear. Over the years, many writers have told me that they wished they worked with me earlier, while they were still writing their books, because it would have helped them better frame their messaging and how it would connect with ideal readers.

Today I want to talk about how these two things can often work together: the creative process with the platform/marketing process. And how each strengthens the other to create what so many desire: a career as an author that feels authentic and fulfilling. Let’s dig in…

Too often, writers think of marketing as something tacked onto the end of the publishing process. A necessary evil of “promotion” that they worry will tarnish their otherwise pure intentions with their writing. They may have the same apprehension when they consider the concept of an author platform. They assume the experience will be them begging for social media followers, and they dream of the day when their writing succeeds big enough so they don’t have to worry about platform or marketing anymore.

But that isn’t how I see platform and marketing. I’ve always defined an author platform not as followers, but as consisting of two things:

  • Communication
  • Trust

It’s knowing the messages that best communicate what you write and why, and framing them in a manner that engages ideal readers. Not just “what’s trendy” from a publicity perspective, but how to share your work — the questions you ask, the themes you explore, your deeper reasons for creating — in a way that people can understand. Some of this is about giving people a way in to your writing.

My book is called Be the Gateway for a reason — the gateway is a metaphor about how we are better able to lead people through it. But the book also challenges you to step outside of your gateway to better understand where your readers are and what resonates with them. Which brings us to trust.

I mentioned above that many writers like to wait to talk about their work. They want the book to be finished and ready to be published before they share it with others. There is, of course, a logic here. These writers may reason, “Why would I talk about my book before it’s finished? I don’t want to annoy people. I’ll let people know about it once they can buy it.” That makes sense.

But it also means that the first message that many people hear about this person’s writing is, “Hello! It’s been awhile. Can you buy this thing from me?”

Trust takes time. It’s why most media is built upon the ideas of frequency and, increasingly, direct engagement. In old fashioned terms, we would simply call it “talking to people.”

It would be easy for a young band to imagine that the first show they play, the moment they unveil their songs, it should be magical. It should be a big audience, a big venue, and they can imagine the music washing over the audience, creating a legion of fans that evening.

But that isn’t usually how it works. Musicians build fans one at a time. Two at a time. Eight at a time. They play shows, they get to know other bands, build relationships with venue owners, promoters, recording studio engineers, and of course, anyone who loves music.

This is not just a one-sided connection where musicians are collecting followers. The musicians are learning about their ideal fans too. Whenever I hear a musician talk about a live performance, they often mention the critical role that the fans have in the creative process. How their energy, who they are, the faces the musician sees, helps give them cues about the performance. And how the energy that is created in that interplay is what makes a great event.

Somehow, these fans are a part of the creative process. No, they are not writing the songs. No, the musician is not running a survey or focus group while they are recording. But having the ability to effectively communicate with their ideal audience and have a sense of trust with them, can improve the creative process.

These creators understand the people they hope to reach beyond vague demographics. Beyond the number of sales, likes, followers, reviewers, or subscribers.

What many writers find when they embrace their author platform and marketing is that it can be a wonderful part of the creative process, not a hindrance to it. You may hear this and ask, “But shouldn’t the creative process be pure, unhindered by expectations of audience?”

The answer? Sure. If that is what you want.

But one thing I have observed in working with so many writers is that often their creative process moves through phases. And when someone has more clarity on how to communicate their work, when they have more trusting relationships with people who appreciate the kind of writing they do, well, they have more resources to work through that creative process. More awareness, more conversations, less guessing, and more opportunities to find a path forward that feels right.

There is no one right way to do this. You can absolutely write in any manner you want, including in total isolation. Do what feels right to you.

Having the ability to communicate with readers doesn’t mean that you are writing to an audience. But it could mean that you are writing for an audience. In other words, engaging with readers doesn’t co-opt the creative voice that is in your heart. It doesn’t mean you only write to fit the expectation of a reader.

Rather, I have found that the work of author platform and marketing helps writers better understanding themselves as a writer. This happens when you consider how to communicate what you write and why. When you consider the experiences you want your writing to create for yourself and others. When you bridge the gap between “I have this idea…” to “I had this wonderful conversation with a reader about my book.”

Back in 2012 I wrote about this on my blog, with a headline: “There is a Difference Between Knowing Your Audience and Writing to One.” It included these tips:

  • If you can’t build a small audience, how can you build a large audience?
  • Regardless of when your book comes out, start building your audience now
  • Finding your audience is about listening, not talking
  • Research is often missing from most writers’ author platform process
  • Be polarizing – make choices

A reader — Vicki Orians — had commented: “I think a lot of people get confused when it comes to knowing your audience and writing to one.”

At the time, I wrote: “Knowing who your audience is shouldn’t change your work away from your core vision, but it can help you ensure that your stories reach an audience that cares.”

That is absolutely true. But over the years something else I have found is that our art is often part of the larger ecosystem of our lives. It lives within the interplay of what we experience, who we talk to, and how art and writing grows and changes beyond the words on a page.

Your writing isn’t just a product on the shelf, a book. It is how the words within it stay with someone for years. How they find inspiration from it in what may seem like odd times in their life. It exists in their minds, where it is integrated with who they are and what they experience each day.

Where is the exact line between “creativity” and the other topics I discuss here — communication and trust that can happen in platform and marketing? I don’t know. I think it is different for everyone, and even be different from moment to moment. And that is the beauty of what it means to create. To take the risk to develop your ideas, refine them, turn them into art, and share them with the world.