Talk with readers

I want to encourage you to talk with readers. Not just because people who read are awesome, but because understanding reader behavior is a critical part of learning how to best market your writing or creative work. So many people wait until they are at the cusp of launching their book to do this, but the reality is that effective marketing takes time. Give yourself that time.

It’s easy to justify that if you wait to talk with readers and develop your platform that you will be better prepared. I’ve heard people say variations of this many times: “Why talk to readers or develop my platform before my book is finished, or before it can be preordered? That’s just silly. Let me wait until the book is ready, and then I’ll explore all of this.”

Often that means it will be too late to pursue a meaningful and authentic way to develop a connection to your ideal audience. You are locked into a very short timeline to publish and share your book, meaning the very first thing they hear from you is a version of: “Hello! Please buy my book. Oh, then review it. And maybe then tell a friend about it. And can you also come to this event I’m doing? Oh, maybe can you buy a copy as a gift too?”

Too many authors put off talking to readers because they fear becoming ‘that’ author over-promoting their book. But the more time you give yourself to talk with readers and learn about them, the less likely you will ever be perceived as someone who only shows up when you have something to sell. The more you learn about reader behavior, the more experiences you have around how books are shared, the more people you know who appreciate books, the more you are creating the precious resources required for good marketing: trust and communication.

Talk with readers. How do you find them? They are all around you. Simply ask people that you meet what they like to read. Then, be really curious.

Don’t just seek out people who read books like those you write. You aren’t talking to them to garner interest in your work, instead you are trying to better understand why they read, how they find books, where those conversations begin and where they go.

You are a student of writing as you develop your craft. I want to encourage you to also become a student of reading and how books are experienced and shared. The goal is to demystify reader behavior. Critical here is to expand your discussions outside of your immediate circle of friends and family. This may challenge every assumption you have about marketing, about book launches, about “the industry,” and about how to get people to pay attention to your work.

How to go about this? Well, it’s pretty simple: ask anyone you meet what they like to read. Then ask why. Truly be curious about what they read and why. Ask follow up questions that help you understand their behavior around reading. Don’t try to get them to become aware of your work, or validate it.

That’s it.

I remember seeing this in action years ago when I spent time with Barbara Vey, who at the time was a contributing editor for Publishers Weekly. I took her on her first subway ride in New York City, and on a crowded car she did something unexpected: she turned to the woman sitting next to her and asked her what she was reading. Barbara and the woman had a lovely conversation around what she was reading.

Barbara would tell me stories like this all the time. If she had to go into a medical facility, she would later tell me what her nurses and doctor liked to read. If she went to get a sandwich before we talked on the phone, she would tell me what the person behind the counter liked to read.

When you talk with readers, you dive deep into the “messy” side of the publishing world. You learn that readers don’t neatly fit into a box of only reading one genre, or reading regularly, or liking what you would expect they would. When you learn how to talk with readers, you learn so much about how books are shared, but also you develop a this capacity in yourself. Because when you launch your books, you will want to have the ability to casually talk about it in a way that will truly engage someone.

Your creative work will exist in an ecosystem. Understanding how real people engage with art similar to yours gives you a practical look at the reality of what the marketplace looks like. Not as a chart, not as a statistic, but in an everyday conversation with a real human being.

In my book, Be the Gateway, I explore this idea. It uses the metaphor of you creating a “gateway” to your work. But once it is built, you don’t put up a neon sign in front, hoping people find it. Instead, you venture away from your gateway into the world, discovering where readers already are, who they are talking to, and how to navigate the maze of paths that explain how books are shared. Over time, as you understand and befriend readers, the path to your gateway develops. The entire process is filled with empathy and authentic connections, not trying to game an algorithm on Amazon or figure out the latest trend on TikTok.

To identify how to effectively market your work takes time. It is a craft just like one’s creative work

I saw an example of this recently. Rick Beato started a YouTube channel about music a couple years ago, and has skyrocketed to having more than 2.5 million subscribers. On his second channel, he talked about talking with an Uber driver recently about what she listened to. Rick is 59 and loves guitar rock of the 60s through the 90s. The driver was a woman in her late 20s. He asked, “Have you ever heard of Paul McCartney?” She hadn’t. The Beatles? Nope. Foo Fighters or Dave Grohl? No.

At this point, you may think, “Here is someone young who only likes modern music.” But that isn’t the case. What she was listening to on her iPhone was 90s music. She went on to explain how she doesn’t like contemporary music, because she doesn’t resonate with the lyrics. She said, “It feels like everything is made for TikTok. It’s all beats for people to dance to. I really like lyrics.”

In the video, Rick went on to consider what this meant for musicians. Even though Rick has very clear and strong opinions about the music he prefers, his channel is filled with him analyzing not just classic songs, but music on at the top of the charts today. Rick has been a professional music producer for decades and is a virtuoso musician, yet he talks your average music listener all the time, and in the process, he learns a lot.

Marketing is a craft. Becoming good at it is not a matter of just copying someone else’s “best practices.” Focus on what you write and why, and what people read and why. That will give you so much of what you need to understand how to develop a strategy to effectively share what you create.