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.