How to Build a Bookish Community
How to build a community around your writing by changing your focus from “a platform to sell” to “a community of like-minded people I can serve”
No matter what you write—and no matter how you publish—you’re going to have to find readers for your book. But figuring out how to build that audience is always so hard when you’re starting out…and even when you’ve published multiple books. How do you go from a nobody to a name people look for on retailer’s shelves or online pages?
This is a subject that my husband David and I have been studying and working on for years, and we’ve recorded a super-intense multi-part class on the subject that dives deep into it, and even offer some one-on-one consulting if you want help with every step of the process. I’ve also recorded a class on which this article is based that is mostly be an introduction to the concept we discuss there—a primer, called “Building a Bookish Community.”
Though applicable for any author at any stage in their career, what makes this process unique from other marketing approaches is that it doesn’t depend on you having a product in hand to sell—that first book or tenth book or whatever. It only requires that you be present in the communities you most want to serve.
So first, did you hear the word I used there? SERVE. Building an audience for your work shouldn’t be about selling to them—it should be about serving them. And that’s something you can start doing NOW.
WHAT DO YOU WRITE?
I don’t mean fiction or non-fiction or a specific genre. What is the common thread, the common passion running through all you do? Maybe you’re a nurse and there’s always a medical line. Maybe you’re an avid knitter, and that always works its way in. Maybe you love baking or raising kids or art or fairy tales. Maybe you want to change the culture, so you’re always going to be expounding on a relevant social theme.
Whatever your thing may be, you need to identify it…because that’s the thing that’s going to make it appeal to certain readers.
Some common themes in most (not quite all, but most) of my stories: spies, espionage, or some kind of intelligence work; love of books; art; the desire to go deeper in faith. My characters are going to be smart and witty. Treasure often makes it way into my stories too, in one form or another. I love writing about “mysterious things” at least peripherally—the sort of things explorers and adventurers dedicate lifetimes to. The majority of my books are set in England so appeal to Anglophiles.
WHO DO YOU WRITE FOR?
So now that you’ve identified some of the common threads through all your stories, start looking at who those things will appeal to. Honestly, this should be easy! You’re probably already a part of groups that focus on them! If not, then join some. Find Facebook groups, in-person groups, societies, forums…wherever lovers of those things gather, be there.
It’s also helpful to develop an ideal of ‘your reader.’ Male or female? What age? Education level? Where does she live? Does she have kids? This obviously won’t encompass ALL your readers, but having an ideal reader in mind helps you gear everything you do. You can pause and ask yourself, “Would my reader like this?”
BE A PART OF THE COMMUNITY
And I mean be a true part, there to give, not to sell anything. Participate in conversations. Ask questions. Support others in the group. Be there authentically, be or become one of them. Your shared love for the focal point of the group is what will make you a true part of them…and the fact that you’re an author is what will set you apart. But don’t push that aspect—only mention it, in fact, if it comes up naturally. Simply become a recognized part of the group.
BE THEIR AUTHOR
Then—and only then—can you share about your books. Not because you’re trying to sell anything to them, but because your book is part of serving them. It’s of interest to them. It will benefit them. And if you’ve become a part of the community successfully, they’ll think of your as their author—so OF COURSE they’ll buy your books!
CAPTURING THE AUDIENCE IN YOUR WORLD
So joining other groups is all well and good—and necessary, even—but ultimately, you don’t want to have to rely solely on anyone else’s platform. Ultimately, your goal is to build your own community, your own audience, in a place that you own.
This almost always means our newsletter, or perhaps our website or blog. These are the ONLY online spaces we own, so always focus on bringing your audience there, into your world.
How? Through SERVING them. Offering them something they need. Maybe it’s articles and blog posts. Maybe it’s a round-up of curated content you’ve come across that week that you know would be of interest to them. Maybe you interview experts in that field of interest. Maybe you share art or resources. Find something that you enjoy receiving when it comes to that focus topic, and make your newsletter or site or blog the BEST at delivering it.
MAKE YOUR WRITING PART OF THE COMMUNITY
Once you’ve built all this—which, fair warning, is going to take a lot of time and effort—you’ll have grown your readership and audience to the point where your work, your books, actually become a uniting factor. This is the ultimate goal!
Once you’re to that point, loving your books becomes something that people rally around. That’s when you can launch your OWN communities or groups that people will join because you’re a part of it.