Community Building for writers

A couple of nights ago I gave a talk at Writers in Oxford about social media and community-building for writers. First of all, I wanted to make the bullet point handout available in a nice pdf for you to download (you can do that by clicking here). But most of all, it was a catalyst to dusting off some of my old articles, updating them, and then merging them into one comprehensive post on the crucial subject of community building. I hope it’s helpful.

A few years ago, in the earliest nanoseconds of the big Kindle bang as Brian Cox might say, you could barely come across a post about self-publishing that didn’t refer to Kevin Kelly’s seminal article “1000 true fans.” These days, mentions are as scarce as a self-published book in Waterstones.

Hungerford Bridge landscape 3(Click here to download a free copy of my poetry and short story collection i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry)

The idea behind 1000 true fans, and earlier versions of the theory (which Kelly outlines here), is that it is possible for an artist to make a living wage by building and then looking after a small, dedicated following (in this case 1000, but he is not dogmatic) of people all of whom are willing to pay a relatively small amount for your work on a regular basis.

It’s easy to understand why so little is said about 1000 true fans (as well, I’ll admit, as a lack of case studies of those using the model to earn a living). Post-Kindle (I wonder when we will start saying BK and PK, for all it makes me want to sit down with a whopper and do some freerunning to burn it off), advice to self-publishing writers focuses fairly exclusively on maximising revenue from ebooks (in practice, this usually means talking about Kindle) and that is taken to mean an unstinting quest for increased discoverability).
In this piece, I want to suggest that three key points that most advice in the PK era focuses on are antithetical to the 1000 true fans model, and then I want to reclaim the model, speculating what working by it might look like for writers, and arguing that not only might there be some mileage in the economic aspect of the theory, but that this is a very good way for us as artists to do our art.

  1. How-to advice focuses on volume – on how to sell more books. Where this is moderated in some way it is in terms of the relationship between volume and price and how that feeds into maximised royalties. There is little place for discussion of how to achieve a fixed or maximum number of sales
  2. Advice focuses on how to use charts and algorithms to create exposure for books, effectively looking to hit a sweet spot where sales become self-generating, whereas the 1000 true fans model looks at selling only to a very specific, and fully defined, customer base
  3. When how-to advice looks at craft, at standards and doing things better, the focus is on objective criteria – professional editing, formatting, proofreading and cover design, for example – all of which are aimed to please a notional idea of a customer. With 1000 true fans, on the other hand, the artist aims to meet subjective criteria or, rather, a single subjective criterion – pleasing their fans. And not some abstract concept of a fan, but their actual fans.

limited edition book text tina(Tina Sederholm is a wonderful poet, author of The Velvet Box. Her fabulous show Evie and  the Perfect Cupckae got rave reviews when perfromed at Edinburgh Free Fringe, a great fringe of the fringe that showcases free performances and gives crowds the opportunity to show their appreciation by giving tips)

The thing about each of those dichotomies is that we are so used to a particular mindset we don’t even think of them as dichotomies, as choices – in each case we struggle to see the former as anything but the only option. In brief:

  1. Surely we all want to maximise sales, after all we want to make a living (how many times did you read that before you saw it was a glaring non sequitur?).
  2. Surely the point of marketing is to maximise the return on your effort, and this means learning to use the most efficient sales generators (well this may be a non sequitur also, and it may be wrong about the purpose of marketing, but what it most definitely is, is mistaken about the most efficient sales generators because it’s still hung up on measuring volume and not percentage of target audience reached).
  3. But this is incontrovertible, surely? To rise above the slush we have to present our work professionally. Readers notice. Readers matter. Yes they do matter – your actual readers, the ones who will love your work so much they will buy anything else you write. So give them what they love – maybe that *is* well-punctuated and neatly justified text with no typos. I’d wager it’s not though – stop forming some imaginary ideal of a reader (didn’t that go out when Aristotle slam-dunked Plato?) and look at what your readers want (and also not someone else’s readers, people who would think the only great thing about your book was the punctuation).

So, what would your life as an artist look like if you trod the 1000 true fans path? If you decided that the key was building a community with your work at its centre and doing so one person at a time, maintaining some kind of personal connection with each and never seeking to reach a level where you were unable to maintain that connection.

(Marc Nash uses video to great effect to share his work)

Well, this is where Kelly goes silent – he makes it clear his research is limited (and is not based in the literary world). But we have four years on him now, and I’d like to put forward some tentative suggestions.

The 1000 true fan approach essentially affects two things about your creative life – the things you do and the things you sell. OK, put together, that’s just about everything. Let me put it simply and then get on with those suggestions.

Know what it is you want to do

  1. Do it the very best you can
  2. Know for whom you are doing it and what it is they are looking for
  3. Find as many ways as you can to find them, make them fall in love with your work, and make the love affair last by giving them what they want whilst never compromising number 2.

Here are some suggestions as to what the fourth of these, in particular, might mean. It’s not an exhaustive or by any means a universally applicable list. Building your own community is something that will carry your own “voice” as distinctively as your writing does. That’s key – after all, this is all about what is distinctive about you and your creativity, and letting that shine through. Any suggestions (and this is a mistake I think gets made a lot by people looking for – and giving – advice) are simply offering means for that shining-throughness (official technical term) and are not the point of the exercise in themselves.

Building your community

I recently interviewed the artist Trevor Barton over at eight cuts. One of the things he said is that in the new economy markets will be local and global but not national. That’s a very astute observation, and it’s based, I think, on the fact that markets will increasingly be based around communities – just as in 1000 true fans. What this means is that we can build dedicated communities through direct contact, either online or in real life. It’s something I’ve noticed in my own life over the past few years – the two communities are building at the same time but also overlapping and feeding into one another with great results – but they are only able to do that when you are yourself both online and in person – it’s that shining-throughness again – if you’re always you then no one will have any nasty surprises when they meet you in the flesh – or when they see you trolling in a chatroom!

The other thing I would recommend is having a base, somewhere people can catch up with everything you’re doing. This may be your Facebook page, a website, a tumblr, or a twitter account, but whichever it is, it needs to be somewhere from where people can find out everything you’re doing, where you can link to things, whence you can send out messages that reach everyone, and that’s easy to navigate – don’t make people hunt high and low to find stuff out. They may want to. If they’re fans they probably do. But don’t make them.

As an aside (and something worthy of a full article in due course), “direct selling”, or ensuring that everything that happens between you and your fans happens on your website, is absolutely at the heart of your relationship. A lot of bands do everything they can to sell downloads direct from their site, or from a discreet link to a fully-branded Bandcamp site. There are three main reasons for this – first, the whole experience happens whilst you are still surrounded by the artist’s world, there may be a song streaming , there’s imagery, there are words, all reinforcing the link between artist and fan; second, there is huge value to a fan in the feeling that they are doing something that directly benefits you – yes, we all know that a royalty makes its way to people eventually (though a small one) but there is something very satisfying about giving directly; finally, and purely practically, if people haven’t left our site, they are more likely to stay with us and not click off to the “customers who bought this…” links of someone else.

Giving to your community

This is really the key to building a community – what is it that you can give to people? Another of the things Trevor and I reflected on was the dream of seeing an economy in which the currency was altruism. Imagine that for a moment – seeking not to acquire but to give, dreaming of riches where that could be measured in terms of lives you had touched for the better. That’s basically how 1000 true fans works. You give, because you want to give. Your community gives back because it wants to give to you. Transactionally it may look the same but what is going on at a deeper level is very different. But what do you give, and how? Towering colossus-like over everything else, of course, is your writing. So you write books, right?

crockett's fall(Crockett’s Fall by Anna Fennel Hughes is a beautiful handmade book that came into being thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign)

Not really. At least, you almost certainly write books, but that’s not the alpha and omega of it. You will be looking to find any way you can to get your work to people. Which may mean blogging, it may mean giveaways, it may mean making pamphlets and leaving them in your local pubs and cafes, it may be going into the pub, asking the landlord, and reading something impromptu on a Tuesday afternoon. The key is to give regularly. I think it’s a really good idea for your work to be available in some form or other for free, whilst selling some things and offering the option to donate.

It should be clear by now that you need to be comfortable with a certain degree of public-facingness (I’m just loving these double barrelled nesses!). And you need to write regularly – though not all of it the same kind of writing. The following might all be part of what you do to build your community, or you may come up with other things entirely.

  • Newsletters – these are a *really* good idea but should be beautiful, engaging things and you *must* know your data protection law when dealing with people’s emails. It’s up to you to work out whether to make them short and frequent or less frequent and lavish, but try to keep them regular, and make sure you always give something like a free story or poem, preferably one written just for the newsletter.
  • Blogging – but make sure your blog is of interest to your fans (I write a column on social media for Words With Jam magazine that might be helpful).
  • Gigging – be it at your local open mic, a reading at a bookstore, or setting up a group with other like-minded writers and producing your own show.
  • Merch – yes, this does all sound like the music industry, but it’s just not true that as a writer you can’t do live performance and you can’t sell things that aren’t books. The rule for merch is the same as for everything – make sure people who love your books will love it, and make it reflect you in some way. Clothing is an obvious one (and sites like Zazzle and Café Press make it very easy to offer things with no outlay), as is stationery, and if you have a crafty skill, why not use it? Set up an online store I use bigcartel, which is great and free if you don’t have many items. Bandcamp and Etsy are also great, depending on what kind of thing you produce. But you may also sell face to face – so customised filing cabinets are probably not as practical as postcards.
  • Business cards – I’m sure we all have cards of some kind or other – but why not make this another way to give away your work – it could be a haiku on the card, or a QR code that links to a poem or story.
  • Find other things your fans will love and tell them about them – this is a great thing to do with twitter. Be a source of things that people will love. Remember, it’s not about you, you, you, it’s about them, them, them.

What your community can give to you

If you do it right and build the right community, that community will want to give back to you. It is pretty much impossible to continue at this point without first directing you (I know I posted this last time as well, but it bears repeating) to Amanda Palmer’s truly brilliant TED talk “The Art of Asking.” Yes, Amanda started off with a big fan base, but the way she gives her music away and seeks to let her fans give back is the perfect model for the artistic life. Plus, she’s an amazing person.

All communities are diverse, and the key thing about the community that builds up around your work is that the only condition for full membership is that people love what you do. Yes, there are some things you just can’t give everyone for free without being even more broke than you were to start with, but just as you shouldn’t make your words unavailable to anyone because of their income, so you shouldn’t stop people giving back just because they have little to give (research has shown – see Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational for some great citations – that it makes people feel good to help those they care about, it strengthens our bonds – giving is a fundamental part of being human). So to ensure that no one is excluded from your work or from your community, offer  a range of ways of doing things.

  • Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter are great – if you want to put on an event or produce a run of your latest book, this is a way to fund everything in advance to produce something great for everyone whilst letting people pay different amounts in return for different extras.
  • Buying physical things
  • Allow people to donate on your website – whether it’s Paypal or google checkout, having a donate button (or a link, if you have a free website that doesn’t allow sales) is a way to let people who want to give back do so. I particularly like the idea of combining this with giving your work away for free in some way or other – those who want to pay can. And if you build a warm community you will be surprised how often they do.
  • Tips – if you do readings, consider doing them for free (remember, though, that the venue needs to make a living too – always speak to them, work out how you can help each other) and collecting tips as well as/instead of selling merch. This needn’t be a pushy passing round of the cap – “if you enjoyed that and want to help, anything you are able to give is welcome” is enough.
  • Emails – newsletters are important, so one of the most important things people can give you is their email address – and don’t forget to treat it with due respect – spam isn’t cool. Use a reputable, efficient way to collect email addresses such as mailchimp or Aweber, and use them to send out fabulous newsletters.