Here’s a post from a year back on reader engagement. It’s a little dated – who remembers Tony Blair and Brangelina now? – but the advice still holds. Maybe I should re-read it too.
This is the book I’ve been reading lately. Bet you didn’t think I was into that kind of thing. To be honest, nor did I, when Lena set it down next to the computer a couple of weeks back.
- It was only 20p at the stall in the market.
- Was it?
- Thought it might give you a few ideas.
Uh-oh. Been spending too much time on the damned book recently and not paying enough attention. So she buys me a Mills & Boon. Why didn’t she just say something?
- Look here – under the smiley man. ‘A true story of the author’s struggle to break into print.’ Useful?
- Um, yeah. Maybe.
Fame Costs is the true story of F.T.Unwin – or Pimbo, as he liked to call himself. He was from these parts, a Cambridge man, and it was Cambridge he wrote about. Not the university town. Not the tourist town. His books were full of stories of the people who have always lived here, and probably always will. Sentimental, nostalgic stuff. ‘He was, undoubtedly, an awful writer – which is all part of his naive charm’, that’s how he was remembered recently. Not much to appeal to today’s reader.
Unless that reader happened to be me.
Pimbo had a life-long ambition to be a writer, paid for writing courses, submitted to magazines, and after 30 years of rejections decided to go it alone with his first novel, using a vanity publisher. He managed to place a few copies in local shops, did some signings, and sold less than 100 books. So what to do with his stock?
Here’s what. He gets on the bus with a bagful of books, heads for one of the outlying villages, and starts selling door-to-door. Sets himself a small target every day and doesn’t take the journey home till he’s hit the target. Writes in the morning, gets the bus in the afternoon. He’s around 60 years old.
The first year was hard, but he began to attract attention, with a little press and radio coverage. Then it was local TV. Pimbo did it his own way. He was a character.
And the next year, when he took his new book on the same routes, people remembered. They invited him in, told him their own stories – which of course were then featured in his next novel. Pimbo’s readers began to have a personal stake in his books.
By 1987, with around 20 titles to his credit (nobody seems to know exactly how many), he had sold 80,000 books. Did his readers love them? Well, just about every review I can find includes the word ‘awful’, but as one commentator puts it:
Fred Unwin probably had a larger readership amongst local people than any better known author, and certainly amongst those who might not normally read books … He built up a list of regulars, brought great pleasure with his visits, and when he had made enough money from selling one book he would write another. He commands huge respect for that.
So what am I recommending? Write slush? Get out there selling door-to-door? Neither. But the lessons of reader engagement in Pimbo’s story still hold true today just as they did then, 30 years ago. Just one thing has changed. We don’t have to wait for the bus any more. Because we’re on the magic bus – the web – and we all have a free pass. This bus is especially magic because although you still need to start by going out to find your readers, you can soon get them coming over to your place – it takes just a second – if they enjoy spending time with you.
This is what I’ve learned from old Pimbo:
- Know who your readers are. For him, it wasn’t people who went into bookshops, or the city’s temporary residents, but the people who had lived in Cambridge all their lives.
- Go find those readers. We shouldn’t expect people to buy our books just because they’re in the bookshop. Once we’ve identified our typical readers, we need to find where on the web they hang out, and spend some quality time with them. Not selling all the time: people hate that. But chatting, discussing, commenting, sharing, becoming one of the gang. And then when it’s time, inviting them back to our place – or places. (Different places for different types of reader.)
- Make the visits frequent. Pimbo’s visits were once a year. Everyone would know when he was due back in the neighbourhood. Times have changed, and now our visits are two-way. When your friends drop in to visit you on your blog or website, there needs to be something new every day. Maybe not a major new post like this. But latest updates, new links, anything to keep the content fresh. And you need to be going out visiting every day, too, or people will quickly forget you. Of course, there’s not time to visit all those great sites you’ve bookmarked and leave comments. Only the key ones. But you can remind friends of your presence by posting regularly to Twitter or Facebook, at least a couple of times a day, maybe three or four.
- Make every visit pleasurable. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it, if you want people to come back to your place again? But how? There are some great ideas from Misty Belardo in The 8 Types Of Posts That Get Maximum Comments. She suggests how-tos, competitions, personal experiences, showcasing your work, resource lists, thought provokers, creative work, humor. I’ll add only two things – there should be a place for most of these in your website or blog – and that the content needs to change quickly enough to keep it feeling fresh. Nothing turns people off faster than a static site.
- Keep it personal. Pimbo met people face-to-face. We’re not actually going to meet most of our readers, but we can still engage with them personally, by encouraging questions and comments and reactions. I don’t think it’s necessary to respond to every comment individually – not if you’re busy – but we should be acknowledging the feedback we get, and we should aim always to answer questions. Within 24 hours. You might want to encourage readers to post their questions via Twitter – because all interactions will be less than 140 characters long. Nobody will expect long email answers.
- Make the experience interactive. For Pimbo, this meant gathering stories from those he visited. In A Real Writer, I want to encourage everyone to assist with the research – by helping me, everyone helps themselves. And if readers do get involved, they’ll feel they have a stake in my success.
- Remember that you’re part of the story. Pimbo’s novels were pretty awful, remember. And yet he sold 80,000 books. Let’s face it, my writing friends, a book very rarely stands or falls on its quality alone. Pimbo sold because he was a character. Then there’s this Tony Blair fellow – the one who’s book has won him a £4.6 million advance because, as his US publisher says, he’s ‘such an exceptional writer’. Would anyone have given him £1000 for a book in 1982, when he stood for Parliament in a by-election, won only 10% of the vote and lost his deposit? Unlikely.
For your book to succeed, it really helps if you have a compelling story for yourself. I’m not suggesting that you necessarily need to start a war or two. And please don’t start telling your readers what you had for breakfast this morning, unless your name is Brangelina. But what is it that makes you stand out from the crowd? Start preparing that story too.
Have you found any new ways to engage with potential readers recently? Did you actually engage with any new readers today? How?