Building a Devoted Readership Person by Person

A guest post by Natalie Wright

For several months prior to the release of my first novel, Emily’s House, I read every blog post, article and book that I could find about book marketing. Virtually all book marketing gurus urge the author to focus their marketing efforts online rather than book signings and other in-person events. “Create a blog, be active on Twitter and Facebook, and participate in ‘virtual’ book tours,” they say.

dedicated readersI took the advice and from November, 2011 (when Emily’s House released) until March, 2013, I focused my marketing efforts solely online. I blogged, tweeted and posted on Facebook, but I did not attend any book signings or other in-person events. My sales were decent enough, especially in the months around a new release, but I didn’t feel that I was building a fan base.

I began to think that maybe it was the books, not my marketing strategy. But a curious thing happened. Out of the blue, Wattpad contacted me and asked if they could make Emily’s House a “featured” book on their site. Over the next couple of months the number of “reads” of the book went from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands then it hit a million (and now over 1.5 million). And I began to get followers too (now counting over 17,000).

This result on Wattpad showed me that there was, in fact, a market for the book and that my writing could garner fans. The problem wasn’t so much the material, but that I hadn’t been able to reach the right audience for the material. My online marketing efforts (blog tours especially) seemed to reach mainly adults who enjoy romance-oriented novels. My online efforts had failed almost entirely to reach my target audience for Emily’s House (kids ages 9-14+).

I decided that I needed to get off of the couch and out to the public. In March, 2013, I had an exhibitor booth at the Tucson Festival of Books (TFOB), the fourth largest such event in the United States. For two days I met readers and had the chance to pitch my book one-on-one to tweens and teens.

 The result? First, I sold out of books. I sold more books in two days than I typically sell online in two months through Amazon et al. Second, and more importantly, I made personal connections with readers in my target market.

When I saw girls’ eyes light up when I told them about the book and even hug the book to them as they walked away from my booth, I was hooked on doing in-person events. Seeing someone thrilled about reading my story? Priceless.

While I specifically set out to meet tweens and teens, I found that I also had more success connecting to older readers in-person than I did online. While approximately half of my sales at TFOB were to tweens/teens, I sold the rest to women and men over eighteen. Grandmothers and mothers bought the books for their daughters. Guys who enjoy fantasy bought it for themselves because to them, it sounded like unique story. When you have 70,000+ people attend an event dedicated to books, that’s a lot of people all in one spot at one time who are potential customers.

At the beginning of this year I made a goal for myself of doing at least five in-person events. I’ve done six so far and have at least two more to go by the end of the year. I had one bookstore signing this year and found that it is not something that I’m likely to do again for a while. It seems to me that a bookstore signing may be something that would be great for an author with an established audience, but not so much for an author still at the front end of building an audience. I sat for two hours at the bookstore and saw one teen reader (that I didn’t already know). She bought one of my books (and I sold a few others to friends that were kind enough to show up). But the bookstore did not garner the type of traffic (and thus potential new readers) that an author has access to at book festivals and cons.

 My experience thus far shows that appearances at book festivals and comic cons are highly worthwhile. I haven’t yet attempted to appear on a panel and have relied on paying for table or booth space. From talking to other authors, being on panels can be a great way to get the word out about your work. I plan to begin pitching some ideas for panel appearances to book festivals and cons this year (with the hopes of garnering a few such appearances for next year).

But being an exhibitor has been quite successful for me. From my experience so far, this is what I think it takes to make a book event successful:

  1. Write books people want to read. I know that may sound sarcastic, but it’s not. I shared my booth this year at TFOB with another author. Though I gave her the prime location in the booth, I outsold her two to one. When we discussed our results after the event she said, “You write the kind of books people want to read.” What she meant by this (I think) is that I write fantasy and science fiction as opposed to her more literary historical fiction. My friend writes wonderful books but they appeal to a more niche audience. She would likely have better sales at an event that caters to her more particular audience. Authors that write commercial fiction tend to have better sales success at book festivals and cons. 

  1. Have eye-catching covers and put them on everything. A team of very talented women created the covers for my Akasha Chronicles series (Emily’s House, Emily’s Trial and Emily’s Heart). Readers responded favorably to the covers so I put them on six-foot-tall banners and lots of swag. The eye-candy banners help draw readers to my table thus giving me an opportunity to chat with them and pitch my book. People do judge a book by its cover and I have seen people buy my book based solely on the cover. An eye-catching cover is key to garnering interest in your book. 

  1. Talk to anyone and everyone. If an author is the kind of person who hates meeting and talking to people, then a six to eight hour book event would be torture. But I enjoy talking to people and enjoy making conversation. I don’t “sell” my books. Rather, I start a conversation by asking questions (such as what they like to read) and eventually, just about without exception, the person will ask me what my books are about. Nine times out of ten, the person then buys at least one of my books.

This connection of writer-to-reader is something that I have, thus far, had a difficult time making online but that I find much easier to create in-person. And the proof is in the pudding. This year at TFOB, I had readers come back – hunt me down in fact – to buy my third book. Last year they were new to me, readers passing by and attracted by the covers to ask more. This year they came to me as fans and urged me to get my next book finished so they can read it.

When it comes to book marketing, most say it’s all about discoverability. And that may be true. But I’m looking to do more than just be “discovered” by a reader. I want to create lasting relationships that will result in a long-term fan base. For me, I found that spending two days at the TFOB last year did more for me to create a fan base than two years of dedicated online marketing.

One downside to author appearances and book events is that it’s a lot of work. Sometimes there is travel involved. Always there’s the packing up of books and equipment then the set up for the event. Standing on your feet in the sun or cold or whipping wind and the output of energy as you pitch your book over and over and over and over. What is fun for a few hours can get downright old after six. It’s much more tiring that sitting on the couch, sipping coffee and posting pithy comments on Facebook.

 It’s not for everyone.

 As for me, I’m hooked. No, more like addicted. I’ve become a book fest/con junkie, looking for the next fest as I leave the last.

 My spring festival season is over, but I’m looking forward to my next event in November when I’ll once again talk and pitch and people watch at the Tucson Comic Con. I wonder what book events I can find between now and then?

How about you? If you’re an author, do you spend any of your marketing time doing in-person events? Or do you market strictly online?

If you’re a reader, do you attend book signings, book festivals or comic cons in order to meet authors?

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