How Do You Establish a Fan Base *Before* You Launch Your Book?

| Posted in Book Marketing, New Author Series |


I get a lot of variations of this question from writers who are working on their first book and are planning to self-publish (or seek an agent and a traditional deal) in a few months. Since I didn’t have much of a master plan myself (it went like this: a) release first novel and b) try everything to sell it), but things eventually worked out for me, I usually say focus on writing more books and don’t worry much about the marketing for now.

Buuut, people don’t want to hear that. Go figure.

And I get it. When it’s your first book, it’s a big deal. If you’re anything like I was, it might have taken seven years to get that book to the point where you’re ready to share it. Who knows when the next one will be ready? Also, how will you know if it’s worth doing a series or a spinoff until enough people read the first that you have a gauge as to its commercial potential? Or, if you’re seeking an agent/publisher, how do you show that you have people who will buy that first book before you start querying it? (Yes, I understand that agents/publishers do check up on a potential author’s “platform” these days.)

So let me do a what-I’d-do-if-I-were-starting-today-knowing-what-I-know-now post. I’ll pretend I’m finishing up my first book and plan to publish it (or query it) in a few months.

Establishing a Fan Base Before You’re Ready to Publish/Query Your First Book

What I wouldn’t do

I’ll start out by talking about what many people do (I did too) and why that doesn’t work very well. A few months before the book is ready to go, they start a blog (usually on writing or the writing process), get on Twitter, and get on Facebook. They try to increase traffic/comments to their blog by commenting on all the other writing blogs out there. They try to increase Twitter followers by following the other writers out there (or maybe they’ll do a little better and realize they need readers who love their genre, and they’ll follow folks who mention books, science fiction, etc. in their Twitter bios). They’ll run contests or lobby other writers for likes to their Facebook page.

This is all largely ineffective (though it can make you appear popular, which may be enough for agents/publishers, but it won’t get you anywhere with sales). Why? Very few of these people will end up being your target readers, AKA people who love your writing style, your characters, and the type of story you weave.

It’s not that establishing connections with other writers and with readers in general can’t be useful (later on, after the launch, you may want to do some guest blog posts or interviews on their sites), but as far as building a fan base ahead of time goes, it’s a lot of work and not particularly effective.

What I would do

So there’s the “what not to do” side. What should you do? First off, realize that the people you really want subscribing to your blog, following you on Twitter, and liking your author page on Facebook are those who have read your work and LIKED it. Sure, it’s okay if you have other people (because I write about self-publishing and book promotion here, I get a lot of folks signing up for my newsletter who haven’t read my books), as you never know when someone might buy something to support you or might recommend you to others, but these shouldn’t be the people you target. You want readers who enjoy your work.

So, how do you find them when you haven’t released your book yet?

Ah, finally I get to the point! As I said, here’s what I would do if I were preparing for my first release today:

Start a website/blog and start posting samples of your work

Definitely grab your URL ( early on. You can install WordPress (free) in a few minutes (most web hosts have a one-click install, or you can pay an internet-savvy friend to do it for a few bucks), and even if you’re not planning to blog, this can provide the framework for your site (more on finding a host, buying your URL, and setting up your site here), as you can create “pages” as well as “posts” with WordPress. All the free themes out there for WordPress mean you don’t need to pay anyone to design a special author site for you either (save that for later when you’re making money and need tax write-offs).

Once that’s set up, put a newsletter signup somewhere on the site (preferably on the front page or maybe on the menu so it shows up on every page). Let folks know what they’ll get if they sign up (coupons? free stories? access to early releases?)–it’s a good idea to provide an incentive.

Now post some of your work. Maybe it’s the first three chapters of your novel. Maybe you have some snippets from favorite scenes. Maybe you want to create some character interviews. Maybe you have lots of short stories that weren’t accepted for magazines/anthologies (or maybe they were and the rights have reverted back to you).

I think you’ll find you’ll get the most mileage here if these snippets tie in with your first novel. Some of my early sales success came from putting my Ice Cracker II short story out there everywhere I could. It features the two main characters from my Emperor’s Edge series (at the time, I only had the first EE book out), and it includes an excerpt of the novel at the end. I didn’t put it up on my website, because I was busy blogging about self-publishing then and trying to build an audience that way (remember, this is a do-what-I-say-not-what-I-did post), but I did put it everywhere else (more on that coming up).

Once you have some of your work up, you have something to tweet about on Twitter. I speak from experience here: people who will roll their eyes at yet another tweet advertising an ebook for sale will be more inclined to try something for free.

Give Wattpad a try

Trying to get readers to visit your website isn’t a bad idea (it’s the one place that your newsletter signup can be displayed right next to the work, so it’s ideal), but it’s a bit like having a garage sale versus putting something up on eBay. You have to work hard to drive traffic to your site, but the traffic is already there on eBay, and it’s already searching for the types of stories you write.

Wattpad has grown quite popular, and I started posting my own work there a few months ago. I’ve heard the site is more skewed toward the YA audience, especially young folks reading the stories via their smartphones, but I’ve still had some readers find EE and enjoy it (hey, even if the heroes aren’t teenagers, it’s the sort of thing I would have liked as a teen, when I wasn’t busy reading those Forgotten Realms books over and over). Within the last month or so, I’ve started hearing from Wattpad users who said they bought others in my series after finding me there, so it works.

Now, in my case, I had a whole novel I was willing to put up there. If you’re getting ready to launch your first book, you may not be ready to release it anywhere for free (though I’ve heard of authors putting a moderately-clean-but-not-yet-polished-and-professionally-edited version up on Wattpad, doing well, and having lots of folks ready to buy the final version when it was released). As with your website, you could try short stories or sample chapters. I’m sure you’ll do better if you post the whole book (I started getting a lot more readers for EE once it was marked “complete”), but that’s up to you.

Here are a couple of interviews I’ve done with authors who found some success on Wattpad:

There are other sites like this, where readers are waiting for new stories to try, but Wattpad seems to be the big dog right now. You can also look into Scribd, Authonomy, and, if you have some Harry Potter or Star Trek fics buried on your hard drive, the various fan fiction sites. (As you’ve probably heard, there are quite a few authors doing extremely well now who got their starts and built their “tribes” on fan fiction sites.)

Even though I came late to Wattpad (I’m planning to start releasing the first book of my next series there, starting a few weeks before I publish the novel), I like these sites because you can reach a lot of people who aren’t the same folks hitting Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc. and browsing for books. Don’t make the mistake of looking down upon readers who don’t do a lot of book buying. Lots of these folks are young people without a regular source of income yet — a few years down the line they could be devoted buyers of your books, and in the meantime they can do more than you can imagine to share your work with others, some of whom will buy now.

Publish something free on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, and Apple

Ice Cracker II free short fantasy storyYou’re probably sensing a theme here… give away some of your work for free so people can try it at no risk. For these sites, it’s the garage-sale-versus-eBay analogy again. The readers are already there. You need to have something out there where they’re looking.

These sites generally want completed fiction (Smashwords, in particular, works this way), so here’s where a short story can work.

When I was getting started and making next to nothing from sales yet, I invested $200 in the cover art for that Ice Cracker II story I mentioned. I wasn’t rich and really debated on this, because it was only a 6,000-word short story. But, within a month, I’d sold enough copies of EE1 (then priced at $2.99) at Barnes & Noble and Smashwords (I didn’t know how to get Amazon to make an ebook free at the time) to pay for that cover art. It was absolutely worth the investment (you’ll want a custom cover for posting your work on Wattpad too).

You can also follow the route fellow indie Moses Siregar III took and turn the first chunk of the book you’re working on into a novella. He published that several months before the novel was ready, worked on promoting it, and had a lot of fans ready to buy the whole novel when he released it.

Later on, if you’re doing a series, you may want to try making your first book free, but I didn’t do that until I had three novels out (plus a stand-alone set in the same world).

Turning these readers into fans who are ready to buy when you finally release your book

All right, you’ve got some short stories or excerpts out there and people are reading them. Mission accomplished, right? Well, you’re half way there. The last thing you need to do is find a way to keep in contact with these folks. You want to be able to tell them when the book is ready to go, or it’s all been for naught.

I’ve already mentioned mailing lists, Twitter followers, Facebook likes, and blog subscriptions. These are the primary ways you’re going to be able to get in touch with folks, with the mailing list being ideal (people forget to check blogs, and it’s easy to get lost among the other people they follow on Twitter/Facebook, but everyone checks their email). Wherever you’re publishing these samples of your work, make sure to post your blog and social media links at the end. Don’t be afraid to ask people to follow you. Otherwise chances are they’ll forget about you, especially if you were using a short story — a novel may stick in their heads better, but some readers devour several novels a week. They might have to read three or four of your full-length books before you become an author that they remember to check up on now and then. Make things easy on yourself and encourage them to follow you right after they finish your story.

All right, gang, thank you for reading what’s become another monster post. If you’re trying any of these methods, or have others you’d like to share, please comment below. What did you do that worked to build a fan base before you launched your first book?

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Comments (30)

I’m currently in the process of writing my first book, and this encourages me! 🙂 It’s not about getting money, but readers. Money will just happen if people know you exist. Since most of my short stories are around 2,000 words, I don’t feel comfortable publishing them, but I might do a short story collection with a bunch of them together to give some substance (and variety) to readers. I currently publish them one at a time on my website (and have my own domain name 😉 ). I am slowly getting readers, but I am only a few months into the game and have only been writing my first book ever since February 2013.

I think ultimately, don’t try to be an island. You know those warm fuzzies you get inside when other people find you on the web, or like your work and leave you a note to say so? Why not share the love and do the same? Helping other indie authors will a) help them b) help you… because now people know you exist.

Thanks for the good thoughts, Lindsay. They have encouraged me in what I am currently doing and piqued my interest for the things you mentioned that I am not.

Thanks for the tips Lindsay! I’m working on my first book and am absorbing as many get started tips as I can.

Thanks for posting so many good resources and a lot of info on self-publishing!

Hi Lindsay

Regarding the blog thing, I think I’ve gone about that idea the wrong way. I tend to post about computer how-to stuff. Not something that would draw fantasy readers. Goodreads is another venue I know you know about, but forgot to add into your post. (Mentioning that for others who don’t yet know about

I can’t say yet if what I’ve done for actual book promotion is working or not. The majority of readers I’ve targeted so far are those already engaged in the world of science fiction and fantasy.

One of my promotional ideas was to design some colorful flyers through Word 2007 (super easy! *and very, yes very addictive*) and post them around the conventions I often attend. I slipped some professionally printed business cards (and a few I printed out myself) into pockets glued on the flyers. At the end of the convention, I tallied up what cards I had left. I did fairly decent for a yet unpublished nobody. About 25 cards were collected by potential readers.

I also did a gimmick flyer for the con dressed up with medieval scroll-ends just for kicks. Several people thought that was cool.

Another idea I had (once again, through Word 2007) was to create an ad. I purchased advertisement space in one of the convention handbooks. I spent about $75 for a 3.75″ x 5″ add. That’s good size–a quarter page. I’m told about 1,000 people will attend this particular convention.

The prices for advertisements vary from convention to convention and so do the attendance numbers. Worldcon is so out of my budget, but I hope to save up to buy ad space for next year.

Buying ad space in Locus magazine is another dream I have to save up for. 😉

Other than those few things, that’s pretty much it for now. (Unless I come up with something else.) The other ideas already out there of mass-following people on Twitter to get them to follow you just seems silly to me. I like to listen and “get to know” everyone on my feed.

I’ll certainly share if I come up with a promotional brainstorm. 😀

Jeanne, thanks for adding all of your suggestions.

You could blog about other things, too, on your site (obviously, I do!), but you might set up a special area with samples of your work. Kristine Kathryn Rusch over at posts helpful articles for authors one day a week and free short stories on another day.

I tend to lump Goodreads in with forums. You’re one of thousands of me-toos in a spot like that, and it takes a lot of work to be seen without much potential for a big payoff. I do have my blog syndicated there (that took all of 2 minutes to do) and get comments via the site from time to time, but delving into the forums, enh. I wouldn’t bother unless you’re already active on Goodreads and you’re a big fan of the site. If you have a paperback out, you can also do a giveaway over there. It’s another thing that takes little of your time but can get you added to reader lists.

If you’re going to cons anyway, I think the flyers and business cards sound like a good idea. Whether it’s worth it to go to cons (especially if they aren’t local) solely to promote your work, might be another story. Time + travel costs to consider. I’d like to try buying ads in the pamphlets someday, though it’s asking a lot to get someone to save the pamphlet, remember to type in your URL or look you up the next time they get on the computer. I’d probably try to throw a QR code in there, so folks with phones can grab your free ebook or whatever on the spot.

Hi Jeanne,

WOW, you are already out there with a lot of different initiatives. Huge compliments on that. Makes me feel guilty for not being more out there myself.

Do you have any way of tracking the effectiveness of your different ideas?

I was thinking, cause you write that 25 cards were collected, but have any of them engaged with you in your persistent channels (blog, facebook, twitter, newsletter)?

You could also add a QR code to your business cards, if you do not already have it. I have used this site a couple of times to generate QR codes.

Like Lindsay writes, I don’t know how effective conventions are, at least outside of local conventions.

I am also a bit surprised about the price of the ad you have bought. $75 for reaching a thousand people seems very expensive to me. Particularly, when you can run targeted online ads for as little as $1-2 per thousand views. That would get you anywhere from 37.500 to 75.000 views for the same price. You could advertise your blog and/or your facebook page, and get interested readers to sign up, so you can continually give them updates, and inform them, when your next book is out.

Just wanted to say thanks for another informative post. Lots of good ideas on your blog, Lindsay.

Very interesting posts. I’ve done a few of those mistakes, including friending mostly other authors on twitter, which, I now realize, isn’t very useful.

Well, some authors are just too cool *not* to follow. 😀

There is that, but most of them aren’t as cool as you 😉

Good post.
I tend to think the same way as you do in regards to some forms of marketing, i.e, blog tours, some interviews, Goodreads, etc. I think you have to put in a lot of time and energy into making them work. Time that is probably better spent on writing or promoting your work in other ways.
In the end, you’ve got to do what’s right for you and not spend all your time trying out every new marketing idea.
I actually like the idea of marketing and promition, but only if it’s cost effective.

Free is definitely the best way to build a fan base. I completely believe in the philosophy of enchanting your readers first along with the entire concept of ‘give, give, give, ask.’

I’m also going to try something a little different for my new book. The main character is a classical pianist who writes a song in memory of her father. I finished composing and recording the song and was going to put it up on my blog and give away an mp3 copy for all those who sign up for my mailing list.

Just trying to add a new dimension and flavour to both marketing and my book. I’ll see how this works out.

Another wonderful post Lindsay!

This is incredibly helpful! I’m in the midst of formatting my first book and getting ready for publication through self-publishing. So this has a lot of great tips. Thank you!

Oooh I loved this one! Awesome subject and great advice. I’ve been posting fanfic online for a long time, as well as lots of fanart and original artwork, and basically been getting really involved with fans and voracious readers in big online communities. (Seriously, the people I’ve met are such awesome fans. So enthusiastic for the stories they love!)

I totally agree that posting free stuff is the way to go. When I get my first book out (in about six months or so) I already have a ton of people who like my writing and follow my activity.

While the book is in editing, my plan is to create a short graphic novel and post it up for free to generate some interest in the upcoming book. 😀

I need to get on Wattpad. It’s growth has been ridiculous! I remember listening to an interview the owner did not that long ago, back when the site was still kind of lackluster. It’s become such a powerful community so fast! Other big sites that I use right now to post free stuff and get people interested in my work:

deviantart (artwork and writing, but mostly artwork)
tumblr (fandom in general loves tumblr—it’s huge!)
Archive Of Our Own (writing, either original or fanfic)

Great post! It is going to help a lot!

This was one of the most useful articles I’ve read. Wish I’d seen it before my book launch this past February. Definitely going to check out Wattpad and going to post a free short story. Thanks for all the tips.

I just wrote a blog about marketing books for free and found several (somewhat recent) studies that supported much of what you’re saying.

This is one paragraph from my article:

“. . . When the same respondents were asked what made them aware of books online—especially important for independent authors who often depend on online sales, the number one response was search engine results, with 58 percent of people saying they plugged in search terms to find reading material. Author websites and blogs was the second most popular resource, with a respectable 30 percent; social networks brought particular books to the attention of 20 percent of respondents and online advertising yielded 17 percent of reported awareness about a particular book or books.”

I’m just about to launch my own website as I finish my first mystery novel. This is all excellent advice that I can use. I’m very conscious of needing to connect primarily with readers, not other writers, and I appreciate the distinction you make here. You advice confirms my own ideas of what to do … and not to do. Thanks very much.

I think that the hardest part about getting started is that feeling like you’re talking to a gigantic, empty room. You understand that you need to be energetic and interesting if anyone is every going to listen, but there are no guarantees, and for the moment it’s all crickets.

At least, that’s how I feel at the moment. 😉

I’m definitely trying to take your advice here. We shall see how that goes! This blog is probably one of the most helpful resources I’ve found for epublishing – I am so glad you put this information out there.

*ever. Sigh.

Here’s an approximation of my situation. For about 18 months, I’ve been blogging and sharing stories and building out an audience … a “platform”. I’ve currently got about 5,000 email addresses, a further 11,000 Facebook fans and roughly 4,000 fans via the remaining social networks. I’m close to about 20,000 fans. I’m 80% of the way completed on my first book, when the realization came that … people might want to dog ear this thing. They might want to drip grease on it, or scribble notes (it’s a cookbook). So, I polled them. Near universally they all clearly stated: paper book. Now I’m faced with physically publishing this very colorful and photograph heavy monster. I’m looking to do both an eBook AND a Color Hardback …

My question is: Is there even a very loose, super ballpark formula for guesstimating number of sales based on the size of an author’s platform? Can I assume 10% will buy? 1%? 50%?

I would describe my audience has highly engaged. My emails have a 50% open rate. My content is highly shared on Facebook and Pinterest …

In any event … in trying to determine pricing and costs, a potential number, even a ballpark number, will help me make important choices.

Any thoughts?

Heya Sam,

I’d do a Kickstarter campaign, asking people to pay upfront to help finance your production costs (in exchange for copies when you get it published). That’ll both give you an idea of how many people are interested enough to plunk down money and it’ll keep you from going into the hole on your own. I don’t think there’s anyone who does print-on-demand for the caliber of book you want, and you wouldn’t want to be stuck with 5,000 hardbacks in boxes in the garage.

Good luck!

Social media is one of the easiest ways that you can find your audience and start communicating with them. It’s better to have fewer followers, who are genuinely interested in you and your book, then to have 15,000 followers that couldn’t care less.

Love EE1 and am really glad to see you here. Thanks so much for sharing so many great ideas, examples, and suggestions with all of us. As a new author about to release my first book as a multi-media app (long story), your posts have been fantastic. Just bought the EE Collection on Kobo to support you and thank you for being such a help to us all. Keep it up!

Great article! I have finished my memoir and have found that I am repeating some of the mistakes you mentioned in this post like following a bunch of authors on twitter who would never be the types of readers for my my book. Whoops! I am working to fix them and trying to engage people who would actually be fans of my book.

You mention getting a website up and running with the author’s name as the URL. Would you recommend getting a website even if you want to seek out an agent and major publisher? I feel strange about posting snippets of my book when I am seeking out an agent. And if I don’t post snippets of my book, what would I publish on my website other than blog entries? I have definitely decided that I do not want to self-publish.

Thank you so much!

Hi Pattie,

Yes, I’d get a website, a Twitter handle, and start a Facebook author page. From what I’ve heard, agents and publishers want to see that an author already has a platform, and they do check up. You can post snippets, yes, but you can also post book reviews or interesting news related to your genre/niche. Good luck!

Great advice! I’ve been trying to find ways to form a strong community of readers before I publish one of my novels. I’m starting to look a little more into fanfiction and wattpad as ways to build this audience and increase book sales once I launch my first novel. I’ve heard that posting stories on fanfiction or wattpad may help an author gain an audience that may buy and read a book they publish in the future. Do you think posting fanfiction would be helpful for boosting book sales?
Also, if you are familiar with Wattpad, would you recommend it over when it comes to building an audience?

Hey, Michelle. I’m actually on Wattpad:

I’ve gotten some readers there, and I know that some of them have gone on to buy my books, but in general, not many folks there seem to become buyers. Still, since much of the site consists of teen readers, it’s possible some of them will become fans and remember you one day when they’re looking for books to buy.

I’ve never published fan fiction, so I don’t know about those sites, but I’ve heard it’s tough to get people to follow you from the fandom and on to original stuff.

Good luck!

Thank you. What I wanted to say about Wattpad: extremely useful for organizing your manuscript as you publish one chapter at a time (you may publish as many chapters or parts as you want), get a great overview on what may be missing, needs tweeking etc while it’s out there already. I found that very useful. Having said that, you have a aggresively engage to get noticed. I don’t but you should know that. Another tip: when you feel your work is in good enough shape, submit it to the wattpad editorial board for review. If they like it, it gets a recommendation on the landing page.

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