(At the outset let me say this: While this post is about sales, I don’t think about all of this in terms of selling books, as such. Instead I think about it in terms of being read. True, the two are essentially congruent, but the former always seems to me an ultimately self-defeating (and kinda greasy) way to think about a writing career).
Years ago, the Technium had a piece entitled “1,000 True Fans.” Click over and read it. I remember the piece getting debated and discussed quite a bit back then, including among the writer blogosphere, where I think it was pooh-poohed a bit. If you Google “1,000 True Fans,” you’ll get the article and a lot of pro and con commentary about it.
I don’t particularly care much about the specific number (can an artist survive with just 1,000 True Fans? Doesn’t a writer actually need many more than that?), or whether the particulars of the article translate directly to a writer’s career (as opposed to a band or a painter), but the article and the notion of True Fans (and let’s set aside the awkwardness of that term) contain what I think is a core truth that’s applicable to writers.
Today the book marketplace is noisy, segmented, and crowded, and it’s getting noisier and more segmented and more crowded all the time. As a result, it’s hard for many (probably most) books and/or writers to make readers aware of their work, much less distinguish themselves in a prospective reader’s mind. This is something that all non-blockbuster writers struggle with at one time or another, to one degree or another. Over the last few years I’ve seen a good number of books get published and then just…fade away, barely making a ripple in the marketplace. Yikes.
So that brings me to the core truth I mentioned about the 1,000 True Fans article. A lucky mid-list writer has some set of Core Readers (let’s call them that, instead of True Fans, which is a weird term). These are the readers who buy your work simply because you wrote it, who know when your release dates are, who eagerly anticipate new releases, and who purchase your books the week of release. A truly fortunate mid-list writer has a fairly large group of Core Readers (1,000? 3,000? 5,000?) and it’s with them that mid-list careers are made and sustained. How’s that?
Well, your Core Readers provide the solid foundation on which the rest of your audience stands. I tend to think of the audience as a series of concentric circles, with the Core Readers at the center (the smallest circle), and various groupings of readers expanding out from there. Maybe in the next circle are genre readers who know your name but haven’t yet read your work. After that maybe it’s genre readers who haven’t read your work and don’t generally read in the sub-genre in which you write. After that it’s folks who read only one or two genre novels a year. And the outermost circle is, I don’t know, let’s say hippy grandmothers.
Now, your Robert Jordans and GRR Martins have large audiences in all of those circles (turns out, hippy grandmothers luvs them some Tyrion). But most mid-listers (including me), have that central core and then maybe some readers in the next couple circles and then a trickle in the next couple after that and then that’s that. But that can actually work out just fine.
See, the Core Readers are the key. It’s not just that they buy your work on release day. It’s that they talk about your work online, they post reviews, they recommend your work to friends and co-workers and family, they give your work as gifts. In short, your Core Readers become the ambassadors for your work and it’s their words that break through the noise of the marketplace. And, over time, some of the prospective readers that your Core Reader’s proselytizing converted into actual readers also become Core Readers, and you get what amounts to a virtuous cycle. Now, I’m no huge seller (though I do all right), but I think I’ve seen this kind of virtuous cycle occur with my own career. It’s anecdotal, obviously, but I think I’ve seen my group of Core Readers expand considerably over the years.
And for that, to all my Core Readers, I want to say: Thank you. It’s really something special when I stop to think about it: lots of readers have stuck with me for 12-13 years. That’s so very, very cool. I actually remember trading emails with readers way back in 2000-1, when Shadow’s Witness first hit shelves, and so many of them are now my friends on Facebook or Twitter. So again, thanks.
Back to it: So, how do you get Core Readers? And how many is a solid foundation for a good mid-list career? I don’t know and I don’t know. The most important thing (obviously) is to write a great book and some of this will take care of itself. My particular view is that most readers identify strongly with characters, much moreso than world building, prose, plot, etc. Readers fall in love with (or love to hate) sticky characters. So if you have them in your novel, that’s probably a great start. A reader who loves your characters will become a Core Reader. Too, I think engagement is important — genuine, authentic engagement with readers on social media (personally, I have a blast with this). Self-promotion has a role, too, though I realize some people just aren’t comfortable with it and/or very good at it. But some effort on that front is mandatory (see Sam Sykes’ recent post about self-promo for introverts for some good thoughts on that subject). Other than those things, I got nothin’. I’m working this out as I go, same as just about everybody. :-)