A noisy marketplace, the mid-list, true fans, and thanks

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superfan(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 thenincluding 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.  🙂

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13 Comments

  1. I

    • Go on… 🙂

      • Him, I swear I typed more than that! Anyway, I was saying that I’ve been following your work since Shadow’s Witness and while I like damn near everything about your writing, it really is the characters and their relationships that stick out. That made me a devoted reader, what made me a “fan” is the way you have always been so responsive and engaging with your readers, you treat us like friends rather than just fans, and that promotes loyalty, which to me seems important in the world of sci-if and fantasy.

  2. I’m kind of a latecomer, but I’m very glad that I’ve stumbled onto your books, quite by accident. I started reading your work when the third book of the Erevis Cale trilogy came out, and I enjoy your work every since, while impatiently waiting for new titles, specifically The Godborn even before you announced it, the minute it was known that Cale’s son survived. I was glad to find out that you had an active blog where you wrote about upcoming titles and addressed your readers, which is something that was new to me (and was truly disappointed to learn there that the Godborn was canceled the first time around).
    I must disagree regarding the part about the character vs the rest of the parts. Whenever I’m talking with friends about your books, the main thing that stands out is your style. You somehow manage to give a huge amount of fine detail, but without making it tedious or hard to read. Your characters also GROW, and you can actually see them evolve, which is something that in my opinion is quite rare. That process makes them believable and therefore people invest in them and then they are hooked.
    Please keep writing 🙂

  3. I’m a late adopter as well. I started following you on Twitter just before I was offered The Sundering: The Godborn. Coincidence? Maybe. I’m a core reader; if I like your work I get the word out.

    I see a lot of the core reader situation going on with other authors like Jim Butcher, Glen Cook, Patrick Rothfuss, Steven Montano, and others. Thesefour authors have solid fan bases and we salivate at release dates. Jim Butcher has a very active community at his website’s forum with new members coming in all the time. There really is no formula or predictability to this kind of fandom. Steven is the only one actively using Twitter. The others do it the old-fashioned way: write, go to cons, have book signings, etc.

    My 2¢ anyhow. I can’t wait to read The Godborn.

  4. There is no question that Core Readers are the key. When I read the linked article I saw some obvious flaws.

    1. I don’t have $100 worth of ‘stuff’ for a core reader to buy
    2. Even if I did, I can’t produce another $100 worth the next year

    What it failed to point out…and you brought up..is that it’s not the direct sales by the Core Readers that sustains the artist, but rather their enthusiasm for your work that generates $100 worth of sales by the people they influence. By writing reviews, recommending to friends/family, and talking about the books online they “could” generate the $100 both this year and in future ones.

    The problem is that not all works generate such enthusiasm. It’s very hard to write a really beloved book. A book that people will recommend and spread the word about. If you get that part right, then finding the Core Readers in a very crowded field gets easier, because as you pointed out, they are going to organically create more Core Readers as the word starts to spread. With a “really good book” all you really need is to prime the pump with a few enthusiastic and vocal readers and then the rest should take care of itself.

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  6. The only Star Wars books I’ve ever bought are yours. Hell, I was too lazy to go in my box of books to find the Cale and twilight wars books, so I’m just buying them for Kindle.

  7. Paul
    As 1 of the readers who has exchanged e- mails with you, you are very inter- active with your fans / core readers. Wich i assume will only grow with that kind of relationship? Have you ever thought to include a list of new up & comming writer’s? Introducing your fans to like authors and vice versa? You could probably increase sales in other merchandise? I sent Salvatore pictures of my Drizzt tattoo, and Drizzt shirts I had made. Hasbro only seems to want to promote Transformers and bad ideas like GI Joe and B Ship?

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