Among indie authors and those interested in self publishing, there’s a lot of discussion and debate about how to best build an audience. Without an audience, the thinking is, you simply don’t sell any books. Without an audience, conventional wisdom insists, you’ll never attract the interest of a traditional publisher, if that’s your goal.
People (try to) make careers teaching writers and other creators how to build an audience. Heck, I’ve taken a paycheck or two in return for relating my own experience in that regard.
Even so: It’s time for all of us to stop trying to build an audience. And it’s time to stop listening to people who advise you to build an audience. Right now.
What Is An Audience?
Think about what you’re saying when you talk about “an audience for your work.” Think about what an audience is, and does:
Consider the audience at a music concert at a big arena rock show.
The musicians have what just about any creator hopes for: thousands — tens of thousands — of people willing to trade money for the opportunity to experience their creative endeavor.
But the audience at a concert is separated from the musicians, often by great distance. Sometimes the audience is so far from the performers, they have to watch them on giant television screens… another wide gap, another degree of isolation between the consumer and the creator.
Sure, some brave, daring soul might make it through the barriers and security guards and crawl up on the stage, but what happens to them? They’re dragged away as quickly as possible.
Sure, once in a while the musicians might invite an audience member on stage for a moment. As special as those few minutes might be for the fan, it’s probably a one-time thing. The musicians probably wouldn’t recognize that fan if they ran into them on the street a week later. And the rest of the audience? A vicarious, “could have been me,” experience.
The audience receives what the creator chooses to deliver. The audience, more likely than not, knows the creator only through the lens of their creations.
If you’re trying to build an audience, you’re really only building something to broadcast to. You’re creating a body of recipients for your creative endeavors.
And those recipients? They will never truly know you, or what you’re trying to say with your art. They will never be as connected to you… as invested in you, your work, and whether you succeed or fail… as they could be.
What a waste. What a tragic, missed opportunity for indie authors… and creators of all types.
A Conversation Age Alternative To Building An Audience
The Information Age, Wikipedia tells us, is “characterized by the shift from traditional industry… to an economy based on the information computerization.” It was symbolized by the ease with which information was accessible to a much larger portion of humanity than ever before.
It wasn’t long — an eyeblink of history, really — before the same tools that enabled the Information Age ushered humanity into another period in our ever-more-rapid development: The Conversation Age.
What Is The Conversation Age
Step into the wayback machine with me as I meander through an explanation of the Conversation Age. It’ll all come around to why focusing on building an audience is stupid and why you shouldn’t do it; I promise.
We’re social primates whose earliest connected groups were at the family / clan level. The radius of our world was the distance we could walk in a day, except perhaps for semi-regular excursions to meet with other clans and trade goods, genetic material… and stories.
For most of human history, our traveling speed matched our communication speed. When a journey to another continent took months, human communication was still, essentially, a local thing, and slow.
The telegraph and telephone shortened the effective distance and increased the effective speed, but those communication methods were still restricted by resources. Remember per-minute long distance charges?
Now, though! A sizable portion of the human race is connected at the speed of light. With the click of a button, I can communicate in real time, face to face, with any number of people, on seven continents, at the same time. And the cost of that experience is so low as to be essentially free.
Now! We can, if we choose, define our family, our clan, our tribe, as the people who share our passions, our interests.
The village is everywhere at once, as close as thought.
We’re in two-way conversations, unrestrained by distance or time, with people whose connection to us enriches and adds value to our lives.
It’s Better To Converse Than Simply Consume
An anecdote: I saw the band U2 on the first leg of their tour supporting the album “The Unforgettable Fire.” During the show, Bono invited a guy on stage and handed him a guitar. The dude got to play with the biggest band in the world for four minutes, and it was undoubtedly awesome for him — seemingly, a moment of honest, real engagement, a conversation, of sorts, with people who were otherwise unreachable to that fan.
For the rest of us, it was apparently an electrifying moment of community.
Except that it wasn’t.
This was something the band did nearly every show that tour. It was a planned part of the evening. Bringing a fan onstage with the band wasn’t a spontaneous conversation. It wasn’t an organic expression of community. It was theater, a manufactured experience that degraded the core sentiment into something like a lottery.
Once you knew that, you were no longer part of a conversation with the band. You, and everyone else, was relegated to audience. Consumers, not community.
I’d been a fan of U2 since 1979, but that was the beginning of the end for me. There was no real connection there. A real connection requires sincere connection from both sides.
Another anecdote: When I worked at Mahalo.com in Santa Monica, California, it wasn’t uncommon for the CEO to bring actors, writers, entrepreneurs, and celebrities around to show them what we were doing and hang out with us for the day. I met Matthew Modine that way, and because he was just getting into Twitter, he invited us all to follow him, and he followed some of us back.
Let’s be clear: we’re not best buds or anything. But I appreciate how he uses Twitter as a tool to communicate, to express himself, and, perhaps because he recognizes his platform and ability to reach others, I give him props for promoting the tweets of others much more often than he promotes himself. Sure, there’s no correct way to use Twitter… but he is.
It was through Matthew Modine’s tweets that I learned of animator Ralph Bakshi’s Kickstarter project to make his first film in many years, “Last Days of Coney Island.”
Bakshi’s work was a formative influence on me: when I think of “The Lord of the Rings,” it’s images from his adaptation, not the books or the Peter Jackson films, that fill my head. And “American Pop” showed me the deep vein of lifeblood music carries through American history, and infused in me a strong desire to be part of that flow through my own creative endeavors. I pledged my support and promoted the project as often as I could without becoming a pain in the ass.
When “Last Days of Coney Island” Kickstarter campaign exceeded its goal, I felt a strong sense of pride. Community pride. Equally, I feel as though I’ve given back to Ralph Bakshi; a small, reciprocal act to thank him for his contribution to the richness in my life.
This is the result of real, authentic connections between creators and consumers. And of course, when you have authentic connections between creators and consumers, it goes beyond creators trying to build an audience.
So? What should creators be doing, if not trying to build an audience?
Build A Community, Not An Audience
With thirteen hundred words behind us, the point should be obvious: Trying to build an audience is half-assed. It’s last century thinking unworthy of Conversation Age creators like ourselves.
If you want to succeed as an independent creator, you must build a community.
What Does It Mean To Build A Community?
It’s simple, really. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy for all of you. It requires a shift of perspective.
In Michael W. Dean’s documentary “DIY or Die,” bassist Mike Watt said…
“Y’know, you get a kink in your neck looking up at people or looking down at people, but if you look right across your shoulder, you know, right at your peers… there’re no kinks.”
That’s really all you need to do: recognize that the people consuming your art are not some distant, silent “audience,” not if you’re willing to let them be more. Not if you’re willing to do more.
They’re your peers. They’re important — in fact, they’re essential. They deserve to be treated with respect.
They deserve your engagement as much as you desire theirs.
Here’s a fact: your creative endeavor — your book, your art, your movie, whatever — is utterly without worth until it’s experienced by someone else.
As creators, what we do is entirely a partnership with the people who experience our creations. Doing it yourself means never going it alone. These people: they’re your community, ready-made.
It doesn’t matter what tools you use. Blog, email list, Facebook page, Twitter account, forum, podcast… those are conduits. It’s what you put into it that matters, and what you accept from the people who want to know you.
But Matt, I Just Want To Write!
Great! You go ahead and write.
But if you want to be an author — or, put more broadly, if you want people to experience the art you create… if you want people to be truly engaged with your work and committed to your success… you have a much better chance of that as part of a community that cares about you, and knows you care about them.
If you’re satisfied with simply having an audience… if you’re more comfortable staying on the stage and keeping your readers on the other side of the barricade… so be it. You might still have sales. Heck, you might have a lot of sales, especially if you pound out content in a genre full of folks interested in quick, disposable reads.
That’s great. If you’re satisfied with being a disposable author.
Your Community Is Waiting For you
Engage with them.
Be open to them.
Be open, period.
Let them know you need them.
Love them. As people. As individuals
You’ll know how to do it. Start with a conversation.
A little nervous? Scared?
Your art should challenge you. Remember?
Will You Stop Trying To Build An Audience and Build Community Instead?
Indie authors, indie creators… will you start building community around your creative endeavors? Let us know how you’re going to do it… or ask this community if you need help.
Are you already building your community? Share your stories.
Do you think I’m asking too much; being too naive, or too idealistic? Let’s talk about it.
I’m looking forward to your comments. In fact, I need them, if this is to be a conversation. Let’s make it one.
Are there folks you think should be part of this conversation but might not know about my site? Please share this post with them, too.
Thanks, Matt, for pointing me toward the entire post. this reads like you were reading my mind. The synapses within my brain are firing so fast that there’s an explosion of ideas going on. I had originally been thinking about writing a newsletter, but that too is a one-way street and that’s not what I’m wanting. So now I need to learn about setting up and moderating a community forum! By the time I learn what I need to know I’ll have put together much of what I want with whom I want it (a la facebook and twitter). Thank you so much! This is the light I’ve been looking for.
Matthew Wayne Selznick
I recommend you do write an email newsletter! It’s the best way to communicate directly with your readers… and if they want to respond / reply, all they have to do is click “reply.”
Beware of creating a forum too early… I’ve learned the best time do that is when your readers ask for it. Keep in mind that visiting and keeping track of activity in a forum represents effort on the reader’s part. From what I’ve seen, only a small percentage of your reader community will make that effort, so it could result in a “ghost town” effect if you leap too soon!
I’m very pleased you’ve found value in my thoughts and theories on this stuff. It’s gratifying!
Thanks again. I will take your advice about the newsletter and forum. I wasn’t ready to do the forum anytime soon. I have tons to learn about that still.
I appreciate this article, Matthew. So much that I probably can’t articulate my appreciation adequately without going on and on. It makes much more sense than everything I’ve experienced in terms of my writing and my readers. I get “it”, but I don’t quite get how to do it. I’ll re-read the article and see if I can tease out the actual steps needed to implement the process. Is there a step-by-step procedure I can read and follow, util it becomes second nature?
BTW, I met Mathew Modine while twittering and following Michael Haneke at Oscar time. I’d seen one of Mathew’s more obscure films “The Blackout” (dir. Abel Ferrera 1997) and complimented him on his work in it. He appreciated the compliment. Haneke had complimented him on Full Metal Jacket and I told Haneke he should see Mathew’s work on The Blackout. Small e-world!
I’m pleased the post resonated with you, Dennis.
As for how to “do” building a community… personally, I don’t think there is a “step by step” procedure to building a community, except for perhaps what I suggest in the “Your Community Is Waiting For You” section.
After all… is there a step by step procedure to making friends?
You make a good point and you are not the only one making it.
Heather Dale Indie musician touched on some of these points in her TEDx talk “How to find a tribe that loves your art”
Thanks for dropping by, Peter. It’s true; the point I’m making isn’t a new one, and I’m glad to hear others making it. I’d love to hear more writers make it, though — it seems most creators who get this are musicians.
Maybe that’s because the song circle / musician with friends around a campfire image is archetypal, and so we easily make the connection between musicians and community. But we forget: the first songs were stories…
I couldn’t agree more. When I first got on Twitter etc., I couldn’t relate to the way I saw it being used by the majority. So, I just started talking to people as if we were at one big cocktail party. Suddenly, it became fun, informative, and real. I also started getting a ton of follows – maybe 5-10 a day (I’ve only been on since Nov 2012).
Thanks for the comment, Victoria! Funny what happens when we just act like human beings want to act in a social setting, eh? 🙂 I’m pleased the engaged approach is working for you!
Your admonition hit the spot! Thanks!
Thanks for the comment, Marriott, but, gosh, I don’t know that I’d call my post an admonition! What was it about what I wrote that hit the spot for you?
I have to admit, I have mixed feelings about this issue.
One the one hand, I love getting a response from a writer, actor, or musician I admire on a social network. It makes me feel validated in some way.
On the other hand, I don’t know that I think that really qualifies as community building or engaging in conversation.
Sure, it’s slightly more organic than your U2 example, but it seems to me that the principle at work is largely the same. There isn’t a real conversation happening. The celeb, for lack of a better term, momentarily had their attention caught by your comment, much as they might have their attention momentarily caught by a photographer or reporter. Their response, however, is almost always a one-way transmission or a broadcast as you would put it.
It seems to me that, by and large, they aren’t engaging with a community. I don’t begrudge that fact. There is only one of them and way more people than they could ever authentically engage in conversation. It seems to me that this notion of conversation and community has taken on a mythic quality in marketing circles that no reality can ever possibly live up to. In the long run, especially if you enjoy any measure of success, the people who have a real community are going to be your readers as they interact with each other, converse with each other, not with you.
Thanks for the comment, Eric! I broke it up into paragraphs to make it a little easier to read; hope you don’t mind.
If a creator responds to a comment, by its nature it’s not a “one-way transmission or broadcast.” It’s a conversation, or at least the beginnings of one.
To be clear: I’m not talking about maintaining conversations with every single member of the community. As you point out, that’s simply logistically impossible, and most members of the community will end up in conversation with one another, not with the “reason” for the community.
But if someone reaches out to me — much as the folks who have commented on this post have reached out — I’m going to respond. We’re having a conversation right here, right now!
If someone sends me an @ message on Twitter, I’m going to reply to them in Twitter… unless they’re just using that method to get me to click on something spammy, of course (it happens…)
Of course, mutual respect of one another’s time and resources is important, on both sides:
For the longest time — years, in fact — I had my personal cell phone number listed on my site, but I made it clear that email or social networks were the best way to contact me. I finally took the number down because no one used it. The community respected the expectations I’d established.
On the other hand, I’ve had to disengage myself from community members who treated me like I was like a commodity, and what I created as products they were entitled to. That’s a dysfunctional attitude, and just like in “real life,” I don’t have any room for it.
But up until that point, I engaged with that person every time they reached out. That’s the respectful thing to do. It’s how peers behave with each other, y’know?
Thanks for a great post Matt – I’ve always believed this myself but never expressed it quite so well as you did. I’m always wondering how to connect with my readers, and in fact the other day was tempted to send a thank you message to a girl who had posted a review about my book on Goodreads. I decided against it because she looks like a teenager and I thought it might be bad etiquette to contact her. But it would be great to be in some sort of community forum where one could communicate with one’s village of readers!
Robert, I’ve responded to emails, tweets, and other messages from folks ranging from 14 to 77. One of my favorite moments ever was when an entire family came up to me at a convention — the parents (who were my age) and their teenage son and pre-teen daughter — each with their own copy of “Brave Men Run.” I already knew each of them from communicating online, and we were all excited to meet in person. It was a privilege for me.
So, look, if a teenaged girl came up to you at a book signing and said, “Hey, I loved your book,” you’d respond to her. There’s nothing wrong with doing the same thing online. In fact, behaving as if there were no difference between the online and meatspace worlds is one of my guiding principles. Go for it.
And if you want to create a user forum, do that, too! But be aware that it’s usually more effective to reach out to people where they already are (social networks) than to try and create your own… unless you’re very well established!
Great post Matt. I think you have articulated something that a lot of us have been feeling. Well done.
Thank you, John! I appreciate it. Spread the word, with my thanks!
I am actually the same way myself. Cherie Priest is one of, if not my favorite modern author, even though she hasn’t yet reached the commercial success she deserves. I have to admit being a big fan boy and am tickled pink if she responds to a tweet or email.
Same way as…?
But yeah, absolutely. It gave my afternoon a little boost the other day when Marv Wolfman responded to one of my tweets… and I’ve been told by readers how surprised they are when “the writer” (me) personally responded to their emails. As if I was too busy / important / up my own ass to stoop to answering my own mail. 🙂
It makes a difference. And who knows where those little connections might lead?
You’re talking about engagement. I agree engagement is the best way to build a community, but they are still your audience, i.e your consumers. Technology has just now made possible what the consumer has always wanted. I also agree it has to be genuine to truly work. But I think your title is a bit misleading. Your not stopping to try and build an audience, your just doing it through engagement and community.
I will absolutely admit that the headline of this post is written to be clickable and to rank highly for its niche (achievement unlocked: number one search result if you type “author build audience” without the quotes in Google!). But I did not intend for it to be misleading. I mean it.
As I wrote in the post, this is all about intention and perception. An audience is a body of consumers kept apart from the creator. An audience is something creators have a one-way relationship with. An audience is an asset.
I do not want an audience. I don’t want a one-way relationship with the people who consume my art. I don’t want to broadcast to them. I want a community. I want a reciprocal relationship with the people who consume my art. I want to have conversations with them. Know them. And I think it’s in the best interest of creators in all fields to want, and work to build, the same thing.
I’m in full agreement with the desired ends. If not I wouldn’t have started blogging, facebooking, and twittering years ago…
Here here! It’s totally worth the time and effort, as all good relationships are.
Agree. I recently made my Twitter private, and the only people (other than actual friends) who request to follow are indie authors, digital marketers, DJs, and businesses- in that order. You know it’s bad when the indie authors outrank SEO experts in pure mass canvasing, just to get exposure. I appreciate that it takes a lot of effort to get your voice heard, but I agree here that the effort would be better spent in building relationships among the audience who follow you organically. They are the ones who are going to carry your banners. They are the ones who are going to tell their friends to listen, read, look, buy. They are the ones who respond back, and in doing so, draw the attention of their friends.
In this age of instant electronic information and marketing, people know in an instant who is trying to sell them something. If I’m going to follow an author, its because I want them to TELL me a story, not SELL me a story.
Thanks for the comment! I have to say, though — I strongly recommend against making your Twitter stream private. That’s the opposite of engagement and openness! In fact, when someone follows me and I can’t see their tweets, I don’t follow them back because, well, I can’t see how they present themselves on Twitter.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I think of Twitter as a kind of giant cocktail party. If your tweetstream is private, for someone who doesn’t (yet) follow you that’s like walking up to you at the cocktail party and you turning your back. It’s exclusionary.
So, yes, it’s great to follow people who follow you organically… but keep in mind that people want to know what kind of conversation they’ll be having with you if they follow. If they can’t see your tweets, they can’t know. It’s like the door is locked and the blinds are drawn.
I mostly agree.
If I follow an author, I expect them to occasionally try to sell me a story. After all, if I’m interested in them, I’m interested in their work and their art.
For me, the bottom line is: if I follow anyone, it’s because they’re someone I’m interested in as a human being. They’re someone I want to have a conversation with. When we do, I’m much more likely to carry their banner, and do.
I hope for the same thing from the folks who follow me on Twitter, but it’s not why I engage with them. Beware of thinking of “followers” strictly in the sense of how useful they will be in promoting your work. In a community, the value runs in both directions.
An informative and thought-provoking read as always, Matthew. The difference between “audience” and “community” might seem slight on the surface, but I know from experience that a change in perspective can bring almost immediate results.
Thankfully, you’ve been gently pounding this into my head for some time, and I hope this article encourages other creative minds to rethink their approach.
Thanks, Eric! You’re a pro at building and maintaining community, of course. I’m humbled my advice helped out here and there. 🙂
Timothy P. Callahan
I couldn’t agree more. Even though I have few fans I interact with I do interact with them and would with more, if I had more.
A good example is the comic Jefbot. Jeff Schuetze comments on every comment made on his comic, and he gets a lot. I think that really helps build a community and a strange sort of friendship with the artist. So much so that if I ever meet him I’d feel very comfortable talking to him because he does take time to connect with his readers.
Tim, that’s exactly it. There shouldn’t be any difference between the person we engage with online and that same person when we meet in person. Jeff’s doing it right. As you can see, I’m a big fan of responding to comments (and emails, and so on.) It’s important!
Timothy P. Callahan
I know, and that awesome. I’m looking forward to talking to you about blogging Amazing Spider-man again, you know, when you do it blog about it again. 🙂
I’m gonna do one more installment, at least, before the month is out. Meanwhile, you’re caught up, right?
Absolutely correct. I love my readers–LOVE. And tell them all the time how important they are to me through my social media and even at times in the backs of my books. Interaction as a real person not only sells books–it makes me feel great about selling them. Like I’m making a difference in people’s lives. And I’m meeting truly incredible people at the same time.
Wonderful post 🙂
Thanks, Patti! I’m so glad this resonated with you. Please share it with your community… maybe it will spark some discussion from their side, and help keep your own conversations going!
I really enjoyed reading this. It’s a fresh perspective. I’m so tired of looking for marketing advice and seeing the same things over and over. I’m struggling to find readers and am working on ways to begin more of a conversation with them. Fingers crossed.
Thank you, Richard. It’s my hope that what’s a fresh perspective (thanks for saying!) today is tomorrow’s conventional wisdom!
By the way, if you’re interested in joining a community specifically dedicated to indie author marketing info, advice and best practices, I run a small but growing group over on LinkedIn. Drop by and introduce yourself!
Nice post Matt. I’m going to share this with my Music Business class to get them thinking about audiences versus communities. Well put!
Thanks, Andrew! Let me know what comes of that discussion… I’d love to hear that perspective.
Wow! That is it exactly. I keep saying I hate marketing and promotion, but that’s not exactly true. I want people to know about my work. I just don’t want to push it at anyone. I want my books to be visible, and I enjoy sharing ideas and thoughts. I ask questions in writers’ threads, and I read, discuss, and learn. For example, I just learned about TweetDeck as a way to schedule tweets tonight, and what’s the first thing I did? I shared that information with another Indie author I’ve come to know over the past year. He’d never heard of TweetDeck either. I know there are helpful tools that are available for all of us, I just need time to learn to use them successfully so I can connect with readers. That’s all I really want, and hopefully, it will lead to more book sales so I can spend more time writing and publishing novels for people to enjoy as well as having more time to read and review other people’s work.
Thanks for the comment, S.L.! I used to use Tweetdeck, but I moved to Hootsuite a while back, since it lets me work with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and a bunch of other platforms in one interface. Big fan.
Glad you liked the post… pass it on!
I may have called it an ‘audience’ before, but you’re so right – community is what I want, and it’s actually what I’ve been consciously after. I love engagement. I love the conversations that happen on the social networks. In fact, I’m very disappointed when I’ve made an effort to invite the conversation and it doesn’t happen. Great post!
Thanks, Madison! Spread it around!
I’ve called it an audience, too… but lately I’ve (re)realized that I’m interested in something more than that. I’ve always made an effort to be transparent and engaged, and the DIY ethic has deep meaning to me. This post was a way to re-commit to that and challenge other indie creators to step it up.