Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Who Are We Trying to Reach?

On Wednesday, my friend Nancy Thompson made her monthly Insecure Writers Support Group post. She’s published now, but admitted to feeling a bit of a letdown. Part of it, I’m sure, is the physical reaction to the go-go-go that was her blog tour and the high of being able to go to Amazon and Barnes & Noble and say, “Look, that’s me!” At some point, you’re just going to run out of steam. But she was also noting how hard it is to connect with readers. Nancy noted that, while writing The Mistaken, she connected with writers, which is great, but she goes on to say:

I didn’t take the proper time to make more connections, the kind I should’ve made in order to help sell my book.  Writers make great friends and give wonderful support and advice, but, for the most part, they’re not really buyers.  Readers are buyers

We’ll say it again, because it’s important: Readers are buyers.
I’m a dedicated reader of a number of blogs, a regular participant in the Absolute Write forums, and one thing that comes up all the time is the notion of ‘rules’. You know them well: Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use passive voice. Show, don’t tell. Write what you know. The rules have a place, but they cause a lot of problems for new writers who see these rules broken all the time by established authors. And the confusion is compounded when New Writer posts a two sentence excerpt on a forum because they’re confused about grammar, and they get an answer that says something like, “Grammatically, you’re fine, but I’d be concerned because that sentence is all telling.” They then get lectured by four or five people for telling when they should be showing. I hate those kinds of answers because they ignore context, and they ignore the fact that sometimes, it’s just plain best to tell.
Now there’s a new rule, a rule that is heavily-pushed by industry insiders: “you must have presence.” ‘Presence’ in this case refers at the very least to a website, though preference is given for interactive social media. Like the ‘Show, don’t tell,’ and ‘Don’t use passive voice’ rules, a lot of new writers are taking this to heart, and the result is a lot of blogs out there like…well, like this one, and a lot of writers despairing over what it means.
The problem is that new writers almost invariably blog about writing. There’s nothing at all wrong with this. It’s a good way to help process and channel the sometimes maddening things we go through, and it’s a great way to meet people and to learn and be inspired. I’ve gained so much from reading your blogs and interacting with you, and from forcing myself to write something meaningful twice a week. Best of all, I can say there are some real friendships that have formed through this effort, and I don’t make friends easily.
But Nancy is right. Blogs like hers and mine attract like-minded people, and those like-minded people are mostly fellow aspiring writers. And as Nancy says, writers are not buyers. Yes, when I am published, some of you will buy my books (now we’re getting ambitious: it’s not enough that I’m saying ‘when’, I’m assuming multiple books – dream big, or go home!). Many of you will promote it on your blogs and participate in blog tours and interviews and, like ripples on a pond, word will spread of my fantastic contributions to literature – to other writers. Getting the word out to the general reading public is another story.
So, how do we do that? Lisa Regan made a great point in the comments section of Nancy’s post:“it’s hard to connect with readers when you have nothing out for them to read.” What reader (meaning the generic reader, as opposed to the aspiring writer reader) is going to visit this blog? There’s no reason for them to come here because I have nothing published, they don’t know me from Adam. And if I did somehow find a way to attract them here, well what’s there for them to see? A wanna-be writer whining about how he’s stuck in the middle of his manuscript, or recounting a crazy dream that relates to how anxious he is about sharing his work. Who really wants to read that? Other writers who are in the same or similar boat, that’s who. When I’m published, I would need a different sort of presence, I think, for the benefit of reader readers who are interested in me.
There’s a lot of energy being expended on the internet by writers trying to establish presence. My feeling, the longer I’m involved in this, is relax. Blog if you want. Tweet, Facebook, whatever. But don’t break your back on any of them on the assumption that it’s going to help get you an agent or a publication deal, or that it’s going to sell you a lot of books when you do get your deal. Because chances are, you’ll be trying to sell yourself to yourself. 
What do you all think? Am I nuts for saying this? Or is there some other way to really connect with and build a readership before you’ve been published? I really want to know.
Have a great weekend!

15 Responses

  1. Well, I think there are a couple of ways to think about this. First, you're right that if you are unpublished a blog is mostly about connecting with like-minded people — other writers. But let's not underestimate how important that connection is. I would probably have given up and gone home a long time ago, if not for some of the connections I've made online through my blog.

    Second, when I was querying my last novel, I did include my blog link in the query and did get some agents coming to my site. If anything, it's a way for them to get to know me and my writing style a little better. Okay, none of them bit, so maybe they didn't like what they saw, but, uh. whatever. 😛

    Third, I do think by blogging and getting our name out there consistently creates a greater occurrence for our profile to pop up during a search. Yeah, in the grand scheme of things it's still pretty minor, but it's something. It will make it easier for people to find us.

    But I absolutely agree that connecting with readers isn't going to happen much with a typical blog. I think finding and connecting with others on Goodreads and Twitter may do more for that cause. Oh, and writing really awesome books that people want to read. Still working on that one. 🙂

  2. I've discovered readers by publishing short stories on a free online site for such things. So yeah, I totally agree. One needs to write to attract readers. I'm not going to name the site because it's a pornography site, but whatever is all I say. People who watch porn like reading too!

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Luanne.

    I agree, the connections we make with those like-minded people is invaluable, and I hope I didn't underestimate it here. Inspiration, expertise, encouragement – I've gotten that and more from the folks I've met via the blogosphere.

    Heh, I have a creeping suspicion that if some agents saw this blog, they'd be inclined to dump me right in the circular file. Especially after rants like this one. And you are right, each point of contact is like a little ripple on the pond, and it's a potential contact with dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of others, so there is a value to it from that standpoint. But I think the emphasis I see from some agents in particular is causing writers to focus on the wrong area.

  4. I have a few thoughts on this.

    1: Goodreads. Connect with millions of readers there, all the time, any time. It's huge and it's awesome and as long as you don't go and push your book there, but genuinely and actively participate, you will connect with readers. I've thought a lot about what got The Sekhmet Bed to sell 1000+ copies a month when I did no promotion, and I'm pretty sure it's the fact that I just use Goodreads a lot, as a reader. All authors should do the same, whether they are traditionally published or indie.

    2: Writers are also readers. If they're not, they probably shouldn't be writing. So you are connecting with readers if you're connecting with writers. However, if you skew the content of your web presence too heavily toward writers' specific interests, you risk alienating the readers who are not also writers. So add other things in now and then. That's why on the Lavender blog I often blog about ancient Egypt stuff, about how progress is going on my WIPs, and post funny things I find. That's why on the Libbie blog I journal my thoughts and emotions (when I have ones that are worth sharing…some of them are borderline!) I am trying to create content that will be relevant to anybody who is attracted to either brand, for whatever reason they feel drawn to Lavender or Libbie. Lavender is more upbeat, more fun, more popular. She always will be; she writes commercial fiction. Libbie is more introspective, more serious, more lyrical. That blog is a better reflection of the kind of writing I do under that pen name. But both blogs offer content that is relevant to fellow writers as well as to fellow readers who don't write.

    …and I need to get better at updating both blogs regularly.

    I confess that I am bad at utilizing Facebook and Twitter to build my brands, but I really hate Twitter as a user and I prefer to keep Facebook for personal use. I try to restrict my online time so I have more time to write, and maintaining three Facebook profiles would be too much. Once I have $20K saved up I get to quit the day job and write full-time, and I'll probably have more time for such things then. I'm getting there. We'll see how it goes when I'm writing exclusively.

    3: Who cares whether building a presence will get you an agent or not? I've had two agents; neither one could sell my books. You're right: you can't predict how things will go in this business, and with all the changes happening right now it's futile to try. The one thing you can be reasonably sure of is that building a list of readers will help you whether you get a contract or go indie. So make friends, and make real, genuine friends, because they will be enthusiastic about your books whenever they do finally appear. The books, that is.

    I do think that a presence of some kind is very important. That's the world we live in now. Brick-and-mortar stores are getting smaller. Publishers are acting like dipshits and making all the wrong business calls; if you do get a contract, you are not likely to get any promotional budget. So you'd better have some handle on how to promote yourself effectively, and in this day and age people expect to connect to you online. So start building a presence now, and be clear about what your presence is, what it must do, who its target audience is. And then get out there and attract hem.

  5. And Jeff, don't ever be afraid of what agents think. YOU ARE A CONTENT PROVIDER. THEIR JOB DOESN'T EXIST WITHOUT YOU. It's time writers sacked up a little more and demanded the respect they deserve from publishing professionals. An agent is certainly not a guarantee that you'll sell a book, nor that you'll get a favorable deal. And you don't need an agent anymore to reach eager readers who will love your work.

    So be true to yourself, be honest, be expressive, and be real. Do not censor yourself for fear of what some agent may think of you. They don't matter. You do. And your readers do. You are the writer. They are the consumers. Everybody else is ultimately superfluous.

    Jaded curmudgeonly writer burned by the reality of publishing, out!

    (But I'm still doing a radio interview tomorrow about my indie book. In your face, publishing world!)

  6. What great comments here and so much that I agree with! I think quite honestly if you want to connect with readers before you are officially "published" you have to do what Michael said, offer short stories or some FREE content for readers while you're trying to find an agent or traditional publisher. I've seen a lot of writers do this and it takes off and then they don't even need to go traditional, they've already got an audience so they can self-publish. People will download free stuff–believe me. I've often thought I could get more readers by doing this but unfortunately I'm not good with a short story! Or like Libby Heily said, make your blog more universal in some way. Other than that, it's pretty impossible to connect with readers AS A WRITER before you're published. Once you've got something either coming out or already out, the truth is that there is no proven, fail-safe way to sell books. What works for some does not work for others. It's like movies–some movies with huge, tremendous marketing budgets fail miserably. You just never know. It's a crap shoot. I don't think you're wrong for saying it. I think every aspiring writer should have at the very least a website so people or prospective readers or agents, etc can go there and learn about you but even that you really don't need until you know you've got something on the horizon (whether it's indie pubbed or traditionally pubbed). THAT is when people start checking you out. This is just a tough business. There is no one-size-fits-all answer!

  7. I think I will forever be trying to figure this out. My pub swears by Twitter but also says it won't last long. She says FB & Pinterest are the biggest venues. I'm just burned out on social media all the way around. Just let me write!

  8. Thanks for weighing in, Libbie. You make some great points, especially about Goodreads. I don't used GR myself; it strikes me, however, as the ultimate 'guerilla marketing' platform for writers, from what I've heard.

    And yes, writers are readers, and connecting with them via blogs and such helps – it all helps. And you touch on something that is definitely a problem: social media creep. It's too easy to end up with so many profiles to keep your personal self separated from your professional self that you don't know which way to turn. Of course, there are applications to help with that, but you don't want to spend all your time sorting it out.

    Regarding #3, well, if you're trying to go the agent route, it's easy to fall into the trap and say, "I must do all this!" I think it's misplaced energy.

  9. Just a quick note, Libbie H. =/= Libby Heily, though maybe Libby Heily said that, too.

    It's definitely a complicated issue, Lisa, thanks for commenting. Free stuff in the right place can definitely lead to readership and sales, as can broadening your appeal on social media. Of course, even having The Most Popular Blog In The World (and, hey, does anyone know what that is?) doesn't guarantee that millions of followers will fork over the cash, but it sure can't hurt.

  10. The funny thing is I've seen other social media experts claim that Twitter and Pinterest are going to outlast Facebook. We'll see, I guess.

  11. My prediction: something else will come along that will make them all obsolete.

    I think it's a mistake to rely on anything staying static in this business, and in this era. Publishers relied on bookstores being the constant and unchanging way to sell books; they relied on print books being the constant and unchanging method of delivering story. All that changed so fast. It's 2012. If you want to have a career in the arts, especially in writing, you have to stay on your toes and stay adaptable, and remain open to change — sometimes to very fast, very dramatic change.

  12. It's more likely a matter of 'when', not 'if'. And quite right, we all must be ready for it. Or correctly anticipate it.

  13. I've been thinking about this as I return to my blog. It has been very writer-centric. I'm going to allow myself to post more about a wider range of topics and definitely going to start posting some of my short stories, flash fiction and poetry.

    However, I don't want to get too stressed out about it at this point. More important that I get into a consistent writing routine and finish the damned book! Going to take it slow this year and only add elements as it feels natural.

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