The Pursuit of Readers 📚

I’ve been thinking: how do you find your ideal reader?

There’s a lot of advice on this, most of which is using personas. This is an old trick I learned in IT Land™️ Way Back When™️. The idea is you work out who uses your product, and/or who you want to, and design services around those people. If you’re writing a mobile banking app for retirees to check their account balances, you damn Skippy better make sure you take into account their tech familiarity and ability mismatch scenarios, or it’ll crash and burn (…and/or no one will use it).

My deep, introspective* thoughts suggests there are two interlinked parts:

  • Who you write for, and
  • Who you market to (or, perhaps, how you market to them).

* In the shower last Tuesday.

A friend and I talked about the different types of buyers. We’re going to do a there-are-two-types-of-people thing here.

  1. People who use subscription-based services, and/or free services (libraries, giveaways…) to access content, and
  2. Those who purchase a la carte.

There is overlap, but in my testing it’s not as bi-directional as you might think. Purchasers often use libraries and giveaways to expand their reading horizon, but the other salmon almost never swim upstream. Kindle Unlimited readers, for example, will read voraciously inside their pool, but don’t often step outside.

Yes, there are exceptions, but we’re managing the 80%, not the 20% here.

The world’s getting a little muddier, because Spotify and Netflix showed us that for our monthly stipend we get effectively unlimited entertainment. It’s not necessarily good entertainment (Netflix original movies, I’m looking at you), but you’ve paid for it, so why not watch it?

Pursuing this type of customer is a little tricky, because (I believe) the loyalty is low. Subscription customers are more likely to look to subscription offers than brand loyalty, which makes sense because of their decision to centralise their purchasing within a pool. Marketing to these customers is also tricky, as you need to weaponise flash and glamour to 11 when trying to entice them into your reading funnel.

From a books perspective, this market was well served by indie authors during the Kindle Boom Years. Cheaper reading, with more frequent content: what’s not to like?

A friend and I were talking about this recently, and he put it to me that this group is more concerned with consuming within their price bracket than seeking a quality bracket. There are a lot of these readers, but they’re interested in cost-effective content rather than quality content (I’m not saying they don’t care about quality, I’m saying given a choice between reading within their subscription and making an active purchasing decision outside it, they’ll stay within the Kindle Unlimited pool).

Where this is problematic for writers is competition. There are a lot of authors out there now, as the access to digital publishing deletes many of the barriers to press. This should be rad, but I know a lot of authors who’ve noped out because they can’t get readers. Without a marketing budget in the thousands, it’s difficult to get attachment to your book. If no one reads it, why write it in the first place? Algorithms on Amazon appear to favour Kindle Unlimited books, but only the super-successful ones, so you’re kinda fucked competing in this prize pool without the right backing. Authors compete within a static prize pool, and there are more of them. We’re seeing a fairly massive rubber-banding effect of a saturated market.

In a perskersome manner, the wisdom on this is diluted within the author community. The massive size of the KU pool warps people’s thinking on this, and authors stopped doing the basic foundational things that always work (finding your ideal reader, and trying to get your book into their hands). These techniques are slow; they take systematic dedication to an approach. The KU road seems faster from the outside, but what’s not visible is how so very few authors take home the majority of the readership pool. Amazon’s system will recommend success rather than discoverability, and if you don’t have success, the lift there is pretty slow.

There are a zillion how to market courses out there targeting new authors. Incumbents are prospecting on newcomers, but very few offer a guarantee. Why? Because if there was a playbook that worked every time (“Just get into KU!”) then everyone would do it, all authors would have their ideal readers, and the world would spin on in glorious harmony. While a few people suffer on execution of the systems offered to them, there’s far too little success for this to be user error. The world spins, but for the majority of authors they find it difficult to find that ideal reader; there is little harmony to be found. This makes the baby Jesus cry. Amazon themselves noted that only, “…over a thousand independent authors surpassed $100,000 in royalties in 2017 through Kindle Direct Publishing.” This is a problem (which I’ve talked about before).

Which brings us back to my shower thoughts. I’m writing an epic/dark fantasy trilogy at the moment, and it’s entirely for fun. I’m not writing to a set length (from a marketing perspective, I’m already almost twice the length the first book should be, to hit a good ROI on time). I’m not targeting a hot genre. I’m definitely not going for KU glitz and glamour. In many ways, I’m looking at the traditionally published world for inspiration: the big houses produce high quality, often market-speculative books.

Why? Because I want to get readers in the second category. Those with some interest in buying books, sure, but also building a relationship with my story worlds. I’d like the readers who want a writing style, rather than a lane. I’m after client loyalty, and I think the best way to get that is to look for readers who are almost entirely in group two.

If you’re deciding on how to get your writing into the hands of readers, this is pretty important stuff. There’s no right or wrong answer, but approaching the problem strategically is vital. If you want sub-based readers with high throughput, you’ll be up against an ever-steepening mountain with potentially fabulous rewards. If you want readers who attach to your story worlds and have high loyalty, finding them needs a different approach. It’s slower, but might have longer-term resilience against market changes or retailer algorithm updates.