I keep noodling on the idea of how you earn — not build, necessarily, but earn — your audience as a creative type. I’m not sure I have all (or any of) the answers, but here’s a good shot at it. Note that this list isn’t meant to be a bunch of checkboxes — you don’t need to do all of these (or even any of them, beyond the first). It’s just meant to offer thoughts and options. Use what you like. Discard the rest.
1. It’s All About The Story
Normally this is the type of thing I’d put as the capstone #25 entry — “Oh, duh, by the way, none of this matters if you write a real turd-bomb of a book” — but it’s too important to put last because for all I know you people will fall asleep around #14. So, let’s deal with it here and now: your best and most noble path to audience-earning is by having something awesome (or many awesome somethings) to give them. Tell the best story you can tell. Above all the social media posturing and bullshit brand-building and stabs at outreach, you need a great “thing” (book, movie, comic, whatever) to be the core of your authorial ecosystem. Tell a great story. Achieve optimal awesomeness. Build audience on the back of your skill and talent and devotion. You can ignore everything else on this list. Do not ignore this one.
2. Swift Cellular Division
The days of writing One Single Thing every year and standing on that single thing as if it were a mighty marble pedestal are long gone. (And, if you ask me, have been gone for a lot longer than everybody says — unless, of course, you’re a bestselling author.) Nowadays, it pays to write a lot. Spackle shut the gaps in your resume. Bridge any chasm in your schedule. This doesn’t mean write badly. It doesn’t mean “churn out endless strings of talentless sputum.” It just means to be generative. ABW: Always Be Writing. Take more shots at the goal for greater likelihood of hitting the goal. One book is less likely to find an audience than three. Put that coffee down. Coffee is for generative penmonkeys only. (Homework: read this article.)
3. Painting With Shotguns
The power of creative diversity will serve you well. The audience doesn’t come to you. You go to the audience. “One book is less likely to find an audience than three?” Correction: “One book is less likely to find an audience than two books, a comic, a blog, a short story collection, a porn movie, various napkin doodles, a celebrity chef trading card set, and hip anonymous graffiti.” Joss Whedon didn’t just write Buffy. He wrote films. And comics. And a webseries. The guy is all over the map. Diversity in nature helps a species survive. So too will it help the tribe of storytellers survive.
4. Sharing Is Caring, Or Some Bullshit Like That
Make your work easy to share. This is triply true for newer storytellers: don’t hide your work behind a wall. Make sure your work is widely available. Don’t make it difficult to pass around. I have little doubt that there’s a strategy where making your story a truly rare bird can serve you — scarcity suggests value and mystery, after all — but the smart play for creative types just setting out is to get your work into as many hands as possible with as little trouble as you can offer. This is true for veteran storytellers, too. Comedian Louis C.K. made it very fucking easy to get his new comedy special on the web. And that served him well both financially and in terms of earning him new audience while rewarding the existing audience.
5. Value At Multiple Tiers
Your nascent audience doesn’t want to have to take out a home equity loan to try your untested work. If you’re a new author and your first book comes out and the e-book is $12.99, well, good luck to you. More to the point: you’re probably fucking fucked (you poor fucker). Now, that might not be in your control, so here’s what you do: have multiple expressions of your awesomeness available at a variety of value tiers. Have something free. Have something out there for a buck or three. Make sure folks can sample your work and still support you should they choose to do so. Be like the drug dealer: first taste is cheap or free, baby.
6. Build The Sandbox
I think I hate the “sandbox” metaphor because, I gotta say, I did not like sandboxes as a kid. What, like I want gritty sand in my asscrack? Hey, great, my Yoda figure’s limbs don’t move well now because he’s got sand in his plastic armpits. Oh, look, Tootsie roll! *nom nom nom* OH GOD CATSHIT. Anyway, as a metaphor I suppose it holds up, so let’s stick with it — these days the audience has a greater percentage of prime movers and participants, people who want to be more involved, who don’t want to just be baby birds waiting for Momma Bird to regurgitate new content into their open gullets. They want some participation in… well, something. The story. The characters. The creation. The author. Needn’t be all of the above, but something is better than nothing. Let them in. Let them invest emotionally and intellectually.
7. Sometimes It’s Just About Not Discouraging
Even if you don’t want to encourage — damn sure don’t discourage. Authors who bristle against fan-fiction are authors who don’t appreciate how wonderful it is to have an active and engaged audience.
8. Be You
(Ignore the fact that rhymes with “pee yoo!”) The best audience isn’t just an audience that exists around a single work but rather, an ecosystem that connects to the creator. The audience that hangs with a creator will follow said creator from work to work. That means who you are as a storyteller matters — this is not to suggest that you need to be the center of a cult of personality but rather the humble creator of many things. You’re the hub of your creative life, with spokes leading to many creative expressions rather than just one. Put yourself out there. And be you. Be authentic. Don’t just be a “creator.” You’re not a marketing mouthpiece. You’re a human. For all the good and the bad.
9. Um, Unless “You” Are A “Total Dick”
If you’re a total asshole, then it might be wise to sew that shut and instead just… make up a persona. Or have a computer do it for you. Maybe an AI? Hell, hire a person to be the public non-asshole face-of-you. This is probably bad advice because I can name a handful of total dickhole writers who do really well. They are true to themselves and are, in fact, totally authentic fuckheads who happen to sell a lot of books. I’m just trying to prevent there from being more jerks and jackasses in the world, thanks. Is that so wrong?
10. Be A Fountain, Not A Drain
Put differently: be a fountain, not a drain. Take all that negative shit, throw it in a picnic basket, duct tape it shut and feed it to a starving bear. The world is home to enough rank and rancid human flatulence that you don’t need to add to it. An audience is likely to respond to negativity in a negative way — is that who you want to be? Fuck that. Go positive. Talk about the things you love rather than the things you hate. Voicing your insecurities and fears and sorrows is okay from time to time but soon as it starts to overwhelm, you’re just going to start bumming people out. Who wants to engage with a sad, simpering panda?
11. Have Opinions
Some authors are all afraid of having opinions. That by saying they vote Democrat or go to Church every Sunday or they prefer Carolina barbecue over Texas barbecue that they’ll collapse their delicate little author platform (which is clearly made of fragile bird bones) and end up alienating the audience. I urinate on the head of that idea. Your audience is way tougher than you think. And if they’re willing to abandon you because you’re going to vote for Ron Paul or didn’t like The Avengers then they were probably going to ditch you anyway.Opinions are fine. They make you human. Why sterilize yourself and your beliefs? The key to having an opinion is obeying Wheaton’s Law: don’t be a dick and a corollary, Wendig’s Tenet, don’t have and/or offer crazy-person opinions. “I think all the Jews should be sent to the moon” is not a sane position, so maybe you just want to button that one up and go away.
12. The Passion Of The Penmonkey
To add onto that last point: reveal your passion to the world. Be passionate about your story. About other stories. About… well, whatever the fuck it is that makes your grapefruit squirt. That energy is infectious. And don’t you want to infect the audience with your own special brand of syphil… uhhh, “passion?”
13. Engagement and Interaction
Very simply: talk to people. Social media — though I’m starting to hate that phrase and I think we should call it something like the “digital conversation matrix” or maybe just “THE CYBERORGY” (all caps necessary) — is a great place in which to be you and interact with folks and be more than just a mouthpiece for your work. The audience wants to feel connected to you. Like with those freaky tentacular hair-braids in Avatar. Get out there. Hang out. Be you. Interact. Engage. Get sloppy in the CYBERORGY.
14. Head’s Up: Social Media Is Not Your Priority
Special attention must be made: social media is a side dish, it is not your main burrito. See #1 on this list.
15. Fuck The Numbers
Just as I exhort you to be a human being and not an author carved out of marble, I suggest you look at all those with whom you interact on social media as people, too. They’re not resources. They’re not a number. They’re not “followers” — yes, fine, they might be called that, but (excepting a few camouflaged spam-bots hell-bent on dissecting your life and, one day, your actual body) they’re people. Sure, as you gaze out over an audience the heads and faces start to blur together in as if in a a pointillist painting, but remember that the audience is made up of people. AND PEOPLE ARE DELICIOUS. Uhh. I mean, people are really cool.
16. Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help
An earnest plea to your existing audience to help you find and earn new audience would not go remiss, provided you’re not a total shit-cock about it.
17. Share Knowledge
As you learn things about the process, share them with others. Free exchange of information is awesome — if I may toot the horn of one of my publishers, this is why Evil Hat gets a lot of love and continues to find new fans. Evil Hat shares all the data they can manage. It’s insightful and compelling and human. This doesn’t mean being a pedant about it — “Here are my experiences” is a lot different than “YOU’RE WRONG AND HERE’S WHY, LACKWIT.” It just means being open and honest. It means being useful. We like useful people. We like folks who will walk out onto the ice floe naked and report back with their findings. “Day Three: Testicles have crawled up inside my trachea. Seals have eaten my feet. Send cookies.”
18. Shake Hands, Kiss Babies
The real world is awesome. They call it “meatspace” because you can go out there and eat meat. You can even hunt and kill your own sources of meat. And, while out there, you are encouraged to share meat with other human beings. Kiss some hands and shake some babies. Face-to-face interaction is probably worth more than that you get over social media. And, if someone responds poorly to your physical presence, kill them. They then become meat which you may eat and share with other humans. Mmm. Long pork.
19. Embrace Feedback
Reviews, critiques, commentary, conversation — feedback is good even when it’s bad. When it’s bad, all you have to do is ignore or. Or politely say, “I’ll consider that!” and in the privacy of your own home print out the feedback and urinate on it with wanton disregard. When it’s good, it’s fucking stellar, and connects you all the more deeply to the audience. The audience is now a part of your feedback loop, like or or not.
20. Do Set Boundaries
That feedback loop is not absolute. I’m not a strong believer in creative integrity as an indestructible, indefatigable “thing” — but, I recognize that being a single-minded creator requires some ego. Further, the reality is that once something is “out there” it is what it is and there ain’t poop-squat you can do about it. So, you have to know when to turn off comments or back away from social media or just set personal and unspoken boundaries for yourself. Just because we interact with our audience doesn’t mean we are subject to their stompy boots and groping hands. I mean, unless you’re into that sort of thing.
21. Be Generous With Time And Tale
Put yourself and your work out there. To reviewers. To interviewers. To that hobo on the street who will run up to bike messengers and beat them about the head and neck with your book.
22. Foster Other Creative Types
You’re not a lone author batting back the tides with his magnum opus novel. You’re not the only creator who’s ever wanted to write a movie or ink a comic book. Other creative types are out there. And you love them. They’re why you do what you do — I’m a writer because other writers have given me so much and shown me the way. Like that time Stephen King and I went fishing down at the creek and he taught me how to bait a hook and then afterward we made out under the willow tree and we both fought a giant spider in the sewers. Or something. I may be misremembering. Point is, you have peers in the creative realm and you’re also audience yourself — so, forge the community foster other creators. Don’t just bring people to your tent. Point them to other tents, too.
23. Don’t Wrassle Gators If You’re Not A Good Gator Wrassler
What I mean is, don’t try to be something you’re not. If you’re not good in public, for fuck’s sake, don’t go out in public. If writing guest blogs is not your thing… well, maybe don’t write a guest blog. Again, this isn’t a list where you need to check off every box. These are just options. Avoid those that plunge you into a churning pool of discomfort. You don’t want to lose audience more audience than you earn.
24. Take Your Time
Earning your audience won’t happen overnight. You don’t plant a single seed and expect to see a lush garden grown up by morning. This takes time and work and patience and, y’know, you earn the attention of other fine humans one set of eyeballs at a time. It’s why you put yourself out there again and again.
25. Have Fun, For Fuck’s Sake
If it feels like what you’re doing is some kind of onerous, odious chore, I’m going to tune out. OMG A THOUSAND SISYPHEAN MISERIES, you cry, wailing and gnashing your teeth with every grumpy tweet and every miserably-written short story. Hey. Relax. Enjoy yourself. This isn’t supposed to be torture. You should have fun for two reasons: first, because, people can sense when you’re just phoning it in or worse, when you’re just a mope. Second, because fun is fun. Do you hate fun? Why? I like writing. I like putting my work out there. I like interacting with people in person and online. If you don’t like these things? Don’t do them! Why would you punish yourself like that? It’s like watching you stand there stuffing your face full of candy you hate. “Mmmphh these Swedish fish are so gross grrpphmble oh god stupid gross Necco wafers mmmphhchewchewchew I hate myself so bad right now.” Don’t put yourself through that. And don’t put your (potential) audience through that, either.
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