The Newest Opportunities for Authors to Make a Significant Impact
“How to become a bestselling author” is a heavily searched phrase, and as a result, search engines present pages and pages (and pages) of articles detailing various answers.
But, in this day and age, what actually constitutes a bestselling author? New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists aside, the frequency with which authors tout their books as Amazon bestsellers after the sale of one book positions them at Number One in an obscure category is astounding, and it’s not creating the kind of long-term impact many authors are interested in achieving.
When working with authors who tell me that one of their goals is for their upcoming book to be a bestseller—whether they are never-before-published or published several times over—the question I immediately ask is: Do you want the book to be a best seller or a best impacter?
Yes, the two can be (and often are) mutually exclusive.
The most successful authors today, meaning those who are consistently growing their reader bases and therefore their sales numbers, are those who are making every effort to make an impact by selling books to and making lasting connections with readers.
Impact is not merely defined as “getting one’s book in the hands of thousands or millions of people.” It’s also inclusive of delivering content in addition to the book itself in order to maximize an author’s impact as well as his connection with the reader. Once an author makes a connection with a reader–either through content within their book or supplemental content such as that given through a podcast interview, email, blog post, free download, or multi-day challenge (as several examples), the author’s likelihood of extending and building upon that relationship long-term increases. That’s where real impact happens.
As traditional publishing houses continue to experience downturns in profits and rely on (read: focus the marketing dollars they have on) their top-tier authors, bestselling authors⎯both published by traditional houses and small presses or self-published⎯are focusing on new and creative ways to reach an ever-hungry sea of new readers.
They’re looking to grow their platform by authentically connecting with more people who resonate with their unique message. It’s not about simply selling a million books that then sit on customers’ bookshelves gathering dust. The only long-term impact that approach has is irrelevant clutter.
To put this article into perspective, it’s April 2020, and we’re in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. As if authors didn’t already feel somewhat challenged in their efforts to reach new readers, this crisis has added to those efforts another level of resistance. The brick and mortar retail market is shrinking (especially when it comes to independent bookstores, which are historically quite supportive of both traditionally published and indie authors), and some of the tactics authors successfully used pre-pandemic have had to be re-thought, given current travel and in-person event restrictions.
Cliché as it may be, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and several concepts are being undertaken on a greater scale with welcomed success.
Audiobooks (and Unique Audio Content)
The popularity of audiobooks is growing at an unprecedented rate. The younger generation has become far more accustomed to absorbing content via their ears as opposed to their eyes, while the older generation enjoys the convenience of being able to learn or be entertained while they’re doing something perhaps less enjoyable⎯say, cooking or commuting 45 miles to the office.
According to an article written by Adam Rowe for Forbes.com, audiobook sales have been steadily rising for the past seven years, reaching $940 million in 2018 (which represented a 24.5% growth year-over-year since 2017). According to Chris Lynch, CoChair of the APA’s Research Committee and President & Publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, “Seven consecutive years of double-digit growth is truly extraordinary.”
The audio version of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, Talking to Strangers, was actually outselling the hardcover version after its first week on the market. The same was true for Jordan Peterson’s books (also notable is the fact that Peterson additionally has a popular YouTube channel and podcast). Gladwell’s audiobooks contain excerpts from audio interviews he’s done and even samples of his music preferences. In an age where true connection with others is highly appealing, the ability to get to know an author more thoroughly through this kind of personalized content is incredibly appealing to consumers.
Authors can stand out further by thinking a bit outside the box when it comes to the recording of their audiobooks. After all, just because someone has purchased the paperback or eBook version of a book doesn’t mean they won’t also be interested in the audiobook version⎯especially if that version offers them something additional. A great example of this is Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins. Goggins’ ghostwriter narrated the audio version, and he and Goggins have candid conversations between each chapter (sometimes between sections of a chapter) within which they dive deeper into certain topics or insights of the author. The insights are so good that anyone who enjoyed an alternate version of the book would be interested in getting access to this additional content by purchasing the audiobook.
Audio content as a whole is also growing in popularity. From podcasts to YouTube channels to audiobook “snippets,” authors are finding increased ways to get in front of their ideal readers at a time when those readers are effectively multi-tasking (driving while listening, exercising while listening, cooking while listening).
Given the current climate (read: quarantine), bestselling authors with new releases have been heavily affected in that they’ve had to cancel launch events, upon which they heavily rely when it comes to initial sales.
Enter the newest digitally savvy solution: video-based events.
From virtual book clubs (at which authors make an appearance or two to answer questions from club members) to online book clubs to blog book tours and social media influencer/cross-channel partnerships, authors have found exciting ways to pivot. As an added bonus, many have found approaches they may choose over large in-person events going forward.
When L.A.-based couture bridal gown designer Erin Cole’s bestselling book, The Size of Everything, launched in 2018 (co-authored with Jenna McCarthy), one of the ways they reached groups of their target readers was through small, close-knit book clubs. Erin offered to virtually attend book club meetings for which her book was the current selection to answer questions and further connect with readers. This allows her to connect more intimately with readers without having to board a plane week after week or otherwise fund the kind of long-winded (and expensive) national book tours most bestselling authors used to undertake.
Creative Video Content
These days, video is where it’s at. I realize that sentence is far from eloquent (and ends with a preposition), but there’s not a better way to say it in my mind, so I’m going with it.
In late March 2020 as the country began to invoke stay-at-home orders, celebrated children’s author Mo Willems partnered with the Kennedy Center to invite children to virtually join him every weekday for three weeks on social media for Lunch Doodles, during which he led creative and entertaining drawing sessions designed to help kids use their imagination.
During the same time period, children’s author and illustrator Erin Thorburn quickly created the Scaredy Cat Writing Camp for Kids, a virtual and interactive writing and illustrating group. Each week, Scaredy Cat (the main character in her first book) provided a writing module for its young members (including drawing activities), and participants were encouraged to share their work, not only to increase their confidence but also to decrease their feelings of isolation during an unprecedented time period.
Frank J. Lopes, author The 7-Minute Setup: How to Achieve Your Business Goals Faster and Easier (April 2020), plans to host a nightly show by the same name via Facebook Live through which he will provide viewers with guidance as well as tips and outside-the-box ways to integrate the book’s strategies into their lives.
Even TikTok is proving invaluable for authors in select genres. With a target audience aged 13-25, and based on a mix of music; sound effects; text; humor; memes; and social trends, TikTok may confuse the daylights out of many in my own age group, but it is wildly popular among the teenage and early-twenties set. As such, those who write YA or have a young adult or teen-focused audience of readers are finding success posting carefully thought-out content there.
In early 2020, PenguinTeen posted a “book domino” video on TikTok. wherein approximately 600 of their imprint’s books, including many backlist titles, were used as dominoes that twisted and turned through Penguin’s offices. The video, which included witty text throughout, quickly went viral, reaching 11.4 million views.
The video helped take the publisher from approximately 24,000 followers (the largest account in publishing) to 117,000 followers. Said Alex Garber, director of online marketing and Penguin Publishing Group, “It wasn’t just that people saw something and thought, ‘That was fun.’…“They wanted more of that. We didn’t just do something fun; we did something right.”
The key, as always, is for an author to figure out where his or her audience lives and create corresponding content. TikTok is a place to be silly and relatable to the younger set, whereas LinkedIn is a much higher-brow platform where contributors are used to seeing more serious, professionally positioned content. Interestingly, Garber noted that while they’ve seen success on TikTok, they haven’t experienced the same level of success with Snapchat, which is popular among a similar demographic but is more focused on user-to-user, not business-to-user, communication.
Despite PenguinTeen’s success on TikTok, consumers don’t typically buy from publishers; they buy from authors. Therefore, the key–whether an author is traditionally or indie published–is to find the best platforms and approaches to broach a genuine connection between the author and his or her ideal reader.
Multi-day Reader Challenges
Three- to thirty-day challenges of all sorts are all the rage on social media. But some authors are leveraging the concept to create great opportunities to connect and engage with new readers. Tamara Dorris, author of multiple books, including her most recent, Mind Over Matter, runs popular (and free) month-long challenges through her Facebook page, designed to encourage new ways of perceiving and emotionally managing life events. Many of her participants end up joining her paid courses as well as hiring her for one-on-one coaching.
Significant Book Launch Events
Though it may be a bit of time before we again see these sorts of events regularly occurring, make no mistake, heavily established bestselling authors are still working hard to connect with their audiences each and every time a new book comes off the press.
Bestselling author Jen Hatmaker, whose newest book, Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire! The Guide to Being Glorious You was published in April 2020, had organized a large event that included guests Brené Brown, Anjelah Johnson, and Johnnyswim. The event was to be held in Grand Prairie, TX on April 14, but had to be rescheduled for September 9 amid current social distancing rules. Instead of simply deferring the entire event, they “whipped together” an interim webcast event for April 30. Those who have tickets for the in-person event can join for free and others can get tickets by pre-ordering Hatmaker’s new book.
Whether already a bestselling author or an aspiring one, getting creative about ways to continue to reach new readers is paramount to an author’s long-term success and longevity. There is always a new audience to reach, and I encourage authors to combine consideration of where their audience spends time online, what solutions they’re seeking, and what forms of connection are most comfortable for the author when formulating a strategy for reaching and building lasting relationships with those new readers.
About the Author
Elizabeth Lyons is the author of 5 books, most recently Enough: The Simple Path to Everything You Want—A Field Guide for Perpetually Exhausted Entrepreneurs. Also a book writing and publishing coach, lover of coffee, and mom of 5, she rarely knows what day it is.