You did it—you published a book. After spending months, years, maybe decades working on a novel, a work of nonfiction, a collection of stories or poetry, or something less definable, you got it out there for people to read. Congratulations!
That was probably a lot of work. Launching a book requires superhuman efforts whether you’re working with a publisher or doing it all yourself. Aside from the work required to get the book itself into shape—revising, designing, typesetting, proofreading—there’s the promotion. There are book tours, blog tours, Zoom meetups, and endless social media engagements. There are guest posts and interviews and book signings. For a while when launching a book you can feel like your entire life is just racing from thing to thing, without time for anything else—even writing. Which is, in theory, what we writers are supposed to be doing.
And then the craziness fades. Your book is launched, your promotion is in the books, and your schedule starts to loosen up. Time to relax a little, get started on your next book, and bask in the fruits of your labors, right?
Yes! But also, no. At least, not exactly. Yes, you can indulge in some basking—you’ve earned it. By all means, bask away. But all that build-up to your book and all that promotional work has built an audience of readers who are interested in you and your writing. Between books, you need to put some effort into keeping those readers engaged.
Building an audience is quite an achievement. Whether it’s a few dozen folks or a few hundred thousand, having people care about your writing and be impatient for your next chunk of brilliance is gratifying and rewarding—and necessary. It’s a version of that old zen koan: If a writer releases a book and no one reads it, did it exist? And the related, slightly less-zen koan: If a writer releases a book and no one buys it, can they pay the rent? Your audience may not be large enough to pay your rent, but an audience of any size is an achievement that has a lot of value. You should make an effort to hang onto it.
When dealing with content—a blog or a newsletter, for example—we’re usually advised to add fresh material on a regular basis. If your blog never has anything new on it, people stop coming by. The pace is different, but it’s similar for writers between books: If you don’t give readers a reason to stick around, they will drift. And if they drift away, they might miss the announcement of your next book—or simply forget to buy it.
So once you’ve done the hard work of building an audience, do the extra work to keep them. That means keeping your readers engaged between books.
There are a lot of different ways to approach this “engagement maintenance.” Similarly to self-promotion, different authors have different tolerances and comfort zones. The success of these strategies depends on the energy you bring to them, so skip any ideas that just aren’t your jam and focus your energies on the ideas that work for you. Also, don’t be afraid to try several at once—or to give up on any of these strategies if they don’t seem to be returning anything on your investment of time and energy. If something’s not working, try something different.
Here are 11 great ways to keep your readers engaged:
If you haven’t started a newsletter yet, you should seriously consider doing so. A quarterly, bi-annual, or monthly newsletter can be a casual, fun way to stay in touch with your audience. You can keep readers apprised of what you’re working on, exciting developments concerning your published work, and any appearances or other announcements that come up.
But most importantly, newsletters offer space. Instead of trying to cram your messaging into a tweet or a blog post, you can ramble on to your heart’s delight in a newsletter (personally, I love a good ramble). That doesn’t mean you should send out novel-length newsletters filled with diary entries and lengthy stream-of-consciousness rambles, but it does mean you can be a bit freer and have more fun with your definition of what constitutes “news” or an “announcement,” which means more of your author persona and personality can shine through.
If you already send out a newsletter, great! Now consider a “special issue” of some sort that focuses on your next project—give folks a teaser, an excerpt, or some other reason to keep you in the front of their minds.
If you’re working on something new, a great way to keep your audience engaged is to share some details. This could be updates on the process of creation itself, posting snippets of finished chapters, essays about the research or inspiration—just about anything, really. Drawing maps for your epic fantasy? Post them! Creating RPG-style character sheets for your characters? Let your readers have a glimpse. Certainly don’t release anything that’s not ready for prime-time, but readers love seeing a book come together.
This is especially effective if your work-in-progress (WIP) is a sequel to your previous release. Readers were with you during the ramp-up and launch, then they devoured the book once it was available—keep them focused on you and your work by giving them hints and tastes of what’s to come.
This could either be a self-published one-off, or part of a Patreon or similar site. This would have the added bonus of creating or building a community and mailing list. The key to this strategy is consistency—regularly delivering new content will keep your readership interested and excited, and your constant announcements about new material will allow you to advertise your first book to new readers as they arrive on the scene.
We live in an amazing time. Technology has made it possible—easy, even—to connect with people all around the world. You may have readers in a wide variety of countries, continents, and climates, but reaching out to them is as easy as setting up a Zoom call.
Now, no one wants to just “hang out” with their favorite writer and stare at each other uncomfortably, so cooking up a reason for folks to gather is always paramount. A terrific excuse to gather people virtually is a reading. One of the big advantages a virtual book reading has is that the experience is very similar to an in-person reading. The author (you) takes center stage, offers some preliminary remarks, reads an excerpt from their book (or a work in progress, or a short story), then takes some questions. No special effects are required, there’s no expense involved, and you can set up a series of these virtual readings and have them as often as you want, which means readers who can’t make one can show up for another. You could also partner with other writers to “host” each other, exposing your work and personality to a whole new potential audience (and then returning the favor, of course).
You can turn these into fun gatherings, too, but encouraging everyone to have a cocktail, or involving them by letting your readers vote on what you read or by encouraging everyone to come up with the craziest questions they can think of. As always, having fun with it is key.
And don’t forget—just because you can do readings and Q&As and such virtually doesn’t mean you have to, and you are legally allowed to set up a reading in real life at a bookstore, library, bar, or coffee shop even if you aren’t actively promoting a new book. As long as you can guarantee some sort of audience, venues that host readings will be happy to consider your event. And libraries often have robust programs where you simply sign up and create your event at no charge. Virtual readings are easy to set up and deal with, but if you’ve got the time, energy, and expectation that your readers will show up an in-real-life (IRL) can have a tremendous impact.
One note though: Just because I suggest an IRL event doesn’t mean you must do it. If you’re concerned about health issues or have any other hesitancy concerning gathering with people in person, always follow your gut.
Social media is often used as a blanket answer to questions about engaging readership or promoting yourself:
YOU: How do I find an audience?
GURU: Social media.
YOU: Yes, but how?
GURU: Uh … look over there! Is that a kitten?
Obviously this stock answer needs a bit more focus. Social media is great for keeping your audience engaged, yes, but how?
A great way to use social media to keep readers engaged between books is to have regular “office hours” where you sit and answer questions. If you’ve ever spent time on Reddit, you may be familiar with the concept of the “Ask Me Anything” event, where celebrities or people of interest show up at a specific time and field questions from Redditors in real time. You don’t need a formal event like that—just let your readers know you’ll be on a specific platform at a specific time, ready to answer any questions they have—about your book, your work in progress, or whatever else is on their minds. This is not only a great way to keep your book foremost in people’s minds, it also makes readers feel connected to you and your work in a more intimate way.
Another strategy you can employ on your social media channels is a Book Club where you discuss books you’re reading—not your books, but other people’s books. It’s doubtful that your readers only read your books (if they do that’s kind of worrying, frankly), and people are always looking for suggestions on what to read next, especially within a specific genre. By carefully choosing books that are related to your own work either through subject matter, style, or inspiration, you can strengthen your connection with your readers and increase your authority with them as an “expert” of sorts within your genre.
Plus, it’s a fun, low-key way to promote yourself and your brand without hitting people over the head with it. Sometimes you can come at promotion at an angle—instead of shouting about your book, your work, and you, you, you, it can just as effective to link yourself with other writers. Plus, it will be a lot more fun than endlessly hyping yourself.
Just like a newsletter, a podcast offers plenty of room to get comfortable and have some fun. Starting a podcast doesn’t have to be complicated or require tons of special equipment, either—all it takes is a little care and patience (and some free audio software) and you can put together a basic podcast pretty quickly. For example, I launched my own podcast, The No Pants Cocktail Hour, with a cheap microphone and a deep comfort level talking about myself and little else.
Podcasts also offer an opportunity to bring in peers and friends to bounce off of, which can establish a level of comfort and a safe space for you. This can be crucial—sometimes being all alone and expected to talk for a long time is just stress on stress, but having a spirited conversation with some fellow authors can be a fun way to entertain your readers and offer them a glimpse into who you are outside of your books—while keeping the focus on your work.
Listening to some podcasts from other authors is a good way to get a feel for this, and there are an infinite number of “how to start a podcast” articles out there. The key here, as with everything, is consistency: Don’t launch a podcast with some fanfare and then fail to follow up with fresh episodes.
Alternatively—or additionally—you could start a blog. Blogs are a bit old-school these days, but they can still be powerful tools for engaging with readers. A blog could be more personal, featuring your daily experiences and thoughts, or it could be a place where you ruminate on writing and your process. Whatever the subject or focus of your log, there are three keys to success:
- Currency. If you start a blog, keep it fresh. A blog that hasn’t been updated in six months isn’t a blog, it’s a time capsule.
- Intimacy. Readers like perceiving authors as regular folks they can interact with, so be relatable in your writing. This is the place to inject a little personal detail into your promotional work.
- Theme. You can blog about anything, but be somewhat consistent. If you start off blogging about the business of writing and then veer off into the intricacies of your bottlecap collecting hobby, people will experience some whiplash and wander away. It’s okay to have an outlier post now and then, but try to stay on theme.
If you post to your blog regularly, a community of readers will spring up in the comments. If you tend those comments conscientiously, that community will be highly engaged.
A great way to lift the energy level and catch (and keep) the attention of your readers when you don’t have a current project to hype is a contest. Contests are easy, fun, and generate positive energy all around. All they require are a few basic ingredients:
- A prize: Typically this would be a print copy of one of your books if you have one, inscribed per the instructions of the winner. But it doesn’t have to be—it could be a free digital copy, too. You can be creative with the prize; I once offered to produce a funny video for the winner of a contest. You could offer things like naming a character after the winner, including their name in your next acknowledgments section, or offer up swag you created to promote your books if, like me, you have what appears to be an infinite supply of bespoke bookmarks.
- A contest: This is probably obvious, but you need to come up with a contest of some sort. This can range from the incredibly simple (“The first person to email me the correct answer to this question wins!”) or incredibly complex (“I have created an Augmented Reality Game involving multiple web sites, paid actors, and a real escape room located in Des Moines!”) and everything in-between.
One piece of advice: Don’t make it too hard. While some folks love a good puzzle that keeps them awake for months, a lot of folks will get very bored and you’ll wind up with the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve: Irritated readers. The goal here is to have fun and keep people engaged, not show off how diabolically clever you are.
- A venue. You need to communicate the contest so that people can take part. If you have a blog where your fans show up regularly, that will work. If you have a large mailing list and an established newsletter that’ll do the trick, too. Another option is a social media outlet where you interact with readers often. If you haven’t developed these sorts of communities (shame on you), you might be able to “borrow” someone else’s.
If you’ve got control over some or all of your books, consider staging a sale of your back list titles. Slashing the cost of a few older books can generate fresh excitement among your readers, attract people who aren’t yet familiar with your work but might be willing to splash out a buck or two to check you out, and give you something to promote.
That last bit is important—sometimes the secret to engaging your audience and having a successful run on social media platforms is simply having something to talk about. That’s easy when you have a new book or exciting announcement to make, a bit harder when it’s in-between books and you aren’t doing as much. Having a sale is a great excuse to post a dozen times during the week.
If you control your books, also consider putting some of the older titles up for free, or sliding them onto the subscription programs that various self-publishing platforms offer (where people can read unlimited numbers of books and you get paid every time someone reads yours). This removes every barrier between you and a new reader, can be presented as a bonus for long-time fans, and will definitely have a boosting effect on all of your titles because a rising tide lifts all ships—but keep in mind many of those programs come with exclusivity requirements, so make sure you understand the repercussions.
If you’re a self-published or hybrid author, one way you can get your readership to remain engaged is to expand the platforms where they can find and purchase your work. This is especially true if your work is only currently available on Amazon. Yes, Amazon is the 1,000-pound gorilla and controls 80–90 percent of the eBook market, but 10–20 percent of an audience could be a lot of people who aren’t buying your books because they don’t even see them. Now that your launch is over and you have more time and energy to work with, unless you’ve committed to an exclusivity arrangement with your current platform(s) consider putting in the effort to get your books loaded onto every single platform out there—Kobo, Nook, Google Play, Smashwords, etc. This is easier than you think, and even if you sell just a handful of extra copies it will be worth it if only because it will be another set of search results that features your books.
Authors and their readers are engaged in a relationship that behaves like any other relationship—if you’ve ever lost touch with a good friend when they moved away and you stopped hearing from them every day, you know that all relationships require some work. If you vanish from social media and other sectors after your book has dropped, that’s the same situation as your former friend—your readers will eventually forget about you. Dropping them the occasional postcard, metaphorically speaking, is key to keeping them interested.