I should have titled this post How to Build an Audience as a Self-Published Author in Three Easy Steps: Email List, Reader Magnet, Traffic. Because it’s really that simple.
Though this post focuses on how to gain readers and grow an audience as a self-published author, it’s the dream of any internet entrepreneur to garner a strong customer base and generate full-time passive income. Writers, artists, musicians, YouTubers, Twitch streamers, small business owners—we’re all trying to share our work with anyone who’ll pay attention and hopefully earn a dime in the process.
But it ain’t easy, which goes without saying. If you have disposable income to throw at the venture, and you know how to use the money properly, AND there’s a potential audience out there for your book, art, music, YouTube content, etc., then you have a leg up. It doesn’t necessarily make things easier for you. It just shifts the obstacles into financial risk and learning advertising platforms. People who have money to invest quite often lose tons of money.
For those of us who don’t have money to invest upfront, building an audience feels impossible, and I’ve reached the worrisome conclusion that in our efforts we’re making a grave mistake:
If you want to build an audience as a self-published author, you can’t expect them to pay you at first.
I can hear many of you clicking away, and I get it. You’ve put your heart and soul, your blood and sweat, into your passion, and there’s no way in hell you’re giving it away for free. Writers deserve to be paid. People in general deserve a living wage.
I agree. But unfortunately that’s not how it works. In any creative or entrepreneurial endeavor, the majority of the spoils go to a few. It’s the Pareto Principle. Twenty percent of authors make eighty percent of the money. Twenty percent of YouTubers get eighty percent of the views.
It’s also called the Matthew Principle, based on the bible verse. I’m not going to quote it verbatim, but it goes something like this: “To those who have, more will be given; to those who have not, everything will be taken.”
It sounds devastating because it is. While the rules of the game are the same for everyone, some people are born with a better starting position, and that sucks for the rest of us.
But all we can do is play the game in spite of it. If you don’t want to play the game, this post isn’t for you. Just know that I’m not saying it’s the best of all possible games. I’m saying it’s the only game in town.
So how do you grow an audience with no money?
The answer lies in the magic word FREE. And I don’t just mean running free promos. You have to read to the end to get the full picture.
I’m going to approach this from the lens of a self-published author—though I believe it applies to any online effort to build and monetize an audience—because most of the people who will read this are writers.
If you want to build an audience as a self-published author, you first have to accept the single most important and overlooked advantage traditional publishing has over you: trust.
The Big Five (or Four now, I suppose) publishers have been building trust with the reading public for over a century. They’re really, really successful curators. That’s why readers will jump on a debut novel that has a major publisher’s imprint on the spine. It’s not because they trust the author. It’s because they trust the publisher to deliver a certain standard of quality.
You might have written the best novel of the year, but no one knows you, and readers are right to be skeptical about every single book they consider buying with their hard-earned money. So your first problem as a self-published author is visibility, and your second problem is trust.
Building an audience is building trust.
There is no difference. Why do you think romance authors offer readers a free ebook in exchange for signing up to their email list? Why do you think erotica authors make the first installment of their series permafree across all platforms? Why does Amazon offer a free promotion tool? Why do many self-publishing success stories originate from fanfic sites and Wattpad?
I could go on. Why do YouTubers have to gain 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time before they’re offered partnership and monetization?
Why do brick and mortar businesses have opening day sales?
Because earning trust is essential.
Besides, self-published authors aren’t the only ones who give their books away for free. Major publishers do it every single day. For a lead title, they’ll sometimes send out thousands of ARCS to help generate word of mouth momentum.
You can’t think about money when trying to grow an audience.
Sorry, but it’s true. You have to be driven purely by your love of writing books, and you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to convince readers to give you their time. And if you don’t have the money to advertise your book, that means giving it away for free.
Advertising can put your book in front of hundreds of thousands of people, so it’s okay if only a tiny fraction of them buy the book. But when you don’t have money, you’re faced with the problem of visibility. You have a much smaller pool of potential readers, so you need to garner the maximum amount of interest possible from those you can currently reach.
Some self-published authors have succeeded by publishing installments of their writing on Wattpad and growing an audience there. Many utilize Amazon KDP’s free promotion tool paired with a paid listing in a bargain newsletter like Ereader News Today or FreeBooksy using whatever royalties they’ve earned so far.
That’s an important thing to keep in mind. Starting out, it’s a good idea to invest every penny you earn back into the venture. If you get a $50 direct deposit from Amazon, use it to buy a $50 listing with Ereader News Today or another bargain newsletter, which is a guarantee that you’ll get hundreds or even thousands of downloads of your book when you run a free promo.
That might feel like a waste of money, but if your book is good, some of those readers will be willing to buy your next book. And the next. And the next. Paying $50 and gaining five new readers equals profit if you’re in this for the long haul and plan on publishing more books.
Let’s just hope you’ve created the infrastructure to be in touch with those readers who make it to the end of your book and want more, because however you decide to approach your self-publishing career, there is one indisputable truth you cannot overlook:
You’re not building an audience if you can’t reach them.
Please, please, please, start an email list or a Facebook group.
Not Twitter. Not Instagram. Not TikTok. Those are great additions to an author’s platform, but they mean nothing if you don’t have direct access to your readers.
You need to be able to reach your readers at the click of a button and know they’re seeing your news, updates, new releases, etc. Email lists and Facebook groups are the ONLY proven methods of preserving access to your audience, and I recommend leaning more towards an email list. You can download an email list onto your hard drive and no one can ever take it away from you. Do you want to be at the whim of a social media algorithm that might change its rules and render you completely invisible at the drop of a hat?
Of course not.
So start a newsletter. In the back matter of each book, offer your readers a free ebook in exchange for their email address. And then drive traffic to your books. That’s the big secret to self-publishing success. If you don’t believe me, go study the paths of successful self-published authors yourself.
A couple things to keep in mind:
When you get signups, don’t only pop in when you’re asking people to buy something. Be a human being. Send or post snippets of your work in progress. Take a selfie with your dog. Use whatever royalties you’ve earned to host a giveaway of a paperback or a small Amazon gift card. Write a short story and give it to them through BookFunnel.
Give back. Be grateful. Stay in touch. Provide free entertainment to your readers ten times for every one time you ask them to fork up some cash. By then they’ll be happy to contribute. They’ll feel like they owe it to you. After all, these are people who read your book first and then decided to sign up to your email list. (Don’t bother calling out for email signups on social media. You don’t want numbers. You want readers.)
Most importantly, be consistent. Be there for your audience.
Because an audience isn’t really what you’re after. You want to build a community. A community centered around your books but one that rewards its members and enriches their lives.
It’s your job as a self-published author to make the experience about them. If you do that, maybe they’ll reciprocate and make it about you—and they can potentially outnumber you by the hundreds, the thousands, the millions.
That’s when the money comes.
I am a freelance editor with a focus on manuscript critiques, developmental editing, and prepping query letters, synopses, and sample pages for submission to literary agents. You can find my full list of highly affordable editing services here.