Today, algorithms determine the most minute details of our buying habits, down to the finer points of the dental floss we prefer (waxed or unwaxed, plain or minty). Advertising is a constant blitzkrieg of spam, pop-ups, and phone alerts. Those ads are specific, focused, targeted…and totally impersonal.
For all the information that Google, Facebook, and Amazon collect about us, Alexa’s robotic voice will never replace that of a trusted friend who enthusiastically says, “You’ve got to read this book I just finished!”
In bygone days of the last century, the friendly clerk at the neighborhood bookstore introduced customers to new authors s/he knew they’d love. Back then, it was called “hand-selling.” Such word-of-mouth recommendations launched many unknown books that went on to become bestsellers. I, for one, miss those days.
Today, with a billion books competing for attention, how does an author make a personal connection with readers?
Book clubs provide that opportunity.
Serendipity led to my first appearance as the featured author at a book club. While on vacation in Florida, I reconnected with a Zumba class I hadn’t seen for a year. In catch-up conversation, I mentioned my novel had been published. Joan said, “I’m in a book club. Would you like to speak to us in two weeks?”
In another bit of luck, Amazon had put the Kindle version of my novel Instrument of the Devil on special for 99 cents during that month. Thanks to the upcoming meeting and people talking about it at Zumba classes, sales experienced a nice spike.
On a Friday afternoon, over drinks and snacks, I met eleven accomplished, professional women from their mid-50s to mid-70s. I knew several from Zumba but most were strangers.
Here in front of me sat the exact people I had in mind as I wrote the story.
And, better yet, they were excited to talk with the author whose book they’d just read.
Book club feedback is solid gold. These are real customers who buy books, not just looky-loos. They constantly browse for new works. They know what catches their interest and keeps them up late, as well as what bores them or turns them off. Most of all, they know what makes them click the “Buy Now” button.
These readers were willing to share their reactions with me—a priceless gift for a writer building a fan base.
If you’re an author in search of book clubs, how do you find them?
A Zumba class might not be the first place you’d think to look, but that’s where I’ve gained followers in Florida, Canada, and Montana. Serious readers can be found at work, on the golf course, at your children’s school activities, at Bible study, while volunteering at the animal shelter. At the next gathering or party you attend, ask if anyone participates in a book club. Chances are the answer will be yes.
In my little Montana town, a local microbrewery hosts a regular reading group–Books and Brews. Why not?
Google: “book clubs near me.” Meetup.com is a great clearing house of specific interest groups. Narrow the search by geographical area, genre, and age range. In the greater Tampa area, I located at least two dozen clubs within twenty miles of our vacation spot.
Many more groups exist under the radar of the internet or meet privately.
Visit the library, colleges, and book stores (if you can find one!). Mention you’re an author who’d like to meet with book clubs. Leave business cards with them so groups can contact you.
Once you hook up with a book club, how do you prepare?
Generally, members read your book before you meet them. If they haven’t, practice your fascinating story summary on them, but don’t give away the ending.
Many readers use Kindles or devices, but some still prefer a print edition, which I offer to groups at my cost. At this point in my career, I’d rather build a foundation of loyal readers than worry about a few bucks. Check your contract to make sure that’s permissible.
Expect FAQs: How long did it take to write? What sparked the idea? Did you make up the characters or are they based on real people? Are the sex scenes autobiographical? Here’s your cue to joke about diligent research.
The question you hope they’ll ask: What’s your next book about? If they enjoyed your first book, they’ll be eager customers for your next one.
Readers love insider knowledge. Give them a sneak preview. They might even agree to be your focus group.
Before meeting with the Florida club, I’d been toiling over loglines and blurbs for Death by Proxy, the unpublished second book in my series. Those can be tougher to write than the novel because the author is too close to his/her own story. Input from your critique group or beta readers, while valuable, is limited because they already know the plot.
You want to seek out the spontaneous reaction of random customers skimming through book descriptions on Amazon.
I asked the ladies if they’d be interested in hearing my proposed blurbs.
Unanimous answer: “Sure!”
They listened to several choices then voted for the one they liked best. Of course, that’s the one I’ll use.
I also read them the opening pages of the story and gauged their reactions. Was it clear and understandable? Did they get lost? Did they laugh in the right places? Were they intrigued enough to continue?
If their reactions are less than enthusiastic, seize that opportunity to ask what specifically turned them off. Were they confused? Bored? Did they find a character dull, flat, or unlikeable? Ask their opinions about your cover. You might find it’s time to freshen the design.
This is not the time to get defensive. Even if you disagree, give their opinions serious consideration.
After all, they are your readers, the most important people in your writing career.
An author has no way to determine why an anonymous browser on Amazon skipped over one book and bought another. But the book club will tell you. Listen carefully because they’ll give valuable feedback that’s impossible to get otherwise.
What to bring when you meet a book club:
A smile and a friendly manner so they feel comfortable asking questions. If you’re shy or nervous, learn to overcome that. A stand-offish, aloof author makes a poor impression.
Business cards and swag if you have it–bookmarks, pens, etc.
A sign-up sheet to collect contact information to notify them of upcoming books, appearances, etc.
A signed print copy for the host if you meet at a home.
Do a giveaway. Hold a drawing or contest where the prize is the print edition of your book, or a gift certificate for your next book. Make your guest appearance fun and they’ll remember you.
If you can’t meet in person, try other options:
Skype or Facetime allows an author to speak to book clubs anywhere there’s an internet connection.
Include reading group discussion guides at the end of your books. Here are some samples.
Include a special book club link on your website. Engage readers as described in this article from the Alliance of Independent Authors.
As I bid the Florida book club goodbye, Mary, the Zumba instructor, hugged me and said, “I can’t believe I met a real author.” I assured her that she’d earned far more money from Zumba than I ever would as a writer.
But Mary’s comment made me think about how readers view authors. As we toil at our computers, enduring years of frustration and rejection, our lives don’t feel very glamorous.
But the club taught me that readers are excited to meet the person behind the book they just read. They’re interested in the journey, the setbacks, and the triumphs. They like knowing the inside scoop. If their input helps shape your next book, they’re invested in it.
In an impersonal world, humans still crave connection. Book clubs give writers and readers the chance to make that connection.
As Bruce Springsteen sings:
I just want someone to talk to and a little of that human touch.
If you belong to a book club, have authors made personal appearances at meetings? Did that influence you positively or negatively?
If you’re an author, have you spoken to book clubs? What was their response?