Having a tribe of readers is important because it’s an incredible asset that can help you sell your books and raise your profile amongst readers. A tribe, or community, facilitates conversation between you and your readers and allows your readers to talk to each other about you, your books, and other topics. If you can form a tribe, it has the potential to change your career. 

But how do you do it? How can authors build a tribe of raving fans?

I asked Alice Crider, the editorial director at David C. Cook. Alice has built tribes as an author, agent, and editor.

What does it mean to build a tribe?

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: What does it mean to build a tribe?

Alice Crider: I conduct workshops at writers’ conferences, where, invariably, I encounter aspiring authors who approach me with a burning question: “I’m eager to write a book and feel a strong calling to do so, but is building a platform a necessity? I don’t even know where to begin. What should I do?” They often appear like a deer caught in headlights, panicked and overwhelmed by the consistent message from agents, editors, publishers, and educators that a platform is essential for getting noticed and having your book picked up.

Observing this widespread overwhelm, I reflect on my own experiences in the publishing industry. Some of the most successful authors I’ve worked with didn’t just build platforms; they forged genuine connections with people, creating what I like to call a ‘tribe’—a community of readers who are eager to hear from them and feel almost like a part of their family. You don’t just enjoy your favorite author’s writing; you often wish to know them on a personal level.

Some authors develop a following somewhat unintentionally, without a strategic plan. But many successful authors in publishing are those who have organically built a following by starting small. One author I recall began by teaching Sunday school. Her class was so engaged and responsive that she was inspired to write books that resonated deeply with her Sunday school students. Because her stories struck a chord with her Sunday school group, they also appealed broadly to others within the same demographic and psychographic.

In my view, the emphasis should shift from the concept of ‘building a platform’—which suggests standing on a stage and shouting, “Look at me, follow me!”—to actively serving people. A true tribe builder doesn’t just seek an audience; they look for opportunities to serve their people.

Thomas: The significance of narrowly defining your target audience cannot be overstated. For instance, authors often claim their book is for “women between the ages of 20 and 80.” That’s an excessively broad category that includes illiterate women, women from other countries, non-English speakers, women with various religious beliefs, and mothers—to name a few. It lacks specificity.

Consider the Bible, a book intended for everyone, yet many of the New Testament’s epistles were addressed to specific groups, such as the Corinthians, discussing their unique challenges, or to individuals like Timothy, offering personalized guidance, such as the advice to “take a little wine for your stomach.” These specific details, meant for a particular audience, do not alienate others; instead, they offer a richer, more personal experience to all readers.

Understanding your target reader is crucial—not just for marketing but for writing as well. It’s a process I call finding your Timothy. The process is simplified when you know precisely who you want to impact, ideally down to an individual. Take the example of the author who focused on her Sunday school group. She knew the particular challenges they faced, which kept her work relevant and responsive to the questions her target audience genuinely cared about.

What are some of the biggest challenges authors face when it comes to building a tribe?

Alice: The greatest hurdle authors face is the sense of being overwhelmed by the need to be everywhere at once: on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, managing a YouTube channel, engaging in Facebook Live, podcasting, and building a speaking career. They often don’t know where to start. The real challenge lies in jumping into these activities before clearly defining their target audience.

Who is your audience?

I advocate for focusing on your audience as if they were one person. Consider Paul’s letters to Timothy: by writing to one, he reached many. Reflect on that example and think not only about the age and demographics of your audience but also delve deeper. Consider what she believes, what she complains about, what causes her pain, the problems she needs to solve, and what keeps her awake at night. Understand her mindset and needs thoroughly. If you can’t do this in theory, then it’s crucial to engage with real people who represent your intended audience. Talk to them and ask about their needs, struggles, heartaches, and insomnia-inducing worries.

Especially for nonfiction, people generally pick up a book to find solutions, not just for reading’s sake. And this is true for fiction as well; people will only read if they have the desire to. Your job is to write in a way that creates that desire.

Thomas: It’s crucial to address a problem that the audience already acknowledges. This is particularly pertinent in Christian nonfiction, where the prevailing message can sometimes come across as “You’re a bad Christian; let me show you how to be a good one like me.” But honestly, no one is eager to read a book that starts from such a premise—no one wakes up thinking, “I feel like a bad Christian; I wish I had a book to fix this.”

The needs people feel are specific. For example, someone may be struggling with their weight and feeling guilt about their eating habits, wondering how to change. Addressing this very real concern, authors have found success and even built ministries by providing relief and guidance in these areas.

The key is to meet people where their pain is, not where you think the solution should be. It’s about a significant shift in mindset. Instead of trying to find readers for your book, you should be finding the right book for your tribe.

For example, if you have a heart for single mothers, consider what struggles they face and how you can offer blessings and guidance to bring them closer to Christ from where they are now. Adopting a servant’s approach through your writing, as opposed to just promoting a message, can change everything.

How can you meet their needs?

Alice: Just as you cannot approach a stranger on the street and start spouting advice, you cannot lead with your advice in a nonfiction book. You need to connect with readers by addressing what they recognize they need. For instance, you may understand that someone overeating is grappling with an emotional issue and that addressing this issue would help them stop overeating and lose weight. However, you can’t simply confront them with, “Hey, I know you’ve got this emotional issue.” You must meet them where they are and start with what they actually want.

Thomas: When Jesus approached the woman at the well, he didn’t begin by asking, “Would you like to hear about eternal life?” Instead, he initiated the conversation by discussing water—the very thing she was there to draw. He piqued her interest by saying, “This water you’re drinking is not living water. I can give you living water so that you’ll never be thirsty again.” That captured her attention, and he eventually moved on to the spiritual truths. Starting the conversation by meeting people where they are is incredibly impactful.

What’s the best way to connect with your audience?

Engaging with your audience begins in the real world, not on social media. The importance of a social media following comes after establishing genuine connections.

Many people believe that they can gain significant attention by simply being active on social media. However, that time has passed. Perhaps back in 2009, being an early user on Twitter could automatically attract followers, but it’s not 2009 anymore. Today, people have already chosen whom they want to follow. The only way someone will follow you online is if they’ve had a personal encounter with you in the real world or if someone they trust recommends you. It’s like the woman at the well: after her encounter with Jesus, she couldn’t wait to tell her town about the man who “told me everything I ever did,” and she brought them all to him.

In the same way, social media is not the direct route to fame and success in publishing. Hearing you, an editor, affirm this is reassuring, as it underscores the importance of authentic, real-world engagement.

Does a social media following lead to book sales?

Alice: Indeed, when we assess a book proposal and consider what the author might be able to accomplish in marketing their own book, we often evaluate their platform, if that’s what you want to call it. However, we’re discovering that high social media follower counts do not necessarily translate into book sales.

Unfortunately, your efforts to amass followers on various social media platforms may have been in vain. It’s not about accumulating a large number of followers; it’s really about connecting with people. Remember, these are not just numbers; they are real individuals with their own problems and interests. Increasingly, readers want to know the person behind the words. While it is beneficial to be active and visible on social media and to establish your presence, you need to recognize that social media is not the key to getting published or selling books.

Thomas: Readers tend to gravitate towards authors they recognize, like, and trust. Therefore, it’s essential for them to have heard of you. For example, many people have heard of Richard Dawkins, but not everyone has read his books, possibly because they don’t agree with his views or simply don’t like him. Trust is also a crucial factor. If readers are hesitant to give you their email address, it’s unlikely they’ll be willing to spend their money on your books.

What’s a good metric for evaluating your platform?

Thomas: you might boast about having 10,000 Twitter followers, but if your email list only contains 20 people, that’s a gap you need to address. An email list with 10,000 subscribers is a much better indicator of a real platform.

Alice: An email list is far more valuable than other metrics. However, people are increasingly reluctant to open emails, which poses its own challenges. But readers want to read authors they know, like, and trust. However, there are exceptions. Take Rachel Hollis, for example; she seemingly appeared out of nowhere on the New York Times bestseller list, prompting many to wonder, “Who is she? Where did she come from? Why should we read her?” She managed to go viral relatively quickly because a core group of people knew her, liked her, and trusted her. This initial support boosted her profile, and she gained national attention. Now, it’s her readers who are advocating for her books to their friends, continuing the cycle of familiarity and trust.

Thomas: To create a significant impact that spreads widely, like ripples across a pond, you can’t be subtle—you need to make a big splash. Rachel Hollis did just that. She threw a large stone into a still pond, causing ripples that extended far beyond the initial impact. The goal behind every book launch and promotional effort is to craft a book that so captivates your target audience they can’t help but share it with their friends.

Rachel Hollis had millions of followers even before her first book was released. With such a vast number of followers, even a small percentage of them purchasing your book can lead to substantial sales. Achieving such a following requires genuine engagement with your audience, not the shortcuts some authors use to inflate their numbers. Authors with truly large followings interact differently. They don’t ask for a follow-back as a means to bolster their presence. Instead, they focus on meaningful connections with real people behind the screen. Their goal is to excite a specific demographic, not just to accumulate followers for the sake of numbers.

What can authors do to start building their tribe?

Alice: The paramount word here is value. It’s essential to deliver an abundance of value to your readers or followers so that they feel they are getting more than they bargained for. They aren’t merely purchasing a book. Books have become commodities similar to products on a store shelf. Choosing a deodorant or toothpaste can even be overwhelming because there are so many options. The same applies to books, which are now so plentiful that they risk becoming indistinct.

A couple of years ago, someone even suggested that books aren’t good gifts anymore, reflecting the sentiment that books have lost their uniqueness.

To stand out, authors must deliver exceptional value. This could mean writing that is so captivating it’s impossible to put down, or it could involve additional content that enhances the value of the book. Making your book available in various formats, such as print, audio, and digital, is beneficial.

For example, Lysa TerKeurst released a new book accompanied by a workbook, which is now high on a bestseller list. Adding value to a book can also mean including video components. An author might offer a series of free videos with the purchase of the book.

Value is the keyword. Merely throwing ideas out there and seeing what sticks is not an effective marketing strategy. Relying on the rare occurrence of a lightning strike isn’t sound business planning either. Consider your audience as if they were one individual and ask yourself, “Aside from the message of the book, what else can I offer?” Brainstorm ways to pack as much value as possible into a single offering.

Thomas: If you want people to follow you, you must serve them and provide value, as Jesus taught in the New Testament.

It’s fascinating how the Bible offers guidance for every aspect of life. My co-host on my other podcast organizes retreats where he hosts about ten people in a secluded location. During these retreats, he delivers intensive coaching on brand building, writing, and marketing. Jim, who is a Christian, includes Christian principles in his courses and training. As the retreats have gained popularity, he’s hosted a more diverse audience. Recently, he told me that one attendee is not a Christian. I advised him to offer the same valuable advice because one doesn’t need to accept the entire Bible to benefit from the parts that can help them in their professional journey.

Once people experience the Bible, they often find it more palatable than they anticipated. They may develop an appetite for its teachings. But it’s important not to omit those teachings because they are effective. The Bible, especially the New Testament, is a practical book. The teachings of Jesus are particularly pragmatic, so we shouldn’t hesitate to share them. 

Serve your people, and they will learn to know, like, trust, and follow you.

Connect with Alice at AliceCrider.com or on her Facebook page.


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