How to (Mostly Painlessly) Engage Your Readers, with guest Pepper Basham
"The Author and the Reader can be Friends" (or, How to Painlessly Engage Your Readers)
Hi Seekerville! Carrie here. I recently did a call-out for topic ideas in a Facebook group I'm in for folks involved in the Christian fiction industry. Confession: I always have a bit of a panic attack when it comes to what I should write for Seekerville. So I wanted to know what authors want to know from a reader, reviewer, and book marketer. One of the topics that got the most attention was reader engagement. So I turned to my sweet author friend, Pepper Basham, for help with today's post - because Pepper is phenomenal when it comes to engaging her readers.
PEPPER: Have you ever watched the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma? There's a whole lot of division between the cowman and the farmer, which leads to a song called “The Farmer and the Cowman Can Be Friends". Well, we want to offer some helpful encouragement, in the relationship between the Reader and the Author. We CAN engage as friends (or at least as mutual encouragers), and it doesn’t have to be as complicated or stressful for either party as we too often make it.
CARRIE: Or as Pepper put it (to the above tune), "Bookish folks should stick together. Bookish folks should all be pals. One may string the words together, but the other helps the stories sell.” Connection leads to investment, and if nothing else we can connect over BOOKS! That "binds" us together. (Now I'm humming a hymn) Add Jesus into the mix and it makes the binding even tighter.
PEPPER: Hey, you know I love MUSICALS!! And why not give it a little bookish flair, right? But I love this conversation because I think it’s a whole lot better between an author and a reader to hopefully explain both sides.
Now, I’m not saying Carrie and I have the corner on this conversation. Each reader and author is unique, but there are some things both of us have learned that hopefully could be a help to some of you out there 😊
CARRIE: Agreed. I have the blessing of calling Pepper Basham a friend, and it started when I had the opportunity to review her debut novel, The Thorn Bearer (which, if you haven’t read her Penned in Time series, you need to). I was drawn immediately to not only her wordsmithing-ness (it's totally a real word!) but also to her warm personality and absolute love of books. That handful of initial conversations has led to a precious friendship…which has also led to me becoming one of her self-professed biggest cheerleaders.
Sometimes selfies are hard.
PEPPER: And I am SO thankful for you!! It’s amazing how those few bookish conversations have now turned into this…what is it? 6 year friendship?
CARRIE: I think you’re right. And, authors, you obviously don’t have to become besties with all of your readers. But there are some principles of author-reader engagement that we can pass on, from a book marketer and an author who are both avid readers, too. As I mentioned, Pepper is FABULOUS at engagement so feel free to stalk her on Facebook and see what she does 😊
PEPPER: LOL! I’ve stalked many an author myself, so turn about is fair play, I suppose 😊
I AM also a reader. I mean, I have felt the uncertainty about reaching out to an author to fangirl over their work, but let me just say, I’ve made some of the BEST friendships that way!!
However, from an author’s point of view, here are a few things I’ve realized in this author/reader dynamic.
- One of the most difficult things about engagement is the typical "difficult" thing about most everything: TIME. Engaging with readers can be very time consuming. As a pastor’s wife, mom, and speech-language pathologist, time is not always something I have in large quantities, but I’ve learned how to sprinkle the time in places that have worked. And I try to always respond to readers who send me a note to let them know I value the time they used to read my book and then send me that note.
- I've found that reader engagement fuels me much more than it drains me because most good readers recognize that the quality of the touch points an author tries to make is much more important than the frequency. Yes, frequency matters, in part, but quality matters even more.
- One of the most AMAZING things about engagement is that it's a wonderful connection to folks who encourage and support me in this weird and sometimes isolating world of fiction writing. You really do end up building a community. I LOVE having a group of readers to chat with, bounce ideas off of, and find encouragement. It's remarkable. I really don’t know how I’d manage all of the things I do with marketing and planning without having such an amazing group of readers on the journey with me.
Carrie says: COMMUNITY. Remember that. It will come up again in a minute. There won't be a quiz.
- Authenticity is KEY. I think when readers know you care about them and value their time/encouragement, they want to get involved on your journey as an author.
- One of the things I LOVE BEST (and my street team can confirm this) is having other people to fangirl over my fictional friends with me. In fact, we’ll fangirl over other authors’ fictional friends together too!!! The JOY of reading, books, and characters is a common connecting denominator. We enjoy good stories and we love the affirmation of others enjoying them too, especially when we've poured so much of our hearts into those stories.
PEPPER: So, Carrie, from a readers perspective what helps you feel like an author is approachable? What can an author do to show they value your companionship on the reading/writing journey?
From my reader, reviewer, and marketer’s perspectives, here are some easy action steps that even introverted or overwhelmed authors can do to increase authentic reader engagement & at the same time show that they value us as part of their community.
- Be active in bookish forums. (Facebook is great for this. Or the comment section of popular book blogs.) Readers & authors hang out there, and it provides a safe place to get your feet wet on this whole engagement thing. It’s a comfier place for readers to reach out to authors as well – seeing them ‘in the wild’ so to speak and realizing they love the same books as we do, etc. I personally love it for instance when authors like Carrie Turansky, DeAnna Dodson, and Patricia Bradley comment on my posts about other authors/books on my personal book blog. Erica Vetsch has also done a great job of this, as well, in her FB group for readers & authors of Inspirational Regency Fiction. And Laura Frantz & Pepper Basham have one for Armchair Travelers that also has terrific engagement, just born out of a love for traveling to great destinations on the pages of fave books.
- Invest in a blog tour from a reputable publicity company. I especially recommend this for debut or relatively new authors. (Get recommendations on tour companies your author friends have used & loved.) Typical blog tours include Q&As and guest articles along with the reviews & spotlights. Those personalized posts allow readers to connect on a more personal level with the author, and that connection leads to future investment in the author and his/her books. (Or if a professionally-organized blog tour isn’t in your budget and you have a street team you’re comfy with, ask if any of the members would like to host you in a Q&A or guest post on their blog)
- Approach interacting with your street team as building a community, rather than just something else you have to do. (See? I told you 'community' would show up again) I’ve been part of some street teams where the author only pops in to say “I have a new book coming out. Here you go.” And I’ve been part of street teams with authentic engagement between books too, and I can tell the author truly cares about us as more than free publicity. For example, Toni Shiloh weekly shares her prayer requests & praises with us and asks how she can pray for us, too. Pepper Basham shares little snippets of her life, of her writing progress, of what God’s been teaching her. Shelley Shepard Gray, Dana Mentink, and Becky Wade are really great at this as well - sharing fun things from their life, prayer requests, asking us questions about our lives, etc. Each of these authors is a fave of mine because of their books, but also because they engage with their readers and, in doing so, make us feel a part of their community. Again, that authentic connection leads us to greater investment as readers in those authors.
- Ask fun questions / start fun conversations on social media. Toni Shiloh asks #tonishilohquestions to correspond with various “National Days” of whatever (National Strawberry Sundae Day, National Jigsaw Puzzles Day, etc.). A simple question is all that’s needed – or throw in an eye-catching graphic too just to grab attention. Pepper Basham often chats about fun romance movies and posts photos of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Biltmore. Janine Rosche posts about her intense dislike of discarded flossers in random places, and over on Instagram she does simple reels where she decides if someone’s TikTok clip is ‘Worthy of a Romance Novel’. Before Facebook got rid of the polls feature on pages, Bethany Turner had a weekly poll that was just way too much fun, on such serious topics as Who’s cuter - George Clooney or Noah Wyle? Which portrayal of Mr. Darcy is the best? Would you rather visit Narnia or Hogwarts? etc You can find tons of icebreaker questions and bookish questions online, so this is something that doesn't require a lot of thought, effort, or time - just do it with some sort of consistency to keep the conversation going.
~*~*~*~*~*~Pepper Basham is an award-winning author who writes romance peppered with grace and humor with southern Appalachian flair. Both her historical and contemporary novels have garnered recognition in the Grace Awards, Inspys, and ACFW Carol Awards. Her historical romance, The Thorn Healer, was a finalist in the 2018 RT Awards. Her historical romance novels, My Heart Belongs in the Blue Ridge and
Carrie Schmidt is an avid reader, book reviewer, story addict, KissingBooks fan, book boyfriend collector, and cool aunt. She also loves Jesus and THE Story a whole lot. Co-founder of the Christian Fiction Readers' Retreat and JustRead Publicity Tours, Carrie now lives in Georgia with her husband Eric, though her roots range from East Tennessee to northern Illinois. She can be found lurking at various blogs and websites (because she can't stop talking about books) but her main home is the blog she started in 2015 - ReadingIsMySuperPower.org.
Authors, what intimidates you the most about reader engagement?
Readers, what helps you feel like an author is approachable?