Matt Gemmell

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An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

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Building an audience

blog & writing 4 min read

For some reason, people often ask me how I built my audience.

There are far better people to ask. They have more followers. They have more readers. They maybe have more of an active strategy. Maybe you should seek their advice instead.

But I do get asked that question, so I thought I’d at least try to formulate an answer, for posterity.

You should know that this will be brief. I’m not being flippant; far from it. I just think that the answer is obvious. Frustratingly, disappointingly so. It’s in the there are no shortcuts category. Consider yourself duly warned.

First, why should you listen to me at all? Maybe you shouldn’t; I’ll leave it up to you to decide. Here are some stats that might be relevant:

  • I have over a million unique readers per year on this site (and a few hundred thousand elsewhere, for fiction).

  • I’ve been writing here since September 2002, which was more than twelve-and-a-half years ago.

  • There are over 1,100 articles here, and I’ve had pieces in a host of magazines and newspapers, and on web sites; you can see a partial list here. People pay me to write. I even have some beloved members of this site, who support my work, and restore my faith in humanity and the creative arts. Folks, I love you.

  • On this site alone, I’ve published more than 650,000 words. That’s a fair bit.

  • I have a book of essays on Amazon. It’s been pretty well reviewed. I’ll have a first novel out soon, and more to come. I also have a book about resolving plot issues in fiction.

  • Across the various social networks, I’ve got 30,000 or so followers – the majority of whom follow me on Twitter. Don’t worry; I’m not asking.

  • I’ve been on Twitter since February 2007, and I’ve tweeted more than 62,500 times. That’s a big number. Maybe I should be worried.

That’s me. If any of that makes you want to hear my opinion on this subject, well, there are more words below. Otherwise, have a good one.

For those who are still here, let me reveal the big secret. Like anything worth a damn, there are three steps.

  1. Write things. Not other people’s things; your own. Publish those things on your site.

  2. Say interesting and/or amusing things on social media – pithy observations are good – and occasionally link to the things you published on your site. Try to balance self-promotion with politeness. When in doubt, go for the latter.

  3. Keep doing it for years.

There you go: the silver bullet. It works, too. It’s worked really well for me. It gets easier as more time goes by, due to the network effect – as long as you keep writing. As a bonus, your work will also be better.

Oh, you’d like just a bit more detail on those steps? I can do that, but again I’m going to be brief. The advice just doesn’t warrant a whole essay.

Write things

  • Topic doesn’t matter, as long as you have something to say. Only write when you have something to contribute. Don’t write just because a topic is popular, or because something just happened.

  • If your thoughts seem like they’re too brief to publish, but otherwise OK, definitely publish them.

  • Fully read your piece through before publishing it. There are mistakes, and you have to find them and correct them. Run the spellchecker too.

  • Write because you love writing.

  • Read a lot. It’ll make you a better writer, and you’ll find more topics to write about. Also, reading is its own reward. You’re doing it right now.

Say things on social media

  • Follow people from the field you’re most interested in. You can probably skip the big names who have loads of followers. You want people who engage with you. I… usually, I’ll engage with you. I try my best.

  • Respond, but only if you have something to say (just as with writing). Remove no-longer-participating people from a conversation thread as soon as possible. That’s just basic politeness. Before replying, check to see if someone has already said what you’re about to say – they probably have.

  • Try to take the high road. Accept others’ opinions, even if they seem wrong. Try not to get into any fights.

  • Link to your writing. Don’t just paste a link; tell people what you wrote about, and perhaps why.

  • Skip the sleazy stuff, like competitions where a follow or retweet is required for entry. Respect your audience, and maybe they’ll respect you.

Keep doing it for years

  • It’ll take a while to build up an audience. There is no ‘but’. Accept it. Go for respect and loyalty, rather than quick boosts.

  • Try to put something up once a week, but don’t force it. The best way to get more readers is to write something really good.

  • Keep a list of topics with you at all times, and add to it whenever anything springs to mind. That might be when you read other people’s links, or your feeds, or the news. If you think you have something to say about a subject, make a brief note. When you’re ready to write, choose one of your notes.

  • Engage with those who share your articles – saying thank-you is only polite. Some day, you won’t be able to reply to everybody all the time, which will be awful, but if you’re basically decent, they’ll probably forgive you.

That’s really all I can tell you. I don’t spend time on this stuff, even though a thousand people will tell you that you should. I don’t have a strategy, or a plan. Being asked about audience-building is very strange for me, because it really doesn’t appear on my list of goals, which is as follows:

If you’re asking, and at this point I suppose you are, that’s what I’d go for. It’s straightforward, pretty easy, and it’s on the long, honest road. Stick with it.

You’ll get readers for the right reasons: because they like your work, and – just maybe, by extension – kind of like you. That’s a good thing. That’s the way to do it. Right? Right.

So, write.