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The Key to Building an Audience Is in Your Backyard

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by David W. Brown

An editor once expressed skepticism to me over the power of social media to sell a book. A pithy tweet about a flat tire might elicit a dozen “likes,” but it would almost never result in an offer to help change your tire. The people who buy your books are the ones who would show up gladly, car jacks ready and road flares in hand. After writing a great book—there’s no getting around that!—a surefire way to build that kind of audience is to practice good literary citizenship in your local community. Hold signings at the town bookshop, yes, and give talks at the library, but look beyond the quick book sale. Take care of your community and your community will take care of you in a way Facebook never could. Here are some ways to be a good literary citizen.


Writers in the Schools (WITS) is a Houston-based non-profit that helps authors, poets, and playwrights start creative writing programs at local elementary and high schools. The idea is to collaborate with English teachers to help students learn craft and tell stories. If you’re reading this, you’re either a member of the Authors Guild, or interested in applying—in other words, you’re a professional with real accomplishments to your name. You are the person from whom students want to hear.

Will this help you sell books? Not directly, I hope—don’t ask your kids to purchase $30 hardcovers! You’re not cornering sales; you’re introducing new citizens to the world of creative writing, and establishing, growing, or reinforcing a vibrant literary community. Trust in that community and the sales will come. If WITS doesn’t have an affiliate in your city, state, or country, consider starting a chapter.


Organize a local workshop with your peers—but don’t expect your workshop to be Tin House out the gate. Any writer who’s dipped a toe in local writing groups knows that 1) the prose can be pretty awful, and 2) most members of the group are too kind to say so in a meaningful way. Because of this, publishable work rarely results.

If you’ve been part of an MFA program, you know how to identify bad writing and how to deliver the bad news with a surgeon’s steely countenance. You also know how to organize a proper workshop, and have the credibility to give solid advice that will be taken from heart. A writer motivated enough to join a local writing group is likely motivated enough to want to get better. Help them. Word-of-mouth about the talented local author will follow.


In Diary, Chuck Palahniuk writes that every book at the library is somebody’s “homemade immortality.” Consider starting a writing group for local seniors, whether at your public library or at a local retirement home. Brew a pot of coffee and wait for the stories to come. Defining moments in an attendee’s life need not have occurred on such a stage as the beaches of Normandy. Each of us—the “whole race from Adam down,” to borrow from Melville—fights quiet, desperate wars of our own. I think often of Stewart O’Nan’s masterpiece Last Night at the Lobster, in which the manager of a failed restaurant runs its final dinner service. It is as compelling as any story ever written, and there are as many such stories—real ones—as there are people. Help those stories get told.

Several years ago, Steve Fellner wrote an extraordinary blog post offering advice for writers on how to run a memoir workshop for seniors. Journal Therapy likewise has good advice and suggested topics of exploration. Psychology Today, meanwhile, offers advice on the types of questions one might ask (e.g., “old wives tales” and “natural methods of healing handed down from generation to generation”). Think of them as writing prompts. African author Amadou Hampâté Bâ once said that when an old person dies, it’s like a library burning down. As authors, it is perhaps our responsibility to try to save a few of the stacks.

It’s hard to imagine doing all this strictly to sell books, and I can’t think of anything seedier than peddling books to your students. But if word-of-mouth is an author’s best friend, you can bet your name will proliferate across many a Facebook profile. And all it took was community engagement.


Self-promotion is the part of the job that nobody likes, as it resides a little too close to the truth—that ultimately we’re widget-makers in need of widget-buyers. Taking one’s eyes off the cash register and casting them toward the community is one of the most satisfying ways of finding an enthusiastic audience. Is it a lot of work? It can be. But it beats the hours spent drafting 140-character bons mots on Twitter.

If you do any of these things (or others I’ve not described), I’d love to hear from you for a future column. I’d like to know your successes and failures, and what advice you have for community engagement.

David W. Brown is a member of the Authors Guild and a freelance contributor to The Atlantic and Vox. He can be found online at and @dwbwriter. Photo credit: Anna-Karin Skillen


Photo: Young toekans sharing food by Sander van der Wel licensed under CC 2.0