Friday, April 11, 2014

The Art of Writing: 5 Ways to Grow and Involve Your Fanbase

One of the keys to a marketable novel is its ability to create and maintain a fanbase—a following of fans dedicated to the franchise; often called a “fandom.” Through a fanbase, a novel will grow past its original selling point because it is no longer merely a book—it is a part of an identity statement of thousands of individuals.

You’re probably more familiar with fanbases than you think. Ringers are Lord of the Rings fans who are usually semi-fluent in elvish. Trekkies greet each other with the Vulcan Salute and learn to speak Klingon. Potterheads play on their college Quidditch team and dine on butterbeer and chocolate frogs. Bronies know that they’re “20% cooler” when they give “everypony” in the “herd” a “brohoof.”

These are just a few examples of popular franchises that have experienced enormous growth through their diverse fanbases. Mastering your franchise and gearing it to create a fanbase can greatly increase your novel’s marketability. Here are five simple tips that can assist you in building a dedicated following for your novel or franchise.

Note: For the purposes of this article, I will use the term “fanbase” and “fandom” interchangeably.

1. Attractive Art Style and Characters
When I say attractive, I don’t mean beautiful or handsome. By attractive I mean “eye-grabbing.” The artwork and character design of your franchise should stop the reader’s bookshelf peruse dead in its tracks.

Authors will tell you that the importance of cover art cannot be stressed enough. Readers most often pick up books because something about the cover appeals to them—usually because they find something about the cover attractive. With millions of genre-styled book covers out there, it’s important that you make yours unique enough to “pop out” at your potential audience.

Characters from Lackadaisy. Art by Tracy Butler.
Some authors don’t like putting out “official illustrations” of their characters because they appreciate the reader’s ability to conjure an image on their own. However, establishing what your characters look like can really grow your fanbase—particularly with the YA and juvenile crowd.

If you don’t already have a personal author website, I highly recommend that you establish one. These websites can be a great place to interact with fans, sell your books, announce events, and display your fictional cast. Having biographies of your characters, along with images of what they look like, can boost your fanbase immensely. Some readers are not as visual as others. Some don’t enjoy reading at all and would rather have pictures than words. For these reasons, illustrations of your characters can actually get the more standoffish audience interested in your work. If the characters peak their interest, and the art style is unique enough to grab their attention, then your chances of reaching out to trickier customers increases substantially.

Character design from The Secret of Kells.
For proof of this phenomena, look at novels like The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, and Twilight. For several years, these novels had a large following, but it wasn’t until these books were adapted into films that the fandoms of these franchises really came to the forefront. One reason for this is that movies are more readily advertised than books (we see commercials on TV, hear about it on the radio, see trailers online, watch previews in the theater, and, of course, see a lot of merchandise begin to amass). However, I believe the greater reason is that these novels are finally being given “a face.” Characters are suddenly rendered in a visible form, along with the stories they tell. This is also the reason why television shows, video games, and anime have such large followings. Visuals are simpler. They are easy to grasp. And when these visuals are made widespread across the internet and television, they begin to amass an interest.

A picture is worth 1,000 words. An illustration of an interesting character is going to snatch attention quicker than two paragraphs about said character. Use this to your advantage. Even if you must hire someone to sketch or photoshop images of your characters, your efforts will be well worth it in the end. Much like your novel’s cover, don’t be afraid to spend a little extra on hiring a professional artist to get this job done. Find a unique artistic style that echoes your writing voice and fictional world. Then, find an artist with the special skill to capture this unique style.

2. Create Factions and Draw Parallels
People like to belong. From the beginning of Creation, individuals have sought acceptance and individuality, while at the same time desiring to be a part of something greater than themselves.

Remember the opening paragraph, where I said that fandom is an identity statement? The most popular franchises on the markets use this factor to their advantage by integrating different “factions” into their novels. In Harry Potter, there are different houses of Hogwarts wizardry. In Warriors, there are different cat clans. The Hunger Games, there are different districts. In The Lord of the Rings there are very distinct races of people that inhabit Middle-Earth. In Divergent, individuals are categorized into factions based on their dispositions. In the Percy Jackson series, demi-god children at Camp Halfblood are divided into factions based on their godly heritage. The list goes on and on.
are different cat clans. In

It is from these factions that much of fandom gets its steam. When a series begins to get a fandom following, individuals of that fandom begin to identify with certain factions from the series. For example, a Divergent fan might identify themselves mostly with the Amity (or peaceful) faction; as a result, they might buy shirts or car decals with this emblem. Similarly, Harry Potter fans might purchase and wear scarves that represent one of the houses of Hogwarts in order to show off their dedication and similarity to that particular house.

When you design your novel, keep your readers in mind. Give them something that they can choose to claim as a part of their self-identity. If you can get your reader to think, “Out of the four factions from ________, I am most like this one,” then you have planted the fandom seed.

3. Dare to be Different
Give your novel intelligence. Give it something fresh and real that readers have been longing to read. Dare to reach into the recesses of fresh ideas that others are too afraid to use, lest they fail.

Have you ever seen a really good movie? I mean, a really good movie? One that was so unique and exciting and original that you felt proud just showing it off to your friends and family?

That is what you want to achieve with your novel. Choose a new angle—some fresh twist on an old The Hunger Games—which is now a best-seller and feature film.
topic—or dare to venture where others authors haven’t. Readers will often respect this novelty and your novel will get people talking. If someone had suggested that a young adult novel be written about teenagers killing other teenagers in a gladiator-style area, most would have balked at the thought. But Susan Collins wrote this very book—The Hunger Games—which is now a best-seller and feature film.

In truth, there are very, very few downright bad ideas when it comes to writing novels. Much depends upon what you choose to do with the idea itself. Context and proper usage is everything. Do it right, and you can create a bestseller off of almost any idea.

Remember when I said that people like to belong? Well, people like to be unique too, and there’s a certain sense of pride that comes from reading and recommending a novel that is as unique as they themselves are. Strive to give your readers a piece of themselves in written form. Focus on something that no other novel of your genre has, or take a fresh approach to an old concept. The more involved and outspoken fans tend to view franchises they like as a part of their identity. They appreciate what the franchise stands for, and they like to see themselves reflected within it—through characters, messages, storyline, style, and the intricacy of the world itself. The key is to design a series that individuals will be proud to call a part of their “self-identities.”

4. Leave Some Things Open-Ended
A sign of a growing and flourishing fanbase is when a fanbase begins to post theories about your novel. These theories might come in the form of theorized explanations, educated guesses at the future of the novel, fanfiction, “fanon,” or “headcanons.” This is important because it shows that your fanbase cares enough about your fictional universe to want to “be a part of it.” They love the characters and the world to the point that they hope to see specific outcomes occur (and may even write these themselves via fanfiction and fanon).

Fans who are genuinely “into” your franchise will likely do these things without any kind of encouragement; however, there are some things you can do to prompt fan theorizing:

Don’t detail everything. Let me clarify: bring as much closure to your novel as you feel necessary to satisfy the reader; at the same time, don’t feel the need to detail every single instance of your characters’ lives or of the history of your world. Perhaps you have a character who was involved with a street gang for many years before becoming a law officer. While some details about this character’s past will be crucial to the story, it can be beneficial to leave some things a mystery. Fanbases gravitate towards what is not said in a series, and much fanfiction and fanon is born when you allow fans to theorize about what might have occurred in this particular character’s past. This speculation can serve as a fan-unifier, especially when theories become widely accepted by the fanbase.

Directly Involve your Fandom. Host a fanfiction contest from your official blog or social network. Ask fans to vote on the name of your new character/country/creature. Pose theorizing questions to the fandom, such as “Who should the main character end up with?” or “Who do you think will die at the end of the next book?” Get feedback from them, and respond to it. Fandoms love to be catered to. When you show that you understand the popular fanons and headcanons that your series has generated, the fanbase will respect you even more for it.

Use Social Media to your Advantage. The #1 way that your fandom will spread and grow is through social networks (which I’ll discuss in the next section). Fanons and headcanons will easily develop and gain popularity on the internet, where a single re-blog can go out to millions of other users.

5. Involve Your Fanbase Through Social Networks
The #1 way to grow your fanbase is to involve them through social networks—Facebook, tumblr, Twitter, etc.—and through your personal author website.

Put yourself in your fan’s shoes. Fandoms differ from one to the next. Take a look at yours. What are they most likely to be interested in? What sort of fans does your franchise attract? Why do they care so much about your series? When you approach your franchise from the perspective of the fan, it becomes easier to know what your fans want to see. This does not mean that you should begin to model your series after what your fans want, but rather what is best for them and the series. Supply your fans with things that they expect to see—insider jokes, character antics, style, flair, detailed world building… At the same time, don’t completely shy away from catering to your fans. If a certain character becomes unexpectedly popular, consider giving him/her a special scene in your next novel, for instance.

Respond to your followers. If a fan e-mails you, respond to their e-mail promptly and courteously. Make your response something that they will treasure. When followers comment on your Facebook posts or your personal blog, personally respond to each and every one of them. This not only makes them feel special and respected, it lets them know that they are valued. Whenever you respond to a comment try to offer the fan (1) something that they can respond to and (2) something of related interest. For example:

Ask questions. No matter what you post, ask some kind of question in its midst. This will get your fans talking, which encourages the post to spread around. Don’t forget to respond to what your followers post. They are more likely to share their opinions when they know that their comments are read and acknowledged. They took the time to respond to your question. You should take the time to acknowledge their words.

Character interviews, biographies, and illustrations. I’ve already talked about this in my first point, but let me expand on it a bit more. Characters will make or break your novel. It is important that your readers care about them and like them. When you have a section on your blog or website that lists your cast of characters, along with biographies and illustrations, you are introducing them to your readers in a simple, quick, and efficient manner. You may also want to include things like character interviews, which can give your readers an idea of how your character talks, what they believe and enjoy, and also a few tasty tidbits about his/her role in the story.

Interactive activities. Get creative with ways to engage your fans while spreading interest in your series. Create a personality quiz, for example, where fans can figure out which character they are most like. Or create a quiz that challenges how much your fans know about your series. Those who are more versed in programming may want to create flashgames themed around their series. Those with designing capabilities should consider creating wallpapers, avatars, and signatures for fans to use on their computers, in forums, and on their social networks. The possibilities are endless. Be creative.

Develop a lingo. This is optional, but it can help to emphasize the identity of the fandom. Creating a lingo—or a set of terms geared towards the fanbase—can define your series as a fandom. Defining a term for the overall fandom is often the first step. Twilight fans are Twihards. Dr. Who fans are Whovians. My Little Pony fans are Bronies or Pegasisters. This overall term is what helps define a fandom, and under this term are many others used within the fan community. These terms are especially wide-spread online where social networks link fans with one another. Much like fanon and headcanon, lingo within the fanbase of a particular series often develops on its own.

Add Something!
How do you like to keep your fanbase thriving? If you have tips, be sure to share them!