Reaching Readers: What attracts the unicorn?

The unicorn from the 1985 movie “Legend”

Last week we compared readers to the great white stag — that elusive beast that you cannot help desiring, but which is ever out of reach. A similar legend is that of the unicorn. According to myth, unicorns are attracted to young virgin girls. The unicorn will approach the girl and lay its head upon her lap.

What does this have to do with reaching your readers? What’s an author supposed to do — hire a virgin girl to manage his social media accounts?

Hmmm… that just might work… ahem. Sorry, rabbit trail. Actually, what you need to do is think about what your reader NEEDS. Just as a unicorn needs to feel safe from harm and from corrupted human intentions, a reader wants certain things.

What does a reader want? What do they really, really want?

To find a good book to read? No! You’d think that. But you’d be wrong. Look deeper. Why do readers search for that “good book”? What IS a “good book”, when it’s all said (read) and done?

What a reader really, really wants is a satisfying emotional experience.

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Jeff Gerke cracks the code on this in his writing how-to book The Irresistible Novel. Others have said it before, but I love hearing it from Jeff because of his backstory. He’s an editor. He used to be all about the rules of writing (according to his own testimony in the book — I haven’t been on the receiving end of his red pen myself). But over time he has discovered that there’s more to pleasing readers than following the rules.

How to attract the unicorn

If readers are looking for an emotional experience, then how can we use this desire to attract their attention? If a reader hasn’t read your book yet, how do you tell her that she might enjoy it? As any romance writer could tell you, it starts with the first meeting. The first eye contact. The first touch. When we’re talking social media and your online presence, it starts with a tweet, a Facebook post, a graphic meme, or a blog post.

It might start when they attend the Facebook release party of an author they already love and meet you there, co-hosting the party. Or maybe you’re just a fellow fan of an author you both enjoy. They post a comment about how the characters of this series make them laugh. You reply with a funny story about how you LOL’d one time in the middle of the first book and startled your cat awake. A shared moment of enjoyment, celebrating something they already associate with pleasure.

Your online presence needs to be full of opportunities for potential readers to enjoy being around you. You want them to associate your name with an emotional experience: laughter, wisdom, fascination, wonder… even appreciation of a sarcastic wit, admiration for a clever turn of phrase or keen insight. Think about your list of the three words people most often use to describe you. You can capitalize on those things to engage readers and provide them a moment of pleasure.

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Action Item

  • Think like a fan. Analyze your own reactions to the social media efforts of the authors, movies, and TV shows that you like.
  • Find the watering holes. People who will enjoy your books are already out there, enjoying other authors. Who are those authors? They are likely the authors of books you like.
  • Leave a comment below with three guesses about which authors your readers may like. Try to think beyond the biggest names (Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Veronica Roth, etc) and find some of the newer authors who aren’t as “big” yet. Find authors who have a fanbase online but who also might be within reach for a blog interview, a shared Facebook release party, or some other collaborative marketing effort.



Reaching Readers: Is it the hunt for the white stag?


Bilbo and the dwarves briefly encountered a white stag. They are deep in the dark of Mirkwood when they hear the horns of a hunt and the stag runs by, knocking Bombur into the stream that must not be touched. It’s a little different in the movie, but I’m always up for a movie clip. At heart, I’m a fan who likes to re-live moments of beauty, victory, tenderness, awe.

White stags (or white harts) are in myth and legend around the world. There are different flavors to the legends, but always there is awe and desire, the fleeting opportunity and the chase. And today we’re talking about the Arthurian flavor — where the white stag was always something to be desired yet always out of reach.

A lot of authors feel that’s what readers are: something to be desired, yet always out of reach.

(Did you know? When reading this on our website, you can highlight any text in our articles and instantly tweet them or share the quote to Facebook. Try it with the sentence above!)

Where are all the readers?

They feel like rare and elusive beasts, don’t they? Your book sits there, waiting to be purchased and read. Or it sits there, waiting for reviews. Is the forest empty? Did someone else already kill the stag, leaving you with nothing, forever?

Come on, surely you’re smiling now, realizing how silly that is. Even though it feels that way.

The readers are out there!

Your readers are out there. And it’s time you start finding them. To begin, consider this: What if finding new fans really is more like pursuing the white stag than you thought? What if you have to venture into the forest, search them out, and follow them until you catch them?

Because if we’re honest, we were hoping that reaching readers would be more like that scene from Finding Nemo where the big net scoops up thousands of fish at a time. Throw out the net. Scoop up the readers. BAM. Make a living as a writer.

Well, yes. There are strategies and tactics that are more net-like. But if you are just starting out, and nobody knows you, and you don’t have a lot of money to throw into advertising, then one of the ways to get the ball rolling is to find readers one by one.

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Action Item

  • Start thinking like a fan. Reverse engineer this whole thing. What draws you to a book? A TV show? What judgments do you make about how you spend your entertainment time?
  • Be strategic. Start thinking of readers to target who have influence over groups of other readers in your target market (teachers and principals influence students; reviewers and celebrity authors influence their subscribers, etc).
  • Start a list of people you want to introduce to your work. Don’t do anything with it yet. Just follow them through the forest, observing them, for now. Yes, you are fan stalking.
  • Leave a comment below with three guesses about who your readers are. You can include demographics (“My readers are women between 20-50 yrs old”), ideology (“My readers care about humanity and value scientific progress”), similar stories (“My readers watch Gotham and Supernatural and read George R.R. Martin”), or shared fandoms (“My readers are fans of Star Wars and Firefly”), or whatever else you may imagine about your readers!



Interested in hearing more about the legends of the white stag? Check out Wikipedia’s entries on the white stag and the white hart, Mythical Beasts: The White Stag by zteve t evans, and Mythic Creatures: The White Stag by Sarah Sawyer (gotta love these fellow writers and their research!).