I initially published this in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.
How’d you like my can’t-skip subject line? I algorithmically optimized it…just for you.
It’s not click bait, though! I really do want you to stop telling everybody about the Maven Game. (That means you, Mommy.)
So no more tweets, pins, posts, regards, or (shudder) LinkedIn updates. (“What’s on my mind?” Since you asked, LinkedIn, I’m wondering why those little red notification numbers are lies.)
This newsletter is not for everybody. I don’t want just anybody reading it. This is a place to discuss not only how the sausage gets made, but whether authors should be making sausage in the first place.
Sausage? I mean, whatever happened to writing books?! Amirite? Hello? (taps on microphone, shuffles through index cards) What else is going on…
Disclaimer: I should point out, I sincerely appreciate it when people share my stuff online. (Again, that means you, Mommy.)
The central thesis of the Maven Game is that readers are not fungible. As soon as your audience becomes a metric to be optimized, you’ve fallen into the Maven Trap™.
We all find ourselves in the Maven Trap now and then. We want to imitate the tactics of the successful, but we look to the wrong models. That’s because, on the Internet, individuals and organizations become indistinguishable. Websites, emails, and social media look the same regardless of tax filing status.
Confusingly, individuals can actually become companies. Successful course creators, for example. These hybrid entities still talk (via email and social media) like the individuals who launched them, but they begin to act like companies.
Companies can afford to strip-mine the world for customers. People have to chisel each true fan out of the earth by hand.
What are the consequences? A thought leader friend told me about a recent industry conference. When one of the speakers took the podium, the audience started giggling to each other about how frequently he emails his list and all his other spammy tactics.
He’d gotten himself a reputation among his peers for his company-like marketing techniques. Again, if his intention was to build a company selling a product, great. Strip-mine the world for customers. You’ve got to fill the old funnel. Anyone who unsubscribes or gets annoyed wasn’t going to buy anyway. Plenty of fish in the sea!
For an individual with a network of peers in his industry and a limited number of large corporate clients to worry about, I’d say: user frustration is not an acceptable filtering strategy.
So, if you plan on longevity as an expert, a writer, a teacher, a speaker, a consultant: start chiseling.
Let’s look at a parallel. In fiction, genre writers carefully separate their audiences using pen names. This effort makes sense because genre fans search for new books by author.
While some people are happy little word-tubes, squeezed by their publishers to express a steady flow of genre-paste, most creative human beings get in ruts. They need to stretch now and then. If your next piece represents a stark departure, you’ll save yourself many 1- and 2-star reviews from disappointed fans by adopting a new persona.
This approach works even better when your pen name is an open secret. That way, your readers can come along for the ride if they’re open to something new. The rest can steer clear.
For example, one author has sold hundreds of millions of copies of her books. She’s spent over 800 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. And yet you’ve never heard of her. Meet Eleanor Robertson.
As Nora Roberts, Robertson writes romance novels. As J.D. Robb, Robertson writes romance novels set in the 21st century.
Many Nora Roberts fans turn up their noses at the work of J.D. Robb.
“The 21st century? Science fiction is for nerds!”
Her edgy fans, the ones who favor dark lipstick and leather jackets, are like, “21st century, huh? Drive me to B&N at 88 m.p.h. for a trip to the future of romance.”
What this does is protect Robertson’s work from the wrong audience. It isn’t about maximizing people-units. Robertson knows that some of her books are not for every reader. She’d rather have each book’s audience made up of those who are interested, open, and receptive to that work.
How does this apply to thought leaders? As I’ve said before, we’re human beings. It’s sad how often I have to remind clients of this fact.
“But blood sacrifice drives conversion rates!”
“Never believe what you read on Medium.”
(As we’ve learned the hard way, most essays on Medium advocate A/B-testing black magic rituals.)
Human beings cannot “rebrand” like a magazine or company blog if they alienate a portion of their audience. The growth-hackery that might be worth the risk for a start-up is just not a good option for a person.
In our rush to assemble an audience of 50,000 people so that 1 percent might buy something, we’re losing sight of the 500 real people who are actually reading our stuff right now.
We can perform (white) magic if we truly speak to those 500 people. Unfortunately, that compare-and-despair growth-hack mindset starts to seep in:
“If I can get 500 people just by writing my best stuff, I can easily 10x that by [some strategy you hate when you’re on the receiving end].”
You know you’re on the road to perdition when you start trying to 10x anything.
Here’s how to growth-hack your writing:
- What problems do I know how to solve?
- Who has those problems?
- Where are they and how do they want their solutions delivered?
These steps are a recipe for a career without misgivings, regret, or public humiliation.
In that spirit, I ask you not to tweet the Maven Game. Most of your followers don’t have problems I can solve. I don’t want to waste their time. I don’t want to feel pressured to dilute my message to suit their real needs.
Instead, I ask that you share this newsletter with one person: an author or aspiring author of practical nonfiction. Particularly one currently mired in the Maven Trap.
Doing that would be more valuable for me, them, you, and your audience.
Now, like anything worth reading, this essay will culminate in a white-hot saxophone solo: