exploring the difference between having readers and having FANS





A writer recently told me that she felt a need to develop her “social media presence” because, even though she’s had a string of novels successfully published, she doesn’t think she has fans. “I have readers,” she told me, as we drove through Beverly Hills looking for a place to have a drink, “Not fans. There’s a difference.”

It’s an interesting distinction.

There are blogs I soak up for information, just as there are books I read for the value of the story without feeling a sense of resonance with the author that would make me say I’m a fan. So what is it, exactly, that tips me over into fandom? Is it some kind of star quality, some X factor?

Or is it a quality or set of qualities that you can develop online, that pulls people to you and converts them from strangers to readers to fans…maybe even True Fans?


MJ Rose compares a writer’s use of social media to standing on the sidewalk with a

sandwich board with your bookcover on it while you chase and chat with anyone you can corral and who is willing to talk to you.

Would that be a valuable way to spend a chunk of time? What size chunk of time? How would you decide?
If four people stopped to chat with you?

If, on the way out, two stopped to tell you they bought your book?

And how can you be sure the people you are talking to are even enjoying what you are saying? Are you reaching them? Or annoying them? How many of them might have bought your book if they saw it on the table but the sandwich board turned them off?

It’s a fairly ridiculous scenario — right?

And yet that’s what many authors are doing every day by investing incredibly valuable writing time on what might turn out to just be tomorrow’s MySpace — Facebook and Twitter.

We’re doing it because we’re anxious and desperate to sell our books and to keep our sales high enough to keep our careers viable.

I, for one, have never bought someone’s book just because they DM’d me on Twitter, or posted an especially amusing status update.

You might indeed, at least in the beginning, have to find your fans one at a time, but what they want is good writing, good storytelling, truly useful insight and information.

And as all writers know, you need to show not tell.

You show yourself on your blog. You make a personal connection not by chasing down strangers but by revealing your mind through what you write about; you flash out your voice like a lighthouse to orient the like-minded and allow them to find you.

It’s not a one-to-one relationship but a one-to-many relationship.

If and when Kelly Diels writes a novel, I’ll be first in line to buy it. Why? Because I’m a fan of her blog – and her.

As soon as Chris Guillebeau’s first traditionally published book came up for pre-order on Amazon, I pre-ordered it. (I went on to host a book party for him at my house.) Why? Because I’m a fan.

This morning I sent Jonathan Fields a Twitter DM asking for an advance copy of his new book Uncertainty because I am soooo eager to read it. Why? Because…you get the idea.

I don’t read their blogs just for information – in fact, I go for stretches when I don’t read their blogs at all. But that doesn’t dislodge them from my affections. And although I’ve had personal contact with these writers, it wasn’t the contact that caused my fandom but my fandom that inspired me to reach out for contact.

They have what I would describe as online charisma. They inspire a sustained interest in what they have to say and how they say it. Their voices aren’t just delivery vehicles for information or chit-chat, but full-bodied entities in their own right. So you seek them out again and again. You form a relationship with that voice even though the bearer of it doesn’t know you from Adam (at least at first). Because that voice isn’t the person so much as a projection of that person. (You might even call it a ‘brand’.)

And some projections are more interesting, and truthful, and authentic than others, until the gap between the projection and the person is a narrow one indeed.


We are what we share, which is a statement about what we think and care about. Which means that your content can become an expression of identity: your own…and someone else’s. This is, I think, what the most successful and powerful brands do. Their identities overlap with yours because they convey the same values, ideas and beliefs. You can relate to them, and use them as a kind of extension of yourself, a way of signaling your identity to the world. And the more that image is backed up with actual substance and meaning, the more resonant it becomes.

So to resonate, a voice has to have substance and meaning. It has to deliver a consistent point of view that is true and authentic all the way through. It doesn’t stop at the surface while something different goes on underneath. It doesn’t act one way in private, and then spin those actions a different way in public.

It it what it is.

It doesn’t try to be everything to everybody, or please everybody. It chooses what it stands for by stripping away the excess and expressing the truth at the core. The voice DNA, if you will.

And so what you get is a sense of essence, of who that person is on some fundamental level.

Eckhart Tolle observes that visionary people “function from the deeper core of their being – those who do not attempt to appear more than they are, but as simply themselves, stand out as remarkable and are the only ones who truly make a difference in the world…Their mere presence, simple, natural and unassuming, has a transformational effect on whomever they come into contact with.”

I would say that a powerful voice has something of a visionary: that depth, truth and authenticity: it comes from the core of a person and rises all the way up online so that, when you meet that person in the flesh, they sound and seem like someone you already know. That sense of essence – online and off – is just naturally aligned.

(The irony of this is that it takes a lot of practice to be ‘natural’. There’s an artfulness to appearing perfectly artless. But the more you exercise your voice, the more relaxed you become in the doing, and the easier and more natural it gets.)


Someone once defined ‘intimacy’ to me as two people opening up their inner lives to each other.

When someone online opens up some aspect of their inner life, and it connects with your own inner life, the experience can be profound.

There’s a thrill of recognition. It’s a connection that extends not just from the writer to you (even if the writer herself is totally unaware of you), but from you to something bigger than yourself: an idea, or a set of ideas.

We are extremely social creatures, after all, constantly reading and tuning into each other, influencing and being influenced. We crave connection and belonging. So when Chris Guillebeau says You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to, you feel like something essential in him has recognized, acknowledged and named something essential in you. Not only that, he has connected you to a movement of people who can also recognize themselves in you, and vice versa.

You can’t create this sense of resonance if you don’t drink your own kool-aid, if you know what I mean. Or if you’re too cool for school, unwilling to be earnest and passionate and in love with your ideas. We get enough of the ho-hum, the jadedness and the cynicism, in daily living. That stuff isn’t the stuff that makes us feel alive.

A charismatic voice has snap and spark and intensity. It reaches into you and on some level lights you up.


A charismatic voice has credibility and conviction. You can trust it to lead you somewhere you haven’t been before, to deepen your knowledge and awareness, show you the world at a slightly different angle.

A charismatic voice evokes emotion as well as intellect.

A charismatic voice is relevant to you. It offers you something that you actually want and need.

A charismatic voice is distinctive enough so that you can recognize it at a thousand paces. No two people are exactly alike…which means that no two voices are alike (or should be). A charismatic voice is infused with the originality of soul; it has been influenced by other voices, maybe a lot of other voices, but in the end has figured how to strain those influences through its own mesh of self and synthesize them into something unique.

A charismatic voice is engaging. In his book THE LIKEABILITY FACTOR, Tim Sanders makes the point that the primitive part of our brain is always scanning for what is safe and unsafe. The first question it asks when encountering a stranger is, Friend or foe? In other words: is this person likely to kill me and eat me, or invite me for coffee?

So when someone is friendly, they are putting the other person at ease by silencing that wary, fearful part of the brain. Once you bypass that initial anxiety, you can progress to the next stage in the relationship and start to enjoy and benefit from each other.

This is why, I think, the most successful voices online are conversational. They don’t sound academic. They’re not trying to impress you. There’s a sense of casual intimacy to them, a rhythm and cadence that signals to your brain, Friend, and allows you to relax, trust and enjoy.

A charismatic voice tends to be provocative. There’s an element of risk to putting yourself out there, and stating a passionate point of view that evokes an emotional as well as intellectual response. A charismatic voice isn’t afraid to go to the edge, to show you something new, even if you don’t agree with it. The purpose isn’t to shock – shock value is momentary value, there and gone, so what – but to challenge your perceptions, and maybe shift them a little.


And finally, a charismatic voice is someone who most likely writes for herself even while thinking she writes for her readers. As the blog Pushing Social put it:

the blogger’s needs are so closely matched with their readers that they honestly believe they are writing for them….

Steven Pressfield, author of the War of Art, explains how artists tend to have one of two mindsets: hierarchical or territorial.

Hierarchical artists focus on their audience. They write want their audience wants and takes their creative cues from the market place. These artists, copywriters, poets, and photographers work for cash.

I don’t believe this is evil. Artists need to get paid. However, the hierarchical mindset doesn’t inspire. It just puts the artist at the disposal of fickle public with a ravenous appetite.

The alternative is the Territorial Mindset.

The territorial artist possesses a domain. Their territory is where they eat, sleep, love, and breathe. They work solely because it fulfills them. It doesn’t matter if their audience appreciates or desires their work. They perform their task out of love for the game.

Pressfield offers Arnold Schwarzenegger as an example. Schwarzenegger’s territory is the gym. He owns this domain and he has put it decades of training to master it. When Schwarzenegger enters the gym he instantly becomes its ruler. He doesn’t need to get paid, admired, or retweeted to dominate this territory. He just does.

The territorial blogger publishes no matter what. They publish work that is controversial, provocative, unpopular, and revolutionary. They appreciate their readers but they don’t work for them. They recognize that their reader wants leadership and they offer gleefully offer it.

Inspirational leaders, artists, and entrepreneurs won’t let their customers or readers handcuff them. They fight against the hierarchical mindset because their dreams depend on it.


Do you have a territorial mindset? What is your domain? If you don’t have one, do you think you can find one?

Who are you online? Who are you really?

What would you say separates a voice that wins fans from a voice that has readers?

Did you resonate with anything in this post?

Apr 19, 2011

18 comments · Add Yours

It all comes down to BEING yourself, not trying to be something or trying to sell something, but sharing your enthusiasm and your persepctive on the world.


That’s one of those things that’s easy to say — just be yourself — but what does that mean, exactly? It also assumes you know who you are to be, if you know what I mean.

Some people do it better than others.


Justine –
I am definitely a FAN of yours. Tribal Writer is one of the blogs in my “must read” RSS folder. I may not always have time to comment, but I always enjoy your work and the resonance is brings into my day.

Working in marketing, I’m often asked about the “key’ to social media success. My clients want to know “how it works,” what “tools” to use, and how to “engage” their so-called fans. I sigh quietly to myself before answering.

I think you’ve painted a great picture of what it takes to create a fan – it’s about connecting through a shared truth. The blogger gives voice to that truth and, as you put it, it becomes a “beacon” that brings other “believers” of that truth to the blogger’s virtual hearth.

Another way to put it is that a reader becomes a social fan when a writer provides something that helps the reader express themselves. In many ways, social sites are like the “flair”-bedecked suspenders in Office Space … it’s a giant, digital bulletin board where we can post all the things that help us define ourselves to the people around us. When we find something that helps us define ourselves more eloquently than we can, we “Like” it and share it with our friends. it’s like saying, “This is cool – this is what I believe – this is who I am and what I’m about.” It’s not so much about the fan promoting the writer as it is about the writer’s work helping the fan promote herself.

The benefit to the writer comes from the sharing (increasing awareness and growing the fan base), and – ultimately – in sales if the fan is truly connected enough to the writer’s message and material to go beyond the Like and the Retweet to the transaction.

It all comes back to the writing. There is no silver bullet, no magic app, no end-all be-all plug in. The work is what creates the initial connection, deepens the bond, and eventually cements the relationship. The work is what makes the fan, not the social media.

Thanks for another great post.


yes, it resonates.

Especially 2. I so feel the same way. I love to read certain blogs just because I LOVE what the writer has to say.


Thank you for saying it.


Amazing, amazing post. I want to say so much more, but I think I need to take a few minutes to just think about it. Thank you.


“voice DNA”

I’m a sad example of the short attention span stereotypical of today’s youth—I can’t hold on to extended ideas (blog posts, news articles, stories, whatever) unless there’s a trigger word/phrase I can keep. A tag, I guess, but more specific.

I shared this with my writing group. We’ve been talking about the idea of voice in assorted contexts. (Also Arnold Schwarzenegger, oddly enough.)


So thought-provoking. I am at a crossroads with my blogging. Why? Intention? What? etc.

It strikes me that some of the world’s most amazing artists were territorial–it was a drive to create.

I’ll be mulling this post over for quite some time. Thank you.


Reading this has been a great reminder – we read many of the same people!

Four years ago, I had an online diary and I just wrote what I wanted to write on it. I had lots of readers and I think I had fans. Well, I guess I had fans because many of them followed me when I left that diary behind and moved on.

But I got the feeling when I began keeping a public blog that I had to have a niche, that it all had to convey something professional and important.

At the same time, that just wasn’t me, so I’ve never really felt comfortable doing it. Just in the last week or so, I’ve begun to write more personally, in the way I used to, about what I’m writing, what I love, what matters to me, and I’m starting to relax and find that voice again.

I tried to be hierarchical because that’s what I was told to be, but now I’m exploring my territory again, and really enjoying it. I got fans for my books by showing how much I loved working on them and writing them myself, and I think that seems to work rather well for me – that’s my territory.

Thank you for an insightful post – I’ll be adding your blog to my email folder.


Nowadays the role of the author is more important than it ever was. He’s not just the name at the bottom of the dust jacket. People want to get to know him and interact with him. So when I started out my blog, after doing a fair amount of research, I realised that no matter what I wrote about what I needed was to use my own voice. I write about what interests me and don’t try to make myself into something I’m not. This, despite the name of my blog, has got me something of a reputation as an honest blogger and people find honesty attractive. I would never call myself charismatic but I probably do have a certain charm. I’m personable if not exactly sociable.

What I think has done me the most good is taking an interest in others, visiting their blogs and encouraging them. The word ‘friend’ is used too often online and its meaning has become diluted but I have developed a number of friends who also buy my books; several have all three and I suppose you could call them fans but I’m uncomfortable with the word. I think what I would have preferred, as it was in the old days, that people got to know my writing first – as in my fictional writing, my novels and poetry – before they got to know me; a ‘fan’ by my way of thinking would be someone who read something I’d written and then decided to seek me out. But that’s coming an increasingly old-fashioned perspective I suspect.


Thanks for offering a sane perspective on this topic. I work in marketing and I’m a writer – so I hear both sides. I see plenty of insanity around social media and lots of encouragement to just go out and make noise. But what you’re saying makes so much more sense in my gut – the people I really follow are those who have something unique, personal and inspired to say and aren’t just shouting to the wind all the time. I’m happy to say you’re now on that list too!


Great information and perspective.
Thanks especially for pointing to Chris Guillebeau. Who knew?


It wasn’t until I believed that what I had to say was vital for the world to hear that I went from having readers to fans.
It changed what I had to say, and it changed when and where and how I say it.
I think it’s very true that the charismatic voice writes for herself. We have to. It’s not interesting if I am telling people something that I already know that they don’t. It’s interesting to write on the edge of my understanding. I write to figure things out, to add to the conversation, to try to identify what’s true. That’s for me.


You made me think about what makes me a fan, and I think it all boils down to Truth. Whether it’s a book, a movie, a meal, or a friend, truth is what draws me in.

I was struggling with writing my graduation speech for my favorite group of 8th graders a couple of years ago when I got some tremendous advice: Tell the truth and tell it well. Nothing else matters. Truth comes from personal experience, and being willing to go for the jugular as Natalie Goldberg puts it is the essence of what draws people in.


Everybody, thanks for such juicy-smart comments. I really don’t have anything to add except: what she said. and she said. and he said. and she said…etc.

The odd thing about platform, social media, is that it turns ‘marketing’ into a kind of spiritual process of belief & self-discovery….before you can write the truth, you have to write your way toward the truth, which is why blogging can be so much damn fun.


The below is part of a thing I’m working on re this very question for university.
Authors own their work and fans own it in an entirely different way. Writing is internal while the individual act of reading is too, being a fan is about publicly celebrating the experience of reading something profound. Such a celebration is a sharing thing. This is an experience the author is excluded from regarding their own work, because they never discovered it new and fresh. Each reader brings their own reading to any text and it can be as valid as any other. Readers often see things authors can’t in their works, which is why there are Universities, blogs and reading groups yet many fans look to the writers as the font of all their knowledge and will only take opinions as valid if they’re congruent to whatever the author has said about their work. And go on to worship the writer instead of engaging critically with the text.
As for social media. Some would read it as an extension of the text – more writing! Others would see it as a connection to the producer of the text and that world.


Sweet Jesus. I don’t know how I arrived here … but here I am. The way you look at blogging – is so unique. Wow.

I started online 4 years ago, and just recently my popularity has kind of exploded. Which is good, I think. But really strange as well, discovering my motives as I go. The comments that people leave on my blog are incredible. Thank you for helping me to understand why.


This is a great post – takes the idea of engagement to the next level. The blogs I read regularly are the ones where I feel the writer is speaking directly to me. I respond to the voice. And there are one or two of those for whom I would hold a street party if their work ever extended beyond the blog. The kind of writing that just makes me go ‘ahhhh’ when I read it.


Justine, you named the essential concept in this post. A charismatic voice is the quality that makes writing come alive. I’ve been struggling with my own plan for blogging, and your post has definitely sharpened my thoughts. Thank you.



  1. Best Tweets for Writers (week ending 4/22/11) | Books in the News
  2. Go hula! « writing in the water
  3. Kill the Ones They Love | writing in the water

Add your comment