How John Green built an army of fans (and how any writer can do the same!)

how john green sold so many books

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In case you’ve been living in another galaxy, The Fault In Our Stars movie (based on the eponymous book) debuted in theaters nationwide this weekend. It topped the weekend box office with a $48 million domestic debut, easily crushing Tom Cruise’s new action flick “Edge of Tomorrow,” which did only $29 million in sales. Not bad for a movie geared to a younger audience, with two fairly unknown actors, and an unconventional female protagonist (she has cancer and wears an oxygen tube in her nose).

I think it’s safe to say that the movie was so successful because the book was so successful. But why was the book such a blowout bestseller? Well, my guess is that it’s because John Green has been so successful at building a platform. Which goes to show that, even for fiction writers, building a platform really matters.

Obviously, the book is wonderful, and no amount of platform magic can bolster a lackluster book. But The Fault In Our Stars was a #1 bestseller on Amazon SIX MONTHS before it was even published. That is, thousands of people ordered the book before anyone on the planet had even read it (except for the editor and publishing team, of course).

So why did all those people spend their hard earned money on a book they knew so little about? My theory is simple: they really like John Green. And they really like John Green (and know who he is at all), because of his platform. I’ve seen so many readers, editors, literary agents, and other folks practically swoon when talking about John Green. I don’t see that same visceral, emotionally connected reaction happening for other mega authors, even those with very loyal followings like John Grisham. The difference? One author has a robust, lively, and authentic online platform, and the other not quite as much.

I’m sure 95% of TFiOS book-buyers have never laid eyes on John Green in real life. But millions of his fans see him a few times a week through his hilarious YouTube videos, his blog, and his endless Twitter stream. Those online outlets aren’t just fun hobbies and avenues for self-expression. They’re the pillars of a platform (as I discussed here), and they are powerful tools for connecting with people. They create a direct, one-to-one connection between authors and readers, and they allow readers to feel like they really know an author–like the author is their friend, not just a name on a book jacket. That direct connection is just as valuable for fiction authors as it is for nonfiction authors–who wouldn’t want a whole army of Nerdfighters (or whatever you’d call your army!) ready to support all your work?

But it’s one thing to set up all those accounts and then avoid them like the plague, or feel horribly self-conscious about being your true self on them. But John Green is all over all his social channels every day, and he’s funny and genuine and adorkable. He’s completely himself, and he comes across as just a nice guy. He’s not “marketing” or “engaging with a fanbase”–he’s just talking to his readers, sharing his conversations with his brother, and trying to help people through his work.

The New Yorker profile about how John Green built an army of fans was completely fascinating to me. I will admit that I haven’t read The Fault In Our Stars or seen the movie, but I somehow still teared up at the end of The New Yorker profile. (Yes, I’m a sap.) It’s obvious how much goodwill John Green has earned from his fans, and how he’s done so just by being an accessible and approachable guy. John Green isn’t just out there to sell books–he’s giving his time, energy, and money toward charitable causes; he’s a friend to a girl who died of terminal cancer; he’s a husband and a dad and a brother and a writer. How could anyone not like a guy like that and want to see him succeed?

He also treats his fans like friends, rather than his subjects, which is an incredibly important distinction. He signed the entire first printing of The Fault In Our Stars (that’s 150,000 books, hand-signed), even though it caused him to need physical therapy for his shoulder and would probably have driven the rest of us completely loony. That’s a guy that, in my opinion, feels a strong sense of appreciation for the people who support him and understands that the fandom of a reader is something to be earned. A dedicated readership is not something you’re entitled to simply because you wrote a wonderful book–it’s something you must earn by being in service to the reader.

I thought this passage from The New Yorker profile particularly zeroed in on the difference between the writing life of yore and the new John-Green-esque lifestyle:

“Green’s online projects keep proliferating along with his fans, and he seems determined to keep up with them all. He told me that he has sketched out some scenes for a new novel, about “two male best friends who live less privileged lives in a world of privilege,” and that he hopes to work on it after the movie junkets are over and he has taken a few days of vacation with his family, in a Tennessee farmhouse devoid of electronic devices. One wonders, however, when he’ll actually find the hours to recline in the La-Z-Boy. E. Lockhart, an acclaimed Y.A. novelist, is an old friend of Green’s. She said, “Most of us look at what John does and say ‘That’s awesome,’ but we’d rather be in our pajamas writing.”

While I’m a big believer that periods of unconnectedness from electronic devices are one of the most important sanity-maintainers these days, I think we’re also moving past the days when it was enough to write a great book, publish it, and call it a day. If we all hung out in our pajamas all day, hermited away from the world, we’d miss the sense of connection that drives us as human beings. And we’d also miss the opportunity to help more people through our work. I think authors should remember that platform building isn’t about helping yourself by selling your work, but about helping others through your work.

And the best way to reach the most people is to be, like John Green, both accessible and approachable. Being accessible to your readers means they can find you and connect with you, and being approachable to them means they might just start to really like you, and not just your writing.

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8 thoughts on “How John Green built an army of fans (and how any writer can do the same!)

  1. This was an interesting post, made more so by the fact that I’d never heard of John Green, but I had heard about his book. I completely agree with connecting with people in a genuine way, instead of just “speaking to them” through social media. I’m sure I’m not alone when I scratch my head and wonder how those of us without extensive author platforms and a limited body of published work can help others through our work. I write short stories and novellas that deal with empowered and strong women, and those who are not, My twitter following seems to be mostly people who follow only for a potential follow-back. I am far too shy for a youtube channel of any value. How can I, (and others like me because surely, I cannot be the only one) build a following and do good with it if we are not John Green?

    I want to thank you for all the time you put into your blog. I always learn something. Keep being awesome!

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Carolyn, and I’m so glad I’ve been able to be at least a smidge helpful! And I totally hear you. I think most writers (and us book people, too!) are more of the introverted type. Actually a lot of our authors who are successful bloggers are also very introverted and private people. They usually dread public appearances, but they love to write. So maybe YouTube isn’t for everyone (I couldn’t pull it off, that’s for sure), but another form of sharing might be. I always try to encourage writers to find the outlet that feels interesting to them and then begin flexing their sharing muscles. It’s sort of like going to a cocktail party–we dread it going into it (at least I do) but once we get into an interesting conversation with an interesting person, it becomes so rewarding and enjoyable. The Internet just makes for a very big, very noisy cocktail party! With less champagne, unfortunately.

      Anyway, I think you bring up such an interesting point, and I’ve been thinking about writing a post just about personality types and platform building. I’ll send it your way soon!

  2. Great read! I am trying to figure this publishing business out. It seems easier to write a book than to get it out in the publics eyes. I really see in my mines eye. That it is a good direction to go with starting blog. Thank you again for your time. I have written three books. I have one published. Called ” The Magic of the Christmas Tree” I have sold 350 copies and given away about that many. My problem is people love the book. I can’t get them to writ a review so others might get it. Oh well. I guess I gave to pay my dues
    Best Regsrds
    Donald W Thomas Jr

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