How John Green won millions of fans (and 4 ways you can build a fanbase, too)

I was scrolling through my daily Publisher’s Weekly a few weeks ago when I spotted the news: John Green is writing a new book called Turtles All the Way Down, and it will be published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on October 10th.

Cue the fan fare! 🎉🎉🎉

Within days of the announcement, Turtles All the Way Down shot up the Amazon bestseller list, and it’s now keeping it’s spot as the #5 bestseller out of all books. John Green is beloved by millions of readers, and he’s the kind of novelist every literary agent and publisher would dream of having on their list. But I’ve always been curious about what makes John Green so successful, other than his writing (because having a great book is always Step 1, but it’s no guarantee your book will breakout.) So how did John Green get to have a fan club of millions of readers, a whole world of fan fiction surrounding his books, and such impressive accolades for his writing?

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If you want to excel at anything, watch the people who are already excelling. But if you want to really get deep and understand what separates the bestselling authors from the struggling authors, you need to talk to their readers.

So today I’m thrilled to have Lydia DuBois on the blog to talk about the 4 things writers can do to build a massive and loyal fan base and readership like John Green. Lydia is a sophomore at the University of Richmond (my alma mater!) and a summer intern at Stonesong, and she’s been working behind-the-scenes to spot great manuscripts in the submissions inbox, scout potential new authors, and learn everything she can about what makes books work. She’s smart as a whip, an avid reader, and a close watcher of the John Green craze of the past few years.

So enough from me–here’s Lydia on what younger readers really think of John Green:

I met John Green as a vlogger.

Specifically, I met John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars, as a quirky, quick-speaking, inquisitive YouTube personality, who helped me cram 5,000 years of history into a single semester and skip away from my AP World History exam with college credit. The Crash Course YouTube channel, which condenses long stretches of history into short and witty segments, was my textbook’s best friend; John Green was my Virgil guiding me through history instead of hell (not so different, really).

Those YouTube videos also introduced me to John Green’s fandom, his faithful nerdfighters. My bookish friends already knew who he was and thought I should, too. One friend pestered me until I visited John Green and Hank Green’s Vlogbrothers channel; another friend raved about Looking for Alaska, John Green’s first novel, until I added it on Goodreads. (Follow me on Goodreads if you want to see what else I’m reading!)

It turns out that my friends were just a few of the millions of fans and readers John Green has won over to the nerd side. John Green has over 5 million fans on Twitter (@johngreen) and over 2 million fans on Instagram (@johngreenwritesbooks); The Fault in Our Stars movie trailer has over 36 million views from fans on YouTube, and the Paper Towns movie trailer has 19 million views on YouTube. John Green’s new book, Turtles All the Way Down will have a first print run of 1.5 million copies (feeling the green yet?).

The John Green fan base of nerdfighters is inescapable, and they coalesce around much more than just his books. If it hadn’t been for my enjoyment of (and dependence on) his Crash Course videos, I would not have picked up The Fault in Our Stars, even though it was a #1 Amazon bestseller before it was published. But in a way, I felt as if I owed it to John Green, and buying the book seemed more significant because I was not just diving into the world of Hazel and Augustus but into the world of John Green.

That world is what the publishing industry calls an author platform. I picked up The Fault in Our Stars not because I thought it would be the best of the gazillion other books barking at me from my to-read pile. It was because of a nagging sense of familiarity—and dare I say loyalty—that John Green’s platform created.

Many fiction authors, like John Green, magnify the reach of their longer content, like books, through shorter content, like YouTube videos, blog posts, or even tweets. But we can learn a lot about building—and maintaining—a fandom (i.e. platform) from John Green’s incredible success.

4 ways to win fans and influence readers, the John Green Way

Get online and be social

A strong author platform goes beyond having thousands of email subscribers and a top-notch website, especially if you are trying to reach a younger generation of readers—like me. We’re tech-savvy millennials. We communicate through YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and all things social media. We’re more likely to watch a vlog than read a blog, or read a twitter post than an email. We are a generation plugged in, and if you want to reach us—and keep us—you have to plug in, too.

Technology has evolved our social lives in remarkable ways, and reading has evolved with it. As Margaret Talbot wrote in her New Yorker piece on how John Green built an army of fans:

“For many young people today…reading is not an act of private communion with an author whom they imagine vaguely, if at all, but a prelude to a social experience—following the author on Twitter, meeting other readers, collaborating with them on projects, writing fan fiction. In our connected age, even books have become interactive phenomena.”

Side Note: If you’re thinking about vlogging or doing anything with video, John Green has some great things to say about how to start a YouTube channel, but I’ll sum up his suggestions: learn to edit, experiment, vlog what you love, find similar communities, and keep improving!

Know your audience (but don’t alienate the rest)

A YA novel is not just for young adults, and John Green has mastered the art of speaking to both age groups. As Hazel laments in this quote from The Fault in Our Stars:

“There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.”

Online, John Green also mingles his adorkable, boyish humor with his intellectual, grownup seriousness and jumps into the critical discourse around his books with all audiences. To know your fans and effectively write for your fans, you have to be open to learning from and interacting with them, especially if you want to be more than a one-book wonder.

Do some “extra credit”

As he reveals in his unboxing video, John Green is signing more than 200,000 copies of Turtles All the Way Down. That’s 50,000 more copies than what he signed for The Fault in Our Stars, which left him needing shoulder therapy. John Green signed every single preorder of The Fault in Our Stars, but with a print run of 1.5 million for Turtles All the Way Down,  it wouldn’t be humanly possible to sign every single book. (Yet he did create a mini website to explain why to his fans!) Green doesn’t run the extra mile to show his dedication to his fans—he runs the track over and over again, beating his own records and celebrating the results alongside his fans.

Note from Maria:

I can promise you that John Green is signing 200,000 copies of his books because he wants to, not because his publisher told him to. Remember that you don’t need permission from anyone to promote your book in creative ways. Yes, you should use your publisher, literary agent, writer friends, and other experts as a sounding board, but no one can love on your fans like you, and no one is going to turn up at your door with a heap of creative marketing ideas for you. Extra credit works because it’s extra! (And by the way, that limited signed edition of Turtles All the Way Down is on sale on Amazon for $11.99 right now!)

Show fans the genuine you

John Green is always approachable and unafraid to bask in his geeky smartness in front of millions of fans and readers. He unabashedly crusades for just causes, like supporting his fellow nerdfighters in Project Awesome, and he shares personal tidbits about him and his family, and even full-blown conversations with his brother, Hank Green. Even though John Green is now one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World according to TIME magazine, he has never forgotten to loop it all back to his fans and to stay wide-open accessible to his army of nerdfighters.

To learn more about how John Green built a fan base of nerdfighters as a novelist, read these next:

Her Stinging Critiques Propel Young Adult Best Sellers (Alexandra Alter for the New York Times): Editing is where decent books become stand-out, potentially bestselling books, like The Fault in Our Stars did. A top-notch editor can mold your manuscript into something better than you ever dreamed of, and the weight of their reputation throughout the value-chain (marketing, publicity, sales, booksellers, etc.) can help a book breakout from the pack.

How John Green Built at Army of Fans (cooks & books): My original examination of John Green’s success, back when The Fault in Our Stars movie was just released!

The Teen Whisperer: How the Author of “The Fault in Our Stars” Built an Ardent Army of Fans (Margaret Talbot for The New Yorker): Essential reading for understanding the John Green fan base of nerdfighters.

A John Green Quote Printable Bookmark (cooks & books): My favorite John Green quote is “Reading forces you to be quiet in a world that no longer makes place for that,” and I loved that quote so much I turned it into a printable bookmark. Get this John Green quote bookmark for free here!

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What I’m Reading

How to Be a Writer on Social Media: Advice from Roxane Gay, Alexander Chee, Celeste Ng, and Adam M. Grant (Literary Hub): John Green is a master of social media, and so are these other successful authors. As Celeste Ng puts so well: “I think the key to social media for authors is remembering this: its main purpose is really to show that you are a real human being who lives in this world. Readers don’t need to know every detail of your life (unless you want to share that!)—what I think most readers are hungry for is just knowing that this book didn’t come out of a vacuum, that an actual person wrote it.”

Nik Sharma on Working in Food Media as a Queer Immigrant of Color (Hana Asbrink for Food 52): I am so proud to represent Nik and have loved seeing his work get the recognition he deserves. As he puts it, “The playing field isn’t even and I’ve had people openly reject my work early on for reasons related to my being colored, gay, and an immigrant. I once reached out to a book agent about three years ago to inquire about writing a book and what it would entail. She wrote back saying that “my kind of work didn’t deserve a book” (as luck would have it, my wonderful agent Maria Ribas reached out to me a year ago and I’m now working on my first book with Chronicle Books, Season, out in Fall 2018).” We can’t wait for Nik’s book, and Stonesong is so proud to represent diverse authors of all backgrounds. We love ya, Nik!

What I Learned in June (Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy): Anne Bogel is right in the middle of the preorder campaign for her book coming out this fall, Reading People, and here’s some insider knowledge on what sells books. Spoiler alert: it’s never just one thing!

How to Raise a Reader (Pamela Paul and Maria Russo for the New York Times): Eee! I love this. The Times has put together a pretty, easily digestible guide to how to raise a reader, with follow-up sections on how to grow a reader, how to foster a family of readers, and how to know your books. Click through for the charming illustrations; stay for the actionable advice.

3 Ways Practicing Detachment Can Promote Writing Productivity (Erika Fitzgerald on The Write Life): “We insert pieces of ourselves into our writing, drawing us closer to our work than with many other professions. … So when the idea of non-attachment serendipitously fell into my lap during a yoga class, I was eager to explore its practical applications in regards to my perfectionist writing dilemma. This slight shift in mindset has worked wonders for my productivity and creative well-being.”


What We’re Eating

I read an article a few weeks ago (where I read it, I can’t for the life of me remember) about letting go of meal planning and getting back to spontaneous, creatively unbound cooking and I thought: yes! I used to love doing that. Since I publicly pledged this year to start cooking out of my cookbooks, I’ve been on a hard-driving recipe run for months, cooking new recipes most nights of the week and feeling pretty darn proud as I checked each recipe off my list, day by day.

But that’s the problem: it turned into a checklist. Instead of walking in the kitchen and rustling up something fun with my own brain, I was just focused on doing the next right step in each recipe and trying to keep my cool the whole way through. So I decided to schedule in a week of spontaneous cooking (I hope we can all laugh and forgive how ridiculously Type A it is to schedule in spontaneity–ha!), and now that week has arrived. Here’s how it went:

Monday: We ate an unfair amount of food at my dad’s 60th birthday party over the weekend, so penitence salad it was. Except I make my salads with salami and boiled eggs and pepperoncini (sort of like this Italian Chopped Salad), which is the only kind of virtuosity I can really get behind.

Tuesday: I woke up and had no idea what I was going to cook for dinner! It felt very freeing, like I could cook anything. Instead I cooked pasta, and worked up some spinach and peanut pesto and charred cabbage as a side. Speaking of which, spinach and peanut pesto is the new poor man’s pesto–I’m calling it now.

Wednesday: Chicken salad for dinner. Hahaha. This is what happens when you don’t plan ahead and stop caring so much. It’s fun, actually.

Thursday: Okay, I’m pulling myself together today, and I promise I’ll make something real for dinner tonight. In the house, we have broccoli, ramen noodles, and a perverse sense of hope. Send help.

Friday: I figured it out: when you don’t know what to cook, just make breakfast. This works out great since we can also wrap up a few extra breakfast burritos to take camping this weekend. No one has ever felt as smug about scrambling eggs as this girl.

Conclusion: By Wednesday, I caved and started meal-planning for next week. But! I did feel reinvigorated by this week of impromptu, unfussy cooking, and it’s what made me more excited to plan meals for the next week. So a week of impromptu cooking here and there might just be what you need to bring more spontaneity and creativity to your routine. Just make sure you schedule it in so you can plan ahead. Don’t do that.

Cheers!

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