Anyone who loves books eventually falls in love with their authors. I don’t necessarily mean romantically in love (although I’m sure that happens!), but simply that when people have spent significant time in someone else’s thought world, they feel like they know that person. Then anything that makes that connection more real and solid in any way takes on immense significance for the reader. It’s one of the major factors in someone going from reader to “fan.”

That kind of connection used to happen primarily through personal appearances, at a reading or bookstore signing. For a fortunate few, there might have been a radio or television interview. But now social media has opened up all sorts of possibilities for authors to reach out to their readership, and for readers to feel more connected than ever.

The Green Machine

For some of the most popular authors today, social media has been key to their success. One of my favorite examples is young adult writer John Green (author of bestsellers like Looking for Alaska). On YouTube and Twitter Green built a community of intelligent, disaffected young people who identified strongly with the characters in his books. They even formed an impromptu “organization” known as the Nerdfighters (not fighting against nerds, but rather against “worldsuck”). To the Nerdfighters, Green isn’t just a favorite author, he’s their leader.

That might just sound like a bunch of fun and games, until you hear something like this: When Green announced pre-orders of his latest book on his Twitter account, it went almost immediately to #1 on Amazon…six months before the book was published.

Few authors can aspire to achieve such cult-like devotion from their fans, but many have come to discover that even milder levels of connection with readers via social media can result in a fan base that grows beyond their marketing budgets (what’s that, right?) and can produce real action (sales!) when the time comes.

Until recently, Facebook and Twitter were the default networks for building a fan base. Facebook because “that’s where everybody is,” and Twitter because its rapid-fire bursts of 140 characters easily facilitate a lot of conversations. It might be hard for many authors to think about “yet another network,” but I think they should.

The New Kid in Town: Google+

Google’s social network Google+ has been out for well over a year now, and has over 100 million active users, making it one of the fastest growing social networks ever. Still, many “experts” have ignored it because they don’t see their friends there, and miss all the incredible activity going on just beneath the surface. But the fact is that Google+ is here to stay. Google has shown every sign of being fully committed to the platform, and they continue to integrate it into more and more of their products.

In addition, Google+ is really working for an ever-growing number of people. These are folks who figured out that they didn’t need the same friends on yet another social network. What they needed was the ability to discover many new people with similar interests to theirs, and Google had set up the perfect platform to do just that in Google+. Every day now I’m nearly overwhelmed by the volume of stimulating and in-depth conversations going on there.

But why should you care as an author? Do you really need Google+?

Let me share a social media “pro tip” with you: when a network is really working for a growing number of people, but the “experts” haven’t discovered it yet, that’s the time to jump in. (There are even more reasons to make Google+ the place you jump, but I’ll tell you those later. Keep reading!)

Breaking The Social Network Glass Ceiling

Let me tell you my own story. Once upon a time I really wanted to build up a readership for my writing. I was convinced that social media was the way to do it. So I set out to build a network. I tried on Facebook. I tried on Twitter. I really worked hard at it. I did everything the social media experts told me to do. But my networks grew very slowly. After a while I realized why. I’d joined both of those networks late in their growth spurt. By the time I got in, there was already an “old boys club” (and I don’t mean just male) in my field who were well established, had their huge followings, and weren’t willing to do much to boost anyone else up to their levels. It was really hard to make my voice heard.

So when Google+ came along, and I got a beta invite on its third day, I jumped on the chance. Google was smart to invite in a lot of literate and tech-savvy people in the beginning. We found that we enjoyed this new playground where you could carry on long-form conversations and build circles of interesting people very rapidly. We learned the network by using it, and shared our discoveries and tips. Before we knew it, real relationships were being formed, and partnerships and deals happening in real life. In just a few months I’d way surpassed both the engagement and following I’d had on any other social network, and readership of my online writing in other places soared as well.

And the best part was that it wasn’t a network with all my friends there. I don’t need to make fans of my friends; that’s why they’re my friends! The blessing of Google+ is that it both forces you to go out and find new people, but also gives you great tools to do it successfully.

Now you may think, good for you, Mark. You got in early, but now it’s too late, right? Not at all! Google+ is still well in its infancy, and those who get on board now and start to build their network there have plenty of headroom to make a splash. There are still many nascent verticals there that are waiting for some commanding voices, and literature and writing are among them. Some group of authors will be at the forefront of that. Why shouldn’t it be you?

How to Build a Powerful Network on Google+

Google+ offers an array of useful and powerful tools for growing your influence and fan base. I’m going to spend the rest of this post laying out some of the tips I’ve seen work best. Then in my next post, I’ll focus on what I think is the secret weapon of Google+, especially for writers like you. In the meantime, here’s how many of us are building large and active fan bases on Google+:

  1. Begin with discovery, not broadcasting. First entering Google+ can seem like walking into a very dark and quiet room where you were told there was a cocktail party. But Google has a flashlight for you. It’s called Google+ search, and once you shine it around the room, great conversations pop up everywhere. Try searching for topics and phrases that describe what you’re about, and see who’s talking about those things. If they look interesting, add them to your circles. On Google+ anyone can follow anyone else, and it’s expected; not rude. If you have something valuable to add to a conversation, dive right in. It’s a great way to get your name known and encourage others to follow you. (They can do that just by hovering over your name in a comment.)
  2. Sharing is nice. Google+ makes it easy to share others’ good work. To have the best effect, always share from the original post (so there’s a link back), and “+mention” the author (by typing a + sign and her name with no space), which creates a notification to that author of your share.
  3. Make your own mark. Add your own introductions to any post you share, and dress it up like a blog post. You can put asterisks around phrases to make them *bold* and underscores to make them _italicized_. On longer posts, try bolding titles and subheadings. Add an image wherever possible.
  4. Did I mention? Use +mentioning of others (see #2 above) carefully (don’t spam!). +Mentioning someone in a post or comment sends them a notification with a link to the post. This can be very effective in establishing your respect for them, that you value their opinion. And of course, there’s a good chance they’ll reciprocate the attitude.
  5. Share all the circles. This one is really powerful. Once you’ve put together a good number of people in your circles, curate some of the best into special circles around topics (“Most Engaging Fiction Writers on Google+”). In your Circles view, click that circle, then the spreading arrows icon in its center. This will create a Shared Circles Post. When you share the post, anyone who sees it can add all those people to their circles with one click. Be sure to explain why these people are worth following, and notify everyone in the circle; they’re sure to share it as well, spreading its effect. Now here comes the personal power for you: if the Shared Circle topic applies to you, check the box in the share box and include yourself in the circle. Now as many people pass it on and add it, you get added to all their circles too!
Above all else, those of us growing large fan bases on Google+ have found that the same things that gain us friends and influence in real life work very well there: be real, listen more than you speak (but do speak up!), be generous, share, encourage, help others out. Real friends are richly rewarded by the Google+ community. For you as an author, this means the ability to become real to your fans. They will love you for it.
In my next post I’ll share with you about what I’m finding to be the most powerful secret weapon of Google+ for promotion: Google Authorship. It’s not just for professional “authors,” but authors are uniquely positioned to take advantage of its huge potential to build reach and audience.
Click here to find Lulu on Google Plus.
* * * * * * *
Mark Traphagen is Director of Social Media Marketing at Virante Inc., a search marketing agency in Morrisville, NC. Mark can be found on Twitter at @MarkTraphagen and on Google+ at +MarkTraphagen.