Last week, we talked about how good website data can help you “listen” to your readers. While your readers don’t speak audibly through data, their actions speak louder than words. Observing your readers’ actions on your website gives you spectacular insight into what they want.
But another revolutionary technique will tell you what your readers want.
You ask them!
Believe it or not, readers have preferences. Listening to your readers’ preferences will help you make your books more appealing and your marketing more resonant.
If you feel stuck in your marketing, platform, or sales growth, you might need a better understanding of what your readers want. If you’ve never surveyed your readers, your lack of knowledge about their preferences may be hampering your growth.
Sometimes catering to your readers’ preferences requires only tiny tweaks and can eliminate little irritations that are torpedoing your success. You can easily listen and learn from a handful of readers by having a conversation over coffee or on the phone.
But how do you listen to hundreds or even thousands of readers?
You create a reader survey.
The purpose of the reader survey is to help you take action. You want to know which tweaks will lead to a massive increase in reader satisfaction and list growth.
Please remember that reader surveys are only helpful for authors who care what their readers think. Some authors simply want to write what’s on their heart regardless of whether readers like it.
If that’s you, this episode probably won’t help you. If you don’t value reader preferences and don’t care about serving them better, then there’s no point in surveying them.
Consider creating a reader survey if you care about thrilling and serving your readers and want to adapt your writing and marketing to their preferences.
Tips on Creating Readers Surveys
Short and Simple is Better
Readers don’t want a long, intensive survey. A handful of strategically chosen questions will often unlock your writing and marketing.
A good statistical sampling requires a lot of answers. The fewer questions you ask, the more answers you’ll get and the more valid the answers will be.
Reward Survey Participants Properly
Consider offering a prize to one lucky person who completes the survey, but be sure to choose a prize that interests your specific fans. If strangers or people outside your audience take your survey, your data will be skewed.
The key to an author’s success is to thrill a passionate, core readership that will talk about your books to their friends. You don’t want to incentivize random strangers with a generic Amazon gift card because their feedback won’t help you make positive changes for your current readers.
What kind of incentive should I offer my survey participants?
If you’re already published, you can offer an autographed hardback collection of your most recent series or entire catalog.
It’s a great incentive because the only person interested in a hardback collection of your books would be an existing reader who’s already a fan of your writing. That’s the kind of fan who will be eager to give you feedback.
Practicing What I Preach
I surveyed Novel Marketing listeners five years ago, but this week, I created a new listener survey. To incentivize my current listeners to take the survey, I’m giving away five free one-on-one marketing consultations with me to five listeners (or readers) who complete the survey.
Ready to take the survey? Start here.
Normally, I’d assign a value for price anchoring purposes, but I’m not currently taking any paid consultation appointments. Completing this survey is the only way to schedule an individual consultation with me right now.
How to Create a Reader Survey
Google Forms is a free and powerful tool that comes with Google Docs. I’ve been using it for years, and it’s the tool I recommend to most authors.
What types of question formats can I create?
Short Answer and Paragraph Answer
I like to include a couple of open-ended questions at the end of a survey so readers can type what’s on their minds. The downside of these free-written answers is that they can’t be compiled into a graph or chart.
Multiple Choice, Check Box, and Drop Down
Answers to your multiple-choice, checkbox, and drop-down type questions can be compiled into a chart. The charts Google produces from reader data will tell you, for example, what percentage of survey participants think your books are coming out too slowly or too quickly.
It’s much easier to read and analyze data from the graphs than to dig through dozens or thousands of short answers to manually compile the data.
Multiple choice, check box, and drop-down type questions are easier for people to answer. As an author, you’re comfortable writing out answers, but many people are not. They’re not confident in their use of grammar, especially when writing to an author, so they may not want to type a lot. If they respond on their phones, they really don’t want to type a long answer.
What’s the difference between multiple-choice and checkbox questions?
I used both types of questions in my reader survey.
In one of my checkbox questions, I ask, “What topics would you like to hear more about?” Then I provided a list of different topics with checkboxes beside each one.
The next question says, “What would you like to hear less about?” I’ve listed the same topics with checkboxes. You can select one or more responses to both questions. If you’re tired of hearing about a certain topic, you can check the box beside it.
What if their answer isn’t on the list you provide?
Google Forms has an “other” feature that allows respondents to type their own answers when they check the “other” box. Including an “other” option in your list allows readers to help you brainstorm other ideas.
Unfortunately, “other” answers show up in the pie chart as tiny slivers since people rarely type the exact same words. The “other” responses break the chart, but it’s nice to provide that option for certain kinds of questions.
I like Google Forms because of the flexibility it offers. I can combine the check box questions with the short answer question through the “other” feature.
Do I need to make all the questions required?
Google Forms lets you choose whether a question is required or not. I try not to require answers if I don’t have to. I’d rather somebody skip a question they don’t want to answer than skip the entire survey because an answer is required.
Thankfully, you can change that setting on a question-by-question basis.
What if I don’t want a reader to answer all the questions?
Google Forms allows you to create numbered sections for the questions. Respondents can skip sections based on how they answer previous sections.
For example, in my survey, I ask, “What kind of writing do you do primarily?”
I provide the following options as answers to that question:
If somebody selects “Fiction,” they’re taken to another section that asks which fiction genre they write.
Knowing the makeup of my audience will help me determine what kinds of illustrations and examples I should use in my content.
Besides that, I also want to know whether I’m hitting topics that benefit you in your genre.
However, I only want answers from my fiction listeners because marketing techniques for romance, sci-fi, and historical fiction vary.
On the other hand, nonfiction marketing techniques don’t shift much from genre to genre, so I don’t want to bore nonfiction respondents with questions that don’t apply to them.
The feature I’ve used is called “Go to section based on answer.” The answer you select will determine which section you go to next. If you answer Nonfiction, Children/MG/YA, or Memoir, you’ll be taken to section four. But respondents who choose Fiction will be taken to section three.
What do I do with the survey I created?
Once you have created your survey in Google Forms, click the giant, purple “Send” button, which allows you to embed it on your website or send a link.
I recommend copying the link and sending it in an email to your subscribers.
When the answers come in, Google Forms will give me some nice charts and graphs. I can also review the answers on a per-person basis as opposed to an aggregate of how everyone answered.
Google Forms allows you to export the information into Google Sheets, which is Google’s version of Excel. Your other option is to download the information as an Excel file.
Few authors need a spreadsheet to torture this data. Most people will find the charts and graphs sufficient.
What kinds of questions should I ask?
First, determine what you actually need to know.
What are you willing to change?
Remember that the purpose of a reader survey is to help you make changes. If you’re not going to change something, don’t ask questions related to that thing.
For example, the biggest source of negative feedback for this podcast is the fact that I don’t hide my religion.
Some people don’t like that I am a Christian, and they’ll leave one-star reviews on Apple podcasts because of it.
I could ask listeners, “Should I change how I present myself in the show?” But since I’m not going to start hiding my Christianity, I didn’t include that question on my survey, because I wouldn’t change it regardless of what kind of feedback I received.
However, I did include an optional question about where listeners lean politically. Do you lean left, right, or please-don’t-talk-to-me-about-politics?
I included the question because marketing touches politics, and I want to know what language and examples to use as I teach. But I made that question optional because some people are sensitive about it.
I could guess how people lean, but I don’t want to base my guess on the handful of loud, passionate people who don’t represent the larger group of listeners.
A reader survey will help you determine whether the folks who are passionate enough to email you represent the group accurately.
What do you already know?
Don’t ask questions to which you already know the answers. For example, don’t ask whether people have purchased your book. Independent authors can easily see their sales reports on Amazon. If you’re traditionally published, you can get that information from your publisher.
Both of those sources of sales data will be more accurate than reader responses about whether they’ve bought your book.
Be Cautious About Using Push Polling
Push polling purposely works questions into a survey to try to get people to take action.
For example, if I were push polling, I might ask, “Are you a patron yet?” I already know how many patrons I have. In fact, the number of patrons I have is publicly available. The only reason to include that question would be to get respondents to feel like they’re missing out or to remind them to become a patron.
That’s not a good use of a survey. Approach your survey from honest curiosity. Don’t use it as an opportunity to needle people into taking action. That’s not to say you shouldn’t encourage people to leave reviews or buy your book. You can and should ask for reviews and sales, but don’t use the survey to do it.
What topics should I ask about?
How many books do you read each year?
This question helps you understand how much competition you’re facing for the reader’s attention. Writing a third book won’t increase your sales if your readers only read two books per year. If you didn’t know they only read two books annually, you might work hard to write twice as fast but become discouraged when readers don’t buy more books.
On the other hand, maybe they’re reading lots of books every year, and they’d love to read more from you. Only a survey will help you know which direction to take.
Where do you prefer to buy books?
It’s important to ask where they prefer to buy books and not where they actually buy them. Maybe they buy books on Amazon but prefer to buy from their local bookstore. Maybe they prefer to listen to audiobooks on Audible, so they’ll buy on Amazon.
What is your preferred book format?
If you’ve only published paper books and ebooks, you’ve been excluding audiobook listeners. People who only listen to audiobooks probably won’t be on your list anyway because you don’t offer their preferred format.
Other readers are indifferent about which format they read. If they read on a Kindle, listen to audiobooks, and buy paper books, they may not have a strong preference. However, if you learn that your readers prefer to listen, you might gain the confidence to spend the money to publish an audiobook.
If you’re already offering all three formats, you don’t need to ask because it won’t cause you to make changes.
How old are you?
The age range or average age of your readers may help you make decisions about various elements in your book.
What is your gender?
Some genres lean heavily toward one gender or the other. Romance, for example, is read largely by women. Both men and women widely enjoy sci-fi. However, when you get deeper into sci-fi subgenres, men generally lean toward military sci-fi, whereas women typically lean toward sci-fi subgenres with romantic threads.
Again, if you’ve already decided you’re writing romance, you probably don’t need to ask this question.
Where do you lean politically?
The political leanings of your target market impact your marketing decisions. Many a marketing blunder is made when companies don’t know the politics of their customers and inadvertently make them angry.
It’s fine to be political, especially if the point of your writing is to educate or convince your audience. You want to decide to discuss politics on purpose.
If you’re wrestling with navigating certain political issues, ask your readers what they think. Maybe they don’t want you to discuss a political issue, but you feel it’s necessary. If that’s the case, at least you’re deciding on purpose with knowledge.
You get to decide, but there’s a big difference between taking a principled stand, knowing you’ll get pushback and being blindsided because you had no idea the pushback was coming. You want to open your eyes to the world as it is not how you want it to be.
What were your favorite books of the last year?
Allow responses to this question to be open-ended. Don’t provide a checklist of options. Many of your readers may be reading books you’ve never heard of. By reading their favorite books, you can discern what themes and characters resonate with them.
Who are your favorite authors?
Your readers may know of authors you haven’t heard of or read yet.
If all your readers love Lord of the Rings and you’ve never read it, start reading the books! If you love the books, you can discuss them freely and even use examples and metaphors from the stories as you communicate with your readers.
If you do not like Lord of the Rings, ask your readers what they loved about it. Either way, you’ll gain a better understanding of your readers.
Questions about your book will help you discover how your book is resonating with readers and which parts resonate best.
What was your favorite part of my book?
Ask which parts of the book spoke to them or made them excited. They’ll usually remember the most emotionally engaging scenes or characters.
What was your least favorite part of the book?
If your readers are vibing with four of your five plot lines, you’ll want to know which one they have to grind through. Maybe you can rewrite it or delete it to improve your story.
Who is your favorite character?
Use the check box question feature to list your most popular characters so readers can easily remember character names and check the boxes.
If there’s one character most people don’t love, analyze the data to learn why. Perhaps the character is supposed to be unlikeable, and you’ve accomplished your goal.
Who is your least favorite character?
You don’t have to kill off the least favorite character, but reader feedback will help you understand which characters should get more chapters.
What is your preferred release frequency?
Do they want a book from you every year, every quarter, or every month? If you can’t release a book every month, don’t provide that as an option.
Maybe they only read one book per year at the beach, so it doesn’t matter how many your write and release. Perhaps you’ll learn that your readers would buy more books if you could write faster. Either way, that information will help you make decisions.
You can also ask questions about your marketing and platform. Since you’ll be emailing this survey link to readers on your email list, you can find out how to make your emails more interesting and useful to them.
How often do you want email updates?
Reader responses about frequency may lighten your email-writing load or cause you to adjust how often you send emails.
What are your LEAST favorite topics in my emails?
Answers to this question will tell you which episodes or emails readers regularly skip. You can redirect your energy from less useful topics to more useful topics.
What is your most burning question?
Use the short answer or paragraph question format to ask this as an open-ended question. Often, readers will give you great ideas for future emails or episodes. Questions like this will generate content ideas that will resonate because readers asked for them specifically.
Sometimes people wade through the whole survey just to get to the open-ended paragraph box to tell you one thing. Be sure to provide the opportunity for them to write freely. The feedback you receive may be transformational.
What are your favorite topics in my emails?
Mary Demuth used to write a little prayer for her readers at the end of every email. When she surveyed her readers about their favorite part of her newsletter, she learned that everyone loved the prayer.
After discussing her findings with her mastermind group, she decided to launch the Pray Every Day podcast, which has millions of downloads and has become far more popular than her email newsletter.
Warnings About Readers Surveys
Not all feedback is helpful.
Reader feedback is valuable and important, but it doesn’t necessarily dictate the direction of your career. The feedback is not in control. You are in control.
Get feedback from the right people.
Don’t offer a $100 Amazon gift card to a bunch of strangers for completing the survey. Strangers don’t know who you are or what you write, and their feedback will not be helpful. In fact, they may simply click random answers to complete the survey just so they can be entered to win.
Don’t implement the wrong solutions.
As you read through the short answer feedback, you’ll find that people often identify a problem or irritation and propose a solution. You want to know about the problem, but you don’t have to implement a reader’s solution. An editor will help you find better story solutions than a reader will.
Negative feedback is difficult to hear. In fact, the threat of negative feedback may be why you haven’t sent a reader survey before.
Most of your feedback will be positive, but a handful of negative comments can still help you improve your story or content.
When my listeners complained about the audio quality in the early episodes of the Novel Marketing podcast, I started learning about microphones. I discovered my listeners were right, and my audio quality was bad! I educated myself and bought a better microphone and a mixer.
When people answer survey questions, they are describing themselves, not you.
Even when they are talking about your book, they are still talking about themselves. The word most frequently used in book reviews is “I.”
Realize this feedback isn’t an indictment on you. It’s a description of your readers, and you can choose to accommodate them or not. Reader feedback doesn’t determine whether your book is good or bad. It simply tells you whether your book fits those particular readers.
I could take a vegan to the best barbecue restaurant in Texas, and they would hate it. The barbecue might be fantastic, but it isn’t the right fit for a vegan.
A survey informs your decisions but does not control them. The data you collect will make your marketing more effective and your book more resonant.
June is Patrons Appreciation Month!
Once a year, I thank my patrons by offering a bonus beyond the free patrons-only episode.
This year, I’m giving away my course Publishing A to Z. It’s a collection of everything I learned about publishing from my years as a marketing director and literary agent.
The course will help you discover whether indie or traditional publishing best suits you and your book. Here’s a hint: neither is the “easier” path. Both require a lot of work from the author, but one path or the other may play to your strengths better.
You will learn the following:
- The pros and cons of traditional publishing
- The pros and cons of independent (self) publishing.
- How to Publish Your Book Independently
- How to Get Traditionally Published
- How to Get a Literary Agent
- And so much more!
Publishing A to Z is normally $299, but it’s free for patrons this month. You can become a patron for as little as $4.00 per month. You could cancel at the end of Patron Appreciation Month, and you’d still get to keep the course, but I hope you’ll stick around.
You’ll be more motivated to listen to the episodes and to put the information into practice when you start paying for it. Where your money is, your heart will be also.
Become a Novel Marketing Patron here.
Three hundred years after a great war shattered the Council of Races, the warrior Rüddan have all but eradicated their cousins, the faerie Aethel and enslaved mortal Humanity. In order to save her people from being wiped out by the Rüddan, Sabine, a Human healer, must overcome generations of bitterness, suspicion, and fear and forge an alliance among enemy races. But what chance does she have when one of those races is extinct and her dreams of freedom threaten every remaining race on the planet?