How do you build affinity with anyone?
Well, it usually begins with finding something in common - either a working background, or some kind of common interest or passion.
It can develop further when you find out more about an individual’s personal life, their preferences, tastes, foibles, habits and so on. Spotting what it is that you like or admire among these more intimate things is a kind of treasure hunt - you follow a trail, finding more and more about a person which you have an affinity for.
Sometimes this treasure trail can lead to the treasure itself: you realise that you love the person, in all their glory and shame - you effectively ‘fall in love’ with the individual. If this occurs, then the trail which led you there loses significance - it has achieved its aim. Should any one of the points that led you to the heart of a person change over time, it doesn’t matter: the point was that that characteristic led you to your destination. If one of the things that led you to fall in love was the person’s physical beauty, for example, then after you have achieved love, it doesn’t matter if the physical state of the person changes, just as it doesn’t matter if a new road is built on a map once you know where a place is - it’s an irrelevancy, a detail which has no impact on your knowledge.
These treasure trail points can be of various kinds when it comes to relationships between people - sometimes they are matters of close personal intimacy, sometimes sexual, sometimes more remote, as when you admire someone for their noble qualities in relation to others, rather than anything to do with you. You might, for instance, love a partner for their beauty, their personal idiosyncrasies, their sexual drive and so forth, but your love may be enhanced by the fact that you also admire them in the workplace or because of the way they treat children or get involved in charity work.
Once you have fallen in love, the separate attributes through which you came to that condition form mere details of a larger picture.
What has that got to do with selling books?
Well, we’ve already established, I hope, that there are two kinds of relationships - ones based on intimacy or affinity, and ones based on commerce or exchange. While there is some overlap, most of us can draw a pretty clear line through our lives dividing one kind of interaction from the other kind. We have ascertained that the relationship which a writer desires to have with a reader - or a reader with a writer, in terms of that writer’s output - belongs to the first kind of relationship, the affinity based one; but we also know that, in order to get to that point, a writer must persuade the reader to engage in the second kind of relationship, a commercial one, and part with some money to acquire the book or books containing that author’s work.
To draw the analogy closer, it is as though, when we fall in love with someone, we also had to persuade them to hand over some money at some point.
Tangling commerce with matters of the heart is difficult in any circumstance - and this is precisely the problem the writer faces in endeavouring to sell his or her books.
To get the reader to fall in love, we must engage in ‘selling’.
Short of some kind of perverse mind control or hypnosis, there is no way to do this other than to act as though the writer is wooing the reader.
Just as with romance, the relationship between writer and reader usually begins with finding something in common - some kind of common interest or passion, probably in this case defined as a preferred genre or kind of story.
We have talked earlier about finding out more about an individual’s personal life, preferences, tastes, foibles, habits and so on. This can be applied to readers too: listing things that one likes or admires about prospective readers gets the affinity to grow. At this point of course, as is sometimes the case in romance, the relationship is one-sided: one might admire another but the other doesn’t necessarily return the flow. Readers, in fact, are at this stage unaware of the existence of the writer, but have only their personal preferences and tastes visible.
Pursuing a reader is therefore much like pursuing a partner: one must strive to find those things which are important to the reader, align with them, authentically agree with them, and earn that reader’s trust by responding accordingly to any sign of affinity coming back. Once a reader contacts a writer’s material and loves it, all of these ‘treasure trail points’ fall away: a fan doesn’t any longer mind what a book’s cover looks like, or how a blurb reads - they want what that writer has to offer however it is packaged.
So growing affinity between a writer and reader is largely a matter of cultivation. Readers have habits, qualities, characteristics, concerns, routines. These can be tracked and paralleled. What Facebook and others are trying to do with their algorithms is precisely this tracking. What’s needed to make it all work, though, is human authenticity. A person will not fall in love with an algorithmic pattern, but only with another person; a reader will not become a fan of anything other than the underlying truth which an algorithm reveals.
Once a reader becomes a fan, the separate attributes through which that was brought into being melt away.
For more on this and why it works, see my book.