I'm building a large community of fiction readers
And this is how I'm using it...
The time has come to tell you about a project I started writing back in late 2016, early 2017. This project came to me by chance because I was a writing streamer on Twitch, and an illustrator found me one day and asked, “would you like to join me in this crazy collaborative idea I have?” Not knowing anything about him, I immediately said “hell, yes.” My reason, at the time, is the same reason why I would say “yes” again today; I love writing fiction. His idea was a simple one. He would get a group of fiction writers and pair them with a group of illustrators to work together to do a retelling of classic fairytales. The creator of this idea paired himself with me and he gave me full reign on choosing and telling whatever story I wanted (within the public domain). He sat back and waited for me to say, “could you draw this?” And worked his magic on an illustration.
Why I chose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz at the time I’m a bit fuzzy on. But I digress. The point is, I chose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and immediately knew what my twist on the story would be: What if Dorothy’s house didn’t fall on the Wicked Witch of the East?
I sat with that question for maybe a few minutes before it all came to me. I must’ve been in a fugue state when writing this because before I knew it, I had written 10k+ words in one sitting. It’s safe to say I loved my idea. The only thing that sucked about it at the time was that it had to be a short story. I knew then that I would return to my short story and expand upon it. Really release the reigns I had to impose upon myself.
Fast-forward to just 6 months ago when I decided to “organize” my digital life. I unfollowed everyone from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram. I deleted and archived ALL of my emails across all of my accounts to reach nirvana, otherwise known as “inbox zero” and I took on the insurmountable task of wading knee deep into my folders and sub-sub-sub folders to better organize the mess it had become. I must confess this is the only part of my digital life that still remains a mess today.
While wading through my files I found my short story twist and decided 2023 would be the year. Not just for expanding on the story to turn it into a novel (and perhaps a series), but to also read beyond the first book. During my research back in 2016 I discovered that L. Frank Baum had written 14 books (and a collection of short stories) that all took place in the Land of Oz. Another confession here: at the time I had no idea, like many people, that there was much more to the Oz story.
I purchased a lovely boxed set of all the books with the intention of reading them all and using them to expand upon my own tale. Several hundred books purchased later and that never happened. But as we all tend to do during a new year, we make resolutions and hope that this year will be the year we follow-through. I decided 2023 would be the year to read not just the first book but all of them.
However, this year I wanted to make sure I kept my promise. I hate doing things alone, especially if I feel others might want to do what I am doing and need a similar motivational tactic. And in this age of technology having new ways of connecting people from all over the world I figured I would devise a way for anyone who wanted to read all of the Oz books to do exactly that. Accountability can be tough to do and asking friends or family makes it even harder. What if I don’t want to have to explain why it’s important to me that I read all of the L. Frank Baum books to the ones closest to me? We all like to think they’ll understand and go along with it. But truth be told, they have their own lives. Why impose upon them with our resolutions if we don’t have to? Instead, I can bring together others who have a similar desire and we can push each other. Hold each other accountable to reading each week.
I’m not a fan of Facebook, although I know Groups on there work well. I toyed with the idea of creating a Discord server but “been there, done that” and I’m not too keen on the idea of managing another server.
Then I realized Substack had just what I was looking for. People who use Substack, readers, are already primed for what I’m wanting to do: Read! And with their built in way of bringing readers to my newsletter, it would require next to no work on my part to find the eyeballs. Substack would do it for me. And they have in more ways than I could’ve imagined.
First, I created my Beyond the Wizard Subtack back in June of 2022. I told no one and promoted it nowhere. In truth, at the time my wife and I were in the middle of adopting our son and we were (and still are) VERY busy. The fact that I had the foresight to even create the Subtack and write one post to intro my idea was a miracle. Months went by and I truly did forget about it. But look at what happened while it lay dormant with just one post written:
When I looked in on it, it was around October/November of 2022. I set a reminder for myself on my phone that I promised a post outlining how the process of reading the books would go, etc. At the time there were a little over 200 subscribers and I was shocked then. I am still shocked every day that I get a handful of new subscribers.
Again, I lost track of time. Baby’s first Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, with us can do that to you. If not for a subscriber leaving a comment on a post asking, “so when in January are the chapters going to start coming via email,” that it triggered me to get a move-on. Luckily, my maternity leave had just started, giving me just enough time to schedule posts to go out. Along the way I found the images from the original print edition I could include with each chapter as well as audio files of each chapter in case anyone wants to listen to the chapters being read to them. I’m glad Substack has had so many changes since I last really spent time on the site and it now allows me to schedule posts much further in advance than it used to. Let’s just say all 24 chapters are primed and ready to go. You know, just in case other milestones happen in my life and I’m unable to be there to keep the wheels turning.
So far, the experience has been just what I wanted and needed. All of us are reading the first book together. We are just on the first one and only a few chapters in as we’re reading one chapter a week, but it’s giving me exactly what I’m looking for.
I would be remise not to mention that there are other such Substacks that are doing something similar with Public Domain books: Dracula Daily, Edgar Allan Poe Fortnightly, Pride and Prejudice Weekly, Letters from Watson, Whale Weekly, and Dickens Weekly to mention a few. But what makes my newsletter unique from the rest are two added elements:
I’m writing a fiction novel that takes the stories we’re reading and puts a twist on them that I plan on eventually sharing freely.
I’m doing research and sharing that as well, in the hopes of generating conversation and discussion as I analyze each chapter and share my thoughts.
So far that level of sharing hasn’t turned anyone away (ie led to massive unsubscribers). In fact, I’m still steadily growing. I’d say there are anywhere from 4 - 6 new subscribers daily. Some days sees more new subs than others. And I can count on one hand how many unsubscribers there have been since June of last year. Not bad considering, again, I am doing ZERO promotion. In fact, writing this post and mentioning Beyond the Wizard in my First Edition email will be the first (and probably last) time I’m even letting all of you know about it.
I will, of course, link to the chapters of my own twist when I begin to share them with everyone over at Beyond the Wizard. Substack has a new “cross-post” feature I am itching to try out.
Honestly, my plan with Beyond the Wizard is just to read the books with everyone. I will post my thoughts in the comments section and every now and again someone will post their own. It’s not a requirement to do so, though I hope sharing thoughts on the chapter increases as we go. The numbers I care about more than the comments are the “Likes” that each chapter gets. I came up with the idea of using the “Like” button as a means for everyone to keep track once they’ve read a chapter. If you’ve read it, hit the Like button. This is a great tracker for me, but it also helps me to see 40+ other readers have read this chapter along with me. I’m not sure if 10% is a good (or average) number of Likes someone can expect from a post but I’ll take it for what it is.
As a part of this experiment I’m sharing my research journey with everyone and eventually, I’ll share my novel. Serializing it in much the same way I am doing with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, releasing one chapter at a time. My hope is that they will read it and enjoy it. Maybe even share it with their friends. And in truth, I’ve even toyed with the idea of a Kickstarter for the first book when it’s done. If it’s well received. If not, I’ll just sell it on Amazon and call it a day.
But whatever road I choose to take, I have 400+ eager readers who I might be able to call upon to help me write the story as I go and just share my journey with and the best part is, I know a few things about them from the start:
They are fans or at least curious about the Land of Oz books.
They are readers of fantasy.
They are users of Substack and therefore familiar with how it works.
None of them are writers (though I could find out that many of them are, in which case, that could end up being icing on the cake)
I think that’s enough for me to grow a community from and what they should be made of. So often we as writers are searching for our readers. How can we find these elusive creatures? The answer is always “go where they are” and supplant yourself there. But too often we come off as self-promoters straight away and no one hears us after that. I’m not saying my blueprint would work for everyone. But it’s proof positive that it can work. I’ve managed to find my readers and through Substack I’m able to continue to grow them so that when the time comes for me to share my story that is a twist on the Oz classic, who better than this group to share it with and possibly make some sales and super-fans along the way.
Some things I’m already looking to change and add when we begin reading the second book, The Marvelous Land of Oz on July 1st:
More than one chapter released each week. At this current pace, we would end up reading one book every six months. That’s just two books a year. I don’t particularly want to spend the next 15 years reading the current 29 books that are in the public domain, especially when you consider how many more books will be entering the public domain in the next decade and a half. I’m hoping to increase by just one more chapter and read two chapters a week. This will cut everything in half so we can get through four books a year. One every three months.
Room for discussion. Right now, Substack, I think, has too many ways to have discussions and they are all very separate and unique. This is one area where I believe less is more and I plan on writing an entire post just on this subject. I’m leaning more towards comments within the each chapter post. I’m not too keen on Threads or Chat, although at least with Threads they are easier to access than Chat is since it’s app-based only. I want us all to do more than just read each chapter, but feel free to discuss each one as we go. Of course, not everyone will want to or have much to say. But so long as everyone knows there is opportunity to reach out for discussion is what I care about.
Beta reader possibilities. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who sees what this can ultimately lead to. Not just readers and buyers of the novels I want to write and release but if I share my chapters before they are fully edited (which I fully intend on doing) then there is the potential of having dozens of eyes on my work providing feedback either in the comments or via email. I’m most excited for this to see how or if it will actually pan out the way I see it in my head.
A podcast. I have been itching to start a discussion podcast but only if I can get a co-host. There is more content and value when having a discussion with someone else than if you are just talking aloud. My podcast would be centered around the Oz books. Reading them. Discussing them. Over analyzing them. Preferably I would want someone who is on a level playing field as myself, ie they have also not read any of the books besides maybe the first one. It would likely happen twice a month or once a month. Coinciding with the readings. I’ve got a business plan all worked out for it. If you’re interested, please do leave me a comment OR reply to this email and let me know!
Oh, and if you are interested in reading the Oz books with us, you can subscribe to Beyond the Wizard here. All of the books are in the public domain and I do provide a link to both the text and the audio files that I use when putting together the chapters week-to-week. I also have included an Amazon (affiliate) link to the 100th Anniversary Editions of all the books that I’m in the middle of purchasing myself as they include all of the illustrations as were present in the original editions. You can see just that post here as well.
I'm guessing if you had created a Substack for a book you were writing from scratch (as opposed to based on a widely-known franchise) you likely wouldn't have got all those subscribers out of the blue.
It's still amazing to me though that this could happen without any promo. I can only assume people searched for "Wizard of Oz" and this led them to you.
Fascinating experience, in any case.
"We all like to think they’ll understand and go along with it. But truth be told, they have their own lives. Why impose upon them with our resolutions if we don’t have to?"
^ sooo true. I'm certainly guilty of this, and not, as you say later in the piece, supplanting myself where the interested parties actually are. I've gone so far as to basically try to convert non-readers into readers, and THEN convince them that what I write is something they might like.
(sigh) Lots of wasted time and energy.
Anyway, this sounds like an awesome project. Thanks for sharing!