Engagement not Promotion: How Historical Novelists Can Be a Gateway to the Past


Every author of historical fiction wants to inspire readers to delve into the past, the one they’ve created in their novel. However following best practices in book promotion often fails to bring readers along or to connect authors with readers in a meaningful way. Dan Blank, in his book Be the Gateway, suggests that rather than sharing social media update after social media update to promote a book, writers can tap the creative process itself—the how and why they create a story—to engage with those they hope to reach.

Blank was inspired to write Be the Gateway after ‘speaking to so many writers who are overwhelmed with all the things they are told they “must” do to promote their book. From social media, to newsletters, marketing, platform and so much else. What I see are people who begin with a creative vision and end up frustrated and overwhelmed by an unending to-do list.’ Instead, he encourages writers to change the way they approach their book launch by starting early to include the creative process into the marketing process.

‘Silence is not a marketing strategy. Yet, that is how many writers approach the launch of their book. They share only the finished book and not the process it took to produce, believing that there will be a thunderclap during the week their book is released. Too often, there isn’t. And that writer begins to feel that they wished they had spent the previous two years slowly understanding their marketplace, developing relationships, and understanding exactly how they can connect with their readers in a meaningful way. One way to do that is to share the journey as you move through it.’

Historical novelists have plenty to share—months or years of research on a historical period, field trips, interviews, possibly learning a new language—all the dedication, passion and time they’ve put into crafting the world of their novel is a story to tell in of itself. Blank, however, cautions historical novelists against believing their research is the primary way to connect with readers. ‘I think a lot of writers who engross themselves in research feel that this is the first place to begin engaging their readers. While this intention is good, don’t overlook what drives a reader of historical fiction: engaging characters, stories and contexts. Sometimes the research that went into that is essential, but not the first thing that engages a reader.’

He suggests three ways to engage potential readers. ‘Start with the story. How the stories you create inspire, entertain and enlarge the world of those who encounter it. Then, comes you, the creator. What can you share of your creative vision, your process, your research, your passion that could connect with an ideal reader? Finally, writers can engage on topics. For a historical novelist, there are unending themes to explore here.’

Blank believes many writers do not use social media in the right way and Be the Gateway provides them with an alternative approach to the medium. ‘Too many writers place the wrong expectations on social media. They have heard of authors who have “gone viral,” and begin wondering why they too have not gone viral. I see social media not as a tool to broadcast your message to the largest number of people, but instead as the greatest research tool ever for a writer. Instead of asking, “Who heard about me and my book this week through social media,” reverse it. Ask, “What have I learned about my ideal readers and others who support the kind of books I write.”

Primary research, Blank argues, is one of the most valuable tools a writer can use to connect with readers. ‘With primary research, you are doing two things at once: identifying what truly engages readers and developing relationships with readers and colleagues.’ Be the Gateway shows writers how to identify landmarks, guideposts and comparable works to help them understand the marketplace.

‘Gather information on why people read books similar to yours, what motivates them to seek out these stories, how they discover books, what helps them decide to make a purchase, and how to best frame your book in a way that engages them. The authors I work with who are most successful are those who establish relationships with booksellers, other authors, readers, librarians, organizations, conference organizers and more. They stop relying on vague demographics and repeated clichés about who readers are and what engages them. Instead, they know the names and faces of their readers, and understand them holistically as people.’

Blank provides so much useful information in Be the Gateway, including the insight that one of the best ways writers can be a gateway to their books is through engaging one-on-one with others about their work. ‘Being on the internet is akin to buying a lottery ticket. We know that anything we post could potentially reach a large audience. So, we begin to craft messages that could only be appreciated by large audiences. What I find when I speak with many authors is that they have never learned how to have a meaningful conversation about their books to individuals, and yet here they are, trying to speak to crowds.’

He cites Diana Gabaldon as a good example of a writer of historical fiction who engages one-on-one with readers about her work. ‘I just checked Diana Gabaldon’s Twitter feed, and in the past hour alone, she has replied to six questions from her readers!’ That is an author who cares about her readers and is willing to spend the time to engage with each one of them.

Blank believes that ‘empathy is the best tool a writer has to reach readers.’ He urges writers ‘to not consider “content” as something to “deploy” and hope for the best. But use blogs, newsletters, and social media to truly connect with those who share the same passion for books and stories as they do.’

To learn more about Be the Gateway and for blog posts, interviews and webinars with writers exploring the ideas in the book visit Dan Blank’s website.


About the contributor: Cynthia Anderson is writing a novel, Beyond the Steppes, based on the extraordinary life of the Mongol princess who becomes the power behind the throne of the first three emperors of the Qing dynasty. You can find out more about her here.



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