Community, as it relates to authors, is a word so loaded with meaning that it runs the danger of being misunderstood entirely. To make things more difficult, the role of community in any particular author’s story is often misunderstood, hidden behind a veil of uncertainty, or ignored altogether.

As a result, authors often decide that this whole community thing isn’t for them, or—perhaps worse—engage in an ineffective way.

I’m here to make a case for community: Why it matters, how to find the pulse of your local community, and how this discovery can bring your author journey to life.

Take a chance

I won’t lie to you. Community is no panacea. It’s not a healing potion or a magic elixir. It won’t necessarily make you sit down and put words on the page, although healthy competition has a tendency inspire and motivate.

That said, finding a community has the potential to make you a better, more knowledgeable writer. I’ve seen it first hand. For instance, I’ve watched authors find editors and beta readers and collaborative projects. I’ve witnessed them discover critique groups and meet business partners. Most importantly, I’ve seen the joy in people’s faces when they learned or were inspired with a group of like-minded individuals. I’ve learned and been inspired myself!

I have the privilege of witnessing this process of growth twice a month at Indie Publishing Austin, a Meetup group I started because I couldn’t find one like it. I’m not bragging, I simply offer the group and others on Meetup.com llike it as evidence that local communities of authors do exist, and they are effective.

In the absence of a sizable community organized around indie publishing in my hometown, I saw potential. Whether you find an existing group and join them or start your own thing, you can experience and benefit from this potential too—if you’re willing to take a chance.

Search for a good fit

How do you find a group of community that’s a good fit for you? Start by reading Brook McIntyre’s detailed article on the possibilities of found communities, from critique groups to Meetups to NaNoWriMo to groups like Indie Pub Austin.

You don’t necessarily have to go local, though if you have the opportunity to join a vibrant group of writers in your area, I highly suggest it. Meeting in person, whether you’re actively involved or a quiet, passive listener, can impart by osmosis more than you might find online with effort. The Internet is a great tool, but introverted writers can make the mistake of thinking that interaction on the interweb is on-par with genuine connection in person.

They’re wrong. There is no substitute for humanity.

We’re all human, and as such we’re also all different. Don’t settle for a group if it doesn’t feel valuable, or if it’s the only show in town. Try several groups. Search online and in person. As a last resort, form your own community. You might be surprised, as I was, at the sheer enthusiasm and interest from those in your area who are looking for the same thing you want.

Make the most of community

I can’t stress this enough: you get out of a community what you put in. Just like your book won’t write itself, community is engaging in proportion to how much you engage with the people in it.

Don’t be a passive lump. Introduce yourself. Ask questions. Get involved.

This isn’t rocket science. Community is made up of people, and people want to be treated with respect, as equals. Look them in the eye, be interested in them, and they’ll be interested in return. Shoving business cards and book covers in people’s faces is a surefire way to fail at the process of engaging—this goes for social media as well as in person interactions.

For shy writers who think making friends is a challenge, I suggest starting by asking questions about common interests. With other authors, it’s easy: Ask about their books, about what genres they like, about their favorite authors. The conversation will trail naturally from there.

Once you’ve established relationships with people, you can start digging a little deeper. Questions like “Who do you use for your editor/cover designer/beta readers?” are cards people keep close to their chest, so save the prying questions for down the road. Once they see that you’re a genuine person who is genuinely interested in them, they’ll be more than willing to offer their help in return.

Give back to your community

Giving back is the factor that most people discount. Often, a person finds a community, becomes interested for a little while, and then stops attending or falls out of touch. They mistakenly think, they’ve got all they can out of it, and that there’s no reason to go back.

It’s one thing if the group is a bad fit, and you’re on the hunt for something better. But more often than not, a person hits a wall and just gives up, instead of delving deeper.

So what’s the most effective way to get more out of your community? Contribute to its richness by finding a way to add value. This doesn’t have to be anything big. I’m not proposing you give a moving speech or anything so intimidating. You don’t even have to offer anything unique—but you do have to be willing to get involved.

A good place for writers to start is by offering to read another writer’s work-in-progress. A simple gesture like going out of your way to read something they’ve published, leaving an unsolicited review, or commenting on a blog post also works wonders. Even small generosities can make people smile.

This is what’s so hard to understand about community, and why so many go wrong. Community is a process, a give and take, a two-way street. Finding a way to give back will get other people noticing you at the same time. It will make you an active part of the community instead of a passive bystander.

At the end of the day, becoming a part of an author community is no different than becoming a part of any other community. Fortunately, community is part of being human, so it comes naturally to all of us—as long as you’re willing to put in the effort.

Resources and Roadmaps

If you’re interested in the topic of community, you should know that I’m far from the first to discuss it. Jane Friedman and Betty Kelly Sargent have both written informatively on the subject as well.

Mark Coker from Smashwords wrote at Huffington Post about how libraries can serve as the local publishing portal. If you’re starting your own thing, the presentations Coker gave are also made available online, and you can use that content to help you in your early community-building efforts.

If you happen to be in Austin, TX, drop by Indie Publishing Austin sometime. It’s free and open to all. You might also like the notes from past Indie Publishing Austin events, all of which are collected on my blog—you can find a ton of valuable indie author information there, from platform building to audiobooks to how indie authors get reviews to a breakdown of publicity for authors.

Above all, I ask that you keep an open mind. Community is filled with potential, and those with open minds are most likely to see it. Once you find the pulse of an author community, it can work wonders to get your blood flowing, too.

matt-baba-square-round-transparentM. G. Herron (@mgherron) is speculative fiction author. After earning an English Lit degree from McMaster University, he spent two years traveling abroad while he honed his craft. Since he relocated to Austin in 2012, he has been earning a living as a writer in various capacities. He lives there still, with his girlfriend and his dog. Check out his latest novel, a scifi thriller called The Auriga Project or learn more about him at mgherron.com.