How I gained 20,000+ Instagram Followers Organically, as a Writer, in Under a Year
I done did it. I played the social media game and have now gained over 25 thousand followers on Instagram. But how did I do it? How much of my psyche was sold to The Instagram Algorithm? And what kind of benefits (and drawbacks) are there to having this many followers for small-time writers? Great questions that I hope to answer.
For some context, I’m N. T. Lazer, a self-published author with two novels out at the moment and a third on the way. I also write a lot of short stories on Reddit. As a small-time writer, I look for ways to get my work out in the wild as easily and inexpensively as possible.
Origins on Reddit
In August of 2015, I created r/Nazer_the_Lazer, a subreddit for archiving the stories that I responded to through r/WritingPrompts. While I had a blast writing to the prompts (and still write there as of 2021), Reddit does you absolutely no favors in terms of growing your subreddit. There is no way someone will organically stumble upon your writing subreddit, only come and visit once you tell them “hey, if you like my stuff, you might like more on my subreddit!” So, after five years of toiling away at short stories on there, I ended up with a modest following of 2,900 subscribers to my subreddit. Not bad, but nothing that would be game-changing in the grand scheme of things. I wanted to be writing somewhere more likely to have people naturally finding my stuff. I tried Medium and watched that crash and burn. But someone big on Instagram suggested I try Instagram. I found the suggestion odd since it was a picture-based site, but I decided to look into it further.
Some Research into Instagram
I found some users with some mild success that would post stories as a series of pictures on Instagram. They had hundreds to a few thousand followers that were engaging with their content. Perfect, that’s exactly what I wanted. But upon reaching out to some of them, it seemed like they just created each story manually to post to Instagram by screenshotting or taking time formatting on Canva or sites like that. That sounded awful. It felt like a lot of time lost for not much in return. Especially when I didn’t have any followers to begin with. I needed something that would convert my Reddit text to pictures, bolds and italics included. Nothing like that existed… yet.
Creating a program to help me post to Instagram
Long story short, I built https://texttopic.com. It’s a free website, and I encourage you to check it out yourself if you wanna try your hand at writing on Instagram.
The rest of this section will be a little jargon-y regarding how I transitioned from Reddit to Instagram, so feel free to skip to the next section if that doesn’t interest you.
I had hundreds of Reddit posts ripe for posting to Instagram, if only I could convert the text to square images of text. Fortunately, I have learned how to program and Reddit has a generous API to access. I utilized pythonanywhere.com to run a daily task that would look at the oldest post that had not yet been posted and deliver it to my email as a series of images. It’s free to run once a day, which is perfect because I wasn’t intending to post any more often than that. I keep a database in the form of a txt file on PythonAnywhere that appends the unique id of each post whenever it’s been emailed to me.
The program would also email me a random set of hashtags from a larger pool that I gathered myself. That way I could hit different hashtags on a day to day basis while avoiding looking like a bot by posting the same thing every day.
After those two main aspects were done, I included an advertisement to add to the end of the post with a CTA. All of these are put together in images below:
And you can see how it looks when posted right here.
Okay, cool. So now I can convert all of my Reddit posts to Instagram posts and essentially double dip in two social media sites with no additional work (other than this upfront work). But at this point, I’ve never had an Instagram account before. How do I use Instagram??
@N.T.Lazer is born
On April 14, 2020, I started my profile. I told my subbreddit of 2900 and got a whopping… less than 20 followers, if I recall correctly. The plan was simple: Post every single day. Every post was the same formula, a title picture, a series of story pictures (2–7 photos to tell the story), and an advertisement in the end. Thanks to the program I had running to deliver my posts to my email, I had no gaps in posting every single day. There were no aesthetic, framed photos, it was all just prompt responses. I was essentially a glorified version of a profile that uses Tumblr or Twitter screenshots, but all of my posts were my own, original content.
The start was a huuuuge slog. It took about 40 posts for me to get noticed by a few dozen people and around 72 posts to get 500 followers. So, two months and some change of almost no one seeing posts. Hashtags would net me so few eyes on it. It was difficult. That was probably the hardest part. But around 90 days in, I finally broke 1,000. Once I passed 1,000 followers, I started getting found organically. The algorithm would pick me up and people would tell me they found me through the Discover page. And sure, it looks great now, but when I first started, I thought I would quit IG by the end of 2020 based on the initial low activity.
There was also the matter of “doomsday.” As I mentioned earlier, I had been posting content from my subreddit, which meant I was relying on a finite backlog. I couldn’t keep up my rate of posts. I even tried to increase the amount of time until doomsday by continuously writing, but writing short stories every day is not the easiest thing to keep up. I ended up just taking a short hiatus after reaching “doomsday” of zero posts in my backlog.
I wasn’t completely isolated to my own profile for growth, though. The consistency of posts gained me favor with the Instagram Algorithm, but I gained a lot of followers by writing to other profiles and directing them back to my own profile. For example, there is a massive account, @writing.prompt.s, that posts writing prompts fairly often. I would comment a full story in response to the writing prompt and end it with “Check out @n.t.lazer for more stories on my profile!” Followers wouldn’t come after reading my story unless I explicitly asked them with the tagline at the end. I don’t think I would have broken 1000 followers in 90 days if not for utilizing profiles like that. Hashtags simply aren’t enough.
The reason I believe the algorithm gives me preference now is because I have a lot of things going for my posts, engagement-wise. I post consistently (no longer daily, but almost every other day), and I have a carousel that people want to swipe through to read the full story. The fact that they are hundreds of words of reading means Instagram sees people on my profile for longer periods of time and gives me favor because of that over other profiles people only glance at.
Alright, so I have thousands of followers. Does that translate to a lot of benefits?
Trying to sell books to 25,000+ followers
Wow, 25k is a lot right? Does that mean I’m making a lot of book sales? Not necessarily. I’m more than happy with my sales, but it might not be the numbers you’d expect.
First off, they have funded my self-publishing journey. I’ve run two successful Kickstarters to cover most costs of publishing (for an article on how I ran my first successful Kickstarter, check out this link). Successful Kickstarters are more than I could ask for and I’m very grateful to have that. But day-to-day books sales are maybe one a day. Nothing to brag about, even in the self-pub space.
Marketing and giveaways have been fantastic. I have not paid a cent to advertise any of my books, I only use my socials to get the word out. My first free giveaway netted me 1500 downloads and a current total of 100 reviews on Amazon, which I’m very happy with. At a cost of zero dollars, this is a pretty great return on investment.
But there is the matter of social media being an inherently free platform. What I mean by that is every post (i.e. a short story) is offered to my followers for free, so when I would try and release a novel (which is just a longer story) in the hopes that 1% would purchase, it kind of hits you just how few people are willing to give you two dollars despite how much they insist they would buy my books in multiple comments. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, I’m very happy with my community, but that’s something you should be aware of if you’re trying to aspire to such numbers on your socials. At 25,000+ followers, I’m with about 150 who are happy to purchase what I release. This is no small number, but not the metrics I’d expect at face value. Not quitting my day job anytime soon.
Moving forward, I do intend to try paying for advertising once I’ve written my third book and see if it’s worthwhile in comparison to my existing, free audience.
Social Media Interactions
In addition to making sales and Kickstarters, the benefit to having a large audience is having a lot of people to interact with. If this is what you’re looking for, then you’ll find lots of interactions. Comments, shares, tags in other posts, I’ll have plenty of places to communicate with people who like the stories written. The big number of followers also acts as some sort of “legitimacy” for people just discovering me. I have a built-in social proofing. I was reached out to by my Audibook Narrator when he discovered me himself, I never searched for one. I was also reached out to by a “book crate” company to include my book in their product. They see the numbers and move based on what looks like a promising partnership.
I also made a lot of connections with other writers on Instagram, and on occasion we will post one another in our stories, but not so often that it looks like we just advertise for one another. It’s fantastic to keep in touch with them and see what they’re doing for better or worse interactions with their followers.
It also brings out a lot more people asking you to either write their stuff for paltry compensation or reviewers who clearly haven’t read your book. The first group will be people who reach out asking “hey, I have this idea. A vampire urban fantasy set in space with an all left-handed cast. Pretty cool, huh? You write rest and we can split the profits 70–30.” With those, I politely reply that I’m too busy with my current projects. The latter group will say “I just finished your book! It’s okay, but I would have written it a lot better by changing every fundamental part of your story to the point where it isn’t even the same thing anymore. I didn’t actually finish reading it, but the end could have been a lot better.” To them I politely thank them for taking the time to read my story. Both of these groups are more hilarious than a nuisance, but they can get to you when they come up with something really out of left field.
There’s also the soul-sucking feeling of being at the whims of the Instagram Algorithm. Some days I would gain thousands of engagements and then next I wouldn’t be found by anyone at all, as if I disappeared entirely. I never let it get into my heart to feel bad when followers dropped or whatever, but on days I was trying to advertise Kickstarter it was frustrating to know I wasn’t getting to as many people as I wanted by no fault of my own. Plans changed depending on how the algorithm felt that day which is one of the more annoying aspects.
Growing my Instagram Hurts my Novels
I felt this was important enough to address in its own section. Keeping up writing short stories on Instagram takes a toll on writing my long-term projects. As of July 2021, I have written 110,000+ words, but only about 40,700 of those words are written into my novel. Over 60% of the words written this year have been dedicated to putting stuff out for free on social media. If I had written 100,000+ words into my novel, it would certainly be done by now.
To keep one project happy is to lead to the suffering of the other. If I stop posting to the socials, they might not engage with any of my sales, but if I keep up with my short stories, the time it takes to write a novel grows significantly. A vicious cycle.
Having a fairly modest social media following based on a programmatic method is pretty cool and I’m happy with how it turned out. Interacting with fans is great and worthwhile in the short and long run, though having to deal with a black-box algorithm is grating at times. Sales are consistent with much credit going to my followers. Writing short stories is done to the detriment to my longer projects. I might try moving to someplace like Tumblr in the future and see if I can replicate something there.
Feel free to ask me any questions! I’m not a professional by any means, but I’m happy to help where I can!