How did a young-adult novel about teens with cancer turn into a best-selling phenomenon that makes even skeptical grown-ups weep all over their Kindles? Partly because John Green's The Fault in Our Stars is irresistible, mixing wit and emotion without a hint of mawkishness. But credit also goes to Green's devoted online fans, known as Nerdfighters. Green and his brother, Hank, have grown the group through an ongoing series of hugely popular YouTube videos, which have attracted a total of 1.5 billion views (yes, billion). With a movie version of TFIOS opening June 6 (and Green and his wife's new online contemporary-art show, The Art Assignment, now on PBS.com), that fan base could soon get even bigger. Green explains his approach to creating community.
When Green and his brother began making videos in 2007, their ambitions were modest. "It grew very slowly. When we'd made 120 videos, we had fewer than 200 subscribers. If our goal was to have a wildly successful career on the Internet, we would have quit. But we really liked the people who were watching. That was enough. Then in July 2007, my brother made a video about Harry Potter the day before the last book came out, and almost overnight we went to more than 7,000—which at the time just seemed infinite."
If your goal is real connection, never pretend to be something you aren't. "You have to be authentic with your audience. When you treat them well, they respond generously. We do a lot of nonprofit work, and a lot of times [those organizations] say, 'We want young people to like this, so we're going to do this "hip, young" thing.' I just wince. All you can be is yourself. In my case, part of that is being old. I don't know about One Direction, and they forgive me because I don't pretend like I do."
Sharing your life—adversity and all—makes an audience genuinely care, and Green was open with fans about his four-year effort to write TFIOS. "They'd seen me struggle, they'd heard me read [parts of books] that had to be abandoned. It made them feel invested in it from the beginning. I'm more likely to read a book written by a friend, and if you extend that idea out, people are more likely to read books if they feel a personal connection to the person who created it, and to the process."
Marketing yourself requires imagination. "I like feeling like I'm part of a community of fans, so that's what my brother and I have tried to do. My brother is a musician and is very person-able onstage. We put together an hour-and-15- minute show and toured the country in this ridiculous van that was painted in the colors of The Fault in Our Stars. Then in 2013, we did a real show [at Carnegie Hall], and it was much more of an experience. Generally, I think book tours only work when they provide experiences."
The brothers' charitable efforts are an important part of how they relate to fans. "People don't tend to become Nerdfighters unless they are passionate about making a difference. If you make stuff that's in accordance with your values, you will end up with an audience that shares them. It's so much more fun to genuinely like and care about your audience than it is to be like, 'Ugh, these people again?' We've been lucky, although it's very much on our minds as the movie ramps up. But I never had a sense of ownership over The Fault in Our Stars after it came out. I always understood that once a book is finished, it doesn't belong to you anymore. It belongs to the readers, for better or for worse."
Green's next book is coming slowly. "It's a big question: How do you develop and care for an audience while doing the time-consuming, introverted work of writing? I'm still trying to find that balance. It's hard to write a book when you're in the shadow of another book. That's a problem I've never been lucky enough to have until now. Usually you write a book and three weeks later it has disappeared. It's sad, but then you get to work. But I'm still talking about The Fault in Our Stars."
A version of this article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.