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The Business of Writing 1
Part 1: Plan to Work at Being an Author
Taking Off the Rose Colored Glasses
Most people have an image of authors and the business of writing that owes more to fiction than reality. The popular idea that writers scratch out a scintillating new novel and fire it off to their publishers between sipping martinis at celebrity soirees and attending book signings where their adoring fans queue for them to scrawl a platitude over their signature in copies of their latest novel are a nice dream but they have nothing to do with this plane of existence.
Since I have been writing as a full time occupation the reality of what it means to get up every day and write a few thousand words has become the round of my life. A more accurate portrayal of what it is to write for a living involves gallons of coffee and long hours spent tapping on a keyboard. Only the most naive writers ever imagine that it will be easy to find a publisher who will take their work but even when you do the reality of your relationship with them is far different to what the reading public imagines it to be.
When I published my first novel, Loot (available on amazon.com), the publisher didn’t give it an awful lot of support or promotion and the message to me was that, while they would assist me to sell my book, I was basically on my own. The marketing manager explained to me that publishers put 90% of their effort into promoting less than 10% of the authors that write for them and that if I wanted to become one of those writers that I had to sell a lot of books. The reality of being a writer had become more complicated because writing a book and finding a publisher willing to print it were only the first step on the road to literary success. Writers have to be marketers as well.
I belong to several online writers groups and the one consistent question that continues to come up in all of the forums is how do authors promote their work? There are a couple of options and authors can take the expensive PR route or, as is more commonly the case, they can go the DIY promotions road. Either way the first reality check for most writers is that they aren’t so much artists as they are small business operators.
How to Sell Books in the 21st Century
Even if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford to outsource your book promotions there is no guarantee that they will sell enough copies to cover the expense involved, especially as authors only make an average of 10-12% of the cover price for every book that they sell. A professional advertising campaign for a book might cost thousands and it is likely that you would have to sell the first few thousand just to cover those costs. When you consider that a book that makes the bottom of the New York Times Bestseller lists may have sold as few as 50,000 copies and the royalties from even a moderately successful book may only be $10,000-$15,000 the martini sipping illusion soon begins to dissipate in the harsh glare of reality.
The reality of having to sell books can be a steep learning curve for writers who may not be natural marketers or even possess business management skills. Suddenly being thrust into the world of ad campaigns and promotional strategies can be a big shift from spending hours composing literary gems and many authors that have great books flounder because they never get a handle on how to sell them. As confronting as it may be it is possible for authors to be very successful at promoting themselves and their books without having to spend huge amounts of either time or money. The internet has made taking control of the marketing side of publishing books accessible to anyone and in many ways authors are better off taking the DIY option.
The business of writing takes commitment and persistence if you are going to succeed. Most authors don’t start to make a living from their books until they have an established back catalogue to support the sales of the new books that they publish. It usually takes at least three or four books to become established and after four books I am just starting to head into the black now. My journey has taught me many lessons about what it takes to sell books and the marketing learning curve that I have been on has given me the confidence to know that I can succeed as an author.
Now that I have spent a few years on the business of writing I have a much clearer idea of what book marketing actually involves. In the end marketing your books isn’t very complicated but it does take time to get going just like any other small business does.
Make Writing Your Business
If you are going to market yourself and your books then the best place to start is to make writing your business. Looking at the business of writing pragmatically may not be the most romantic vision of what life as an author is all about but when you take off the rose colored glasses and look at what you need to do to sell books it is the only practical option. Like all businesses, authors have a product to sell and need to take a practical approach to how they go about doing that. Just like any other business, authors have to have a plan with clear objectives and strategies that they intend to use to achieve those goals.
The objective that most authors would place at the top of their list is to sell lots of books but when you break that large target down it is actually composed of a few interconnected components. Of course the most important part of the goal is to continue to produce new books to sell. Writing is the core activity of the business of writing and any plan for world domination has to allot enough time to it so that the quality of the work continues to improve. At the same time the real commodity that the author is selling is himself. This makes the fundamental thrust of the marketing that authors do about raising their public profile. The books that they write are the product but the author himself is the brand that is the focus of the marketing activities. Finally, the mechanical aspect of selling books is almost totally concerned with clerical administration and professional networking.
In broad terms, author’s business plans should include regularly publishing new material and with the development of e-books and Print on Demand (POD) publishing many writers are producing several books every year. In support of this authors also need to keep a blog where they can connect personally with their book buying public. To let people know that the blog and the books that are being sold on it are there it is necessary to advertise the facts and the most accessible (and cost effective) marketing tool that is available are social media and Web 2.0 sites where users contribute the content. Where possible authors should try and attend any book fairs and related events and find ways to actively promote their books and finally it is vital to network with other authors and people in the publishing industry generally.
Time management is vital in any enterprise and it is even more so in a time consuming occupation as writing. Just keeping up with the office work can be a considerable investment in time. This makes time management one of the most important skills that authors will need to develop in order to succeed at the business of writing. Without managing your time it is difficult to do a good enough job on all of the subsidiary efforts that authors need to make to sell their books while if too much time is being spent on promotions then the new material that they need to publish a steady supply of books for their readers won’t be getting done.