September 26th, 2021 marks the ten year anniversary of my career in publishing. On that date in 2011, my first book, St. Charles at Dusk, was released to the masses, realizing a lifelong goal and simultaneously changing my life, forever. I was only aware of one of these things on that day, though. The second piece I didn’t understand until much later.
It’s a piece I’m still understanding, ten years later, and will understand differently ten years from now.
Times were different in 2011. When I released my first book, I didn’t know a single other author, nor did I know feck-all about publishing. My husband was the one who did the initial research that got the wheels turning. I have him to thank for lighting the fire under me that led to the eventual acceptance that perfection is the enemy of progress. I could spend another ten years working on the same book (and it would still never be perfect), or I could move forward and give my creativity and imagination space to grow and stretch.
It was another two years before I released my second book, The Storm and the Darkness, but it was that story that spawned an entire literary universe, and would take me down the path that led me here.
Throughout those years, I had highs and lows. An equal share of both, I’d say.
In 2020, the pandemic just getting started, I finally felt as if I’d earned my stripes, and I started work on my first epic fantasy world, Kingdom of the White Sea. I was nervous, perhaps for the first time, about whether what I could produce would be good enough to earn me a place in a genre I had a profound respect for.
But it was also where I discovered my identity as a writer. Where I finally saw the path I wanted the rest of my career to take.
On September 14th, I released my 41st story. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) this is also the summer I turned forty-one.
Ten years in, I’ve had more learnings than I could ever articulate in a blog post. But there are some that stand out more than others. Many I wish someone had helped me to understand when I was a fledgling author.
If you’re reading this, and are a writer, perhaps even one of these can save you some heartache and bring you closer to your goal(s).
Which leads me to…
1. Set Meaningful Goals
This seems obvious, but I suspect it’s also the part of running your own author business that gets neglected. And this is a business. It’s not enough to say “I want to be famous,” or “I want to live independently off my royalties.” It’s perfectly fine to want those things, but you better have a plan if you intend to make it there. If your goal is to make a million dollars, first you have to make a thousand. Build on your successes with goals that make you stretch further. Measure everything you can. When I didn’t know what was working for me, I couldn’t replicate that success. When I didn’t know what wasn’t working, I got stalled in the wrong places.
Whenever I’ve set generic goals like “do better than last year,” all I did was exactly that. When I’ve set specific goals, such as “increase top-line revenue by 30%,” and plotted actions that would support that, I’ve achieved that goal. In 2022 I’ll set my loftiest goals yet, but I’ll do so having a solid understanding of what worked to get me where I am now, and how to build on that (and yet, I’ll still cross my fingers that the results continue to be replicable).
2. Write, Write, Write, Write, WRITE
So, look. You’ll hear a lot of authors say this when they’re asked what the key is to building their business and selling books. I heard it when I was new. I’ve said it dozens of times to people newer than me. I’ve said it just this week. But you won’t really believe it until you see the power of backlist go to work for you.
Readers who love something you wrote, and have nothing more of yours to read when they finish, will move on. They might even forget how much they loved your book. If, on the other hand, they’ve worked through ten of your books, now you have a superfan.
Backlist funds my future projects until they are self-funding. It’s allowed me to work with the best designers in the business, and to take advertising to the next level. But it wasn’t any of that until I had enough books written and published.
So, write. Write until you have more books to show for the effort, and then keep writing. The sooner you can tap into your backlist (and convert more casual readers to superfans), the easier everything else will become.
3. Embrace Time Optimization Early
Protect your writing time like it’s Aztec gold.
Let’s face it—we ALL have competing priorities. As I type this, I have three demanding pugs waiting to be entertained. That’s to say nothing of my corporate career (which I lovingly refer to as my Clark Kent job), husband, family, and other household responsibilities. The only time I’m not working is when I’m sleeping (and I dream about work, so…)
This is even more true within the time spent managing your writing business. Because you will have to spend time marketing, brand building, connecting with readers, and all those boring business details (bank accounts, taxes) that are, yes, boring, but necessary. It’s VERY easy for social media, especially, to suck up all your time. Once that time is gone, it’s gone. And the less productive you are at the end of the day, the more you feel defeat. That defeat, for me, is a creativity killer.
The more I get done? The more I want to get done. A 2k word morning is more likely to turn into a 5k day for me. A 1k morning often stays that way.
I’ve started scheduling my social media time. I don’t even look at my accounts until I’ve finished my morning writing (or editing, or world-building, depending on where I’m at in the process), and then, unless I’m in the middle of a release cycle, I will ignore them again until later in the day. I also schedule my advertising time, marketing time, etc.
4. Hold Tight to Your Writer Friends & Groups
I can’t tell you how much I wish some of the awesome author groups that are around today were around when I started. Wide For the Win, Alessandra Torre’s Inkers, 20Booksto50K, etc. This is where I’ve met a lot of my author friends, who are really the only people in the world who understand what it’s like to live with a thousand voices in your head. They know the pain of losses and the thrill of victories. Authors speak a different language. I wouldn’t be where I am without my author friends. I guess this one is less of a learning and more of a reminder to hold tight to these relationships. They make an otherwise solitary business less so.
5. Understand the Difference Between Learning and Comparison
Writer groups and network are invaluable, but the sooner I learned that not everyone finds success doing the same things, the easier my life became. Authors are generous people and many of us are happy to share what worked. Understanding where your variables intersect with someone else, and where they vary, will help determine what may be worth trying, and what will just spin your wheels (and probably cost you money). There was a lot of trial and error involved in this for me. Knowing your audience is a huge part of winning at this, and can’t be overstated. I’ll say it again, anyway, because there’s a difference between knowing what genre you write in, and knowing who your audience is and what their expectations are: this is research worth doing, and it’s research that never stops.
6. Pay it Forward But Also Know How to Say No
One of my favorite parts of being part of the author community is being able to use my experiences and knowledge to help newer authors find their footing. I myself learned a ton from other authors, and paying it forward is the best way I know to appreciate that. Problem solving is my love language. When one of us wins, we all win.
And yet, our time is limited. Those competing priorities are still there, and our writing time remains invaluable. It’s the one thing above all else that keeps our business moving forward. There are times when something has to give, and you’ll have to say no, and often time that will mean saying “no” to your author friends. And that’s okay. I can’t always join my friends’ release parties, because sometimes I’m underwater, and overwhelmed, and I have to take my to-do list back to basics. I’ll still share their releases and cheer them on from the background. And when my head returns to the surface, I’ll be able to do more for them.
You cannot drink from an empty cup. Nor can you serve from it.
7. Celebrate the Big Victories, But Don’t Neglect the Milestones
Authors are notorious for releasing a book and then immediately jumping into the next one without stopping to reflect. Finishing a book is a big deal, whether you write one a year or twenty a year. Take that deep breath and (quickly, if you must) celebrate. This is advice I’ve given myself for years, and have rarely followed. I really am trying to get better at it.
The smaller milestones matter, too. The journey is a big part of the destination in what we do. The days where I double my average wordcount leave me almost euphoric. Any time I’m able to focus without diversion for more than an hour at a time is like winning the lottery. The positive reinforcement you get from yourself for moving through your challenges is more fuel for success. Always be working for yourself, not against.
8. Advertising is Painful, But Don’t Put it Off
I told myself for years that Facebook ads, and AMS ads, were too complex, and I’d never get it. All the while I knew what I was telling myself was a lie, and that this lie was holding me back from where I wanted to go.
I finally invested in a not-cheap-but-incredible Facebook Ads course (Skye Warren’s, if you’re curious; worth every penny) that changed everything for me. Suddenly, it “clicked.” And when it clicked, the rest fell into place.
One of my goals for 2021 was to achieve the same mastery with AMS ads. I’m not there yet, but I’m working at it.
I’m still learning. I’ll always be learning. But I’ll be getting my work in front of more readers while I do it.
9. Brand is Queen
Entire books have been written about identifying and building brands. Knowing who you are, how your work fits seamlessly into that, how everything you post and say and do is a reflection of both. Brand is you. Who you are in a public setting (and social media/internet is our main public setting) is a reflection of that brand, for better or worse. Once I really learned this, social media actually got easier for me, as I knew what my priorities were (and weren’t).
This is not me saying “shut up and write.” I find few things more insulting than insinuating that people in the public eye should give up their right to an opinion on things that matter. We all have a voice, a right to that voice, and should use it, if we feel called to do so.
10. Drama: Abort, Abort!
I won’t lie and say that some fresh tea won’t make me stop scrolling. Nothing will steal my attention faster than some juicy beef. But I don’t engage. I don’t comment on it, throw my hat into the ring by picking sides, post about it, or even vaguebook about it. Nothing positive can come from it, and the resulting heartache only makes it harder to find the words, the time, and the inspiration. Anything that hurts my brand is counterintuitive to the goals I’ve set for myself, and it overshadows the work I’ve put in. Drama is anathema to creativity for me, and creativity is what powers me.
It’s hard to believe ten years have passed and yet, at the same time, I can hardly remember a time in my life where the publishing world wasn’t at the center. I can’t wait to see where the next ten years leads me.
If you’re an author new to publishing, and wondering where the heck to get started, I understand that this can be a daunting period. But there really is a wealth of resources that didn’t exist when I started. Alessandra Torre has some great “getting started” advice on her website (and her Inkers group on Facebook is fantastic). Joanna Penn is a legend, and has books, podcasts, and a website with years and years of invaluable info. I often recommend David Gaughran’s non-fiction craft and marketing books, and if you want to save yourself some early heartache, check out Becca Syme’s “Dear Author” series, to develop the right habits and mentalities before the bad ones take over. These recommendations only scratch the surface of what’s out there to take advantage of, but it’s a good start.
If you’ve read to the end, thank you. It’s a heck of a lot easier to write about fictional characters than real ones.