I was recently asked to participate in a project being run by TheLadders where they are reaching out to writers and asking them what advice they would give for new graduates attempting to break into the field. TheLadders are a career resource for professionals across all vocations and at at any stage of their careers. You should check them out. www.theladders.com.
So here is my advice:
Most authors nowadays understand that things are different to how they used to be. Being a storyteller is no longer like being a rockstar. It isn't about crossing your fingers and hoping for a big break - a big break that brings millions of dollars and power lunches in New York and book signings in London. It's about good business. No more literary rock stars, just businessmen and women.
Are things better now? I think so. There is still the odd rockstar out there, like James Patterson, Lee Child, J K Rowling, and the rest. Like Paul McCartney and Madonna, these writers will remain rich and successful until they eventually die out. And rightly so, for these people were the hard workers of the previous generation. But once they are gone, things will carry on without them. In their place is a new and improved free market where anyone can sink or swim. Everyone gets handed the same pair of speedos and it's up to them to keep themselves in shape and stay afloat. There are no more sharks in the water, deciding who lives and who dies, but the water has become chock-full of swimmers fighting for room. The weakest swimmers are going to drown.
Business is hard. Doesn't matter whether you are selling sandwiches or writing books. Most businesses fail. Now that writing has become a free enterprise, most writers will unfortunately fail. But that's always been true. The positive changes we have seen recently mean that at least now more writers will SUCCEED, and that is why today is a better time than ever to be an aspiring writer.
Now that writing is a business, the only person in control of whether or not you fail or succeed is you. Your books are your products and you need to sell them. You will do this in the same way as any other business sells its wares. Common sense and entrepreneurialism.
0. Understand that writing is a craft
Before we start, I just want to make one thing very clear. You can't just decide one day to be a writer; no more than you can just sit at a piano and decide you want to become your generation's Beethoven. Writing is a passion and an innate skill, but it is also a craft and a trade that needs to be learned. An author should be well read, not just in their chosen genre but in the study of writing itself. Fill your bookshelf with texts on plotting, grammar, novel-writing, description, and anything else that a writer needs to know. Understand that writing a book takes as much education as it does innate talent. Learn the purpose of a sentence before you start tossing them around like some sort of word-hooker.
It would also serve you well to learn as much as you can about Word Processors, Photoshop, website design, eCommerce, accounting, blogging, twitter, newsletters, and anything else that the business of writing will entail. The more you know, the better. Always learn whatever you can.
1. Start small, grow big
Now that the self-publishing environment is bedded in, there is little chance of a becoming a 1 book millionaire. Instead, your first book is likely to make you peanuts, but that's okay. It's really okay. Every new business starts small. The first step is only to get a hook in the mountain; after that you can start climbing and planting flags. Write your first book and make it the very best you can - spend as long as you can on it. If you are serious about making writing your living, then use some of your savings to hire a good editor and purchase some professional artwork. You may balk at spending $1000 on what seems like a self-indulgent hobby, but remember that you are trying to start a business here. Most businesses lose money in year 1 (and 2 and 3). It's an investment and you need to spend money to make money. Your intention is to make that money back with interest.
Once you get that first book published on Amazon, itunes, or some place else, sit back for a moment and enjoy the excitement, but then get back to work. Like any business, you now need feedback on your product. Offer free copies for review, give it away for nothing on Amazon in a promotion, swap with another writer and help each other. Don't be overly proud by demanding that people must pay for your hard and valuable work, because that will be your downfall. As a new business, your sole goal at this point is to get your brand in front of people. When a new chocolate company starts up, what do they do? They give away free samples at the supermarket to get their milky goodness in people's mouths. You need to do the same. Fill people's mouths with your milky goodness. Get those reviews coming in, good or bad. Take note of what they are saying and accept them as market research. Your ending sucked? Well, remember that for you next product (or book 1 version 2). Listen, improve, and pay attention to your customers. Once you get some reviews racking up, you may be able to approach larger book review sites or promoters like Bookbub. Everything you do should be geared towards disseminating your book into the world. At the same time, you also need to be working on book 2.
2. Develop your brand.
Make your name synonymous with your genre. When people say Stephen King they think horror. You now need to start living and breathing your genre. Tweet about your favourite films and books, try to get interviewed by websites that cover your genre. Join Facebook groups that enjoy the kind of books your write. Get yourself embedded in the culture of the people you are selling to.
Build yourself a website, nothing fancy, but let people know you're around to stay. Make sure that if people google your name they find you. When people visit your website you have control over the information they see about you, so don't undersell yourself. You may be small, but never admit to that. You may lack confidence at this point, but never let it show. You are the Boss, the greatest writer in the whole frikkin' world and anyone who has discovered you is damn lucky. If you visit a website looking for a new sofa and are met with a bunch of childish nonsense and amateur web design, you will look elsewhere, right? So even with 1 book and no sales, your website needs to make it seem like you are rubbing shoulders with Anne Rice and Thomas Harris on a daily basis. If you want to compete with bestselling authors, your brand needs to be as good as theirs. Copy their layouts and designs if you have to. See what a professional website should look like and make yours the same. Established authors may look at you like some impudent upstart, but fuck them. This is business. Let all the big name authors know that you're coming for them!
Your brand should always be a key focus from now on and will continue to evolve as you do so as a writer. Create a reusable font for your name so that all your books share a familiar style. Apply the designs to your website, too. Pick a colour and make it your own (mine is purple). Work out a catchphrase for your promotional material (mine is: Fear on every page). Get yourself signed up to every single social media site in existence, old and new. You can always unsubscribe to the ones that suck later.
Find the fans that enjoy your work and be good to them. They are your family now and will be with you for a long time. Give them freebies whenever you can or even meet up with them if you are a social butterfly. Your cheerleaders will always be the first to review your books, point out typos, inform you of opportunities, and they are the most important asset your business has. You have attracted fans and now you need to maintain brand loyalty by never letting them down (the hardest part of the job). Don't be a schmuck. Don't make everything about you. Share the work of other aspiring writers. Show an interest in the lives of your fans. Post about things other than your work and share what you know. Give a piece of yourself to those supporting you and be a nice guy. ALWAYS BE A NICE GUY. Or gal.
Once you have built your platform and started your brand, you need to grow. That chocolate company has gotten people hooked on its candy bar, but now it needs to release a new product to keep the business flowing and growing. A healthy business is a growing business. Never stand still. You need to write a second book. You can write a sequel, or something completely new - doesn't matter. What does matter is that you use what you learned from book 1. Address any concerns raised in your bad reviews or via feedback. Remember the mistakes your editor picked up in book 1 and try to avoid them. Do everything you can to make book 2 better and yourself a better writer. Then, when book 2 is done, sink all of your profits from book 1 into hiring an editor again and getting more artwork. It may feel like a lot of work for no reward, but remember that you are growing. You now have 2 books instead of 1.
When book 2 is released, let all of your followers know. Don't shove it in people's faces, but make it easy to find. You can even run a promotion on the first book to promote the second (make sure you link to the 2nd book at the end of the 1st). You can give away your new book for free, just to get some momentum going, or you can sit back and wait. There's not a massive amount you can do at this point, because you are still in the growing phase of your business. What you really need to do is write book 3.
You now have a healthy platform established and hopefully a trickle of sales coming through. Hopefully you also get periodic reviews appearing on their own and maybe even a nice email or two coming from a fan. Once this is happening, your business is organic. It's breathing on its own. People are talking about it, Amazon is ranking and promoting it, google is linking to it. A total stranger could fall upon your book and buy it. You don't have a massive presence yet, but you exist. The best thing you can do now is create more products to sell to your existing customer base and to increase your odds of attracting new business. Every new reader is a building block in your empire.
You should also look towards expanding your existing products to as many platforms as you can. Do you have audiobook, paperback, and ebook versions all available? If not, then get it done. Maximise your income streams for every title, because this is the time where you either sink or swim.
4. Be the business
Hopefully, when you have 3 or 4 books out, you'll be earning enough money to cover the cost of editing and releasing your next book while also leaving you a small profit. Keep writing new books while looking for ways to promote your catalogue of existing products. Promote 'yourself' wherever possible rather than a single book. Direct people to your website whenever you can. Sign them up to your newsletter (Mailchimp). Offer a book or two cheaply or even permanently free to keep on dragging in new customers. Keep momentum going in anyway you can. Now that your have some experience, do some blog posts and share what you know. Start selling signed copies of your paperbacks to fans. Contact some of your role models and see if they reply. Start acting like you're a successful writer, because you are. Writing a book is hard, and you now have several, so in that you are already a success. Well done. You are making money from your books. Well done. People are enjoying your books. Well done. (If people are not enjoying your books at this point, then maybe it's time to face harsh facts).
This is your life now, you should take what you are earning and scale it up to the point where you can quit whatever other jobs you have and write fulltime. Do you have 5 books earning you half of what you need? Then you know you probably need to write 5 or 6 more to go fulltime. Maybe you need to write 20. At least now you should have some idea. That's your business plan. Write as many books as it takes to be a fulltime writer. Once you achieve that, it's all gravy.
5. Go with the flow
In the four years I have been doing this, things have changed a dozen times. I have been up and down and sideways. Now that writing is an enterprise, it is extremely volatile. Successful businesses can and do go bankrupt. You can make it big one minute and lose it all the next. The only way to curb the risks is by forever being on the cusp of the industry's waves. Always pay attention to what is going on now and what appears likely to happen next. Never let anything take you by surprise. Always plan for the worst and always look for ways to climb above your rivals. If you see an opportunity, take it. Have an idea that no one else has thought of? Then put it into play. In business, it is innovators who last longest.