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Where Authors Begin

The 5 essential things to determine before you get started.

Over the last 14 years I’ve helped several thousand writers become published authors. I’ve held the role of salesperson, consultant, and navigator. I worked for a vanity press publisher (so-called “self publishing”) and a self-publishing company (real “self publishing”). I’ve helped writers indie publishing in the role of navigator through my own company, Redbrush, for the last four years. We’ve guided writers from first concepts to finished books. It’s been an honor to help writers realize their publishing dreams.

As publishing has evolved---and consequently, my career---one would think that writers would likewise evolve. As long as people have been taking pen to paper and fingers to keyboards, there are two truths that have not changed: “Writing is art. Publishing is business.” Those writers who choose to make publishing their work a hobby are letting others make money … and a lot of it.

Writers looking for the path of least resistance to being a published author need look no farther than Amazon or Lulu to find easy and cheap. Writers hoping for “professional author” status need to go deeper. There are five necessary ingredients to prepare for that greater and honored status. Whether these are building blocks or stumbling blocks is up to the individual. I’m constantly surprised how few authors are ready or able to speak about these essentials. There is a specific order that makes the best sense. Let’s see how you do?

  1. A desired destination
  2. The right audience
  3. An appropriate platform
  4. Enough time
  5. An adequate budget

The desired destination

I always ask the writers to think of me as their travel agent. And just like a travel agent, my first question is the most important: “Where do you want to go?”

Like that travel agent, I need specificity. “Rome,” or “Osaka, Japan,” or maybe “a rainforest resort in Costa Rica.” You’d never say, “East.”

Saying that you just want to have it published or “out there” isn’t specific. That’s as much of a starting gate as finishing a first draft or sending a manuscript off to a contest.

The more specific your goals, the greater chance you have to meet them. Try these on for size:

  • I want to prepare my manuscript that’s most likely to gain the support of an agent and publisher.
  • I want to write a book that readers will enjoy and review as being similar to my writing hero, the late Stieg Larsson.
  • I’m going to indie-publish a novel to sell at my speaking engagements that’s related to my field of study and the fascinating story I uncovered in my research.
  • I’m going to write a manuscript that will eventually establish me as a professional author of adult fiction and help me on my writing career.

If you can’t articulate what your want to accomplish, how will you know when you’ve arrived?

An audience

Who’s your audience and what do you want to say to them that’s different or better than the thousands of other writers with whom you’re competing? Again, be specific. If you can’t identify several targeted audiences and reasons yours is the right book for them, you’ll be chasing new readers forever. When you reach the right readers and they love your book, they’ll promote it for you with positive word of mouth. Consider these targeted groups, then think of your own perfect readers.

  • Fans of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.
  • Readers who like strong female protagonists who run the action of the story.
  • Audiences willing to give a new author a chance and will pay for a well-reviewed first novel.
  • Readers who like novels that take place in a different time period than today.
  • Techie fans who thrive on accurate technical descriptions of complex locations and events.

Sometimes, it’s as important to know who you DON’T want to reach.

  • NOT readers who will not pay for a good book. (This removes your opportunity to offer your eBook for free in hopes of ever making money.)
  • NOT readers uncomfortable with gay and lesbian protagonists.
  • NOT liberal, tree-hugging whiners who will be put off by the white, patriarchal system that wins back control of a government almost destroyed by its antithesis.
  • NOT conservative, right-wing Christians, easily offended by characters with a more … inclusive moral compass.

You get the idea. Your audience isn’t “everyone that can read at an eighth grade level”. Don’t kid yourself. The sooner you can identify those readers most likely to love your book, the easier it is to identify how to reach them.

Knowing who you write like or a couple of titles similar to yours can be helpful. Readers like shorthand, too. That you writing in the page-turning style of James Patterson or that your book has the similar rhythm of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl can help readers decide to give you a try. Even knowing that you help readers easily suspend their disbelief as well as Anne Rice, could endear you to her readers. The better you know your book---and others like it---the easier it will be to identify your audiences.  

A platform

Your perfect readers will likewise identify you as their perfect author. The easier they’re able to identify and access your platform, the easier it is to win their patronage.

Once a prospective reader hears about you and your book, what’s the first thing they’re likely to do? Locate you on the Internet … or not. Authors should have a platform. That means an accessible presence online; a website. Blog posts and/or articles, and other information will provide context about the personality of the writer. You’re not just selling a book. You’re selling yourself as an author. Your platform must reinforce your status.  

I’ve written a how-to book about indie book publishing. You can easily find me on the Internet. You can me at my website (Redbrush [dot] com) and my book available through several retail sites. This confirms for readers---and my targeted audiences: “writers looking to confidently indie-publish their own books”---that I’m a published author and an expert in the field. I know more than a little about publishing and one’s publishing options. Sure, that’s a nonfiction book. Novelists need a website and posts and photos. They need to provide up-to-date evidence and information so readers are convinced their writing, their context, and their story is relative and important to their audiences.  

The time

If you’re an artist, the most important time you can spend is in your creative process. When the painting is done, investing the time to show it, share it, and sell it is necessary to their success. It’s the same with writers.

While you’re writing, let that be most important. Whenever you need breaks, think on how you’ll promote your book. What are the taglines that perfectly describe your story? If you have a social network, post or tweet updates that heighten your colleagues’ excitement for your book---they’ll probably be your first sales.

If you choose to indie-publish your book (or get it to market in any way other than the traditional route), plan time for working with a professional editor. Anticipate time to carefully proof your edited manuscript. Envision what kind cover your targeted readers will appreciate most. Have someone well-versed in publishing styles design its interior. Set aside time to proof the finished files again.

Moving files through Lulu or Createspace is a sissy sprint compared to just about any other publishing option. If you go into your process ready to invest time for the many steps, you’ll do much better in the race.

Enough money

You’ve probably heard it said that you have to spend money to make money. And you’re probably no stranger to the sales quip, “When you’re a customer, there’s fast, there’s cheap, and there’s good. You can only pick two.”

When moving from a hobbyist writer to professional author you have to think of yourself as an entrepreneur. Successful entrepreneurs plan carefully, fund their idea, and put in the work. Budget for success and expect to put in (or raise) funds to reach your goals. (Going back to the travel model, if you want to fly First-Class, you have to pay the price.)

Imagine going on “Shark Tank” and pitching your product to those wealthy investors who have worked very hard for their success. If you’ve seen the show you know they want to see smart preparations and a solid foundation of hard work. Crowdfunding through IndieGoGo or Kickstarter is no different. Savvy supporters who fund book projects support writers who have done the work because they have the clearest goals.

Here are the steps for which to budget:

  • Editing - So you have the best, last version of your manuscript for design or agent.
  • Design - If you’re indie- or self-publishing, get help with a great cover and interior that fits publishing standards. (Word is word processing tool, not a professional book layout tool.)
  • ARCs or samples - Publishers provide physical samples to columnists and retailers to gain reviews and promotional blurbs. Know whether or not your media list will prefer printed or digital ARCs. This remains a traditional publishing element that some argue is window dressing. But if a reviewer requires them, are you going to say “no”?
  • Book copies - This is what it’s all about, right? Books in hands.
  • Marketing - A website, social media, PR outreach, launch events & promotions, signings, premiums or promotional items, and advertising.

A compelling reason  (I’m not giving legal advice.)

For those who’ve stuck with me through this comprehensive tutorial, and ready to hear the last, best reason to consider doing all of this work and indie-publishing on their own, there is a compelling reason to do so: Hobbyists cannot write off their publishing expenses. If you form your own publishing entity and indie-publish your book(s), you’ should be able to write off all of the aforementioned publishing  expenses.

The thousands of authors who choose Createspace or Lulu to quickly and cheaply publish their writings have not found the best way, just the easiest. A smaller group put more work into their published works. A still, smaller group will take the time to identify their goals, audience, build a platform, allocate the time, and prepare and fund a budget to reach the success you’ve defined.

If you want to be a hobbyist writer and toss your books (or just eBooks) “out there” to see if anything sticks, you can settle for cheap and fast. To put out a book that meets and could perform at professional publishing standards---like any professional author---you’ll want to have each of these five essential publishing elements. Like never before, you get to choose the publishing path for your book.

Good luck to you!