Writers, whether you know it or not, you’re a business owner. Specifically, an entrepreneur. The sooner you acknowledge and embrace this, the better. And the easier it’ll be to promote and sell books.
Herein lies the dichotomy. As writers, we inherently don’t want to promote—to sell ourselves and our stories. We write because we enjoy it—selecting words to communicate a vision—moods, scene, dialogue. We write not to read aloud but because we love to silently read. (Sure I move my lips on occasion, but it’s more or less silent.) And we write because we’re passionate about the written word.
Perhaps you allow yourself a dreamy vision of signing books for an endless queue of eager readers or see yourself on a comfy couch swapping anecdotes with the celebrity talk-show host du jour, before their inevitable fall from grace. But before any of that can occur (once the writing’s done, and done as well as possible) we need to tell the world we’re here. In other words, that we’re open for business.
A guy I know (friend of a friend) is a talented photographer. And he finally decided to put himself out there (professionally) and start selling his work. So he put a solitary post on Facebook, featuring his work with his contact info. No one contacted him. So he quit, deciding ads clearly don’t work, and business is hard. (No doubt the fault of the economy and COVID.) It’s funny (not really) the people I know who are consistently unsuccessful are invariably the laziest. A fact as reliable as gravity. Harsh? Sure. But truthful. Okay, some are simply terrified. Which is understandable. Going into business is frightening. Almost as scary as revealing your writing to the world.
Here’s the crux. The most important determinant to your success as a writer is to define what success means to you. If I were being paid by the word I’d write that sentence out a second time, forcing you to reread it. (But I’m not, so I won’t.) Once you determine, honestly determine, what success is to you as a writer, everything else is simple. Not easy, but simple. Your definition of success is all that matters.
If, for example, the one-post photographer only wanted to show his work on FB that one time—if that was his goal—then he was completely successful. But it wasn’t his objective. He wanted to sell pictures and to keep selling pictures. He takes pictures however because he loves taking pictures. Not because he enjoys the work required to sell them.
In my case, I wrote a book with the very clear intention of creating a bestseller, because that was important to me. So I did. Then I made a conscious choice to publish a subsequent book I’d only share with a handful of friends and family, a book I consider equally successful. In other words, what success means to you as a writer is the only thing that matters. It may simply be having your writing on a zip-drive, or printed and stapled at a copy shop to be set with pride on a shelf in your home. There’s no better feeling when that’s your objective. But if selling thousands of books is important to you, then know that you can, and should.
Here’s where clarity and honesty come into play. I’ve heard too many individuals claim they want to be successful without having defined what success is to them, instead of believing it’s something they see in film or media when that’s not actually what they desire. Success is (and should remain) unique to everyone. Which is where your challenge lies, ensuring you identify and define your success, and no one else’s.
But if building your brand as an author and selling books are truly important to you, then here are six tangibles—touchstones and reminders—to build and maintain your writerly success.
- Submit to literary journals. This builds networks, improves submission expertise and ratios. You’ll make friends and leverage cross-promotion opportunities, beneficial to everyone involved. Whatever your genre, there are magazines and journals catering to you. Find what fits and do everything in our power to develop channels and partnerships.
- Embrace social media. Yes, it’s time-consuming and addictive. But it can (and will) connect you with good people and create opportunities you never knew existed.
- Promote the work of others. This fosters good karma and the benefits (both tangible and intangible) are limitless.
- Be proactive in your writing community. Remember your struggles as a writer? (That’s a joke. We’re always struggling.) Knowing that you’re part of a community helps. Look for ways to contribute. Put in the effort. The returns always exceed your investment.
- Attend open mics (in-person or virtual). These days it’s Zoom, Skype, Facebook Live and YouTube, but do it. As I like to say in a conspiratorial stage whisper, “No one actually wants to get up and read their stuff. If they do, I can assure you no one wants to hear it.” However, like exercise, it’s good for us, we hone an essential part of our craft, it builds network and camaraderie, and feels great when it’s finished.
- Have a mentor and be a mentor. Being a perpetual student—open to learning and growth ensures knowledge. While the surest way to become a great student is to develop expertise—a circular process that can only lead to greater improvement. Teachers arrive when students are ready. And students invariably make the best teachers.
If these suggestions are second nature to you, good. And if some of these strategies align with your definition of success and you recognize ways in which you can (and will) adopt or improve these activities, then congratulations! You’ve sharpened your game plan, and with it your assurance of success as a writer. The toughest part’s been addressed. Now we can go to work.