5 Skills Every Indie Author Needs to Learn
When you decide to become an author, you probably have a long-term vision for the sort of outcome you want to achieve beyond those first few steps. Your goal might be winning a certain award, generating a six-figure income, shedding light on an important cause or simply creating a beautiful book you can share with your family. Whatever it is, it’s unlikely you know exactly how to reach that end goal unless you’ve worked in publishing for several years. But don’t worry; you’re not alone.
Most of us enter the publishing industry unskilled and unprepared for the path we want to take. Unaware of the “proper” way to do things, we bungle our way into traditional publishing contracts or self-publish a book without fully understanding the work required to actualise our dreams. As a result, we make mistakes, get off to a slow start, and are forced to face a steep learning curve. Even the experts hit snags that puzzle them from time to time because the industry is constantly changing. Plus, it’s impossible to know every process in depth.
You might believe you only need to master language to get started; that good writing will build its own audience. But many authors don’t gain any meaningful traction until they begin to understand a range of writing-adjacent skills like marketing, design and intellectual property law. There’s a lot to learn. So, where do you begin? The complexity of publishing might daunt you but there’s no need to fret, because the truth is you only need to grasp a few key skills at the beginning of your career. Prioritise the following areas when you have no previous experience and you will have all the knowledge you need to kick off a successful an author business.
Writing and Editing
Countless publications credit multi-millionaire author Robert Kiyosaki, who wrote the iconic business guide Rich Dad Poor Dad, with variations of the following quote:
“I’m a best-selling author, not a best-writing one.”
Spend time among full-time authors – particularly in the non-fiction space – and you’ll find that many share this sentiment. Phenomenal writers can succeed, but average ones with business skill often do better. While that’s true, though, it doesn’t mean you should neglect your craft in favour of marketing. Knowing how to package and market a book will help you reel in readers, but it won’t keep them wanting more once you’ve made that initial sale unless your content is slick and full of the kind of value your readers crave.
High-quality writing – whatever that means in your genre – is the only way to keep them invested. Do your readers expect character development? Do they value misdirection and a clever twist? Do they want to be inspired or educated? Will punctuation and grammar mistakes provide unwelcome distractions that frustrate them into closing your book? Taking criticism can be painful, but it pays to listen to feedback from editors and reader reviews to iron out whatever weaknesses exist in your writing and editing process. The earlier you master your craft, the sooner it will compound the results of everything else you do.
Writing books is a marathon sport. As such, if you want to excel, you need to think like an athlete. Does a marathon runner turn up without training and win a marathon? No. According to guidelines published by the sneaker company Asics, an average hobbyist must train at least three times a week for 16-24 weeks to be able to finish a marathon, never mind get a good time. Meanwhile, marathon winners exhibit discipline far beyond the scope of the average runner to get and stay in medal-winning shape. Take a week off and they lose a month’s progress. Run six times a week instead of three and they progress twice as quickly. It is consistency, not monumental and infrequent surges of effort, that delivers their results.
Lots of regular author practices work a similar way. Writing skills and results compound when you learn to form positive habits. Public speaking skills sharpen the more often you talk onstage. You get better at creating ads the more frequently you get hands-on with advertising dashboards. Habit forming takes discipline because forming new neural pathways in your brain to create habits comes with resistance. Having said that, the struggle is worth it. Once you’ve made a neural pathway, it stays there and turns your discipline into a reflex that will help you practice more consistently in the future. This is a transferrable skill that, once learned, can help you dominate any new challenge you encounter.
Organisation and Logistics
Authors don’t just face overwhelm when learning. Many also struggle to prioritise when putting into action the stuff they’ve already learned. Writing books, publishing blog posts, creating email schedules, maintaining a social media presence, aligning newsletter blasts – each job takes time and, while doing them all isn’t essential, authors who regularly top the charts often juggle parallel projects and tasks at once to make it happen. They start writing their next book while adapting their current release for audio. Or they prepare Facebook ads to promote their first-in-series while launching a Kickstarter campaign for branded merchandise.
Whether you want to pursue traditional or indie publishing, you will need to become an adept project manager, able to prioritise tasks, communicate with a team of contacts and manage your time. How you do it is up to you. A simple spreadsheet is enough for some authors to keep everything on track, while others need more comprehensive tools like Asana or Monday to plan their schedule. When it comes to organisation and logistics, having a system is vital. Perfecting yours requires trial and error – and you will make mistakes – but doing this groundwork at the beginning will make it easier to launch, grow and run your fledgling author business.
The term “marketing” encompasses a range of activities, including market research, creating a brand and advertising products through a mix of paid promotional tactics. It’s a topic that divides authors into three camps:
- Those who understand marketing and how to execute it.
- Those who don’t understand but want to learn.
- Those who don’t understand and want to outsource it entirely.
If you fall into the third category then the hard truth is that maintaining a successful author career without doing some marketing yourself, or at least learning about it, is an almost impossible task.
Some fantastic publishers will market your books for you, but even they will limit their efforts solely to the titles they publish and will only give you a fraction of their focus. Managing a freelance marketer as an indie author comes with different but equal downsides. After all, assessing them is difficult when you don’t have the knowledge needed to judge their tactics. Ultimately, there is no reliable way to do well without at least learning the basics yourself. Do you know what CPC means? Impressions? Conversion rate? A/B testing? You may not want to handle it all yourself, but you should at least understand some jargon and how marketing analytics work. That way, you can ask your publisher intelligent questions or effectively manage a virtual marketing assistant as your self-publishing business grows.
Two decades ago, this point would have been about the importance of public speaking. Back then, developing the confidence to talk in front of a public audience could help you seize opportunities that many authors never encounter. Today it still does, but public speaking has changed in recent years. Zoom meetings have largely replaced writers’ circles, podcasting has overshadowed live panels, and social media has outgunned publisher’s printed mailshots. Nowadays, many authors don’t even consider the worries of speaking onstage because they don’t need to do it. Instead, they fear broadcasting – be it on Facebook Live or in an email newsletter.
The prospects of being savaged by trolls, becoming a viral joke or getting cancelled all fill authors with anxiety. On the surface, these matters seem different to public speaking issues but they share similar territory. Those who don’t want to “bother” subscribers with a newsletter or podcast appearance aren’t dissimilar to those who fear saying the wrong thing onstage. However, you must act despite this fear and broadcast regardless because readers want to hear from you. What’s more, doing so enables you to grow in confidence and access a plethora of extra marketing opportunities. Yes, some – usually anonymous – recipients might brand you a “spammer”, “attention seeker” or “boring” but that’s the nature of broadcasting. Persist and you will grow to approach marketing without fear. You might even enjoy it.
If you want to become an author but have no previous experience then prioritising the development of these five skills will fast-track your path to well-rounded competency. Remember, though, that you don’t need to master every skill immediately to build your dream. These blocks simply provide a foundation on which you can support any vision, from the humblest shack to the grandest cathedral.
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