Aspects of Publishing You Can Control
Publishing books for profit can be unpredictable. This is just as true for experienced authors as it is for complete newbies. Some believe they’ve cracked the system after four consecutive years of earning a six-figure salary, only to see their sales fall flat on year five. There are just so many aspects to consider – retailer algorithms, reading trends, marketing tactics – all of which change on a constant basis.
As a beginner, you might assume that established publishing houses like Penguin Random House (PRH) know exactly what they’re doing and can guarantee bestseller results. That’s not true, though. While PRH reported 216 New York Times bestsellers in 2020, according to their own website they published approximately 70,000 ebooks and 15,000 paperbacks to make that happen. In short, they can execute impressive bestseller campaigns but they also throw a lot of mud at the wall to see what sticks. They don’t always get it right.
To prove this point, a 2020 article in the Guardian reported that Big Five print books declined in the first half of 2020 while their ebook sales grew 17% and audiobooks surged 42%! As a result, those publishers had to change tactics after a brief period of seeing success slip away from them in the paperback market they typically dominate. Even large publishers couldn’t foresee the pandemic and had to reinvent themselves to survive. Remember this when you get daunted by all the things you can’t control, and take comfort in the following two facts:
- You are not alone.
- There are some aspects of publishing that are possible to control.
That second point has served as a North Star for many authors with long careers. This is because focusing on what they can control has helped them to weather unforeseeable storms. Adopting a similar practice yourself will help you to stress less, enjoy your work more and stay the course in your own author career, regardless of industry changes. All you have to do is identify what you can control and focus on those parts.
“Quantity produces quality.”
This quote comes from Ray Bradbury, one of history’s great writers, and perfectly addresses the easiest part of your day to control: wordcount. It may sound vague and unhelpful, but it’s actually extremely important advice and just as true today as the day Bradbury died. This just isn’t what many debut authors want to hear. They would rather believe that you can master prose overnight. The reality, though, is that quantity really does produce quality… eventually. That’s why bestselling authors often advise hopeful writers to write more words if they want to succeed.
The reasoning here is twofold. Firstly, practice makes perfect – or at least better, given the subjective nature of art. Writing a lot of words, and working with intention to improve your craft, will gradually enhance your ability and instincts, a process that’s impossible to replicate by simply studying. Secondly, writing and publishing more titles makes your work harder to miss in the real world, opening you up to more opportunities. You can’t control how readers receive your books, but you can control the quantity of your wordcount which, ultimately, will improve your chances of success.
Practice is necessary to improve your craft but writing is only one part of a busy author’s workload. In fact, many modern indies would argue that it’s a small part of being an author these days. Besides writing books, you also have to manage a newsletter, learn new software, develop public speaking skills, negotiate intellectual property deals and stay abreast on the latest marketing and PR changes. You might expect this for indie authors, but many writers with traditional contracts also have to handle a lot of these things because publishers can’t cover the work for everyone on their roster.
Juggling these disciplines can challenge even multi-passionate authors at first, but many of the pillar practices of publishing change little over time. Once you’ve found your rhythm, pulling ahead of the pack happens naturally. From that point on, all you have to do is be consistent, which you can control. As successful YouTuber Ali Abdaal once said, “I found that by focusing on quantity, it developed the habit of video editing […] and the quality naturally came out of that.”
In essence, you must practice consistently on bad quality work to gain momentum and master the job in a general sense. Writing is no different. If you set smart goals and routinely write newsletters, launch books and advertise your backlist, you will build more efficient systems and become a better publisher regardless of outside influences.
Another understated aspect of success that you can control is presence. This is true in a physical sense but also a figurative one. For instance, people who show up to work every day tend to perform better than those who make a habit of being absent. Those who do even better, though, also don’t spend half of their work hours thinking about something other than the task in front of them. By being present, they don’t divide their attention and, therefore, perform better in every moment. The same principle goes for authors who do little to participate in the community, flit between projects and choose to work while distracted.
If you want to succeed then the controllable act of being present can help you to outperform others working in the same space. Turn up to a lot of physical or digital events and you’ll expose yourself to more opportunities. Be mentally present and you’ll also do better in every situation, whether creating a good first impression or smashing your daily goal. Marie Forlio, one of the world’s leading success coaches for women, believes strongly in the power of presence. She says, “showing up fully exactly where you are is the fastest way to get where you want to go!” When you make an effort to be more present, you’ll discover just how distracted you are on an average day and will quickly notice the impact of showing up and paying attention. In many ways, your mind is the most powerful thing you can control.
Everyone agrees that Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street) has done questionable things in his life, but there’s no denying his ability to succeed even when life throws him a curveball. This is, in part, because he approaches his work as a lifestyle, as is demonstrated in his Hollywood biopic, rather than a 9-5. In it, he never truly clocks off, in spite of the drugs. Avoiding balance, he mixes business with pleasure, a system that Belfort himself has suggested helped him succeed. In his own words:
“If you want to be rich, you have to program your mind to be rich. You have to unlearn all thoughts that will make you poor and replace them with new thoughts – rich thoughts.”
By living as he did, he blurred his professional and social circles and succeeded as a result. His work became an all-encompassing lifestyle that drove him to succeed. Now, you shouldn’t follow every Belfort lesson, but it could benefit you to identify what lifestyle changes you can make to accelerate your knowledge and experience. Take exercise, for example. Instead of listening to music, could you couple your jogging session with a publishing podcast, or read a craft book before bed instead of the latest thriller? Could you pivot your day job role (if you have one) to take on and practice marketing skills that you can transfer to your author career? Aligning your lifestyle with your author dream is one controllable way to ensure you maximise your abilities.
Being an author is, in part, a numbers game. You can’t control how many readers will like your books, but you can control how many see them. And, providing you write good books and have a strong sales funnel with a proven track record, you know that a portion of those people will support your career. It’s a statistical certainty with a conversion rate you can calculate once you get going.
Whether you network, advertise or appear on TV to drive targeted traffic isn’t important. All that matters is that you recognise that you can control the flow, and the bigger the stream, the more books you will sell, regardless of external factors. Say, for every 1,000 people you feed into your funnel, 200 take notice. Of those 200, 50 become casual supporters, 15 of which become superfans.
You might not think your books have caught the cultural zeitgeist, but it could be that you simply haven’t driven enough traffic to them yet to hit critical mass. If you’ve only reached out to 1,000 people, that might not be enough. Try 100,000. Reaching more people will give you a better understanding of your funnel and teach you how to improve. Best-case scenario, the extra outreach could result in a surge of sales; worst case, it will give you valuable data that you can use to pivot your focus and strategy.
Publishing is a dynamic industry that constantly evolves, but that’s true of most industries. Ultimately, as an author you’re an entrepreneur, and as a result, your business model won’t stay the same forever. Nail down the basics that don’t change, however, and that will give you the freedom to make mistakes without losing everything. Plus, the experience will make you better at predicting changes before they happen, which will help you grab opportunities over the long term.
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