Essential Mindset Traits for Full-Time Authors
Blogs and podcasts talk at length about wordcounts and the average number of book sales authors must achieve to make a full-time living. They also discuss recommended software and essential experts your need to hire to produce high-quality books. What many fail to address, though, is a hidden factor that every author needs in order to achieve a long career – one that you can’t measure but must have in place: mindset.
Having a mindset that’s compatible with the job is vital because writing books full time is neither safe nor easy. It can be lucrative, but nobody recommends it as a stable career option. There are no internships or guaranteed salaries. No pension plan with employer contributions. Much like being an elite athlete, earning a crust writing books is passion-based, entrepreneurial and, in most cases, heavily reliant on your personal performance. There is no coasting on the success of a team.
When many of us start writing, we dream about clacking keyboards in cafes, running book tours with a publicist and attending award ceremonies. Most authors, however, don’t live that way. Many professionals spend years in front of a computer, either writing books or tweaking online ad campaigns. Just as athletes spend thousands of hours silently dedicating their lives to diets, exercise and practice – routines that don’t make the highlight reels of their lives – writers follow a similar path. The hours are long, unglamourous and, for the most part, spent alone. Disillusioned by this reality, many newbies don’t stick around after their first book.
You could buy the right software, hit a wordcount schedule and hire editors – tick all the boxes for a full-time career for a while – but you’ll eventually hate writing and quit unless you think like a professional author. So, what mindset traits do you need to succeed? Read on to discover if you have what it takes.
Doubt is a constant companion for many authors. This is just as true for bestsellers as it is for newcomers. When asked about self-doubt on a panel at New York’s 2018 ThrillerFest, Sandra Brown, who had published 36 New York Times bestselling romantic suspense novels, said, “Even after making the bestseller lists so many times, I feel like a fraud.” She openly suffers from imposter syndrome – a feeling of inadequacy that persists despite evident success. It’s common at all levels of the career ladder but is particularly virulent at the bottom for those who are yet to prove to themselves that their dreams are possible.
As if that isn’t bad enough, tell a room full of non-writing friends that you’re trying to make it in the arts and you’ll find that everyone has an opinion. Some people will be supportive, but many will condescend you or express concern that you’re “throwing your life away.” Few voicing these opinions will understand your call to write or know enough about the industry to realise that writing books is a valid business. As a result, you must maintain a thick skin to succeed as an author. Networking with other writers can aid your mental health, but they can’t be with you every day, so you need to become comfortable swimming against the social current and maintaining an unshakable vision even before you’ve encountered success.
Independent Work Ethic
Unless you work for a company as a copywriter and sit in their office all day, you will likely be self-employed as an author. The upside to working for yourself is that you can control your schedule and do what you want all day, but it’s also the downside. As much as the freedom gives you near-limitless potential as a creator, it can also make you susceptible to procrastination. And despite most writers claiming that they love creating, many will happily do anything other than the job at hand when it’s time to write.
If you want to succeed then you need to own your timeline and do the work that needs to get done. You can make it easier for yourself by setting deadlines, working internet-free office hours and making an effort to learn about marketing without letting it consume your writing time, but you still need the right mindset to execute those plans. Doing the right thing without a manager keeping you on task is challenging, but it’s absolutely necessary. Career authors, on the whole, are self-starters, balance their career needs, and work through their to-do list every workday even when they don’t feel like it.
A Tolerance for Uncertainty
Attending a nine-to-five job for 40 years might sound like torture to you, but some people value the dependability. Work hours occasionally bleed into their free time, but they like that they have largely separate personal and professional lives. They might not earn as much as they want, but they know roughly the size and frequency of their paycheques. They have a limited job description and contribute to a department that requires them to follow a familiar work pattern that, while sometimes boring, is reliable and easy once they understand their role. Aside from the occasional lay-off, day jobs throw up few surprises.
Author careers bear none of this security. There are actions you can take to stabilise your business but the writing life can change direction at any moment, regardless of how you publish. Some authors crack Facebook ads only to see their sales fall off a cliff when an algorithm changes. Others publish a series of fan-favourite novels then panic when their spinoff gets horrible reviews. You might endure years of hardship before you release a title that resonates with readers. Or you might hit the jackpot on day one. Your success could eb and flow in cycles. If you want to write for a living then you need to be okay with that uncertainty.
Hiring a great editor is just the beginning when publishing to a high standard. To do well, you need to approach every aspect of your work with similar professionalism. For example, it’s essential that you pay your freelancers on time to keep them happy. You also need to keep on top of your emails to readers and collaborators. There are hundreds of tasks that all need handling. As an author, you are the CEO of your own company and, as such, you need to run every department professionally, from production and distribution to marketing and customer relations.
If you’re traditionally published then you have to keep your publisher accountable, because your name is on the cover of their print runs. You’re a company with a linked personal and brand identity. As such, you need to protect that image. While you can drop off the grid occasionally, you can’t bash another creator’s work or settle for “good enough” without considering the potential consequences. Nor can you clock off if you encounter a mistake at the end of your desired workday that could ruin your reputation. The cost of getting all the credit for projects is also getting the flack. Therefore, every author needs a strong sense of personal responsibility and professional standards to stay the course.
A Growth Mindset
H. G. Wells once said:
“An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless […] Only those animals partake of intelligence that have a huge variety of needs and dangers.”
His wisdom here talks about survival in the wild, but it’s an apt metaphor for authorship. Some succeed because they are perfectly suited to their environment; they like to produce contemporary romance, write quickly and find Facebook ads fun so profit in a market that responds well to those habits and instincts. Other writers, however, aren’t born with those idiosyncrasies, so either perish in a market that doesn’t support them or use intelligence to adapt and protect their career.
This is the reality of authorship. A minority of authors get by on luck alone, but you will probably need to adapt and reinvent yourself to some degree to thrive. If you write poetry then you may need to get on stage and learn public speaking skills to reach your audience. If you write crackling dialogue but experimental plots, you may need to weave more mainstream tropes into your plots to boost your income. If you only want to make money from self-help books but can’t scale your sales in your niche, then you might need to upskill and create an online course. Professional authors learn constantly and aren’t precious about how their intellectual property generates income. Unless you’re a unicorn, you too must adopt a growth mindset and be willing to follow the fickle tides of the industry.
Being an author isn’t easy, even with the mindset traits listed in this blog post. If you’re prepared to work hard but worry that you don’t have every quality listed, however, don’t worry. Nobody has all of them all the time. Sometimes we lose faith in our dreams or let our standards slip. We’re temporarily crushed by a critic. Believing you can change – that tomorrow will bring new light, however – is what creates a professional. See your mind as a work-in-progress and you will overcome your doubts, dips and fear of the unknown.
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