How to Plan a Project
Unless your books are globally famous, you probably need to create a lot more than just books to thrive. Even those who don’t sell courses have to project manage multiple elements of their business, like their website, marketing strategy and newsletter sequence. All of these projects require creativity and forethought. For many of us, the challenge isn’t coming up with good ideas or knowing how to do the work; it’s managing our time and planning effectively to ensure we get it done.
As beginners, many of us have high expectations. We believe we can hit the USA Today list in our first year. Yet, most of us fail because, lacking experience, we make unrealistic plans. Others who know more, meanwhile, conduct better research, allot enough time for each subtask, get the right people involved, do everything needed to publish to a high quality and funnel enough sales in the right places to make it onto the list. They prove that, despite our failed attempts, it’s possible. It just requires thorough research and a well-executed plan.
So, how does an effective plan look? Well, it depends on the project, but a strong general plan accurately identifies an end goal and outlines all the steps needed to achieve it. Creating an effective one streamlines the creative process and keeps whoever is in charge focused on the big picture. It also organises everyone involved to ensure that nobody overlooks a key step and creates an unnecessary obstacle along the way.
Thinking several steps ahead might intimidate you at first but you won’t think that way once you see what planning can help you accomplish. Indeed, becoming a competent planner as an author will lower your stress levels, stop you from feeling frenzied and make you more likely to achieve your goals over time. Follow the upcoming principles to help you form better plans and understand that even creative minds can learn to be organised with practice.
Allocate Time for Macro Thinking
When you start a project, it can be tempting to create a brief plan, say “close enough” and dive into item one on your to-do list, but rushing won’t help you. It will only lead you to trip over unwelcome surprises in the future that will waste more time than you save upfront. Hence, don’t rush. Take the time to flesh out your plan fully before you begin, because frontloading will compound the returns on your effort. For best results, think about your project on a macro level.
Start by identifying your overall goal and its scope. What budget do you have? What resources? What parts can you guarantee to deliver by a deadline? Do you need to complete some parts in order to begin others? Looking at your project from a high level and pre-planning the order in which you work can help you to avoid creating bottlenecks or running out of funds before you’ve paid for a critical component. If you can’t answer these questions upfront then dedicate some macro-thinking time to conduct research and analyse the work done by others who have already achieved what you’re trying to do.
Write a Timeline
Knowing how the major pieces of your project fit together is useful, but it isn’t always enough. To plan well, you also need to know what each large task entails on a granular level. “Upload the book to Ingram” might seem like a straightforward task, but appearances can be deceiving when you haven’t considered the sub-tasks that go into completing it. Selecting BISAC codes, buying ISBNs, reformatting your cover to meet Ingram’s specifications (which are different to KDP’s) all take time, especially if you don’t know how to complete each one and need to research as you go.
Knowing this to be true, approach unfamiliar tasks with pessimism. Assume that you’ll run into obstacles that will take longer than you imagine. Also, figure out the minimum workload quantity you must complete on average every day to hit your deadlines to ensure everyone knows the necessary standard to stay on track. A calendar can help. If you’re working alone on your project then a paper one will suffice. If you’re collaborating, though, sometimes a sharable digital system like Asana does a better job of keeping your team members informed and accountable. Just remember to agree deadlines and workloads with them in advance to ensure they’re realistic and achievable.
Plan for Surprises
Corporate executives often ask employees to develop a risk assessment before starting a project. This is an outline of everything that can go wrong. Executives request this because summarising potential trip hazards helps them to foresee the impact they would have on a project should they arise. This assessment identifies how much each delay would cost them and, therefore, helps them to assess if they’re worth it and establish backup strategies to minimise the risk of failure.
Creating a risk assessment isn’t fun, but it’s worth it to balance the natural optimism that we, as humans, experience when we’re excited about a project. Sure, you might love to adapt your fantasy novel into a new parlour game like Pictionary, and see similar success, but what could go wrong in pursuit of that goal?
- What happens if retailers refuse to stock it?
- Will the time you spend designing the game cost you a book launch?
- How much will a re-design cost if your prototype fails safety checks?
- Can you still hit your deadline if your graphic artist goes AWOL?
There are also paperwork delays to consider, tech failures, the admin associated with outsourcing and chasing freelancers. After you’ve looked at all this, would you be better off writing? That’s for you to decide, but your risk assessment will help in the decision-making process. Plus, it will allow you to plan for surprises, think objectively and work out a reasonable timeline before you commit to the work.
Prepare to Pivot
No matter how well you craft a project plan, it’s impossible to predict every eventuality. Things inevitably take an unexpected turn at some point. For example, you could have artists and editors on standby to work on a four-book series, only to discover that Book One doesn’t sell and you need to wrap up the story in a trilogy to cut your losses. Or you might find that all four instalments are selling like Harry Potter and the Fifty Shades of Twilight and you need to stretch that cash cow into a 10-book franchise.
Whether your project underperforms or overshoots, it’s handy to have a backup plan that can help you to make the best of a good or bad situation. If you have collaborators, anticipate how early exit strategies or stretch goals might affect them. Incorporate these possibilities into their contracts if you can. That way, nobody who works with you will feel caught out and cheated if you decide to pivot. Factoring this flexibility into your original plan can save you time and money so that you can capitalise on opportunities or be nimble enough to dodge icebergs that would capsize a more rigid operation.
Learn from Experience
Even if you’re an excellent planner, you’ll always fall short in some places, make bad calls and find tasks you could have done better. Failure is unavoidable, but that’s not a problem if you aim to make writing your long-term career. This is because you can improve your planning skills over time with trial and error. It might seem at first that improving your plans isn’t possible, that each book follows a vastly different production process and needs a unique marketing approach. It can seem like making a template is impossible, but it’s not.
Whether your plans cover research, production or marketing, you’ll find patterns in them if you look hard enough. For instance, all books require the same metadata components to publish, no matter their genre. Testing paid ad campaigns always follows a set method. You’ll know this if you’ve encountered these processes in the past and had to work hard to overcome unexpected challenges. Those difficulties were a pain at the time, but you can use them to adapt and enhance your plan templates for future projects.
Following these principles, you will learn to be more organised than most authors and publishers in the market. This advantage will allow you to create amazing books and other products on time, every time, and run well-engineered marketing campaigns to get ahead of your competition. Just remember that planning is only one side of the coin. To see your plans work, you actually need to follow through and execute them. As John Doerr, one of our generations greatest venture capitalists, once said, “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.”
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