start here

Identifying Problems with Your Author Business

Identifying Problems with Your Author Business

As Jay-Z once said, “I’ve got 99 problems but a niche ain’t one.” At least, I’m pretty sure that’s right. He was probably talking about Amazon categories. If you’re an author, you likely understand Mr. Z all too well. In the book industry — much like rap — there are a lot of moving parts, including writing, editing, marketing, audio production and right licensing. You have a to-do list with a wordcount longer than a novel and rarely have time to reflect on how you spend your time. You want to do everything, everywhere, and have it happen all at once. As a group, we’re often so focused on progress we’d rather get out and pull the car than stop to fix a busted tire.

Sometimes, the best way to improve the prospects of your author business, though, is to solve its existing problems rather than pursue new opportunities. But how do you identify a problem? It’s a tricky question to answer. After all, is a problem something you’re doing badly or not doing at all? We’d all like to master TikTok. If you lack a presence on there, is that a problem? Your Facebook group might be inactive. Is that a problem when you’ve already got a thriving newsletter? And what about your books? If you’re winning awards but not getting sales, are they a problem you need to fix? In reality, it depends on your individual needs and goals.

To this end, the core issue for many authors is that they think they have 99 problems and spend lots of time bouncing between them, never fully understanding the difference between real problems and things they think they “should”be doing. Or they waste time fighting fires when diverting a water supply could extinguish them for good. Identifying your real problems to deliver high impact in your business isn’t easy but getting clarity can help you escape a rut, make meaningful changes and supercharge whatever results you value. In today’s blog post, we’ll explore a series of steps you can take to identify and address true problems in your author business.

Clarify Your Goals

The first step you must pursue is getting clear on your desires. What do you want? More sales? Critical acclaim? Maximised profit or revenue? A business that works without you involved? To go wide and diversify your income sources? Representation in bricks-and-mortar bookstores? These goals aren’t mutually exclusive, but they are difficult to achieve all at once. To make serious progress on some, you’ll likely need to neglect others. As productivity expert James Clear explains on his blog: “Spending time on secondary priorities is the reason you have 20 half-finished projects instead of 5 completed ones.” So, what problems should you prioritise?

Warren Buffett’s 5/25 rule for setting business priorities can help you find an answer. When prioritising work, Buffett first lists all his career goals — maybe 25 — then systematically crosses out lower priority items until he’s left with five. Having done that, he then dedicates all his time and energy to those priorities, ignoring everything else. To him, the extra 20 aren’t tier two priorities to do in his free time; they’re distractions to avoid at all costs. Try this tactic and it will help you identify the true problems you must fix to achieve your most meaningful goals. Plus, it’ll expose the energy-sucking “should dos” you must ignore until after you’ve achieved your top five.

Start with Your Books

Say you want to dominate a particular book niche and are currently failing. Self-help, literary fiction or commercial thrillers — no matter the genre, a good way to start is to research the chart-topping books to see what winning author have written. In self-help, for example, you might notice that the winners tend to tackle broad topics like happiness and ground their work with research. Winning literary fiction authors, meanwhile, might frequently touch on subjects that are proven award fodder. And commercial thriller authors might write books with short chapters and a consistent wordcount. Once you look at the winners, it’s easier to figure out what changes you must make to achieve a similar outcome.

Researching bestselling authors in your niche does take time. However, learning the best practices for success is an excellent way to contextualise and analyse your own books. Doing so gives you an idea of what your ideal readers expect in terms of the customer experience, preferred tropes, stylistic tastes and production standards. This activity helps authors to distinguish meaningful feedback in their negative reviews from the rants of readers who are just having a bad day. Research your niche for context and then approach your own reviews, platform and activities with that context in mind. Often, this activity will show you where you’re not hitting the mark.

Look at Your Whole Business

Your books should be ground zero when investigating the cause of problems in your business. Do they meet reader expectations? Are they written for a hungry audience? Are there enough instalments in your series to run profitable ads? Are the books long enough to satisfy readers? If the answer to any of these questions is no — great, you’ve probably found your problem. If they’re ticking all the boxes, though, you require more analysis. The good news is that strengthening any marketing or operations activities is much easier when you’ve built them on a foundation of strong books. Hence, let’s assume your books are solid. Now what?

If you’re not making enough money, chance indicates you have a niche, marketing or cashflow problem. For instance, your zombie-donkey romances might not have a big enough readership to pay well. If that’s your issue, you’ll need to pivot into a hungrier subgenre. Problem solved. If, on the other hand, your niche is big but isn’t supporting you, a lack of advertising could be your problem. Or if you’re generating good revenue but no profit, you’ll likely need to cut costs or raise your prices. You might be a one-person publishing operation focused on books, but it pays to consider all your business departments when looking for potential solutions to a problem.

Consult Experts

Sometimes the trouble for many authors is that they don’t know what they don’t know. Sure, you might write excellent books your readers love. They might also get high praise and strong sales. But why do you have to pump out 20 books a year and work 80 hours a week to keep the juice flowing? When comparing yourself to others, it’s easy to see their success but not their processes, expertise or social advantages. You know they’re doing better than you but don’t know what you need to ask to find out why. This is when it pays to consult experts. Oftentimes, an experienced second opinion is exactly what you need to locate the source of your pain.

Just keep in mind that anyone can point out a problem you’ve glossed over, no matter their official job title or personal success. Many top authors hire expensive consultants to point out bottlenecks but that’s not always necessary. Providing you’re happy to share behind-the-scenes information on public forums like the SPF Community, 20BooksTo50K or Wide for the Win Facebook groups, you will often get similar insights from fellow authors for free. Likewise, your readers can also help if you ask them what they consider your problems to be in your newsletter. Ask and you’ll often attract a positive well-wisher who can identify your problem and offer a solution.

Learn from Changes

Identifying a potential problem in your business is only one part of the process. To ensure it’s a true problem that’s blocking you from achieving your goals, you must also test how much it’s affecting your progress and the effectiveness of potential solutions. Start by looking for a measurable metric you can use to track process. Click rates can help you determine a book cover’s success, baseline sales can help you assess marketing efforts, and profit can help you judge your budget allocation. Knowing your starting point and tracking the effects of any changes you make is vital. Doing so will show you where your problems exist and what actually solves them.

Whatever solution fixes the problem for one author might not work for you. Therefore, it pays to conduct your own experiments. As an example, say you have low email open rates. One author might have solved the issue for themselves by switching up their subject lines. For you, however, the fix might require you to create an onboarding sequence to warm up readers, or change your email hosting company if your current one sends your emails to spam boxes. You’ll never know for sure without recording your baseline performance and conducting your own experiments. Once you’ve pinpointed the problem, though, fixing it simply takes a series of iterations.

Following this article’s advice should help you to identify the problems in your own author business, but also seek out effective advice and test it to ensure it leads to meaningful solutions. Thinking critically isn’t easy if you aren’t used to it, but practice will help you improve. Master it and, eventually, not only will it help you root out and fix problems but also use it to assess opportunities, make better choices and maximise your growth.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.