Skill Stacking for Authors
There are countless ways to get ahead publishing books. Most romance authors who prioritise ebook sales, for example, have vastly different business models and skillsets to performance poets who sell paperbacks at events. Hence, these two groups would likely give you conflicting advice if asked which of their activities is vital to learn as a new author. Understandably, this can cause a lot of confusion. Is mastering genre tropes vital for your business? What about ebook production? Does metadata matter? Social media, graphic design and public speaking? The list of skills you could learn is endless, and all of it seems important. Alas, as productivity expert David Allen once stated, “You can do anything but not everything.”
While some people can rapidly learn multiple new areas of interest, most can’t. And at some point, everyone has to accept their limits and abandon one line of learning to master another. Don’t let that deter you, though. The reality is that there isn’t much every author must learn to succeed. You don’t need years of education, spanning multiple areas of expertise, to take the first step. In fact, there are a few foundational skills that can help all authors to begin publishing, no matter their chosen genre. Focusing on them, you can start almost immediately. Similarly, if you want to build you career, you can multiply your initial success by acquiring complimentary skills that are equally universal.
At its core, this idea – often referred to as “skill stacking” – is a process by which individuals break down learning into first principles and focus only on learning fundamental skills that can help them to reach one rung above where they currently are on a success ladder. Following its logic, they stack each essential and complementary skill they learn on top of previous ones to grow efficiently and deliver exponential value. Today’s article applies the skill stacking philosophy to publishing, exploring five central skills any writer can stack in chronological order to start and grow an author business from nothing to a seven-figure empire.
Your first priority skill should be writing. This advice might seem obvious and even overly basic, particularly if you’ve followed the traditional education path for writers. But there’s more to writing a novel or non-fiction book than producing work that would grade well at university. Learning to write as a commercial author is separate from academics. Yes, to succeed, you must be able to manage punctuation and grammar but, more importantly, you need to understanding your chosen form, genre and audience. You need to know how to hook your ideal reader for several hundred pages and walk the line between writing something that feels familiar yet fresh to meet and exceed their expectations.
Equally important is learning how to develop discipline and writing stamina. Considering how many of us refer to writing as our calling, most authors spend a lot of time procrastinating. 80% of the public claim they want to write a book but only 1% do it. And of those who publish, most struggle to write consistently, despite knowing that more prolific authors earn more than their less prolific peers. Margaret Atwood once said, “A word after a word after a word is power.” That’s true, and consistency is the underlying skill that facilitates it. Learn how to write well on a consistent basis and not only will you produce a book, but you will also develop a habit that will compound your results over time.
It takes an author’s passion and drive to write a brilliant first draft. But a single draft can’t compare to a polished book that sells. To reach that level, you need a publisher’s systematic process and reader focus. That’s why production is the second skill every author must learn. If you can compartmentalise your author and publisher personas, it enables you to switch perspectives on cue, which is invaluable during the book production process. Authors who excel at this skill can disregard their fragile artist’s ego and look at their book as if it were written by someone else. They can accept relevant feedback from experts and apply it to enhance every aspect of their work.
There’s no need to abandon your inner artist completely. In many ways, you need both personas working in tandem for best results; one to inform the other. The skill resides in knowing when to let one take the lead. Yes, this approach will mean making compromises between your artistic vision and producing a product that will make you money, but adapting your work with readers in mind is vital for success. Get the balance right and you will create a back catalogue of books that make you proud and that earn you an income. This is the same model most successful authors use in different genres, from James Clear to Stephen King.
Each subsequent skill mentioned in this article, when combined with its predecessors, can deliver exponential results. Without a doubt the one that jumps the most authors from earning spare change to a full-time income, however, is marketing. Understand how it works and you can scale your royalty cheques to proportions that even eclipse an average salary. Marketing seems complicated to newbies at first, but that’s only because many of us begin with no experience. We don’t know how to calculate ROI, A/B test ads or tweak loss-making campaigns into profit engines. Conversely, nor do we know how easy it is to master the basics.
The beauty of marketing is that there are loads of ways to go about it, and you only need a breakthrough moment on a single platform to propel you career. Plus, master one method and the experience will give you transferrable skills you can apply to others because most marketing platforms run on overlapping principles and present analytics using a shared lexicon. As an author, you already have an unfair advantage, too; you can write, which is more than many junior marketers can do. Remember that when you’re struggling with the learning curve; it’s a lot easier for writers to learn how to market than it is for marketers to learn how to write.
Anyone can optimise their output with good time management, but nobody has more than 24 hours in a day. In that case, the only way to push past your limit once you hit it is to learn how to delegate more than just editing and cover design. That means trusting someone else – often a stranger – to handle a portion of your business without you micromanaging them. Inevitably, this course of action does lead to mistakes and tasks being completed in a way you don’t like, but a little frustration is the cost of growth. As the bestselling leadership expert John C. Maxwell puts it: “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.”
This process doesn’t have to cause toothache, though. In fact, it can be a liberating experience if you approach it with an open mind and an aim to minimise stress. Outsource a list of regular tasks you don’t enjoy to an assistant and you could actually find yourself procrastinating less because you get to spend more time working on jobs that you consider reside within your zone of genius. Or it could allow you an opportunity to rest or work on your business rather than in it. Training an assistant will likely make your workload heavier at first but, providing you find someone competent you can trust, delegating will enable you to obtain better results and more freedom in the long-term.
Wrangling an assistant is relatively simple once you train one, but they aren’t the only member of staff some authors hire. The biggest in our community run seven-figure businesses and the only way to play at their level is often to work with a whole team, sometimes including:
- Warehouse employees for direct book and merchandise sales
- In-house designers, marketers and bookkeepers
- A publicist to manage media contacts and event liaison
Successful authors that get to this stage are still often the face of their operation, and the driving force behind it, but they could never manage the workload without the extra support. Aided by a team, they get more done in a day than many smaller authors could manage in a week. However, steering the ship requires preparation. That’s where management comes into the equation.
How do you keep a team productive and happy? How do you account for sick days, training, mistakes and bereavements? What happens if a team member disagrees with your strategy? You need to plan for it all and practice your responses on the job every day. The key is to balance efficiency with staff morale, making sure your team enjoys their work enough to care while creating enough value to justify their salaries. Most of us won’t end up in this position but if you do, there will be growing pains, particularly if you haven’t managed anyone in the past. Stick with it, though, and you will get better. Eventually, you will even learn to anticipate and side-step avoidable obstacles thanks to your hard-won experience.
As previously mentioned, you can master these skills in chronological order to grow a giant author business. However, you don’t need all of them to succeed. Thousands of authors lead fulfilled lives and make a five- or six-figure income without hiring full-time employees. Some even reach seven figures without following this plan. Every industry has outliers. Skill stacking simply offers a reliable plan you can use to upscale your business without having to rely on luck or superhuman feats of discipline.
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